“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 away.
“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 land.
“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 asked.
“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 asked.
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,” Kaye said.
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 Cas.”
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,” Cas conceded.
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 difficult.”
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 have.”
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 the expression.
“Curious,” Cas 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 reminded herself.
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 through text.
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 more.
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 seat.
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.
My 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 now.
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 offer.
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.
Suddenly, without 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 another still.
No! Stop this at once, the Speaker commanded. I… forb…id it!
“You fear it,” Cas replied.
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 command.
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 breath.
“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 moment.
“Thank you for your faith in me,” Cas managed to say in response. “But now what? What about him? This place?”
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 off.
“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.”