Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Flash Fiction: Niloufar

Yes, the blog colors have changed although they're still well within the realm of "ugly sofa." But that's not the point.

I have another piece written for a flash fiction challenge that is all ready to share. Once again, from Chuck Wendig's blog, this challenge is The Who, The Where, The Uh-Oh. My random numbers 9,1,2 netted me:

Who: Android
Where: Nuclear Wasteland
Uh-Oh: Left for dead, out for revenge!

Oddly in the process of writing this and naming the main character Niloufar, I fell into a YouTube hole listening to the song "Niloofar." My favorite version was this one by Martik. And here is Pouran's version of the song as well.
I was pretty sure I had heard that song before, but I'm not sure where. Maybe I found it in some round about way while listening to Umm Kulthum. And if you haven't listened to Umm Kulthum...

Anyway, I wrote a little story about an android. It comes in at slightly under 2000 words.


All are whole. The world has been made Whole. The world is Whole. We are The Whole.

Niloufar. She has a name. The Whole left her here. But she is Whole because all are Whole now. She doesn’t recall why.

She knows where, though. The place where darkness never allowed another day. Shab. She hadn’t fully realized that Shab was not only a time period, an event really, but also a place. It had to be, though. When the explosions happened, all light pulled toward them, turning everything to darkness. Even people became drawn as shadows on the tile-worked walls. She’s heard the stories, but she knows them even better than she’d want to.

Because she was there. Not in this body, though. Part of her had been there when it happened. Part of her knows only that brief life before. Part of her knows everything after. And the dark space in the middle.

Char marks the near-center of her chest, arcing toward the right shoulder of her yellowed ivory tunic. They had tried to shock her heart—short the circuit. She doesn’t have a heart in the traditional sense anymore. They thought they’d tripped it. Or else they wouldn’t have left her here like this. It doesn’t line up, though.

She sits up, brushing dust off herself before pulling her paisley-printed scarf over the crown of her head in a movement more familiar than her memories after the dark space. There’s a rust-red spot, faint, but there in the paisley pattern. The blood of who they thought she’d be. She drags together an identity with threads of memory and built in knowledge of her rebirth, but it hasn’t quite come together.

The skin has peeled back on her arm, revealing the workings underneath. It doesn’t bleed. She presses it flat and stands, steadying herself against a brick pillar. Her memories turn back. Clicking over to the day she was made Whole five years earlier.

Behrouz Ghazali, her father, perhaps ten years older than when she last saw him. She knows him, but can’t explain it. He’s the same, but different. One ruined eye closed over in tightened scar tissue. His beard is speckled with grey.

The space around her seems different. Her body is different. A slight ten-year-old frame replaced with an adult form. Had she somehow slept through all of her awkward adolescence? No, this was the standard build.

There are others in the room like her. All the same basic shapes, but different faces, hair and clothes. The faces don’t move quite like they should, but the emotions are very close to perfect. People hug. Some cry.

All Baba can say at first is, “You did not survive.”  

She remembers her last day before this one. In a school room, kicking her feet under her desk. Green chalkboard. White hijab and navy school uniform in a room of similarly-dressed girls. A teacher in a black chador. And then everything blinked to darkness. 

They embrace. She sees herself in a mirror along the wall, and rushes over to examine her too-perfect face. She looks how she thought she’d look. Her smile doesn’t open wide enough, but it’s close to feeling right. The newly Whole come over to examine their faces. Doctors in lab coats and suits talk about the procedures. They used what they could. There will be some holes in the memory, but the remaining brain tissue might locate some of them as time goes on.

Niloufar doesn’t care. She touches her face, watching her movements in the mirror. The sensation is the same as she remembers it, but the surface is thicker. Everyone smiles, laughs or cries as they are able to. Even the doctors seem proud of the reunions they’ve orchestrated. The faces of The Whole are there too. They were constant. Watching everything, even the insignificant every day workings.

And she remembers the significant moment that brought her here. To Shab. The bronze mask’s distorted features and wide inset mirrored eyes glare down with preset conviction as only a faceless assailant hiding behind The Whole can. They have an agenda. Burned into her memory. It was her first image upon waking in the ruble.  A leftover glimpse lingering before her vision flickered back on.

The vaulted ceiling of the wide passageway points to the hole in the roof. The hole she fell through, and others. Some portions of the bazaar have collapsed. Columns demarcate separate stalls. Broken shutters hang open in pieces. Some items remain.

Wide, flat baskets spill from a broken table. Whatever they held has spilled as well. Most of it is gone, but a few cardamom pods, dried peppers and cinnamon sticks remain scattered right at the edge of the fallen table. Other booths are similarly broken and cleared out. Tattered garments in a row wave from the highest level of one shop. Blue signs with curling calligraphy announce the names of different vendors. Everything within easy reach is gone or damaged. She stares at a tulip-like motif on a group of tiles, but the memory doesn’t connect so she moves on.

The bazaar still smells like spices, perfume and incense, but also smells of smoke and blood. She climbs over the contents of several shops spilling across the aisle. Broken paintings and furniture. Half-crushed baskets. Green and ivory prayer rugs, and larger rolls of carpets. Everything past this spot is burnt. The gutted remainder of the bazaar takes away her chance to imagine that the people have just gone home. This is Shab, of course. Everyone always says that word as though their breath has gone out. It probably sounded different before.

