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Short Story


Alexander Joy observes a clash of ways of cultivating the mind.

This bright cold April evening finds Dr Kenjamin on a barstool nursing a paper-cut. Fiddling with his airship ticket like a furtive ace of spades has put a thin, deep gash in his index finger, so he tries thinking of happier things: the Dutch confections he discovered during his farewell tour of the market square; the pending spring thaw; the time printed on his ticket, a mere half-hour away, and what this will mean for his business. Thirty minutes more, he tells himself. The worst is over. And a bar isn’t a bad place to wait: not overtly suspicious, and filled so densely with inebriated brain-waves that a telepath could lose himself forever scouring them for the slightest scintillation of clear unorthodox ambitions. Dr Kenjamin figures a single drink will do no harm. He’s earned it. Tonight calls for celebration.

The barman he summons looks far too young to trade in alcohol. “Hard stuff you’re wanting,” says the barman. “Life ain’t so bad as that?”

“Hardly,” says the doctor, wondering how disheveled he must seem in his wrinkled coat and loose cravat. He places a tall stack of coins on the counter, along with a square of shining paper no larger than a communion wafer. “I’m soon to come into some money, you see.”

“That so, sir?”

“Sample this,” says the doctor, winking, “and tell me I won’t be rich.” The barman nods knowingly before moving off to tend to another customer.

Dr Kenjamin’s drink feels too strong. Age might be to blame; perhaps his liver isn’t what it used to be. Or it could be the sleepless, paranoid nights catching up with him – those many hours before dawn wondering whether the Inquisitors know of his new product. Yet the insomnia works to his favor. It strips away his inhibitions, making him more spontaneous, more surprising. The things he does surprise even him – as if they’re instinct instead of strategy. Quite the advantage! The Inquisitors cannot deduce his plans if he doesn’t know them himself.

Like this morning. He’d no intention of buying an airship ticket, no inkling to disappear somewhere on the continent. But now he’s on his way, a supply of product in tow, headed for someplace the authorities can’t predict, where business can mushroom overnight – because when your business is someone else’s pleasure it’s easy to set up shop. He’ll need to seize a share of the market, but his latest concoction will solve that problem. Once people try it, nothing else will do. And he’s its sole vendor. And it’s all merely thirty minutes away, barring further interruption.

Bar room graphic © istock.com/a-digit 2011

“May I join you?” asks a languid voice over Dr Kenjamin’s shoulder.

Without thinking the doctor responds, “Be my guest.”

Then his skin tightens.

The newcomer doesn’t look like an Inquisitor. Not exactly. He doesn’t wear the long white coat and sapphire badge. The man peers at him through green-lensed spectacles that make his irises look black and empty. Yet his smile seems genuine enough, and if he really is an Inquisitor, he shouldn’t be functional in a place like this. Unless he’s an expert – which quadruples the doctor’s concerns. “Thank you,” the man says slowly. “I appreciate sitting at the counter. Where the action is, so to speak.”

“Slow evening thus far,” says Dr Kenjamin.

“Things may turn lively,” says the man. His smile shines resplendent, white and blinding, like ice frozen and refrozen.

The barkeep arrives to wait on him. “A glass of cranberry juice, dear sir, if you don’t mind.”

“You’re at a bar, mister,” returns the barkeep, an eyebrow cocked.

“I’m here on business. Best that I stay sharp.”

Dr Kenjamin recalls someone somewhere mentioning that Inquisitors don’t drink. What are the odds that this man numbers among them? Nervousness clouds his guess.

“Have a name, friend?” the doctor asks.


“Sounds foreign.”

“It is.”

“Well Yurvan,” says the doctor, frozen in his seat, “I heard a rumor once that the mind-readers who work for the Crown die if they imbibe anything alcoholic. Think it’s true?”

“Probably they avoid it because it weakens their abilities. Much the same as it would for you or me.”

“Quite. Wouldn’t want to dull your business sense. Might I enquire what your business is? What field, I mean?”

“I deal in happiness. Specifically, other people’s pleasure.”

As warmly as he can manage, Dr Kenjamin smiles. “Happiness, huh?”

“I make other people happy,” says Yurvan. “And I myself find happiness in keeping other people happy.”

“We might be in the same business.”

“Perhaps,” says Yurvan, nonplussed. “A pleasure to acquaint with you, Mr…”

“Doctor.” But you knew that, Dr Kenjamin thinks. Which means you know I know. Then why toy with me? Yet there’s a chance he isn’t toying – that he’s an ordinary man. Which means doing anything suspect might attract the real Inquisitors.

“Ah,” says Yurvan. “A doctor. One who makes people happy in body.”

“You could say that,” Dr Kenjamin replies, rustling the collection of paper squares in his pocket. “Body and mind.”

“Insofar as the body contains the mind.”

“You don’t think they’re the same thing?”

“Yes, they are. Although different at the same time.”

“Well, Mr Yurvan, think what you will, but I for one believe a happy body is a happy mind.” He drains his glass. The barkeep soon refills it.

