Prophets

By Samar Pant

Evolution didn’t make us very good at cutting through uncertainty. Predicting the future is not a strong biological trait. No, our hunches and knacks only help us make guesses. But what evolution did endow us with is the ability to build tools that can. So we built computers, with the power to churn data into predictions. 

The people who use these computers are just like  prophets and oracles, foretelling a dire, dark future. And the window to take us off this doomed course is getting smaller by the day. 

I like to think I am one of these prophets, but not one of the good ones. 

I know the future is f^*ked because I keep my ear to the ground, at all times. Information is the power with which I secure my place in the world, safeguard my personal future. And that’s the most I am willing to do. Sorry, saving the world is not on my to do list. And that is why I am here, sitting opposite this backward cunt, this truly religious fanatic. This handsome millennial with his baby blue eyes and hollow, Johnny Depp cheeks. This Western educated, Gucci wearing maniac, whose lottery ticket was being born in an equally fanatical, yet wealthy royal family. 

I am looking right at him inside the palatial walls of the royal residence; inside the massive living room. A marvel of engineering, it blends 21st century tech with conservative sensibilities. 

But women love Eddie on Instagram. “God damn, look at that hottie riding a horse”, they comment on his pictures as he rides that prized stallion brought into the world thanks to artificial selection. Gay men probably jerk off to the chiselled abs he flaunts at his grand swimming pool. Gay men that are lucky to not have been born in his kingdom. Gay men like my brother, whom I won’t mention in front of him. 

There are, of course, the rare woke folk who comment pleading Instagrammers to look into their family history, how they rule over the people with an iron fist – that’s a tailored, designer mailed fist with exquisite jewellery encrusted in it, mind you. But those pleas, I suspect, fall mostly on deaf ears. Because in a world that thirsts for wealth, looks and status, nobody gives a fuck if you’re a backward, fanatical cunt, as long as you look like a supermodel. 

And so why should I? I mean, my family didn’t break their backs to send me to Ivy League for nothing. I was always in it to win it. Money, status, privileges, I was born to have them all. 

Not only did evolution make us good at building tools, it also gave us an incredibly flexible moral compass. And if nature intended us to be heartless bastards, can we really feel bad for being monsters?

 Well, that’s what I tell myself so I can sleep at night. 

I smile at the Sultan’s son. I nod every time he tells me how great life is under his father. He tells me he is a visionary like his father. He drives through the streets in his Maserati, watching the people smile and wave to him as he passes by. He knows they are happy. Never mind the fact that should any of them even so much as grimace, they’ll be visited by men in black uniforms at night. Men who will question their loyalty to the kingdom, in turn questioning their loyalty to the one and true creator of all creation. 

The Gini Coefficient for this nation looks so bad that they’ve stopped reporting stats to the World Bank. As the homeless sleep on the sidewalks, men in black uniforms beat and remove them so as to “beautify” the streets. As religious fanaticism strangles the people, people try to revolt. But an effective, brutal police keeps an eye on them and crushes them like insects. 

No one challenges the Sultan, except for who they call “external meddlers”. Journalists, humanitarians, upholders of international law, all have been mounting pressure on the tiny kingdom. Things have gotten so bad that Western billionaires have started snubbing the Royal family. The only thing keeping the sanctions at bay are Uncle Tom, without whose support the Royal heads would have been severed and rolled down the steps of the royal palace a long time ago. 


“This land is great, it always has been.” Prince Eddie smiles, revealing his perfectly set, pearly white teeth. He looks like a fucking movie star with his slick, long hair. “But”. He clears his throat and lets his smile fade. “These external meddlers are interfering in our prosperity.”

“I know.” I give him a reassuring smile. “Which is why Silverman Machs wants to help. We want to keep your kingdom great.”

“When the colonial powers handed control to my family, it was because they knew the vision of my great grandfather. They knew he was the man to take the reigns and steers the kingdom in the right direction.” Eddie looks at the painting of his great grandfather, whose name I cannot recall, hanging on the palace wall.

Losing the battle to freedom fighters, the colonists felt their grip on the country loosening in the middle of the 20th century. So they decided to do the one thing they could to cut their losses – leave. But they were too bitter to leave the country in the hands of college students that had the people’s interest in mind. No, they couldn’t let the world see they had lost to a bunch of people who spent most of their time drinking and fornicating, most never even having held a proper job or even fully grown chest hair for that matter. It was embarrassing. And of course, they couldn’t let the country slide down the path of socialism. They would, instead, reinstate the dynasty that had, for the most part, become irrelevant. A dynasty that to this day, practiced a strongly conservative interpretation of the national religion. They asked the generals and the religious fanatics to back the Royal family, who in turn enriched the generals. They sold this move as some sort of transition of power to the people. “The royal family is the people’s representative, ” they said.

As for the college students, our young starry eyed revolutionaries, they were hunted down or chased away from the country. 

The colonists reveled at the fact that the newly crowned Sultan would do what was in their interest, but most importantly he would be the guy keeping the door open for foreign investors and vacationers. 

“So, you tell me you have seen the future?” Eddie leans forward and his gold chain falls out of his T-shirt. 

“You can say that.” I lean back in my chair and clasp my hands on my abdomen, feeling the tight sculpted muscles with them. Oh, I work out. Yeah, a high status goes hand in hand with peak physical form. It makes me feel, what’s the word, strong. “My team has been busy crunching numbers, following trends. I have contacts, insiders, that tell me what moves lie ahead.” 

“Please, enlighten me.” Eddie strains his facial muscles. His eyes lock onto mine, commanding answers. I see his father in him. 

