by Nicholas Rombes
As we went along they killed a deer, with a young one in her, they gave me a piece of the fawn. And it was so young and tender, that one might eat the bones as well as the flesh, and yet I thought it very good. When night came on we sat down; it rained, but they quickly got up a bark wigwam, where I lay dry that night. I looked out in the morning, and many of them had lain in the rain all night, I saw by their reeking.
–From “The Fourteenth Remove,” in A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, by Mary Rowlandson, 1682.
They took you to the first house, and then, later, to the second. By the time they had removed you to the third house you knew the process was underway. Each house presented its own puzzles and, ultimately, its own terrors. They tried to make the windows thick enough to obscure the sound of the drones, but you could always hear them, the distant, mosquito-like hum as they passed through the upper echelons of the sky. They said that you could distinguish between ours and theirs by the texture of the sound, but in truth the drones were all the same.
They were all ours.
I am writing this from the second house. I do not want to go to the third. I have been there before, many times. Not the same third house, but one just like it. I have seen what goes on in that house, behind its corrugated metal shell, and because I have seen, they keep cycling me though the circuit. That’s my theory, at least, for why I always find myself back here, at the second house, dreading the third.
Back in the day they would have called us assassins, but nobody assassinates anyone anymore. Targeted subjects are either excluded or removed. To be excluded is to disappear, to vanish. I play no part in exclusions end of things, but I do know it’s better to be removed than excluded.
The puzzle about the second house has to do with sound: if I walk to the window that looks out onto what I assume is an enormous high-definition screen showing a meadow swaying in golden light in the breeze, I can hear the drones. They sound impossibly close, and I wonder if this is part of the puzzle. I tilt my head slightly to pick up the sound better, and the intercom on the wall snaps on.
“Bronson. Are you there Bronson?”
Of course they know I’m here; they put me here. There is no obvious need to ask whether or not I’m here, other than to make me answer, to transform me yet again into a subject. I am hailed, interpellated, reminded that I am never the one to initiation the communication.
I choose not to answer right away, and instead simply move closer to the chrome intercom which looks like a partially melted object left over from an abandoned science fiction film set. Although it remains silent on the other end as they await my reply, I can detect something, some presence. A very low-frequency hum, almost, like the soft breathing of a machine.
“Bronson here,” I answer finally, depressing the “talk” button as per the script.
“Ah, there you are. Finding everything in order, order, are you? You haven’t unsealed the instructions yet, have you?”
I am, in fact, holding the unsealed instructions in my hand.
At one time, soon after what happened to my daughter, I came to believe that our training had one purpose only: to make us unsuitable for the very sort of new world we were helping to build. A world of imagery analysis depots and data silos, buried deep in the earth. In the science fiction stories of my childhood, everything happened in outer space, on different planets. But it turned out that the future looked vey different when it finally arrived: rather than journey outward, we tunneled inward.
The instructions, of course, call for me to proceed to the third house, where another packet of instructions await. At the third house I will find a photograph of the person I am to exclude.
My memories of Evelyn are not static. I wish I could remember her the way she really was, not the way I remember her as being. Sitting on my lap at a picnic at the edge of a meadow, and how she would jump down and run into the cool forest and we’d pretend she was lost and I’d call out her name. How terrifying that game was for me, how much I dreaded it. Dreaded how play-acting it might conjure and bring about her loss which, in fact, it did.
I refuse to go to the third house.
“Bronson. Be reasonable,” the voice says over the intercom. “There’s still time.”
This is how they threaten. Outside, the drones are closer, lower, bolder. I take a pale green pillow from the couch and push it against the intercom, but I can still hear the voice.
“Bronson. Don’t. It’s not too late. Be careful. The third house.”
I don’t answer.
Time passes. How long? A hour? Two hours? An afternoon. It’s dark outside. A new voice though the intercom.
“Please answer. It’s me.”
This time, it’s a girl’s voice.
It’s a world where information is useless. A false commodity. It’s no longer of value if everybody has it, is what they told us in training, over and over. And: while they are chasing information, we will be chasing them. This was their mantra. House zero is where we trained. Some of us had volunteered out of sorrow. Or self-pity. The desire to give ourselves over to a purpose so much larger than our individual grief. This was during the second year of Evelyn’s disappearance, a point at which, the detectives said, finding her was statistically impossible(that’s the phrase that one of them used, the one with the shiny, penny-shaped scar on the top of his left hand). He patted my shoulder as he said it, as if I had lost no more than my dear cat. He left behind his white Styrofoam cup that had held, of course, detective coffee. It was only after he was gone that I noticed the capital letter E scratched—probably with a thumbnail—into its side.
