MEN OF VISION
3693 words by Stanley Lieber
The bombs are still falling when they outfit me with this stupid, spamming hat and instruct me to cart around young cousin William, the other male child on the premises, so that he might bask in the unfiltered sunshine, breathe in the unfiltered air, be exposed, finally, to the city above ground. This isn't posed as an elective course of action; I'm given formal orders and nudged in the direction of the outer doors.
I tell them I don't see as how it's a good idea -- what with the declining birthrates, the continuously falling bombs, the constant danger of disfigurement and death -- but I might as well be set on mute when it comes to registering above the din of the war room. My thoughts are not considered.
Children, creatures endowed with no special mastery over the evolved traditions of warfare, are expected to find their own way, to get in where they fit in, to drive unique footholds into the imposing, existential mountain dubbed survival. Honestly, I've never considered this state of affairs to be a cause for concern. I've never shied away from a difficult climb. Have preferred, in fact, to traverse peaks of despair, regarding them as nothing more than simple clumps of grass gathered at my feet. The one permanent handicap I've endured is this responsibility to my cousin, William, who is so young, who cannot even fend for himself. Others of his age are expected to survive by dint of their own industriousness. William, for his part, is basically immobile. Self-sufficiency has been altogether ruled out.
The war effort consumes most of the adults' attention. Slowly, William and I have been pushed from one room to another, down long hallways and through half-open doorways, with barely any recognition paid to how we are being treated. No one includes us or keeps much track of us now that the fighting has percolated into the city. With new air strikes arriving daily we are the least of the adults' concerns.
I work with what I am given.
It is in these streets that I have learned my trade, have begun to earn my keep. I've developed an affinity for commerce -- an aptitude, you might say -- and happily contribute a percentage of my earnings back into the household. Apparently, I am a natural born hustler. So says my uncle. It has come to the point where I'm afraid the adults will finally realize their neglect. It is conceivable that they may even forbid us, William and myself, to leave the compound on our own. This would negatively impact revenues, which would be unacceptable. It would also harm our family's standing in the community, which would be equally unacceptable. My products are in high demand. It is with a constant awareness of this precarious balance that I, over these past few months, have striven to make the skills of the street my own. I have adapted myself to its unsteady rhythms, mastered its sundry particulars, balanced weight through the hood until my various criminal activities have become as second nature to me, a collection of reflexive actions as simple as walking into the kitchen or emptying my bladder. This sympathy with the tidal nature of currency is hard won, but it allows me to function freely, wholly invisible to the financial surveillance algorithms employed by HQ. I should say, invisible so long as I remember to hold back that reasonable percentage for the family. It is true, my triple-a reputation would quickly dissolve into scandal if ever I became so sloppy as to arouse the interest of my father's men. Let us observe, then, that my operations have never attracted their attention.
Add to my already-formidable grip the legitimate pay from William's promenades, and I'm already better than halfway to my new shield jacket. I count it as a demonstration of my utility that I'm able to provide my own armor. A new shield jacket would doubtless preserve me through countless future crises (that is to say, if I'm not found skewered by shrapnel before the thing is even delivered). Thus I have concluded that even my supposedly lamentable character traits (such as my unquestioning greed) may, at last, be construed as facets of pious virtue. Until I am allowed to participate in weapons training, I will content myself with the paper chase. I will gild the runway. Keeping William and myself alive is merely the start of what I hope to accomplish.
I assume that Mother and Father are cognizant of all this, to some degree. In my view, this whole bang-up -- the war -- is simply an excuse to seek out and extract ever larger sums of money from the tax base. The whole conflagration merely serves to increase trade, which serves to increase tax revenues, which results in more war. Fortunately for me, the family doesn't seem too keen on auditing my activities. The fact that my relatives' economic interests are currently seen to overlap with my own is a kind of happy accident, perhaps of the sort depicted in children's cinema, or in certain of the ancient, sequentially illustrated pamphlets collected by my father. In reality, my family's enlightened self-interest drives a free exchange of goods and services, a marketplace that in turn benefits the entire community. My own present activities, in spite of the myopic moral objections offered by my sister, contribute to this aggregate effect. Taxes (and thus, war) are merely inevitable. Yes, I've done some reading on the topic. I readily admit. But the ideas I've argued with Father stand on their own, heedless of any pseudo-intellectual hem-hawing. I dare say that they are self-evident. If only I could get him to understand: even in wartime, altruism is beside the point.