“Well, for one, you export most of your oil to Western, developed nations. Nations who have a…” I think of the right word. Truth is, I want to say, “conscience”. But instead I choose, “tendency to meddle”.

Eddie gave me a powerful nod. 

“They worry about the climate and human rights.” 

“Their concerns are nothing more than the latest fashion trends and virtue signalling.” Eddie snaps. 

“They have a problem with you and your family’s religious views, too”. I say, softer this time. 

“We are simply doing God’s will”.

God’s will? Does that include driving expensive sports cars and wearing Gucci? Does God also tell you to do all those things?

“Perhaps, you can continue doing so, with…Minor alterations’. I suggest.

“Well, tell me, I am all ears.”

I take a deep breath, before I lay down the master plan. 

“The world is changing, it’s time we change with it. So here’s what me and my team have strategized:

We move quickly, to cut down oil exports to developed countries. Announce it as a humanitarian move. Say we are cutting down on production of oil. The world will see you as reformed. At the same time, we increase exports to certain countries we have in mind. They are developing, they need all that oil for economic growth.”

Eddie folds his arms. “You want us to increase exports to certain countries? Who did you have in mind?”

I reach into my breast pocket and take out a folded piece of paper. Putting it on the table, I slide it towards Eddie. He picks it up and unfolds it, before reading what’s on it.

He looks up at me. “These are the countries?” Putting the paper down on the table, he says, “Why them, specifically?”

I take another deep breath and explain:

“These countries, let’s just say we have big plans for them.”

When I say big, I mean big enough to have a fucking global impact. No, actually, an impact on the fucking solar system. These small island nations, scattered all over the globe have lot of land and fuck all population. Their main exports are fishing and farming and ramping up their industrialisation will take most of the oil from one reliable source. Some of these might just become tax havens and homes for front companies. Who knows, right? We only facilitate the deals, open up the opportunities. But most importantly, some of these tiny island nations will become the launching pad for space exploration – to be precise, asteroid mining. Hell, we will mine Mars. Outer space is loaded with minerals and completely lawless. The ones who move first and move fast will call the shots and reap the rewards for decades, or perhaps even centuries. 

By the way, this whole operation will be funded by some rather questionable organisations, if you know what I mean. Drug cartels, oligarchs, consortiums of small time crooks, all who wish to not only clean their money, but have an aligned ambition to cut a piece of the pie that is our future. Well, to be honest, their money is already mostly clean by the time it gets to us. We just don’t ask questions. 

But I don’t give these details to Eddie. The kingdom is not a big part of the plan, it’s simply ancillary to it. They are a small part of the bigger puzzle. Their largely state owned oil company will have its oil supply securitised and the sales transactions will be knee deep in derivatives. They will form a part of a bigger web of global transactions. Transactions that will be encapsulated in contracts. 

All of this will come at a price. A price that all the participants are willing to pay. A price that will be in the billions. Our profits will skyrocket. And that, ladies and gents, is the cost of laying the foundations for humanity’s future. 

“What plans, exactly?”, Eddie’s eyes lock onto mine again.

“Well, they have land, they have potential. Some people are interested in developing these assets.” I play it coy. 

“Some very powerful people, you mean?”

I nod. 

“Alright”, Eddie leans back into his chair and folds his arms. “I want to be a part of it. The kingdom should be a part of it.”

Just as I anticipated. Like a dog who spots a bone, the son of the Sultan is in. And he will be key to selling this plan to his father. 

I look him in the eyes. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“If there’s a party, we don’t want to be left out of it.” He chuckles.

I nod. “I get that. Which is why we may need to make some changes on the human rights front. You know, for PR purposes.”

“Like what?”

“Well, firstly, we need to stop the stoning of gay men. On the whole, let’s relax on the homophobia.”

“A relationship naturally happens between a man and a woman. Anything else is against the will of God.”

I am told the prince studied at some of the finest schools in Europe. And yet, his thinking is stuck in the dark ages. You can dress these people up in nice clothes and gold watches, but their backwardness doesn’t stay hidden for long. 

“Prince Eddy, with all due respect, the only god I believe in the bottom line – profits.” I straighten my back and look him in the eyes. “And frankly, if you want a seat at the big table, you’ll have to alleviate some of the concerns the boys at the table have. They have a reputation to protect.”

Eddie slowly turns his head to one side and glances at his great grandfather’s portrait. Right now, I suspect he is thinking hard. He’s evaluating what’s more important – religious hard-line or being able to buy into the future. But most of all, I suspect he is curious to know what is going on. He wants to be a part of the big boys club. He wants to be one of the power players. He wants his finger on the pulse. 

He heaves a breath and then looks back at me after a moment of thinking. “Alright, if we must do so for PR reasons. Besides, what is good for the kingdom is in line with the will of God.”

Another thing evolution endowed us with, the ability to rationalise in every way it works to our interest. And so the son of the Sultan rationalises his devotion to his god any which way he deems fit. 

“I will run these plans past my father.” Eddie rubs his palms together as his eyes gleam with excitement. “We definitely want the kingdom to play its part in orchestrating the future.”

“Great, I’ll see what I can do from my side.” I lean forward towards Eddie. “This has been a fruitful meeting.” I extend my hand forward. “But I must take your leave now; more meetings to attend.” That’s not true. I just want some alone time at the bar of the hotel where I am staying. 

“Well, you could at least stay for a drink.” Eddies beckons to his servants.

I retract my arm. “Please, that won’t be necessary. I am afraid I have to be sober.” I get up and reach out to him again. 

“Alright, well, we’ll keep talking.” Eddie stands up and takes my hand. 

