“Put on a Happy Face, Part 2: New Reasons to Smile”
Cas was surrounded, an
island amidst a sea of menacing emoticons. Some of the helmets even depicted
knives, guns, and other weapons likely intended for her. One displayed, in
minimal detail, a guillotine cleaving the head from a stick-person’s body. Cas glanced
around frantically inside the helmet, trying to trigger something, anything,
that would act as a saving grace.
A hand closed around
her wrist, and she heard only one word.
Without other options
present, Cas found herself being pulled through the crowd seconds before it
converged on her. She and the person who had rescued her, who Cas noted was
shrouded in a number of layered, gray scarves and cloaks, moved through the
crowd with improbable ease.
Cas started to glance
back at the commotion over her shoulder, now what felt like a safe distance
“Don’t,” commanded her
rescuer without bothering to look back. Cas was forced to run faster as their
pace quickened. They were no longer in the town’s center, and they rapidly
approached its outskirts. The huts were sparse now, farther apart and
interrupted by increasing stretches of barren field. A collection of fallen
rock rested, gathered almost as if with purpose at the edge of a cliff.
Cas realized, as their
pace increased yet again, there were only two possible destinations. A sudden
stop or along drop.
“This is some sort of
trick,” Cas said, though she was met with no response. She tried to dig her
feet into the dry soil, but found no purchase.
“I said,” Cas began to
repeat, only to be hushed. Whoever had saved her from the crowd was hurtling
forward at absurd speeds, Cas still in tow. In a fluid motion, only so few
paces away from certain doom, the mysterious collection of scarves and cloaks
reached down with their free hand and dislodged a rock the size of a grapefruit
from the dirt, all while maintaining speed. A deafening crack split the air. A
boulder situated at the center of the heap split down the middle. Its halves
shifted inwards, revealing a dark doorway. As they passed through it, stone moved
outwards past them and closed back in place. Only then did they stop running.
The darkness was
absolute, and Cas’ attempts to catch her breath were the only sound to be
heard. A harsh red light pierced the darkness, moving swiftly from the ceiling
to the floor. Something shuddered beneath the ground as the light went out, and
the room was filled with a dull, white glow as lighting fixtures built into the
walls sprang to life. There were a number of metal surfaces bolted to the walls,
each adorned with a number of tools and displays in various states of disuse.
“Thank you for getting
me out of there,” Cas said. Before she could say anything else, her rescuer
raised a hand to silence Cas before removing the helmet. Her rescuer was a
young woman, eyes the color of a sunset moments before night blanketed the
“Don’t thank me yet,”
the woman said, her voice carrying a practiced coldness. “You owe me. Before we
continue this conversation, I’d like you to take your helmet off so I’m certain
I haven’t made a mistake in saving you.”
Cas placed her hands
on the helmet, hesitating. “How will you know you’ve made a mistake?” she
“This isn’t a good
start,” the woman replied.
Cas removed the helmet,
tucking it into the crook of her left arm. “My name’s Cas. I’m sure you can
tell I’m not from around here,” she explained.
“Kaye,” the woman who
rescued Cas, Kaye, responded. “Clearly you aren’t or you would’ve known better
than to use outdated tech. The Speaker would’ve had you thrown from the airlock.”
“The Speaker?” Cas
Kaye shook her head, the
short shock of silver hair adorning her scalp swishing gently. “This used to be
a bustling farming community,” she said. “Worked out nicely until the air
filters started to fail. The short of it?” She pointed to the helmet Cas held.
“Someone from on high
in mission command sent a huge shipment of the things,” Kaye continued. “Easier
to display something than go through the trouble of speaking, burning up
valuable oxygen. The Speaker stood out as someone everyone could follow.”
Kaye frowned for only
a moment, the sadness sudden but fleeting. “That’s enough of a history lesson,”
A panel in the wall
between two of the tables slid open. An old man, bald and hunched, stepped into
the room. He let loose a long, wet series of course, punctuated by clearing his
throat and spitting. He looked up, his gaze meeting Cas’s.
“Brought home a stray,
did you? We’ve barely got enough air in here for us, and certainly not enough
food,” the man snarled.