The kid in the cart doesn't realize I'm only in it for the money. He digs his fingernails into the palm of my hand, obviously frightened by the noises on the street. We round a corner and a rather large building comes apart right in front of us. He buries his face into my coat just as we're pelted with a boiling shock wave of dust. For some reason he looks to me for protection. Of course, this toddler's intellect is incapable of assessing the true complexity of our situation -- he's not yet up to the task of cynical apprehension -- but perhaps in the end he is right to place his faith in me. It is unquestionably within the realm of my interests to ensure that he survives these trips to the surface. The profit motive is clear. It's right there in my contract.
I pause to reflect on the brilliant symmetry of our arrangement and it dazzles me all over again. I cannot help but marvel as I trace its subtle mechanism: William survives; I profit.
I strive to gather my thoughts.
The dizzying effect persists, even as large sheets of smart glass are de-integrating everywhere around us. A rapture similar to my own seems to have overtaken William. I am enthralled as he adopts a distant, distracted gaze, his jaw falling slack almost against his shirt. He is serene now in his repose, more contented than either of us have any right to be, given the circumstances.
I believe that my hand, which he continues to grip quite tightly, is starting to bleed onto my trousers.
Torn from my reverie, I reply with a gentle squeeze, communicating to William that we are going to be all right. I guide his chair across the street, away from the perambulating dust cloud that by now has puffed up its chest to encompass half of the block. If the trailing wisps of this mess are not to gum up the works of William's chair, we'll need to find our way into a shop or an office or a foyer rather quickly.
Adults are hurling themselves to an fro, generally kicking up more commotion than is warranted by the simple demolition of a midtown office building. I reign in young master William and tether him to a banister, then set off to fetch an adult. In short order I'm breast-stroking through a sea of white lab coats. It is clear to me now that we've ended up in some sort of medical clinic.
It takes only a moment to evaluate the new surroundings, and I remain lucid enough not to dust myself off before approaching one of the nurses. That would be tantamount to chucking one of my tools into the trash.
"There's just no end to it," I hear one of the doctors remark, circumnavigating the perimeter of a nearby cubicle. His voice is filled with work-a-day resignation. I rotate my body to face him so that I might appraise him visually.
Half a second passes. His profile fits, so I launch myself purposefully in his direction. I'm going to try to smear hand prints onto his coat before he has a chance to form a dispassionate impression of me. Once I've struck, he'll be forced to take in my appearance, to consider my circumstances. The ploy is guaranteed to work, given his type.
"This spamming war just goes on and on."
His remark is sympathetic in nature. I take his words as an obvious cue to redouble my approach velocity, step fully into the field of his vision and wipe my arms across his chest, submitting my filthy clothing and runny nose for his inspection.
"Excuse me, sir, might I inquire as to what it is that has just taken place, out on the street?"
I let the question hang there, resonating in the stale clinic air. I'm play-acting now as if I'm stupid, asking after that which I'm clearly not equipped to understand. He buys into this mailbox full of spam because I'm merely a child, seven years of age, and therefore, self-evidently, not yet sophisticated enough to mount a motivated deception.
Oh, the folly of experience.
I tilt towards him perceptibly, making sure he takes notice of my garb. His eyes fall upon me in silence and then there is a gap of some seconds before I finally detect a twinkle in the center of his mechanical eye. At last, he's picked up on it. He's located the transceiver. He's got a make on my ID.
This, of course, changes everything. His demeanor, not thirty seconds ago the sort of bemused half-attention one pays to a poverty-stricken child, is now replaced with that of a Green hobo ready to snatch a million dollar bill from the Church collection plate. I am well acquainted with this shift in disposition, immediately recognize his "tell," and so may now reflect that my gambit is almost certainly working.
"Well, hello there, young fellow!"
He dings my helmet.
"You see, recently, some bad men have taken it upon themselves to provide our city's skyline with a series of aesthetic improvements. You may learn in school, in the coming years, about a social interaction often referred to -- referred to in the literature, that is -- as politically motivated violence. Or, for short, PMV."
"Splendid and fascinating!" I exclaim, masking a considerable amount of mental activity with a merely adequate portrayal of child-like wonder.