Another memory.  She knows where she came from. At least where The Whole had taken her from.

Loosely assembled partitions covered in yellow and black symbols block the exit. Establishing such a boundary seems wrong.  Or useless. The symbols don’t make sense yet. A yellow field and a black circle with three black marks around it. Danger. Radiation. She looks around, expecting to find the source. It doesn’t matter as it will have little impact on her body as she is right now.

She tips the warning partition over, and stands in the street. A few cars line along the curb in a  haphazard assembly. Abandoned. Many buildings stand in disrepair. Collapsed buildings point away from the epicenter. Ruins. Another piece falls into place. The ruins are significant. Maybe not these ruins—older ruins. She walks close to the buildings, looking into the broken windows as she goes.

Baba would tell her old stories. History of long, long ago. When the shahs took over they let the old families keep some power—not real power, but the illusion of power. The shah took their power and lands little-by-little emboldening himself as he went, but kept a close eye on what the families were doing.

She felt like his impromptu history lessons treated her as though she were still a child.  And she didn’t know why he did it. Now she did.

The Whole was always watching. Shifts of bronze-masked figures. Their protectors. Their guards. Their captors.

She stops at a newsstand where magazines and newspapers have turned to browned confetti in the racks. Pressed against a section of glass is a logo that looks like a flower. A little bit like a distorted tulip. It had been on a magazine that is now an image fused to this glass. VE. Variegated Energy, but she knows it as Variegated Electronics. It’s still around. They built her. Made her Whole. She reads the remaining text fragments.

Nuclear power plants. Clean. Efficiency. Innovation.

All spoken of as a plan, and not yet a reality. She knows the face under the glass, but not his name. That part is missing. After picking up an abandoned cane near the shop, she breaks the glass away from the display. Set against the backdrop of near-silence the crash startles her. Dogs bark in the distance. They don’t sound quite right, though. Rasping. Congested.

A travel agency is the most intact storefront she’s found since leaving the bazaar.  And she hides in there. In a back room. It’s dark, but at least the door closes and locks.

When they had a chance without The Whole watching over them, Baba said, “We are Whole because we survived, but never believe we are part of The Whole. They want us to think that.”

“But if we are Whole, then who are The Whole?”

He shakes his head. “The Whole are responsible for all of it. They worked for the others, brought them here. Found a place that was expendable—remote—enough. They did what they wanted to out there, experimenting and testing, and thought no one was watching, but they were. We all faced the consequences. The world did, all for one global venture, and now the world is Whole because we’re all in this shit together. But The Whole watches anyone who knows any of this.”

He leans in close and whispers a name. He did that a lot. Never forget. The King of Ruins. He is one of The Whole, and there are others. She can’t remember, but now she knows something else.

Baba is dead. He wasn’t in poor health, but he is dead now. The Whole killed him. Not in an obvious way, but a murder all the same. She struggles to unearth what she’s seen. What she really knows, but it’s not there.

The dogs have moved on, so she opens the office door. The King of Ruins is not a title. It’s a name. A coded name. Baba told her the real name a couple times, but the code was there so she could remember it. She holds her head in her hands, trying to remember. The Whole tried to kill her too. The electrical jolt and the fall have done nothing for her already vague memories.

A glimpse of her mother. She was sick from radiation-related cancer. They were reunited, but only briefly. All the while, being watched over. She joked about how instantly Niloufar had grown up.

For the first time in her new life, she realizes that no one is watching. No one is really looking for her. She’s dead to them, which means she is free of The Whole. Now what?

Visit Perseoplis. It’s printed in several languages on a large faded poster, and on some brochures. Stone pillars and walls that look especially faded now in the photos, but have always been faded from age. Griffins. The Gateway of All Nations. Palaces and tombs. And carved figures with stylized robes, their beards and hair in repetitive coiled curls. This one on a throne. Darius the Great. Her memory pulls together. Takht-e-Jamshid.

The King of Ruins? No. Darius. Takht-e-Jamshid. She holds up the face under the glass panel she brought with her. He’s responsible for all this.

She drops the picture.  Darius, King of Ruins. Darius. Takht-e-Jamshid. Darius Jamshidi. Not Darius the Great. Darius Jamshidi, he’s on the Board of Directors for Variegated Electronics—was Energy. Now part of The Whole because the world is Whole because of them. Darius Jamshidi must be held responsible. Now, she just doesn’t know how…

Another flashback. Her father again. “The biggest fraud of all. They wanted the world to come together after their accident led to all-out nuclear war. Not just Shab, the ruins are everywhere with survivors rebuilding in their own enclaves. Of course Variegated Energy wouldn’t claim responsibility, but they’s tell survivors what to do. Once so little was left, they were more willing to listen. They said that they had to be unified. They had to be Whole. It was a great PR stunt. Who really knew the truth?”

Behrouz did, and Niloufar still knows. She wonders how many others are being watched by The Whole. Who else knows? How much time does she have left before no one else knows?

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