We shake as we look into each other’s eyes and feel a mutual sense of accomplishment. A major transaction has been done, a verbal transaction that will lay the foundation for more transactions. Transactions that will see me line my pocket. Transactions that will give Eddie the feeling of power. 

“My men will see you to your car.” Eddie looks at one of the servants who jumps into action. 

Walking to me, the servant points the way to the exit of the building. I walk with him, through corridors decorated with framed portraits of various members of the royal family, alive and dead. The walls are plastered in exquisite paisley patterned wallpaper. It takes us sometime, but upon reaching the door, he opens it for me and I step into the bright sunlight. Taking the shades out of my pocket, I put them on. A valet brings my car, a rental Nissan Leaf, fully electric without a carbon footprint. Getting out, he opens the door for me. I thank him and get inside. Putting the automatic transmission into drive, I drive away from the royal palace. As I approach its massive gate with its elephant carvings, the security opens it for me. I drive through and continue back to the hotel, through a path that runs between hills and jungles. In my rear view, I glance at the palace getting smaller and smaller, until it is completely out of sight, hidden behind green hills.  I listen to the GPS to guide me back to the capital city.

Within twenty minutes, I am on one of the main roads leading to my hotel. The traffic is light because it’s still two thirty and a couple of hours left before work ends. This whole city has seen massive developments over the last few decades. Shopping malls, offices, shops, everything is here, catering to the needs of a consumerist population. A population free to buy anything and everything the kingdom deems in line with the will of god. A population free to do anything, as long as it is within the will of the god. Of course, there are the homeless who toil around, doing whatever it takes to earn a living. And of course, men in uniforms watch them. 

I look at the rear view mirror and notice a black Mercedes has been behind me for some time. Probably just a coincidence that we have been driving down the same path for the past half an hour. 

Driving through the metropolitan streets, I arrive at my five star hotel – The Drysdal Richter. Overlooking the ocean, the building offers top of the line accommodation, luxurious pools, gyms, restaurants and bars. I drive into the front of the main hotel entrance and a valet awaits me. I step out of the car and let him drive it to the parking lot. 

I make my way towards the main bar, where I can finally be alone in an empty room, drinking a Scotch. The hotel staff greet me, as I move through the foyer, past the reception and towards the bar. The gargantuan chandelier hangs from the ceiling, lighting up the whole place. Marble floor reflects its light. The few guests who are moving about don’t take much notice of me as I walk past them.  Good, I like it this way. 

I push through the bar door and go straight for the bartender. 

“Scotch on rocks”, I tell him as I place myself on a stool. 

The bartender nods, before turning to the rack behind him with all the liquor on it. He picks an expensive bottle of Scotch and brings it to me, showing me the label to see if I approve. 

I nod.

He uses tongs to put ice in a glass and then pours the Scotch into it. 

I thank him and take the glass. As I take a sip, I feel the liquor on my tongue and then down my throat. I sigh as I lower my shoulders and take off my shades, placing them on the table. As I enjoy my solemn drink, I relish the one of the brief moments in my life where I get to be alone. This and when I am sleeping alone at home. At all other times, I am surrounded by people. If no one is talking to me, someone has got their eyes on me. I am, at all times, on someone’s radar. 

Price of success, I suppose. 

“The rising star of Silverman Machs. The Rockstar of the financial world, by some people’s accounts.” A man announces behind me.

Taken by surprise, I turn to look at him. He’s five foot nine, wearing khaki shorts and an ugly Hawaiian shirt. His chest is out and he stands straight, smiling, brimming with a confidence that says, “I don’t give a fuck who you are.”

“Can I help you?” I say to him, feeling tight in my throat all of a sudden. I narrowed my eyes on him. 

“Indeed. You are the man I have been waiting for for the past couple of hours.” He walks towards me and sits on the next stool. “You are Julian Friedman.” 

I clear my throat, feeling a little nervous. “Do I know you?”. I swallow as my lip starts to quiver a little on the side. I do my best to control it, to hide it. 

“Relax, I won’t be long.” He places himself next to me. 

“Who are you?” I demand. 

“Raj Gupta, Tumbling Weed magazine.”

I scratch my brows. “Like, the music magazine?” I say raising my chin up and giving off an air of condescension. Why in god’s name is a journalist from a music magazine talking to me.

“Well, not just music, we do other kinds of pieces, too. Political kind.” 

That explains. Wait, has he been following me all this time? How did he know I was here? And what does he know? “How did you know I’d be here?”

“Journalists are good at finding people.” He strokes his hair. 

“What do you want?” I snipe. 

“Well, is it true?”

“Is what true?”

“The big shift in the kingdom’s fuel export strategy, to support development in certain third world states with unstable governments. The plan to build launchpads for space exploration, namely for outer space mineral mining. Plans that will most likely see a complete disregard for human rights and the environment. Plans that will see certain corporations finding a legal passage out of their carbon neutrality obligations. Plans that will effectively turn billions of dirty money clean. Plans that are to stay under the wraps for a very long time.”

“Well…” I feel my eyes watering as my cheeks feel hot. “I have nothing to say.” How the fuck does he know this?

“That’s ok. I know enough of what’s going on. I just wanted to come here and talk to you, face to face. Get a comment.”

I take another sip of Scotch, clasping the glass with all the strength in my hand. I feel an onset of rage coming, but I tell myself to calm down. “If you want an interview, talk to my PA. As for now, I got nothing to say to you, so fuck off and let me have my drink in peace.” I turn away from him and continue drinking. 

“Fine.” Raj takes a deep breath and gets off his stool. “I will leave you alone. I guess, I just wanted to see the devil in the flesh, to look him in the eye.”

Self righteous guilt! I swallow and take a deep breath, forcing my anger down. “What did you just call me?” 