In the past, my removals had been from the second house to the third. That was how things progressed, from house one to three, in sequence. But I decided now that I needed to go back to house number one. I understood that I had very little time, that it might already, in fact, be too late. I went into the bedroom and unzipped duffel bag that had been left for me for my removal to house three. I took out the weapon, the ear plugs, and the proxy face putty. In the bathroom, in front of the small mirror above the sink, I applied it, smoothing it with both hands from the ridge of my nose back to my ears and down to my chin. I washed my hands, shut my eyes, and counted to sixty. When I opened them, it was me in the mirror, but not me. As always, the shock of misrecognition. No matter how much you prepared for it, you could never really be prepared. You had to force yourself to absorb it and to somehow lock it down—this new face, this new image—into your mind. Force your brain to reconcile what it knew from what it was seeing. The question was: did it even matter? Could I trick them with the very tools that they themselves had provided?
Rather than a photograph of Evelyn, I carried with me a small map she had used as a bookmark. A map that never made sense to me, its territories covered with overlapping, spider-legged words, as if there was secret warning right there before your eyes, obscured. Some of it outlined in blood.
Or so it seemed to me.
The gravel path that led between house two and house one had never been traveled in this direction, at least by me. Above, a screen-blue sky. Tall pixilated pine trees on either side of the path. The whining of the drones at a terrible, resurrection pitch. I put the earplugs in and make my way toward house one in silence.
Evelyn at age eight or nine dashing across the hot sand at the Jersey beach, the bottoms of her feet hurting, saying “ow ow ow” with each step. Evelyn trying to catch her eyes move in the mirror. Evelyn listing the names she preferred to Evelyn. Evelyn mumbling about a lake monster during her fever on the camping trip. Evelyn with the cat, flicking its ears. Evelyn screaming to me for help in the forest, and me not being able to find her.
The closer I come to house one the more difficult it is to breathe. I have to stop every few steps to catch my breath. It’s as if gravity is stronger here. Soon I’m forced to grasp each leg around the knee and lift it forward to keep going. I see house one in the distance, around the bend in the path. I pause, then take a few steps. Then pause. I am leaning forward as I stride, as if into a wind storm. I turn around and walk backwards to use different leg muscles. The pixilated pine trees fibrillate in and out of clarity. Their boughs twitch in color between a hundred shades of green. I turn back around and face the house, the grooves of its corrugated metal roof and siding touching only at right angles. I am crawling now, barely able to move forward, as if being pushed back by some ridiculously impossible force.
I take out my ear plugs. They turn to ash in my hands. There is no more sound. No drones. I stand up now and face house number one. Why did I want to come back here? Why did I think that house number one was any safer than house number two. Because I wanted to get as far away as possible from house number three. That’s why.
I am on the porch now of house number one. There is the windowless door, and the familiar, terrifying intercom. I push the talk button and say, “It’s me.” A moment passes, then another. I hear the drones again, growing louder. There is a pop of static from the intercom, and then a voice.
“Come in,” it says. The door latch clicks open.
I want to push the door open and step in but I can’t because the voice on the intercom . . . it’s my voice . . .
It’s my voice, but not my voice. And yet how to be sure?
I myself have used the voice putty, but it requires training and practice.
“Come in,” the voice says again. I hesitate. “Oh for God’s sake, Bronson, you’ve come this far. This is what you wanted.”
It’s true of course, and so I step in to house number one, if for no other reason than it’s the farthest away from house number three that I can hope to be, at least right now. I’m in a white room not unlike the entry room to house number two, from where I have just fled. There is a simple cot on the floor, with blankets. A metal table with aluminum canisters labeled not with words but with colorful symbols. A red star. A blue triangle. A yellow X. Beyond the table, a doorway into another room.
And in the other room, a man sitting in a lawn chair on a wooden floor, another lawn chair facing him. He’s smoking. His hands are large. He’s wearing dark jeans and heavy black shoes and a white shirt.
“Go ahead. Sit.” He motions to the empty chair. He’s still speaking in my voice, but it’s fading, cracking. The putty’s wearing off, and when he speaks again it will be in his own voice.
How does one remember a voice? Its texture, its tone, the soft way it can enter your ears. I struggle to recall Evelyn’s voice. Dad, she used to say, Dad can we go to the Dairy Queen. In those days, as silly as it sounds, the DQ was one of the last public places you could go and not be surveilled. I don’t know if Evelyn knew this, but she must have sensed a safety there, the fast-disappearing comfort of being with others in public and not being watched. The thinnest spider web thread of Evelyn’s voice, a fractal memory. One of the last things that is mine alone.
