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Whispers by Alex Araiza

© 2016 Alex Araiza,
"Whispers"

Givens

At first, the murder is universally mistaken for a run-of-the-mill political assassination. Ulna, her laptop overheating on her bare thighs and the screen's brightness turned up so high that it lights up the bedroom like the sun (which Sweet Marrow long ago gave up complaining about, opting instead to put a pillow over her head and snore herself to sleep), writes her daily report informing on the conversations she'd participated in or overheard that day and this is the definitive trend. She gossiped with dozens of people in the hours of excitement and anxiety after the news broke—a flurry of messaging on the faux-encrypted chat networks; a phone call from her mother, crypted only in the ancient tides and pressures of the matriline; interstitial conversations with neighbours, taxi drivers, people standing in line at the supermarket while she was buying eggs and that weird shampoo that Marrow likes; falsely casual conversations building trust with the witnesses and suspects she's interviewing (often without them knowing they were being interviewed) for her regular caseload; even the morning call with her handler Hamat (it's still odd, after all these years, to inform on her handler in a report that she'll be submitting to her handler, but this is long-established tradition). All day long, everyone discusses the murder as if its strategic, structural nature is a given.


Interlude with Quiz (1)

In another tab, Ulna does a personality quiz. One of those "which character are you" things referencing a cartoon franchise that she's never heard of. All the characters are anthropomorphic animals. She gets a cartoon hedgehog wearing a helmet, which she finds redundant and a little offensive.


The Run of the Mill

The reason everyone assumes the murder was political is that the victim was a journalist. Since Marrow is also a journalist and all of her friends are journalists, and since Ulna doesn't really have friends (colleagues, contacts, exes, acquaintances, people she testified against, people who glared at her from the wrong side of a courtroom, but no friends), all their mutual friends are just Marrow's friends with fierce, too-specific opinions of who's responsible and who gave the order and whose agendas are being served. The regular murder and disappearance of inconvenient journalists is an established norm: as new information comes to light, facet by facet, the speculations increase in intensity and shift little by little to accommodate the changing ground without revisiting the base assumptions. The victim was a political columnist. She was shot, to silence her—no, she wrote in the finance section, and this was about a corruption scandal she had been about to expose—no, the victim was a man and he was stabbed, not shot—in his office—no, on the street—no, in his own home—


Anti-Social Graph

In her report, Ulna tries to capture as much as possible of who suggested which theory. The accuracy of the speculations is irrelevant, since none of them are working with accurate or up-to-date information from the field (the investigators from Major Crimes are the only people who know anything for a fact at this point) and everybody's opinions are so completely in service of their various own agendas that it's guaranteed that if they're by any chance correct as to the truth of events, it would be 100% pure uncut serendipity, twice a day after meals. What matters as far as Ulna's report goes is the ideology implied by the speculation, and what it might indicate about that individual's place in the social graph, and the latent torque of their psychosocial moment, which would feed into the evaluations of potential anti-national activity in the local gestalt.


Interlude with Quiz (2)

After lying in the dark for what feels like an hour, Ulna decides she can't sleep and does another personality quiz on her phone. Marrow groans even in her sleep when the phone lights up the room. Ulna discovers that if she were a dog, she would be a basenji. She falls asleep looking up the traits of a basenji. They dislike wet weather. They are the second least trainable dog. They do not respond well to punishment—


Conflicts of Interest

In the morning, the speculations rise to fever pitch. Over breakfast (coffee for Ulna, tea for Marrow), they sit on the couch and read the papers together, Ulna on her blinding laptop screen (at least the competition of the morning sun makes the glare seem reasonable, Marrow says) and Marrow curls up sideways, her toes tucked insistently under Ulna's thigh (she says her toes are cold in the mornings) and reading on her phone. There are a few articles in the papers now, thin gruel—a couple of bones, some gristle, no meat left after the censors went at it. The Herald, the paper Marrow works for, has an article by her colleague Sesamum. The article is so short the text is lost among the ads on the page. Marrow doesn't let Ulna use an adblocker on the Herald, so it's flashing, blinking, sliding, slithering in all colours while Ulna peers at her screen through her glasses and unhurriedly carries out the forms of the long-running fight about the adblocker out of the side of her mouth—

"I'm going to have a migraine later," Ulna says, in the tone that means I'm teasing but I'm a little bit not teasing, and do you see how I'm putting myself through something unpleasant because I love you and that means you owe me.

"Oh, if only your fascist pig-dog bosses would pay you better," Marrow says, in the tone that means I'm just pretending to be petty and dramatic but you know I pay for the groceries and I don't understand how you can work for those people without even selling out for it.