“Have a nice day,” He says and walks away, leaving me fuming in my seat. 

The nerve on these damn social justice warriors turned journalists. Fuck them, every single one. I fish my pocket for my phone, before fingering its carbon fibre chassis. I pull it out and speed dial the office back in New York. 

A woman picks up the phone, “Hey, Julian.”

“Sarah! Listen to me carefully. Somebody has been leaking sensitive documents from our office.” I say sharply as I try to keep my voice down.

“I’m sorry what?” Sarah shouts.

“Somebody has been leaking information to a journalist. He knows about our plans involving the kingdom’s oil supply.”

There is a pause and Sarah’s breathing gets faster. “How…” she stutters. “How in the hell would they…What the fuck?” She starts to mumble.

“I guess we’ll have to deal with the leak.” I remind myself to breathe, to stay calm.

“Just get back to the office, as quickly as possible.”

“I will”, I disconnect the call and run my hand through my hair. How did this happen? I guzzle down the remaining Scotch in my glass and slam it on the table. Shaking a little, I get up and fix my hair. The walls start to feel like they are caving in. It feels like the people in the bar are watching me. Feeling a sudden onset of claustrophobia, I dart out of the bar, through the lobby and into the hotel entrance. 

Taking in the air, I look  up at the blue sky. You’ve got a handle on this situation, I tell myself repeatedly. “You’re in control” I mouth the words.  It doesn’t matter that some journalist has caught a whiff of your plans. It doesn’t matter whether he publishes it. We can deny and obfuscate our way through the shitstorm. Yeah, that’s it! A full denial would be our strategy for now.

Nearby commotion catches my ears. I turn to look and find a few men in black suits surrounding…The journalist. What is going on? Behind them a black Mercedes waits with a door open. They all stand like rocks around Raj, unwilling to let the journalist get out. 

I take a couple of steps closer to them, to hear what they are talking about. I can’t hear a word, but one of the men beckons the journalist to get inside the Mercedes. The journalist raises his arms in protest, but the men aren’t wavering. 

“I wonder what that’s about?” A bald man in a thick accent startles me from the side. 

I turn to look at him, to inspect his face. He has a bushy moustache and a double chin. He’s wearing black suit, with his belly building out in a white shirt. 

“I…” I open my mouth. “Am not entirely sure.”

“Well, he must have done something bad.” The bald man tells me.

His job, I think to myself. He was doing his job. An inconvenience, yes. A nuisance, yes. But it has warranted the attention of a group of men that I can only suspect work for the government.

The door of the Mercedes slams shut. With the journalist inside, the car drives out of the hotel grounds. My mind cannot help but conjure up strange, violent thoughts about the man’s fate.

“Relax, he’ll be ok”, the bald man touches my shoulder. “Can I buy you another drink? Perhaps a Scotch, just the way you like it?”

I turned to him, perplexed and stammering, “How did you…who are you?” How does he know my drinking preferences? 

“I am Amir”, he holds out a hand. “A friend of the Royal family.”

“Have you been watching me, following me?”

“Just taking precautions, friend.” 

I stare at him, bewildered and wondering just how long these men have been following me, watching me? 

“Let us go inside, yes. I am sure you have questions. I will answer as many as I can.”

I move, but with great reluctance and partially curious to get to the bottom of what just happened. So I go with Amir, back inside the hotel, to the bar. 

As we walk towards the bar, I glance at Amir’s face every now and then, half hoping I can recognise him from somewhere, while I look around to see who else has their eyes on us.  

“Your friend, the journalist, will question him…Maybe talk a little sense into him.” Amir says, after he orders a Scotch for me.

“What exactly do we mean by ‘talking a little sense into him.’”

“I would rather not go into the details now.”

Oh, my God…Are we talking about a Jamal Kashoggi scenario here? I feel my stomach churn and kick the food up my throat, causing me to wretch. Kashoggi was butchered by the Saudis, chopped up into little pieces.

“Relax, we are only going to talk.” Amir rubs my back. 

I regain control of my stomach and take a deep breath. Straightening my back, I say, “Good, because it won’t be a good look for the Royal family.”

“Probably not, but in this age people forget easily. They care more about who did what on social media.”

“Seriously, you cannot hurt…”

Amir puts his hand on my shoulder and cuts me off, “Nobody will get hurt…” He smiles to reassure me. “Well, not unless we have to.”

“Do you realise…”

He cuts me off again. “Please, like I said, this is none of your concern…”

The bartender places the glass of Scotch in front of me. I pick it up and pour its content down the hatch. Swallowing hard, I sniffle and wipe my nose. Clearing my throat, I say, “So how long have you been following me? How much do you know about me? Have I had any privacy?”

“Let me just put it to you this way, as part of my job, I do whatever is necessary to look after the interests of the Royal family. I do whatever it takes to keep them safe. And that involves knowing and watching. Being the eyes, ears and nose.”

“Ok, well, so what, you’ve been watching me in my room? You’ve been following me around? Has my phone been hacked?” 

“Like I said, eyes and ears.”

What have these people seen? Have they seen me naked, in my room, in my shower, while I took a shit? How many hotel employees have kept their eyes on me? Eavesdropped on my telephone conversations?

Amir looks me dead in the eyes, his face devoid of any emotions. “In case you’re wondering why I am even talking to you, well, that’s where the nose comes in. You see the nose, it smells. It catches the whiff of shit…Or rotting corpses. It’s a defence mechanism, no? You can smell something bad from far away.”