“If you’ve read the Mason Tract, then you’ve read me,” he says, as if I care. He knows I have a weapon, because he provided it. So this is Mason. He’s got a small scar that creates a gap in one of his eyebrows. He holds his cigarette loosely between the knuckles of his middle and ring finger. The Mason Tract is a field manual, an elaborate set of procedures that provide the bureaucratic framework for the exclusions and removals. It could hardly be said to be written by anyone:
In the body of a combat order, an annex or appendix should be referred to by giving both its letter or number and its subject, as—App I, Circuit Diagram, to Annex C, Signal.
The theory of completed staff action usually results in more work for the staff officer, but it results in more freedom for the commander. In addition, completed staff action protects the commander from half-developed ideas, voluminous memoranda, and immature oral presentations.
“I want to go back to house zero,” I say to Mason.
“Of course you do Bronson. Don’t we all.”
Outside I could hear the drones again.
“And . . .?”
“And,” he says, “I can’t let you. Why did you come back here? What did you possibly hope to gain?”
“Hope? Hope doesn’t enter into it. I just want to go back.”
“To house zero?”
“Believe me, house zero is the last place you want to go.”
“You can help me go back there. Why won’t you?”
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you, Bronson,” says Mason, leaning forward and letting his spent cigarette drop to the floor, “that you can’t go back? No one can. It’s not possible. Even if I were on your side—which I’m not—I couldn’t help you.”
“But you already have,” I tell him, lunging forward and pressing the weapon to his neck. He grabs my wrist and for a moment I worry that I hadn’t loaded it, but then his grip relaxes and he crumples into the chair, his eyes rolling back into his head, just like the rest of them.
Mason’s help came indirectly. From, of all things, the Mason Track, which those of us recruited for deployment in the removals and exclusions units came to know so well. In fact, the very instructions that I had with me now contained, embedded in the Track’s stock phrases, the guidance I needed to proceed to house number one.
Aggressor ideological pressure during removals requires vigilant signal blocking to maintain objectives and discount Aggressor ideologies.
I had spent too much time trying to convince myself that I was not in the process of, for lack of a better word, defecting back into the very society I had been employed to repress through my expertise in removals and exclusions. But in fact, I was defecting, back into the ranks of the oppressed.
More than that: I was defecting back to my old self.
You can’t go back. No one can.
I had entered through the front door of house one, and I would exit through the back door. There were, unfortunately, others in the house, unaware of my presence until now. The first one entered the room unprepared, and I used the weapon on him inefficiently, causing a scene of suffering that I will forever struggle to erase from my memory. The second one, alerted by the screaming, stayed in the next room, which I entered swiftly. The third and the fourth had been asleep, and were only beginning to fathom what was happening, and so I took care of them too.
What would Evelyn say not only about what I myself have done, but about my complicity in helping to build the precise sort of world that I wanted to protect her from?
Would she still call me father were she to see the aftermath of house number one?
Outside the house, a path snaking its way through a weed patch before disappearing into a firm line of pine trees. No sound. The trees in the near distance so still. I make my way down the path. I come across an arrangement of old bricks in the shape of a crooked cross. A enormous shadow sweeps across the field. I imagine it’s a drone.
I am deep into the forest now, in a spot where the tall pines grow so close together that I sometimes have to turn sideways to press myself between them. There is sap on my clothes and in my hair. I don’t know how I know that house zero lies in this direction, through the forest, just that I do. It’s getting dark. I stop and rest and think about the old world, the world with Evelyn in it. All I have are thin slivers of memory: the bright red roof of the Dairy Queen. The way cars sounded when you started them. The dim blue glow of computer screens on people’s faces at the airport. The feeling of the watch on my wrist, its enormous weight, when I realized Evelyn was gone. Can you ever pinpoint the moment when a new regime replaces an old one? Revolutions seem to happen over night, but really they are centuries in the making. By the time a revolution is complete, there is already a new order rising against it.
Those who guided us understood this.
You are helping to drain the world of information, they told us, in order to make it scarce and valuable again.
It’s night now and I’ve passed the forest and am walking by moonlight. The rough path continues to open before me. I hear the sound of my own footsteps and breathing. And Mason’s voice in my head, you can’t go back.
I sleep curled in an open field. In my dreams, the zero house is nothing more than a blank all with a bricked-in fireplace. In the mortar between the brick are terrible secrets. I wake before dawn and keep moving. In the distance there is a small yellow light. A fire. A signal.
Aggressor ideological pressure during removals requires vigilant signal blocking . . .
House zero, ahead in the distance.
Or so it seemed.
– Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare. (D. Bowie)
You can’t go back. And yet here I am going back, to house zero, to the beginning. I can’t remember anything. I remember everything. These are how my thoughts run now, in contradictions that bark against each other. I remember what Evelyn’s face looked like. I can’t remember what her face looked like. The world before the removals began wasn’t like this. Huge swaths of memory blink in and out. Is it like this for everyone else, too? I have spent so much time destroying so much information, to make it scarce again, as I was instructed to do.
