Horror Tree is a valuable resource for authors of speculative fiction, with news and information about publishers and markets. They also post writers’ stories in the editor’s weekly column, Trembling With Fear. In December 2018 they published my short story “Faithful,” a tale of technology being used in the wrongest way possible.
by DL Shirey
The first blue of morning came before Lowell looked at the sky outside his window. The phone in his hand lit in azure, prompting the middle-aged man to get out of bed. His fingers were combing back the memory of hair when the white letters appeared on the blue background:
Lowell swept his legs out from under the sheet and placed his feet onto polished oak, feeling the cold wood floor. His new morning ritual was all about feeling, connecting to his emotions and embracing what the daily word truly meant. Be in the moment, the Master had said, feel this moment. But all Lowell could feel now was a scratching need for coffee and the chill of a bachelor’s bedroom before the heater kicked in.
Still, he had made the commitment to do Mantra first thing every morning. And Lowell was nothing if not a man of his word. After two weeks of unbroken adherence, he still found it difficult to push past his discomforts or set aside the To Do List in his head, even for a few minutes of meditation. What else had Sri Raga said? Give it 40 days. God cleansed the world for Noah in 40 days. After 40 days, Mantra will become habit.
The white letters on the blue screen exited left, then flew in again from the right, one letter at a time. Lowell remembered from his three-day training to mimic the motion of the letters in his imagination; consciously sweep out all extraneous thoughts, brush them aside and let the feelings from the daily word resonate.
As a software developer, Lowell knew that the screen’s repetitive motion, the exit and rebuild of the letters, was only an animated overlay to allow video to load. He could see the code in his head, but he just as quickly dispelled this intruding thought. Without self-admonishment, Lowell regained concentration and smiled inwardly at his improving ability to meditate.
The blue screen dissolved to a vivid splash of fabrics: a Persian rug, embroidered floor cushions, block-print pillows overstuffed with color. The white letters continued to sweep on and off; the motion seemed to push a gliding thrum of sitar out the phone’s speaker. And as Sri Raga walked into the frame, the word dissolved to ghostly transparency; there in digital spirit, but no longer the center of attention.
They said this old man emerged from the Kush Mountains and walked all the way to Mumbai to bring his messages of enlightenment. They said he was once a powerful warlord with a vengeance so great that its fury blinded him. He could no longer see, but his sight was replaced by an angelic vision of peace. Sri Raga took the divination to heart, convinced his followers to escort him to the West and left the warring tribes behind. They said his former enemies did not believe in his loving transformation, that the only thing Sri Raga found was a way to finance his wars. Yet his legions of followers believed.
The Master took a seat on the colorful cushions, and Lowell could see the hard lines of resolve that creased the man’s face. Even though he was blind, there was something deep inside Sri Raga that still sparked emotion in those sightless eyes. On screen, the Master slowly crossed his legs, sat upright and pulled a gray, oily braid over his shoulder. His loose caftan and drawstring pants were peach colored, well-worn and immaculate.
Lowell had tried previously to emulate the meditation pose, but his own pudgy body would not follow suit. In that three-day retreat there were scores of followers who could not comfortably sit in the Lotus position. Lowell remembered looking at his plump peers, each with their complimentary Sri Raga t-shirt, sitting in chairs instead of on floor cushions. It was no shame, the instructor said, to use a chair. Just keep feet flat to the floor and hands relaxed in laps. Lowell assumed this pose now, placing the phone on one chubby thigh.
Sri Raga spoke the word. One syllable purposely spaced from the other. In his non-English pronunciation, it sounded like fate-fall. He said the word at the top of each inhale and again at breath’s release. Sri Raga repeated it at least a dozen times, while the camera pulled in to frame the old man’s face. His dark, ageless, almost vengeful eyes widened when the Master spoke again, “Now you say.”
Lowell chanted and breathed to the instructed rhythm. He peeked at the phone, only once, to make sure he was speaking loud enough. Because of his blindness, the Master wanted to hear his followers. The Mantra app let devotees, anywhere in the world, chant with Sri Raga. The screen on Lowell’s thigh had an icon of a microphone, and stretching from it, a red line that squiggled violently the louder Lowell spoke. After checking the waveform, Lowell reclosed his eyes and repeated the Mantra over and over.
Nadj woke because the noise had changed, not the volume. The loudspeaker had stopped pounding one word and started another. Every day came a new word chanted by a thousand voices. This one sounded like fate-fall.
Since his hearing was almost gone, Nadj woke by the change in tremor. This new word vibrated differently throughout his body. He opened his eyes. Months of ear-splitting volume had deafened the pain of noise, but the debilitating crush of headache and exhaustion never stopped.
He rarely slept long, a few minutes at most. Nadj thumbed the corners of his eyes to remove the grit and saw Hedo. His older brother looked a hundred years old, lying on his side, knees pulled up to his chest. His skin sallowed by lack of sunlight, a coat of dust on matted hair. The only color other than gray was the yellow-brown of his cataracts. Hedo blinked. Still alive.
Nadj’s own misery didn’t matter. Seeing what his brother had become reignited the hate. It burned when Nadj saw Hedo and those who remained from the village. It burned for revenge on the warlord who put them here. Kaled Bahn. Just thinking the infidel’s name soured Nadj’s mouth, but he could not afford the spit to remove it.
As Nadj pushed up from the thin foam pad his papery muscles did not comply. He fell back onto his sleeping mat, feeling it skid on the grit of the filthy cement floor. His first concern was for his fellow prisoners, hoping the noise he’d just made had not disturbed them. Had he the strength to laugh, Nadj would have, realizing that none of the eight remaining men could hear him under the volume from the loudspeaker.
Though his ear damage rendered the sound to a distant, hollow buzz, Nadj assumed the thousand voices still chanted in English. The words didn’t make sense; no one in the cell understood any of them. But Nadj knew two things: Kaled Bahn was responsible for this torture. And the words on the loudspeaker changed every day.
Nadj knew it was a daily occurrence, even in a room without windows. When the bare bulbs dimmed, it was nighttime. In his poor town, the electricity was overused at night, improved by day. Even so, everything in the village was better at night. The warlord and his soldiers halted attacks by sunset.
When the bulbs dimmed, prisoners were served a bit of food. The long table, just within reach outside the bars, was laid with stale scraps of flatbread and a shallow pan of weak broth. Nadj watched until the men with fat orange cups on their ears left the room, struggling to his feet only after the door shut behind the guards. Nadj still had strength enough to tear at the hard crescents, soak them in the tasteless soup and bring the food to Hedo. Praise be, his brother could still eat.
Only a few of the prisoners had strength left to stand. All were naked from the waist down and did their best to hide the shame. It was a cruel joke that Nadj, Hedo and the others had only t-shirts to wear; thin, cheap material with Kaled Bahn’s face printed on the front. There were two words on the shirts–Sri Raga–but they were just as foreign as those from the unrelenting loudspeaker.
Wherever Nadj looked, he always saw the thin smile of his enemy, head and shoulders tented in fabric the color of peaches, vengeful eyes never breaking gaze.
Nadj scowled. And this time he spat.
Then he knelt to feed Hedo another piece of bread. After his brother, Nadj delivered food to all who could not walk. It was an honor to serve the few who remained from the village, the faithful.