“She’s not staying
long, Rel,” Kaye said. “Have you finished what I asked of you?”
Rel narrowed his eyes
at Cas, then shifted his focus to Kaye. “You sure you want to be talking about
that so freely?”
Kaye shot a glare over
her shoulder. “The Speaker set a mob on her,” she replied. “The last person who
had that happen still lives here.”
Rel furrowed his brow.
“I pull my weight,” he snapped back. “And if you’re so inconvenienced by my
being here, you can always kick me out. Leave me to the mobs.”
“That’s not what I
said in the least,” Kaye shot back.
Cas cleared her throat,
and found herself on the receiving end of two severe looks. “Excuse me, but I
fear it rude to not share my name as I know both of yours,” she said. “I go by
Rel raised an eyebrow,
an amused smirk revealing yellowed, crooked teeth. “Go by?” he probed.
Cas nodded. “I have a
number of questions I need answered,” she explained. “I happened upon this
place by accident, but it now almost feels like providence. If I can do
something to help with this Speaker, perhaps?”
Kaye smiled, looking
back to Rel for a moment. She pointed, again, at Cas’s helmet. “That’s an older
model, and it doesn’t properly interface with the current network,” she
explained. “The Speaker depends on everyone being on the current network.”
“We’ve worked on one
such helmet we managed to acquire,” Rel added, continuing, “In doing so, we
managed to make a helmet on the network that can potentially override the
Speaker’s command over the others.”
“That sounds simple enough,”
Kaye shook her head. “It’s
not that simple,” she said. “It’s a battle of wills. Whoever takes up the
helmet against the Speaker. He’s been in everyone’s head for so long it will be
Cas stroked her chin,
lost in thought. “What do you think will happen if I succeed?” she asked. “Or
if I fail? What would I need to do to best this Speaker?”
Rel and Kaye exchanged
glances, the small measure of hope on their faces gone abruptly.
“Truthfully, we don’t
know,” Rel conceded.
“We’ve been holed up
in this facility for years,” Kaye added. “The oxygen supplies are steadily
running down, and we’re known by the Speaker. We had to come up with something
to make living in the open safe again.”
Cas clapped her hands
together, causing Rel to jump. “If you have the means, I’ll find the way,” Cas
said. “I feel like there is a wrong here that I must right.” She felt a fog at
the edge of her thoughts. Where the fog only began to obscure the clarity Cas
needed was a sense of guilt, as if there was something in this situation she
should know more about. Something she was in some way, directly or indirectly,
responsible for righting.
Rel turned and
disappeared back into the room he’d entered from, the panel sliding shut behind
him. Kaye stood, not speaking, her eyes shut as if meditating. The panel opened
again, and Rel returned to the room with a helmet in his hands similar to the
one Cas had. The visor’s display was crisper, clearer, and devoid of the cracks
and scratches the other helmets all seemed to be marred by.
“I’ll trade you,” Rel
said, a command more than a request. Cas offered up the helmet she’d tucked
under her arm and accepted the one Rel had brought in. She lifted it to put it
on, but was stopped by Kaye.
“Don’t,” Kaye ordered.
“Not until you’re leaving. The second you’re on the network, you’ll be visible
to the Speaker, and he’ll be able to pinpoint your exact location. Leading the mobs
right to us.”
Cas nodded. “Any words
of wisdom before I depart?” she asked.
“Don’t die,” Rel
offered, his words met with a sharp glare from Kaye.
“I don’t have anything
I think will be terribly helpful,” Kaye conceded. “Don’t let the Speaker in, no
matter what he tries to convince you. Fight him, and fight him with all you
Cas smiled. “I’ll see
you both soon enough, I hope,” she said. She turned and walked back the way she
and Kaye had entered. A small, red bank of lights adorned the wall by the door
in the false boulders she had come through earlier. She pressed the solitary
button on the panel, and the doors slid open.
As Cas stepped out
into the field, she placed the helmet on her head. At first, its interior was completely
dark. A thin beam of light shifted left to right across Cas’s field of vision,
scanning across her eyes. She blinked away the pain, waiting patiently.