I take a gulp as I begin to see something in his eyes. Something dark, something cold. On his stony face, I read the expressions of a man who does not want to be, and should not be, fucked with. I noticed a scar under his right eye, just above the cheek. I feel my heartbeat picking up; sweat begins to pour out of the pores in my forehead. I think back to all the kickboxing classes I have taken, all the different ways to throw a punch, kicks, knee strikes.  If needed, I can protect myself. 

The bartender moves out from behind the bar. I follow him with my eyes and watch him go to the exit where he stands with a smile on his face. The handful of people in the room get up and leave. He bids them farewell as they walk out the door, before leaving the room himself and closing the door behind him. 

My stomach turns a little. “What the fuck is going on?” I protest, clenching my fist and flexing my muscles. 

Amir cleared his throat. “Mr Friedman, I may not have gone to an Ivy league school or climbed my way to the top of a multi billion dollar organisation. My net worth might be a fraction of yours and I may not know how to move numbers around on a spreadsheet or read graphs, but I like to believe I’ve seen enough shit in my life. I may not understand the details of what you do, or the sort of transactions you enter into. But I can read and I don’t always read the best things about your line of trade. Suffice to say, people get screwed all the time. Nations see their economies crumble and leaders red faced when something, somewhere in the financial structures goes wrong. Tensions cause a breakdown in social structures and governments get overthrown.”

He’s trying to intimidate me? The guy who whines and dines with some rather well connected people on the planet? I mean…Does he…Does he not know…Who I am. 

He places a hand on my shoulder and leans in. I feel the air coming out of his nose against my face, as he exhales. It’s unsettling.

“I…Think we are being a tad dramatic.” I say in a bid to ease tensions.

“Let me finish”. He continues. “Mr Friedman, I have seen men, up close, stare into their eyes. To put it rather mildly, I have done things to them that changed their perspective of life within seconds. Good-guys-turned-bad, bad-guys-turned-good kind of stuff. I have transformed lives within minutes. I have seen their piss pouring down and out the leg of their pants. I have done it with no hard feelings. I have heard them scream and beg for mercy. I have nothing personal against them. It’s simply a job. And I love my job.”

My heart begins to race. Thoughts of death, mutilation, torture come to mind. My body begins to shake as my stomach starts doing summersaults. It is not uncommon for such practices in these parts of the world. And I just might not have immunity from such acts. 

“I am committed to serving the kingdom and it’s Royal family. In fact, they gave me a place within their secret service when I was a young man with barely any chest hair. I interrogated the radical intellectuals. Men who were not so different to you. Men who thought they were smarter than everyone in the room because they felt they had some great understanding of the world that us mere mortals didn’t. They smiled and acted nice, but behind this mask, you could see their condescension, their superiority complexes. So…To be honest, it was kind of fun breaking them. You see, I may not be as qualified as you or savvy with numbers, but I have seen enough shit to know that us humans, we still operate on our fears and emotions. We still respond to pain. Most importantly, we respond to our inbuilt instinct for self preservation.”

I whimper, as tears begin to form in my eyes. Any sense of physical toughness begins to seep out of me. Out of myriad things I could say, these words come out of my stuttering mouth, “Please, please…I have a family.” 

“We know.” Amir squeezes my shoulder as he leans back. His stony mouth curls into a smile. I feel a sense of relief, like a gun has been taken off my head. “Which is why, for your safety and their safety. I urge you to always act with the best interest of the kingdom in heart.”  He lets go of my shoulder. “The Royal family’s best interest”. 

I take a breath of relief. 

“What I am saying is that we need to build and maintain trust. We need to ensure that our communication is clear. And most importantly…” His smile widens. “Do not try to fuck us.”

“Mr Amir, sir, that is not my intention here. We are straight dealers, looking after the interest of our clients.” I raise my shaking hands in a reassuring gesture. 

“See, the problem is, we are a small country. And sometimes, people don’t take us seriously enough, you know? They think they can try something with us that they would never try elsewhere. Just like your journalist friend. He thinks he is being brave by talking about us in a negative light. But I’ve seen men much harder than him break. Basically, from time to time, we just like to remind people they can’t fuck with us.” Amir pats my back. 

I hunch over and begin to draw in deep breaths. My stomach makes a noise and I just might throw up. 

“Anyway, well, I better get going.” He gets off his chair. “I wish you a safe journey back and…oh, yeah…Please keep this conversation between us.” He sticks his hand out to shake mine.

I raise my shaking hand and look at him with teary eyes, like a submissive dog. He grabs my hand and shakes it firmly. Pulling me in, he says, “We have eyes and ears in a lot of places, Mr Friedman. And at the right moment, maybe when you’re on vacation with the family, or standing naked in your bathroom staring at the mirror, we will nab you. And it won’t end quickly and painlessly, believe me.” He lets go of my hand. “Have a nice day.” He walks away.

As Amir leaves the room, I break down and begin to sob. I do so for the next fifteen minutes, before wiping my eyes. The bartender returns and pours me another drink. I take it and swallow it down. 


Back in the office, I stare out the glass behind my mahogany desk. The skyscrapers look back at me, their tinted windows glinting in the noon sunlight. The noise of the city is inaudible from here. But the traffic and people bustle about like ants. Busy with their lives, these people are oblivious to the machinations working behind the scenes. Invisibles strings are being pulled and they are shaping their destinies. 

There’s a knock on my door. I tighten my paisley patterned tie and turn around. “Come in”, I announce.

The door opens and three of my juniors pop into the office, including Sarah. They all have a nervous look on their faces. As they rally around my desk, I give them a stern look. “There’s a rat in the office.” I say gnashing my teeth.

They get even more nervous. 

“This is why I have called you guys here.” I lean on my desk. “We need to flush it out, before it chews through everything.” 