I had taken care of Mason. How many others had suffered at my hands like he had? This question rattled in my head as I made my way down the path toward the orange light in the distance.
The drones were back, filling the yellow sky with sound. The path pixilated and depixilated beneath my feet. It shifted to such a low resolution that for a few moments I felt as if I’d fall through the earth. I tried to conjure Evelyn’s face in my mind but it was smeared with drone sound. I had killed Mason with the weapon and the others too, pressing it into the flesh of their necks.
The weapon jangles in my pocket, sealed in a bubble to protect me from the radiation. And then I notice: it vibrates when the drones come. It’s part of them, somehow. It belongs to them. They are calling it. I take it out and hold it in my hand and consider leaving it at the side of the path. Then I think to use it on myself.
But that would mean no house zero, no Evelyn. Is that what I hope to find there, my daughter, my Evelyn, gone now gone now gone? I put the weapon back in my pocket, and the path and the trees and the sky shift to high definition, so tightly packed with pixels that it hurts my eyes. Everything is hyper clear as if God himself had breathed all the missing information that had been removed back into the world, leaving me overwhelmed with sadness, and my thoughts spool out ahead of me, threading their way down the path to house zero, which glows in the near distance with such intensity that I look directly at it, and whose heat I can feel even back here, on the path.
The drones are lower now, their sound more intense, and I can see their tiny silver bodies shrieking across the sky. I remember what Mason had told me, at the very beginning, during recruitment: The drones, Bronson, they are all ours, even the ones that aren’t.
And then it all goes black.
I hear the light coming at me like sound, and then there it is, and I can see again. I’m in a room, in a chair, a blank metal table before me. I am in house zero. I can feel it, feel its absence, the stench of Archimedes, the void, the valueless placeholder, not even a number but a digit that comes after the 9 (rather than before the 1) on a keyboard. If there is a gap in the System, then I am here, inside the gap. The absence of ideas, the ideas that govern the drones that are ours and not ours at the same time.
There is a speaker on the table, and the voice that addresses me sounds like Mason’s but with voice putty anything is possible. The voice could be anyone’s.
“Bronson,” it says, “you’re here. At last.”
“I’m done,” I said. “I quit.”
“You can’t. There’s no way out. You’re in ideology now, Bronson, and ideology has no outside.”
“You sound like a theorist. It’s just words. I’ve done my part. I’ve completed everything that’s been asked of me. Now just let me go.”
The light in the room softens a bit, and I can see a door on the far wall, its handle painted white like the rest of the room. I imagine my daughter Evelyn on the other side of the door, but of course she’s not. She’s not anywhere now. She’s gone. And my wife. They disappeared along with the old ways. I understand that. And, even if it were possible, I wouldn’t want them back.
“The captain is missing,” I say.
“Ground control. Major Tom. The pilot.”
“From the drones, you mean.”
“From the drones,” I say. “They’re captain-less. There aren’t even cockpits.”
“But there are,” says the voice, “just not in the planes. There are ‘captains,’ as you say, and cockpits. And data links. And ground moving target indicators. And synthetic aperture radar. And thermal cameras. The deadly persistence capability. Their greatest power comes not from being undetectable, but from being seen. From being known.”
The light in the room grows even dimmer. I keep my eye on the thin outline of the door. I think of each strand of hair on Evelyn’s head, and how she counted them one night, when she was just a girl, and wrote down the number on a piece of paper, folded, and handed it to me and asked me to guess the number.
The voice continues: “Ground control is everywhere. Major Tom is everywhere.”
“Sinister,” I say.
“Not at all. Don’t you remember your training, your Foucault: Power is everywhere not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.”
“And what? The outside that you’re looking for doesn’t exist. We’re not in the realm of theory anymore, Bronson. We’ve moved beyond that.”
“I want to leave.”
“What you want,” said the voice, “is invisibility, but that doesn’t exist any more.”
But that wasn’t true. All I wanted was Evelyn, and everything that was before. And a sense of place again. Not zeroes and ones, but something higher, in the hundreds of thousands, in the millions, something beyond numbers, something beyond the imagination of the drones.
I still had my weapon.
There was the door.
The outside that didn’t exist lay beyond it. No matter. It was where Evelyn was.
I opened it, and stepped out.
About the Author:
Nicholas Rombes is the author of Cinema in the Digital Age, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1972-1984, and Ramones, part of the 33 1/3 series published by Continuum. He is a professor and chair of the English Department at the University of Detroit Mercy. His work has appeared in The Oxford American, The Believer, The Rumpus, Exquisite Corpse, Wigleaf, and other places. His digital home is The Happiness Engine.