It's a mellow morning, so that's as far as it goes.

"Sesamum says it was us, as usual," Ulna says, closing the tab and blinking her eyes performatively to clear them. "That's what he says about everything. Department, black ops, white van, boom de yada." Sesamum is one of the Herald's premier political commentators, more senior than Marrow, and one of their close friends when he comes over for Saturday dinner with his boyfriend, but technically a bitter enemy of all that Ulna stands for when not eating dinner she's cooked. "He's going to be insufferable tonight."

"Was it you, though?" Marrow asks, holding her phone out like it's an interview and Ulna laughs, shrugs. It could have been the Department, obviously, which she acknowledges with a shrug (she would never verbalize such a treason), but it's moot because this isn't the sort of thing she would know. Ulna is a junior analyst in the Department's Psychosocial Monitoring and Evaluation subdivision and she rarely sees more than the reports filed by investigators. When the Department itself is the perpetrator, invisible mechanisms ensure that cases are handed straight to Major Crimes so that they can file them away as unsolved and keep the paper trail clean for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the next regime change. The Department is old and knows how the game is played. The Department protects itself.


High Ground

In recent months Ulna has been monitoring public reaction to a string of kidnappings for ransom in which the culprit is a resistance faction, one of those rare situations where the Department has the moral high ground so Ulna can relax and enjoy the work—sort of, anyway; Marrow holds that the fatcat comprador class targeted by the kidnappings deserve it, and they've been fighting about that a little bit too, but at least Ulna feels she's unambiguously in the right for once. It makes her giddy to think that this must be what Marrow felt like all the time, because that sense of (self-)righteousness is like wearing Marrow's clothes, her skin. It smells sweet.


Secret History

In her reports (which Marrow sometimes reads over her shoulder as she types them), Ulna refers to everybody in their lives by the assigned codenames (they came off a list, she didn't get to pick them) but Marrow is just Marrow, never Sweet Marrow—that's a joke just for the two of them. As far as the reports are concerned, they aren't a couple but are old friends from university and as busy young urban professionals struggling to make ends meet in the big city, blah blah, it makes sense for them to be housemates. At least the bit about meeting at university was true: back then, it was Ulna who originally wanted to be a journalist (Marrow wanted to be an artist: how the wheel turns) and to this day Marrow claims this was the source of Ulna's habit of breaking her reports up into sections and giving them subheads.

As her handler, Hamat ought to suspect the truth of their relationship but he has no sense for this sort of thing at all. Ulna has shocked him several times by identifying the secret lovers of high-ranking officials by studying maps of their social interactions. And of course Hamat was so delighted to have leverage on Sesamum when Ulna outed him in a report that it was obvious that Hamat hadn't already known. Hamat's obliviousness makes Ulna feel safe. She fears the day he retires or gets reassigned.

Even if Hamat suspected in the back of his mind, suspicions are hot, ethereal things that float in a magisterium distinct from the cold, agglutinative nest of facts being constructed, layer by layer, in these reports—and all the other reports from all the other Department employees, informants, snitches, witnesses, experts, trolls and theorists. The Anti-National Activities Investigation Department cares about the true knowledge of relationships: about information flows, allegiances and known associates, and known queer relationships are among the factoids tagged as potentially useful future points of leverage or blackmail under Article 365A (punishable, if enforced, by up to twenty years), but after six hundred years of operation going back to the age of kings, the Department also understands such categories of compromise as not alienating the useful middle-class professionals in its own employ, or the dangers of deliberate misinformation. Suspicions are not facts, and as long as there are pragmatic reasons to discount suspicions, they are safe.

But this also means that Ulna can't always report on things that Marrow says or does. Sometimes she can't account for how she'd know it. Sometimes she can't separate the state's suspicion from her own. She notices, for instance, that Marrow has been walking away from her to make phone calls more often than she used to—this is odd for someone who ordinarily has little sense of privacy. But is this justified suspicion of subversive activity, or jealousy? And why would Marrow be cheating? They're happy together, aren't they?


Whispers by Alex Araiza

The Turn of the Wheel

When Marrow gave up art for journalism, it was because she'd discovered that art didn't pay, or at least not for most of its practitioners. (She met Ulna at a performance/exhibit of one of her works: Marrow was reading out the weather reports from the days of all the "unsolved" assassinations of the previous year. She'd called it "Meditations on Humidity". It was a bit pretentious but Ulna loved her immediately for making it a way to get around the censors.)

Journalism wasn't giving up, Marrow said (this was one of their first conversations, a precursor of all the others). She didn't have to give up on her politics: she could try a different way to bring it into the world. And Ulna, herself a would-be journalist, encouraged her.