“Intriguing. Would you care to explain what you mean?” Yurvan’s black eyes tunnel into him: “I can’t exactly read it off your face…”

“Come now, you look like…” – he halts himself, but cannot undo the thought: like a telepath; which means Yurvan has caught it, if in fact he is a telepath – “…a smart enough man to puzzle it out. The mind is the brain, and the brain is part of the body – so what’s happiness? A brain state! A bodily condition. Ergo, a happy body equals a happy mind. Flick the right switch, and behold! Complete happiness; and how sweet it is!”

“All one needs do is to flip the switch? Happiness is no more than that?”

“I never pretend flipping the switch is easy, Mr Yurvan. But we’ve certain remedies to help with that.” Dr Kenjamin raises his glass. “To your health! Oh, but that juice of yours isn’t strong enough to carry my toast. Couldn’t I buy you something…?”

“No, thank you.”

“Because it’ll kill you?”

“What makes you think it would kill me?” Yurvan grins. The doctor suppresses a shudder. “It would do me no harm physically.”

“You mean your spirit would fall to ruin?” Dr Kenjamin laughs, at once strained and hearty. “I wouldn’t peg you for a God-fearing man, Yurvan!”

“Correct.” The doctor’s laughter quiets. “I am somewhat of a Godless heathen.”

“Well, you’re in good company.”

“Am I?” Yurvan seems to cough, but Dr Kenjamin realizes it is a chuckle. “You do realize, doctor, that you think like a God-fearing zealot?”

“How do you know what I think?”

“Remember what the Church eternally preaches? ‘Repent, O Sinner, and be saved!’ What is salvation? Heaven? Then what is that? They claim it is a place of bliss, of no suffering. Another chance at Eden. Yet Eden is nothing but a place without suffering. We have that already – your flipped switch, your brain state that a chemical can induce, given the proper chemist.”

“What a breakthrough, my friend!” The laugher leaks from Dr Kenjamin’s mouth. “We don’t need the Church if we have a substance that will do the same thing for us! Bravo.”

“Religion has been called the opiate of the masses for good reason.”

“However, I’m afraid your point doesn’t follow. Clearly I’m antithetical to the Church if we’re competing for customers. If I decided to enter that market.”

“Your means differ, granted, but your ends coincide. You still aim for the happiness the Church promises with a return to Eden.”

“You’re so sharp that I don’t figure a drink would make you lose your business edge… Speaking of which, where’s that business partner you’re waiting for?”

“Here, likely. I prefer he notice me first.”

“So how about a drink while you wait?”

“I cannot do that.”

“You can’t, huh?” He feels the doubt boiling out of him. What else can this man be, if not an Inquisitor, deployed to arrest him and ruin his chance at fortune and fame? Yurvan notices his consternation, and looses his coughing laughter: “On moral grounds, you see.”

“Morals! More of your soul-talk. But you said yourself you believe none of that.”

“We could consider the soul metaphorically,” says Yurvan: “That which is most fundamentally the person, or the persona, or what have you.” Dr Kenjamin notes the clock on the wall, and how its leaden hands have barely moved since last he checked. “Why not?” His voice wavers. “I’ve time to kill.”

“Let me ask you, doctor: Would you voluntarily inflict violence on yourself? Ah, but I see that the thought has never crossed your mind. Allow me to recast the question.” That smile reappears, his icy teeth glistening like fangs. “Would you avoid peril if you could? Say, flee from punishment? From pain? From death? I suspect that you might.” Dr Kenjamin can sense every millimeter his pupils constrict. “No need to be alarmed, doctor. You are not alone in your retreat. It is the only suitable response. Yet why do you do it? Cowardice? No. You value yourself. You treasure that thing that is you.”

“The mind that is the brain that is the body.”

“Perhaps. Although I would call none of those the self.”

“Then what is the thing that is you, that you prize so highly?” asks Dr Kenjamin.

“A clash. The irreconcilable contradiction of two forces. The first is your urges – as body, as flesh, as animal. The second is law, or society – what your humanity and reason compel you to do. The forces seldom harmonize. Of this you are well aware, doctor? Yet from their collision, there emerges a self. Something between the two. A persona. A soul. A you. If you eliminate either the animal element, as the Church commands, or the societal element, you lose that clash. You lose yourself. And that is precisely what an intoxicant like alcohol does. It eliminates one’s receptivity to the law, and amplifies the bodily force, destroying the contradiction. Destroying the soul.”

“There’s no room for moderation in your theory?”

“Moderation? Violence against the soul knows no degree.”

bar garden

Dr Kenjamin tastes a bitterness rising in his throat like molten metal. It’s a feeling full of dread; a fear that he’s confronting a force he intuits as wrong but that he cannot find the words to face. “That’s madness,” he says. “And still you believe it…”

“You disagree?” says Yurvan, lacing his fingers, serenely closing his eyes.

“Of course I disagree! Your concept of the self is an assault on freedom!”

“Quite the contrary, doctor. It makes me a defender of freedom.”