Allow me to explain. Throughout the preceding scene my mind has been occupied, simultaneously, on three fronts: affecting to extract details of the bombing attack without also giving away my real aim; shuffling through numerous possible non sequiturs with which to counter his inane stammering, none of which must come across as excessively practiced lest I inadvertently alert him to the fact that I'm on the grift; and, to complicate matters, keeping an eye on what's going on around us in the office, paying particular attention to my physical location relative to all possible exits. It has only been in situations like this that I have, after so many years, felt well and truly engaged with the world. A fickle melancholy now descends over me, and I resist the urge to withdraw, to run outside, to find myself peering over the railing and thoughtfully evacuating my stomach. Characteristically, I maintain my hold on the situation. I press on.
The doctor, for his part, sinks into a portrait of exquisite confusion.
"Say, son, what are you two doing in my clinic?"
William's chair is knocking back and forth, gently, blissfully unaware of the limits set by my tether. I turn my eyes back to the doctor very slowly, straightening my posture and raising my voice.
"Sir, I was carting around my little brother here when the building at 25765 St. Aecstopher's Cross did fall down nearly on top of us. I'm afraid I have sustained some sort of injury, as my arm seems to have gone missing."
I do the trick with my shoulder, slipping my arm, and he gasps as it re-appears in my sleeve. Absentmindedly, I look down and say, "Oh, there it is."
He fails to laugh. Instead, he puts in a respectable effort to wrinkle his eyebrows, to grow more visibly concerned. Privately, I want to be disappointed with this reaction, to ask him if somehow the humor hasn't translated, but I will not break character over a single flat joke.
Now, this fellow knows when he smells a five-star dinner. He's recognized which house we're from. Dad's pressure screen is probably glowing red even as we commence negotiations. I think I can actually feel the chips twitching in my wrist and neck, as both regions are crying out to be scratched. Or maybe it's just my allergies.
Without warning, something seems to click into place in the doctor's head. He lunges towards me.
Almost before I can unlatch William, the man's taken me up into his arms, ferrying me into an examination room. He unloads me gently onto a table and smooths me onto its stiff, white paper. A microwave sweep to stem the spread of various bacteria. It will be interesting to learn which perilous -- though certainly, at this clinic, treatable -- ailment he has diagnosed me with, now that he realizes I've membership in a truly superlative insurance program. That's when he notices my eyes.
"Son --" His own eyes get stuck gliding over William's gilded chair. "Son, are you... blind?"
"Of course I'm blind, you jack ass!"
Okay, here I will admit that I've broken character and degenerated into an emotional outburst. I wrench my face back into a pathetic sulk and twitch only once, trying to restore equilibrium. I remind myself to act my age. Let him guide the scene.
"How long have you been wandering the streets out there, without being able to see where you're going?"
An easy one.
"It's never really been an issue. I mean, I seem to know my way around the neighborhood pretty well. Everyone here knows me. And twenty-twenty vision isn't a panacea against belly-flopping architecture, as I think was proved out there today."
"Hm. I suppose it was. I admit, you do seem capable. But still, blindness is a serious complaint for one who spends so much time outdoors. I would imagine it's also quite demoralizing, when your obstructed vision is rated against that of your peers, wouldn't you agree?"
Like I said, I'm a million dollar bill lying face-up on the sidewalk.
Presently, he claps me into another chair, this one missing the sanitary strip of paper, and begins attaching things to my face. I open my mouth to try another approach but he simply reaches down and plugs it with a wad of medical gauze. I suppose we'll have to continue our discussion once he's finished tinkering with my eyes.
He's a few hours getting on with it, and so by the time he's taken down my numbers and confirmed them multiple times against his network queries, William and I are left to amble along home. Once again I have to point out: here we are, children, alone on the streets after dark, where a war is still being waged. (Admittedly, the firing usually stops when the sun goes down.) Sure, plug me into a machine to fix my eyes, and then send me right back out into the war zone. What was the point? I could just as easily have enjoyed this kind of treatment from the boys back at HQ. In any case, I have now been outfitted with an outlandish plastic headband. It encircles the top half of my face and displays a pleasant array of colored shapes, monochrome to onlookers and passers-by. Aside from the cosmetic effects, my vision seems unchanged.