The interior of the
helmet illuminated fully, and the field outside came into view. A small, silver
globe rotated in the upper left corner of Cas’s vision. It blinked several
times, and a frown appeared superimposed over the globe for a fraction of a
second. The town’s center was visible, but only barely, in the distance, and so
Cas started the long walk towards her destination. She had no exact plan, but
wondered if reasoning with this Speaker was an option. Failing, she considered,
and being jettisoned from the airlock was not an appealing outcome.
She trudged through
the field, her eyes stopping on the broken, dried and dead remains of what
looked to be more than just tall grass. Specters of cornstalks still stood in
perfect rows, their color and life long gone from them. Spiraling vines lay
blackening on another mound of soil. The land itself did not appear dry or
brittle. Cas found herself wondering what the field had looked like before.
A small image of a
book blinked into her field of vision, its pages opening to reveal fleeting
images of vibrant farms surrounding modest huts. A stream carving its way
through the farm-town, disappearing beneath the cobblestones before emerging
from the top of a fountain in the heart of the village. A gentle breeze swept
through, drifting ever higher until it reached the clouds and beyond. For a
brief moment, fans were visible in the metal ceiling above the colony.
The fans shuddered to
a stop, and with that the view returned to the current field. Cas furrowed her
brow, quick to return to a neutral expression when she realized her visor mirrored
muttered. “I wonder.” Her vision was temporarily obscured by the interior of
her visor displaying a series of images rapidly, starting and ending with a sad
face. Cas shook her head, blinking against the after-image of what had been
shown to her.
“Best keep moving,” Cas
A crowd had formed at
the edge of the village, flanking the main throughway. All eyes were on Cas, who
hesitated at the edge of the road. A cursor appeared superimposed on the
scenery within Cas’s visor. It flashed a few times before something spoke
Enter, and present yourself, the words read.
Cas blinked, but maintained
a neutral expression. “Are you the Speaker?”
The cursor blinked again.
The name you speak of is a familiar one,
but not one I have given myself, the Speaker said. I have many names. Come to me, and I shall share my names and so much
Cas felt herself compelled
forward, each step reluctant but seemingly inevitable. She found herself approaching the dais in the
center of the village, atop which the Speaker waited on an imposing throne-like
Join us, won’t you? Join our
happy village and be free from the difficult existence that is your rebelliousness.
All it takes is just letting go.
The inside of Cas’s
helmet flashed and indicated to her the visor was displaying a smile.
“No,” Cas spat back.
The villagers moved
in, surrounding the dais as Cas felt herself compelled to step up and join the
Speaker, the smile still present on her visor.
family, my children, we have added one more to our ranks on this day, the
Speaker said, now clearly addressing everyone present. The smile on Cas’s visor
grew into a manic grin, and she felt the sides of her mouth tug themselves into
a matching expression of glee.
“No!” Cas shouted, her
voice seemingly muffled by the helmet.
Take this newcomer in and teach her our ways, commanded the
Speaker. Give her lodging and shelter, so
she may never need nor want anything else ever again. She is one of our own
A blackness crept into
the corners of Cas’s vision. She continued to smile. She felt a warmth roll
over her, and with it an inexplicable sense of peace. She was, she began to
realize, where she belonged. She was home.
Home, she thought
again as her vision darkened further. Something flashed before her eyes as if a
light in the darkness, and Cas snapped back to her senses. Her visor displayed a
smile, but the mouth changed to an ‘x’. Villagers looked to the Speaker, then
to Cas, their expressions suddenly a mix of confusion and rage as they attempted
to process this.
Fret not, my children, the Speaker said. Even without a voice, his
words seemed to come across as slick as oil.
The faces turned
placid again, and Cas’s vision grew darker still. She felt a wave of panic hit
her, followed by another forced wave of joy. Peace.
No, she thought. This
is wrong, she told herself.
If she couldn’t
convince them to see the truth in a face, she thought, perhaps something else. Cas
thought for a moment, before her thoughts drifted back to the images she’d seen
earlier. She picked one and focused.
There was a series of confused
looks exchanged among the crowd when a fan appeared, still and unmoving, on Cas’s
visor. Others mirrored the image accompanied by a question mark.