“You’re some champion of liberty because you deem intoxication impermissible?”

“There are different kinds of freedom,” Yurvan says. “I believe in freedom of the mind. You only want freedom of the body. You do not care that my world guarantees everyone the most lucid mindset, assuring that every interaction happens between lucid minds. You would cast that aside for intoxicants? For freedom of the stomach! What kind of freedom is that?”

“It’s the freedom to choose!” Dr Kenjamin asserts. “What if my perfectly lucid mind decides it wants to disappear for a while?”

“Use a handgun instead,” Yurvan replies, “so as not to inflict your self-erasure on those around you. They have a right to be free from your kind. To cultivate a society in which reason can thrive, and humanity’s potential can bloom.”

“But not the freedom to be my kind of person?”

“The freedom you hide behind is no freedom at all.”

“Mr Yurvan, freedom is the ability to pursue happiness for myself as I see fit!”

“Your happiness is merely a drug-addled brain state, a retreat to that mythological Eden. A sordid condition from a time before humanity tasted knowledge, before we were free to think for ourselves.”

“But what if that truly is happiness? Who are you to say I’m not entitled to it?” He pointedly takes a hit of his whisky.

“Well, for one, doctor, I think only through a lucid mind. Unlike you,” Yurvan says. Dr Kenjamin stares into the shallow puddle of alcohol left in his glass. “Answer me this, Yurvan: What good is your freedom if it won’t permit happiness – won’t guarantee happiness? What else is freedom for? There’s no point in being free if you’re not going to put it toward making yourself happy.”

“You assume that freedom has a point.”

“Freedom has to lead somewhere.”

“To higher thought, perhaps. To an uninhibited mind. Yet that also is freedom. Freedom begets itself, for it is an end in itself.”

“That end being unhappiness. I pity you, Yurvan. You’ve persuaded yourself that the soul must be unhappy. If only you could think otherwise. But you can’t do much more than read my thoughts as if I’m a library book – not a person with whom you can empathize. Hmph! Your mind would rupture like a valve if you could think like me – truly think like me.”

Yurvan coughs, then swallows the last of his juice: “My target has finally arrived.”

Target? Not business partner? At once the doctor understands the nature of his fear: his dread comes from two different logics in collision, two forces that cannot reconcile, a failure of reason. And when reason fails, a different mode of action must supplant it – a mode more bestial. Dr Kenjamin’s pulse quickens, and his fingers coil into tight fists.

“You know what I am, correct, Dr Kenjamin?” He had never told Yurvan his surname. The doctor can no longer doubt. “So you’re also aware there is no sense in resisting arrest. I can predict your every attack before it happens. I caution you, I will counter effectively.”

Dr Kenjamin’s vision fogs. His hands unclench. This is it, then! His wonderful venture killed before it can germinate! What’s left now? Nobody knows where the Inquisitors stow their prisoners. The mystery compounds their aura of terror.

“You have nothing to fear,” says Yurvan. “Come with me.”

Dr Kenjamin’s last sight as a free man will be this dingy bar, this airship ticket he’ll never use, this cold, green-eyed monster beside him. He doesn’t know what to think. Perhaps he’s stopped thinking. He stares into the bottom of his glass, hoping to find his escape there. Mechanically, his hand shuffles in his trouser pocket. His fingers pinch a loose paper square, bringing it to his mouth. Yurvan lunges at him: “Wait! Don’t!”

The Inquisitor strikes too late. Before Dr Kenjamin knows what he is doing, the tiny wafer melts on his tongue, as Yurvan looks on in horror. A warmth diffuses throughout the doctor’s body. In an instant, Yurvan’s head pitches forward. He moans, pressing his hands into his temples. A gentle red stream as silent as teardrops trickles from his eyes. Yurvan collapses on the counter, twitching and whimpering.

“Yurvan?” For Dr Kenjamin the world seems drenched in brilliant color, as if rammed through a prism.

He pokes at the writhing man. “Are you going to arrest me now, Mr Yurvan? What’s the matter? Can’t you read a mind that’s hallucinating? Can’t process it? Can’t endure it? How inconvenient for you!” He laughs, but it merely burbles from his lips, for Dr Kenjamin finds himself lost in thought. For a second or two, Dr Kenjamin wonders whether or not he had decided to drug himself – whether he made a choice; or whether he had the choice at all. He hadn’t planned on ingesting any product. It had just happened, as most instincts do. Yet the moment passes, and the thought with it, and as Dr Kenjamin observes Yurvan’s shuddering figure, he imagines how much more marketable his product shall be now. Then he notices the barkeep’s widening gaze, as a glass slips from the boy’s hand and shatters on the floor. From beneath Yurvan’s head, a crimson puddle gradually seeps across the counter.

Dr Kenjamin rises from his seat, one hand clasping his airship ticket, the other showering a confetti of coins and paper squares in front of the startled young man. He laughs, and asks: “What ails you, lad? Never seen a man die for an ideal before?”

© Alexander B. Joy 2015

Alexander B. Joy is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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