We exit the clinic without having gathered any useful intelligence. Ditto for the tally of unburdened currency we have to show for our trouble. No doubt this will have been a complete waste of an afternoon, distinguished only by the irritation of a needless medical procedure. I've wasted a lot of time that could have been devoted to shoring up my grip. William looks up at me, visibly disappointed.
At an intersection, I am surprised to note that I can now see things I have never been able to see before.
In some ways it is confusing, this trying to peer between the fat cubes of light that gyrate before my eyes. At first I am not quite sure how to adjust, even as I attempt to keep walking. Slowly the input begins to make sense; to help, rather than hinder, my navigation.
On balance, I will say that there is much to recommend in these additional streams of information, all dancing betwixt each other and pouring unstoppably into my face. The interface is intuitive, hands-free. I can see where such a device could be considered useful. I'm even getting telemetry now from HQ. What has this motherspamming optometrist done to me?
I seem to have gotten quite a ways down the street on my own. I've inadvertently left William back at the intersection, his chair bobbing in sync with the traffic. When I return to his side I see that he has pulled out his knapsack and begun to tear off little strips of paper, creasing them into slim, rectangular folds that bear a striking resemblance to illegal tobacco cigarettes. He offers one to me and I accept, gripping it between my second and third fingers, leaning back against the enormous smart glass windows of the FIRST MULTINATIONAL BANK. Eventually, I bring the sliver of paper up to my lips, deftly feigning inhalation. Smooth flavor...
William looks up at me with those preposterously large eyes of his and, for the first time today, puts forth the effort to straighten out his spine and stutter a few words. In spite of the pain it causes him he wants to speak to me. You have to admire his grit.
"T-T-Thomas, it's been a fun day, and it is r-r-rather late -- ungt! -- but, if it's all the same to you... I... I would prefer that we tarry here for a while, and p-p-pickle in the ebb and flow of the... c-c-cool night air."
I raise my cig to him and nod respectfully. We both jump as a building collapses, somewhere off in the distance. On this night, the city will not be afforded its usual dusk-to-dawn reprieve.
Gingerly, I work the length of gauze out of my mouth and begin to unroll its damp wad of fabric onto the sidewalk. William's glassy eyes reflect a light that seems to originate from no obvious source. He recognizes what it is I've managed to smuggle out of the doctor's office. There is more here than just the blood and spittle sopped up by the rags.
A selection of tiny hand tools glistens in the light of the street lamp. These are the final pieces we'll need to render our reverse-engineering shop, hidden for now in a vacant ammo closet on the sixth level, fully operational. Once I can get a hold of a few more classified schematics, we can begin undercutting the importers and kick our minuscule operation into full gear. We'll even be able to outfit William's chair with its own shield jacket and an independent comms package, all of our own design. No more relying on the adults or outsiders for our gear.
I briefly consider cutting Father in on this action. The notion is dispersed by the echoes of mortar fire reverberating across the river. Try as I might, I know he just couldn't be made to understand. This world we've arrived at, crowning from the great, vaginal maw of nothingness bequeathed to us by our ancestors, brooks no quarter for the elderly, or for those sad individuals still nostalgic for the unambiguous adversaries of eras past. Pop would be happier lobbing rounds at the enemy, clawing defiantly as he sinks into his grave, still convinced he's making some sort of falsifiable, empirical contribution to his generation's most momentous struggle.
What a load of bollocks. Dad has wasted his entire life on this nonsense.
I decide it's best to keep my opinions to myself. William tends to be sentimental when it comes to family.
Speaking of which, the boy has gotten busy, grunting and drooling onto his shirt. All evidence of his brief flash of lucidity is gone, vanished. Might as well never have happened. He's making a mess of his clothing.
I snatch up the little bundle of tools before he spoils them. Sometimes you wonder why you even bother. With William, the sentiment is amplified. I suppose I do feel for him.
We're both of us looking forward to the end of this war.
No, really. Hear me out.
I've grown weary of the grind. I want to be free of William, free of this duty.
I worry that the adults have already compromised our security. I can't imagine the Green insurgents will ever give up. Do you see what I'm saying? It's frustrating that the family pursues this stagnant vision of religious purity. We can't all be ideologues. Or not of the type my father admires, anyway. We have to be in this to win it. We have to get in where we fit in. And that might not include the Church.
For now, I suppose, I'm content to focus on having a smoke and getting rich.
I'm convinced it's the only way I'm going to survive.