One of them clears his throat, “But, Julian, how do we know this…I mean.”

“Oh, I know, I have been made aware of it. Project ‘Space Race’ has been leaked. Suffice to say, a certain journalist has caught a whiff of what we’re doing.”

The three of them exchange nervous glances. Their nervousness spreads through the room like odour. 

“It wasn’t us, one of them announced.”

I look at them all, one by one, examining their expressions, before stating the next course of action. “Find out who did this. I don’t care how. Check emails, phone calls, interrogate people, do whatever you can.”

“Err…Interrogate?” Sarah asks, a little uneasy with the use of that word.

Interview them, get information out.” I fire back at her.

They all nod. 

“Now leave me alone.” I command and point at the door.

They all scuttle out the door. 

I settle into my chair and turn on the laptop. Sifting through the news headlines, I can find no mention of the journalist I met a couple days back. Raj Gupta’s name is nowhere to be found. I guess no one’s figured out by now he is missing. Most of the headlines are about the latest social trends, which actress wore what dress last night, which influencer took selfies with endangered dolphins. Just the usual excrement. 

I close the laptop. Swivelling my chair, I turn back towards the glass pane and stare at the city. All these people, all these lives, many of whom have no idea what’s around the corner. Many of them are oblivious to the future, too preoccupied with social media trends to take notice. They have their little corners of the world and they’re happy living and dying there. I kind of feel bad for them, but in this business, you cannot let emotions get the better of you. Not until you retire and then you can do all the good, charitable stuff you want. And to be fair, I make enough donations and commit to various causes as it is. It’s my way of laundering my conscience; a way to convince the world that I am one of the good guys. Most importantly, to convince myself I am not one of the bad guys. 

I read somewhere that space is vaster than we can imagine. Billions of lightyears across, they say. And we are so small and inconsequential. A pale blue dot, that plays just about no part in how the future of the cosmos unfurls. Although we’ve begun the process of venturing into it, I seriously doubt we will get much far in exploring it. 

I take a deep breath and lean back into my chair. Closing my eyes, I take a minute to switch myself off from all the insanity of this planet. Tiny as it might be, it’s problems still weigh heavy on all 7 billion of us. 

A loud knock on the door disrupts my peace. I open my eyes, swivel around and shout, “What?”

A man pushes the door open and comes in. He’s tall, skinny and wears an expensive grey suit that definitely catches attention. He has an Ipad in one hand and a serious expression on his face. 

“Who the fuck are you?” I demand.

“Mike, uh, from Sarah’s team.” He says.

That suit definitely cost him a big percentage of his salary. 

I bark at him. “What, Sarah couldn’t come to me herself?”

Mike looks around, hesitant to speak and picking his next few words carefully so as to not badmouth his own boss. “I think…” He continued looking around, as if the answer was written on the walls. “She’s busy.”

I scoff. “Well, what do you want?”

He steps closer, holding the Ipad out for me. “Take a look at this.” He places it on my desk. 

I take the Ipad. Glancing at it, the first thing I notice is the headline on the newspaper article. Journalist goes missing. Raj Gupta, our missing journalist, is on the page. He’s smiling at the camera; probably taken by a family member. The publication appears to be a small, independent one. 

I look up at Mike, staring into his eyes. “Why are you showing me this?” Being coy about the whole affair. Playing it cool. 

“I am not fully sure, Sarah asked me to.” Mike loosens his collar. 

Good, she hasn’t shared the details about my meeting with the journalist. 

“Sarah also said, ‘there’s a lot of anger brewing. Activists, lawyers, some famous people too.’ Possibly, I think she is hinting towards something big coming our way…I think.” Mike’s face eases a little and his eyes light up, like he’s feeling proud about being onto something.

I glare at him. “Son, we don’t pay you to speculate and guess about what’s going on. You are merely a middleman in this situation, a messenger who’s as cognisant of the happenings around him as the mailman, except you are paid more.” I scoff. “Frankly, I cannot see, right now, why that is.”

Mike becomes visibly embarrassed as his face turns red at being demeaned. Being compared to a lowly paid mailman’s stinging him hard. 

He clears his throat and musters an iota of courage to defend himself. “Well, sir, with all due respect, judging by people’s faces around here, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out something has gone wrong. So, yeah, I am cognisant.” For a moment, he forgets his place in all of this. For a moment he looks at me as a shaky smile appears on his face; a moment of mild insubordination. 

I stare at him with a ferocity that grows through me like a fire that’s spread through the wild at a moment’s notice. “What did you say?” My eyes burn holes into his skull. 

He looks down, reminded of his place and the fact that all it will take is an email from me to his boss, Sarah, before his life turns to literal hell. 

“I…I didn’t mean any disrespect…” He loosens his collar.

“Damn right you didn’t, son.” I hold the Ipad out to him. “Now get the hell out of my office.” I bark at him.

He moves swiftly to take the Ipad off me and leave the room. 

I turn around and look at the city again. Rubbing my forehead, I feel the anger give way to a sense of despair. Things are turning to shit and I wonder how much I can really salvage from the train wreck that is about to happen. I take out my phone and type Raj Gupta’s name through my social media. A bunch of photos and videos pop up with the hashtags “Justice”, “Missing”, “Father”, “Activist” attached to them.

As I continue going through my various social media accounts, I notice the chatter. People are talking, organising, asking questions. Sarah is right, something is brewing. Anger, frustration, discontent are building up. Then I noticed it, the Tumbling Weed, publishing an article. They are by no means a small, independent publication. They are influential and influential people follow them. 