Dismiss such thoughts, demanded the Speaker. They serve no purpose beyond distraction from the peace and freedom I
The Speakers words
seemed to fall flat, however, as the image continued to spread throughout the
crowd. The Speaker’s helmet switched from its peaceful expressionl to one of
rage in an instant. It flickered briefly, static marring its form.
warning, there was a rumble that shook the world around the village. It had
started high up, and spread slowly to the ground. Another followed, and then
Stop this at once, the Speaker commanded. I… forb…id it!
“You fear it,” Cas
You…do not know what…you have d-on3…… The Speaker’s visor became a
blur of static, the face intermittently popping back into existence before dissipating
just as quickly. The helmet sputtered and sparked before giving off a loud
popping sound. A plume of smoke poured forth from just beneath where the Speaker’s
helmet covered his face.
And a gentle breeze
blew the smoke away.
One by one, the other
helmets deactivated. The villagers stood in silence as if awaiting their next
Cas inhaled deeply,
holding her breath as she removed her helmet. The air didn’t sting her lungs as
she had feared it might. There was no foul odor to the air, save for faint stench
of burned out electronic components, and she felt no pain as she finally drew
“It’s safe now, I
suspect,” Cas said. “Take off your helmets. Breathe.”
One by one, the
villagers listened. Immediately in front of her, a young woman with deep red
hair appeared from beneath a blackened visor. Then a boy with vibrant blue
eyes. Each person looked at their neighbors like they were seeing them for the
first time, smiling pleasantly all the same.
“I told you I wasn’t
making a mistake,” said a familiar voice. Cas turned and spotted Kaye trotting towards
the dais with Rel in tow.
“You got lucky,” Rel
barked back. “Admit it.”
Kaye leapt up onto the
dais and offered Cas a crisp salute. “I knew you could do it,” she said. Cas
felt a chill up her spine. More familiarity, and another sudden bout of pain
just behind her eyes to push down any recognition she may have had for the
“Thank you for your faith
in me,” Cas managed to say in response. “But now what? What about him? This
Kaye reached over
towards the speaker and tugged at his helmet. There was a dreadful cracking
sound, followed by a pungent stench as it separated from the Speaker’s
protective suit and ornate robes. Two hollow eye sockets stared from a largely
bare skull, its jaw slack in a rictus grin.
“Whatever was in this,”
Kaye said, “Whoever. I reckon they’re still out there. This poor soul may have
been smiling, but not with anything behind it I fear.”
Cas frowned. “I’ll
have to find them, then, and learn why they did what they have here,” she said.
“More answers to seek.” She sighed.
The villagers had
begun to mill about, talking with one another. The conversations were reluctant
and awkward, but gradually grew less so.
Kaye clapped a hand on
Cas’s shoulder. “Walk with me for a moment or two,” she said, her tone more of
a request than a demand. Cas nodded, following along. They left the village
behind, following a faint, dusted-over stone pathway. It wound along, going
over foothills and dipping into shallow valleys that Cas had missed previously.
It ended at a sheer cliff, which seemed to stretch upwards endlessly. Cas
reached out and touched the stone, and the stone’s image wavered beneath her
hand to reveal a plain metal surface. A solitary door rested at its center,
adorned with red text reading “Emergency Exit: Authorized Personnel Only”.
“There’s not likely
much more for you here, Cas,” Kaye said. “In time, perhaps, there may be, but I
reckon you’d best be on your way now.”
Cas felt a brief pang
of sadness and wondered why, but as quickly as it occurred it seemed to drift
“I suppose you’re
right,” Cas replied. She offered Kaye a crisp salute, which Kaye returned. Without
another word, unable to find the right thing to say, Cas turned and opened the
door. It swung open with a rapidity she expected, and she spun back in time for
the door to snap shut behind her.
The room she had
entered was plain, save for a bank of monitors along the righthand wall. A
small bank of consoles sat beneath them, their keyboards closed off beneath
protective glass locked in place. Another door, similar to the one Cas just
passed through, adorned the opposite wall, and on it was a smudge of gray.
Cas sighed, a battle between
uncertainty and certainty that she was continuing along the right path as she
approached the door.
“Suppose all I can do
for now,” Cas instructed herself, “is continue to follow the ashes.”