When Ulna gave up political journalism for civil service, it was after a resistance bomb in the city killed her grandmother. This is far from unusual (Marrow's lost a cousin, Sesamum's mother blinded by flying debris, Hamat walks with a limp) but proximity to violence affects everybody differently. Ulna came out of her grief deradicalized, with her goals simplified: she would take whatever was the fastest road to fewer dead civilians and any other compromise was acceptable to that end. By the time time and experience complicated her ends back to where they'd started, the compromised means had become her natural habitat.

Somehow they stayed together through all this.


Compellence

It's Sunday evening before Hamat calls Ulna and assigns her monitoring of the murder case, along with the few actual facts that Major Crimes gathered before, disgustedly, realizing they have a real honest-to-goodness murder on their hands and passing it onto Criminal Investigations, and by extension, to PM&E subdivision.

"This takes priority over the kidnappings," Hamat says, his voice tinny and distant on the phone. "I'll have someone else take over those interviews." He sounds as if he's already in exile in a foreign country. Ulna once told Marrow that Hamat has the face of an asylum-seeker. In her reports, she always documents the probability of his defection as very high because it's funny to force him to tamper with the reports before he passes them up.

The victim, as it turns out, was a man in his 50s who did inoffensive features for lifestyle magazines. He was stabbed six times with a knife from his own kitchen, found at the scene. It seems he picked the wrong day to break routine and come home early—a robbery gone wrong, the most mundane of all murders.

"Not even a crime of passion?" Sweet Marrow texts, with a sequence of emojis that Ulna interprets as meaning that Marrow is aghast/amused/aggravated on her behalf.

"Prints came back on the knife, apparently," Ulna texts back. "Previous offender, they're picking him up now. SO bored." Criminal Investigations identified and located the perpetrator, by no means a criminal genius, in about a week. That seems to be that, and Ulna moves on to reviewing the press releases that Media Division would be publishing soon, to try and predict how the social graph would respond to the news—the standard model makes predictions about what volume of public disbelief was acceptable or desirable. Allowing a quantum of dissent, below a threshold of acceptability, saps potential energy from subversive and anti-national activities and thereby strengthens society.

But it's more complicated than that, because Ulna's contact at the lab lets her know, covertly, that the prints on the knife are planted. The man who was arrested is a scapegoat, which means the murder was Department after all, just one they didn't want people to know about. A murder that doesn't contribute to the image of the Department's fearsomeness or strength, in other words, but one that would be damaging if linked to them.

Which means that they had handed it to Ulna complete with falsified evidence and perpetrator instead of letting Major Crimes bury it, because that would at this late stage be tantamount to admitting guilt. They want to bury this one so deep even the rest of the Department can't tell, which makes it several orders of magnitude more political than murders usually are and she doesn't dare mention this to anyone, even to Sweet Marrow. This is a dance where all the steps she's supposed to take have been carefully scripted and she means to follow them to the letter, taking care to stay just below the waterline of the call of duty.


Fracture

Sweet Marrow ruins Ulna's good intentions at dinner that Saturday evening by speculating—out of the blue—that exact conspiracy scenario in front of Sesamum, who latches on to it like an eel and takes Ulna's desperately calculated disinterest as confirmation via non-confirmation ("I know you can't say", he says, taking ownership of her silence).

Marrow and Sesamum bounce it between them through all of dinner while Ulna and Scaph, the boyfriend, roll their eyes. Scaph is a programmer and avowedly apolitical to the point where he claims not to remember which one's the President because they're all the same.

Even after they leave, Ulna doesn't dare tell Marrow to lay off. It would just make her more interested—the Herald, a strongly anti-government newspaper owned by a cousin of the wife of the chief of the party in Opposition, can't ignore any sign of internecine warfare in the Department.


Annunciation

It's on the front page in the morning: scandal, furore, the Department that polices the nation itself a hotbed of nepotism, murder and cover-ups. When Ulna wakes up, Sweet Marrow is already out of bed and muttering on the phone again, somehow further away than seems physically possible in their apartment. She hangs up when Ulna comes out of the bedroom.


Whispers by Alex Araiza

Avulsion

The Department was founded in 1415 under the royal seal of the Valorous Fist, sixth of his name, to root out embedded agents of the Yongle Emperor after the humiliations of the Zheng He affair. Like much of the bureaucracy, it has persisted (twisting and wriggling under many names and forms) through all subsequent changes in governance, from domestic monarchies to foreign occupations to democracy, independence and self-determination. It's a long and illustrious history (well, Marrow says, at least a long one) and the Department is always evolving (Ulna insists). Last year Ulna and Marrow both attended the big office party celebrating the sexcentennial—granted, they attended separately with Marrow getting in with the invited press corps, but the important thing was that they could both be there, almost together, and not worry about it too much. Or was that the important thing? Marrow disagrees, and Ulna is tired of arguing for baby steps.