I sigh as I look out again at the bustling metropolis. It almost feels like a sleeping giant is now awakening. There may be protest marches, there may be candle light vigils, there may be inquiries. More information may get leaked about project Space Race and it may just come into the limelight. More information about Silver Machs connections to the oligarchs and the dictators and the shady businessmen will come out. There will be anger and actions will be taken. So we re-strategise, we re-plan the whole thing as we weather the shit storm. Most importantly, I better start working on my sincerest apologies…To the taxpaying people of this nation whose money keeps us afloat…To the oppressed humans whose oppressors we work for…To the climate activists…To the world. 

Or…

The giant goes back to sleep. 

In a forgetful world with a forgetful attitude, things blow over quickly, people forget, any notions of justice eventually go out of fashion. 

I turn away, throw my phone on the table and take a breath. Loosening my tie, I press my palms onto the table and lean over it. Maybe, just maybe, I pray that nothing much comes off it. I pray that people forget and move on. That will be the best case scenario. 

My phone buzzes and moves on the table, the vibrations travel through the wood. Startled, I glanced at the screen and it’s an international number. 

As I reach out to pick the phone, I hesitate for a moment and wonder who it could be, before working up the courage to take the call. Putting the phone to one ear, I say, “Hello…”

A man’s husky voice comes from the other side, “Mr Friedman”, he says in a thick Mediterranean accent.  “We need to meet, 3pm at the Ehud’s Turkish café. Make sure you get there and don’t be late.” The phone disconnects.

What the f^*k?

Drawing in a breath, I wonder just who called me. Could be anyone of the various shady organisations we deal with. People we never communicate with directly, always through an intermediary. Or it could be one of the men working for Amir, our head of security for the royal family.

My hands begin to shake as sweat trickles down my forehead. 

I take a deep breath and muster some courage. Whoever it is, I better see them. 

I swivel my chair around and stare at the city again. I wonder to myself, if the giant that is the people’s conscience doesn’t get to me, the snakes that are slithering around in the dark will. 

It’s just a question of who gets to me first. 

The future, from where I sit, can head down multiple paths. All the possibilities, however, appear to be different variations of a bleak future – possibilities that go from the bad to worse. That’s how I am reading the situation right now. And my best bet is to improvise, while formulating a plan. 

A Grim, Thin Hope: The Fantasy of Immediate Change

By Bree Taylor

This is a creative non-fiction piece that examines how the author feels about being both a writer and consumer of SFF (Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy) in contemporary times. In the face of a pandemic, climate change, and oppressive political climates, it can be easy to dismiss the messages of this genre of media and give in to hopelessness. However, SFF continues to hold value by reminding us that we can lean on each other in hard times, and that joy is a necessary part of social change.

Photo courtesy Nacho Juarez / Pexel.com

The Circle of Life

By Tracy Thomas

The morning wakes, the day is bright 

the noon walks in slowly, the day brightens 

then comes the darkness, all brightness gone 

then the moon and stars come out to play 

does the morning awake again? 

it is the circle of life 

the snowflake sails down, it is the season of winter 

then the flowers grow so beautiful, it is spring time 

ladies in bikini, the presence of summer 

the leaves are dried up and swept off their homes, autumn is here 

is it snowflake i see again? 

it is the circle of life 

a child is born, the mother cradles 

the child that grows and learns of life 

Yes mother, i bring me a spouse 

then comes death, the cries of sadness 

Is that a baby i see in your hands? 

it is the circle of life

Fairy Tale

By Julia Magsombol  

When I was a little girl, I was a huge fan of fairy tales. I love to watch and read stories of  princesses who were saved by their knight and shining armour. I mostly watched all Walt Disney  princess movies, and I would admit that I was delighted and comforted by those. Truthfully, who  wouldn’t be satisfied and mesmerized by those happy stories or endings of fairy tales? Most  women do, and I wouldn’t deny the fact that I even thought of my life’s story as a fairy tale one.  I love fairy tales. I was comforted how a knight and shining armour could save those princesses  in the middle of their dilemma. A knight and shining armour could even sacrifice themselves to  protect those princesses defeated by wicked witches or stepmothers. 

When I was seven, I particularly asked my parents to have a themed princess birthday party. My  parents granted me those wish as they thought that seven is the age that is significant in one’s  life. I had two cakes that are stuck together by a bridge. The complete Disney princesses are  standing on those cakes. I was wearing a purple gown with white stockings and white shoes on.  There was a gigantic poster on the front wall of the birthday studio that says “Happy 7th  Birthday, Julia. Love Mommy and Daddy.” I was simply so happy during those times. Later at  night, after the party, I soon realized that it was the most terrific fairy tale I ever had in my entire  life. I was wearing a gown, and everything seemed perfect. The thing is, I had no partner at all.  My knight and shining armour did not even show up, and there I realized that it might take him a  long time to come to me. 

But I was wrong. He didn’t come at all, or perhaps, does he even exist? I realized for the past  years that I was a little bit lunatic for hoping that a knight and shining armour would even save  me from all my dilemmas and troubles. I was waiting for nothing. I probably stopped believing  in fairy tales when I realized that there are no hands to pull me to have a happy ever after while  eating a subway at my study table, studying, and crying all alone. Instead, I wiped all my tears all  by myself and grabbed a chocolate chip ice cream and bag of Doritos spicy chips. I went to my  bed and hoped for a better tomorrow. 

Each moment I became aware that a knight shining armour won’t appear since he wasn’t true.  He was just a character built by those writers who want to feed lies to the children that someone  will eventually save them in the middle of their crisis. The truth is, no one can save us,  particularly not somebody in the problems we may have. No one can solve our problems except  us, and that was the cruel thing I’ve ever realized. 