The first article triggers a series on Departmental corruption and misuse of power—phrased with care as patriotic defenses of the state against anti-national elements nestled parasitically in its own secret heart. When the Herald isn't slapped down, the bloggers and other newspapers get into it. The unofficial mechanisms of suppression are in abeyance, mutually hamstrung by whatever internal power struggle the Department is undergoing.

The byline on the articles that appear in the Herald (and syndicated internationally) is Sesamum's, but Ulna suspects they were co-written by Marrow. She recognizes turns of phrase, sentence structures that smell like Marrow. She can't tell if this is better or worse than cheating. She finds herself looking at Marrow a little differently—this is worse than the ordinary, allowed dissent that Ulna knows so well, that she's tracked and policed for years. This is not just load-balancing stress on the social network, not the necessary rebalancing to prevent crashes or unnecessary downtime—the models and metaphors for this sort of writing are computational by the tradition that Ulna's used to, replacing the figurative boilers and valves and venting steam of previous generations, which Marrow prefers—this is over the threshold, this is over the line and out of hand.


Interlude with Quiz (3)

Ulna does a Myers-Brigg test and gets INFP. Every time she does it, one of the letters changes—only one, but always one. Last time she was an INTP, and before that she was an INTJ, and she's long since forgotten what any of it means but she's come to crave the regularity of this evolution. She worries that one day more than one letter will change at once and that this will signify an unhealthy level of personal growth, so much change that it would constitute a break in her psychosocial continuity. She's promised herself if this happens, she'll go back to the list and pick a different codename than "Ulna" for herself, so as to share the confusion and distress all the way up her line of management. But even more than that, she worries that one day she'll do the test and nothing will have changed and she'll have frozen in place as something she doesn't understand.


Confrontation

When Ulna asks, Marrow confesses with the visible relief of someone to whom plotting doesn't come easily.

"There's a coup about to happen in the Department," Marrow says. Marrow never buries the lede. "The new faction suborned the Herald, or at least Sesamum, and he recruited me." As far as Marrow and Sesamum are aware, this is to be accompanied by some changes in the government—they expect some members of parliament to cross over from the opposition to the government any day now, bringing their allies and social networks with them, and in the process the power structures of the Department are being rearranged. The murder case will be declared unsolved, the scapegoat paid off, and the truth of the murder will remain obscure and largely irrelevant. "I was going to tell you earlier, but Sesamum said we had to wait because you'd be obliged to report it."

"I'm surprised you let him recruit you," Ulna says. She should be feeling the same relief that Marrow's feeling, but she isn't. "You hated that I worked for the Department."

"Sesamum thinks we can change things for the better on the inside," Marrow says, and even Ulna grins at this, though she feels knotted up inside. "Funny, I know. No, I didn't have a choice—we can't afford for me to be fired. And I thought it would be nice for us to be on the same side for a while, even if it's the wrong side."


Betrayal

Later, when Sweet Marrow is sleeping the sleep of the exhausted, Ulna writes her daily report to Hamat. The transfer of power isn't complete yet, she knows—she should warn Hamat, who will be on the side of the old guard by default. The coup is nascent, its fontanelle soft and unformed: with warning, they could crush it. To say nothing feels violent to her, not just a dereliction of duty but a sundering: she's reported everything, informed on everyone, for so long, that silence feels selfish, self-serving, criminal.

She does a quiz and discovers that of the planets, she is Pluto: cold, small and a little unreal, always subject to definitional arguments. She's the one who has to stop and ask who she is, unlike Marrow, who not only knows who she is but is willing to throw her entire person into the teeth of unpredictable futures.

Ulna tries to imagine futures, and every future she can imagine—every end, every means, every compromise—begins with her and Marrow together. (“We were always on the same side,” Ulna says, quietly so that Marrow doesn't wake up.)

The geometry of her speculations exposes their underlying ideology: this is as true for her as it has ever been for anybody she's studied. This is how she knows what she wants. This is why she smiles when she finally commits the treason for which she's waited all her life, and keeps her silence.

Whispers by Alex Araiza




Vajra Chandrasekera is a writer from Colombo, Sri Lanka. His fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Black Static, among others. For more, see his website or follow @_vajra on Twitter.
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