We are always responsible for the consequences of the things we do. We are obligated to help  ourselves when we have problems. After all, our lives aren’t fairy tales, where somebody would  come to save us from the evil. Our lives are just simply complicated lives we must live. And so,  a knight and shining armour don’t merely exist because it was only ourselves who could save us. 

Don’t forget! Although a knight and shining armour don’t exist, with all the odds we may have  while living, we may meet someone that can make us have a happily ever after through their  unconditional love and support. These people could help us to help ourselves in solving our 

problems. These people could make us pick up ourselves again, to rise when we stumble, and to  live our own fairy tale.  

Going back to my seventh birthday, one of the gifts I received was a stationary package that  includes a note, a pen, and a notebook. There was a memorable quote that was embedded in the  small, squared sticky notes, and it went something like this: “The greatest fairy tale of them all is  the story of your own.”

Hustle Town

By Tracy Thomas

You feel it in the air all around

Like the hair on the back of your neck

The hustle, the bustle

The hurdles, the struggles

City of the strong, for the strong

In fictitious lies of democracy 

The “weak” gets weeded

Only the brave survives

The leader, the preacher

The pastor, the pope

Difference in faces, but goals the same

#Riches 

No games here they say

Be strong they say

Go hard and your dreams will come true

But it’s eat or be eaten. 

“Welcome to our networking event”; Predators, meet your preys

No prejudice just preference

And a preference to be prejudiced

City of dreams constantly killing dreams

So much hustle, yet poverty lurks 

The city is rich but the poor gets poorer 

conundrum

Pretence, fake living, webs of lies

Mirrored faces like distant memories

Drifting souls with dying dreams 

A steep price to pay in hustle town.

Picture courtesy Liza Summer

The Clean White Paper

By Julia Magsombol

Somebody told me that living is the same thing as writing. 

God gave us a clean paper to write on for this journey of ours. 

We write our own stories on this paper. 

We must, of course, write something correct, pleasant and amusing on this paper, like our dreams, passions, happiness and much more. 

Unfortunately, as human beings, we sometimes write the wrong sentences and words. 

Mistakes. 

We make mistakes, and some mistakes can be erased, and others can not. 

Even though we try our best to find an eraser that can erase our mistakes, sometimes they cannot be undone. 

Some of our mistakes cannot be erased from this clean white paper. They’re written permanently. 

And with all of these, we cannot entirely move on to write on other clean white paper and write more of our journey. 

We often waste our time and efforts to erase the mistakes we have written. 

We drown ourselves with self–pity and shame. 

Because of the mistakes we have written, we forget that a hundred clean papers still exist to write on. 

To start all over again.

Tough Enough

By Taryn Pawlivsky

He stares at his reflection in the mirror with mixed emotions. Regret, sadness, disgust and shame. Age has hardened him but the result is a near handsome ruggedness. He traces the indents in his forehead with his index finger. Lack of sleep has cast dark shadows under his eyes – those dark, wide-set eyes. Once luminous, they now hold a somber sadness to them.

He wonders out loud, “What the hell happened? How did I get here?” 

His voice is thick, low and hoarse.

He picks up his trusted Smith & Wesson. Heavier than expected always, the sleek black and silver weapon. Anxiety and heightened anticipation ripple through his core. Although shaking uncontrollably, he does his best to steady his right hand. He positions the pistol at his temple.

He’s going to do it. Today is the day. He’ll die because there are no other options. He’ll die because the world is better off without him.

Tears begin to form. He puts the gun down quickly but gently. Grief is streaming down his face, as he begins to sob. He’s a loser. When did he turn into such a loser? Steadying his hand with help from the other, he reaches for the half glass of Crown Royal on ice. Liquid gold. The courage he needs to get through another day.

“Hey Rick, let’s grab a beer,” suggests Steve, the most efficient derrickhand he ever had on a crew.

Steve worked tirelessly from a platform at the top of the towering oil derrick.  How he was able to steady the pipes being inserted into the well with such precision, and at such height, blew Rick’s mind. 

“Next time, I promise,” he replies. “Gotta get home to the wife and kids.” 

Rick had earned the respect of his crew and was quickly promoted to rig manager. He was a natural fit for a leadership role, having played high school and some college football. He took pride in his job, managing every aspect of the drilling operations, and took the health and safety of the guys seriously.

He can almost taste the tantalizing mix of apple and cinnamon that fills his senses when he opens the front door. Little Josh comes running into his strong embrace. Aaron, the older brother, who’s caught up in one of his favourite after school TV shows, shouts “Hey dad!” With Josh clinging to him, he moves to the kitchen, and nuzzles the back of Jen’s neck. She smells like pot roast and pie.

He had met Jennifer on a tropical vacation where they stayed up all night on the lounge chairs by the pool – and that was it. A year later they were hitched, settled into the house of their dreams in a prosperous Northern Alberta town, and had the perfect nuclear family. He drove a cherry red half-ton pickup truck and took the boys snowmobiling during the winter. 

Life was idyllic. And oil reached an all-time high of one-hundred-and-forty dollars per barrel.

But no one, at least nobody he knew, had prepared for the bust. When the industry tanked, the big wigs slashed and gashed jobs and ruined lives. His marriage was over and he felt lost and alone. He still did.

Get a grip, he barks at himself. He splashes cold water on his face and dresses in haste. He throws on faded jeans, a white T-shirt and a well-worn motorcycle jacket. He then does what he does every day: catches the subway downtown, grabs a coffee from Tim’s and heads for the job centre.

At the second stop, a young girl gets on the train and takes a seat across from him, in the next row. She’s fresh faced with long dark brown hair, just below her breasts, which he imagines are small and perky. She’s dressed anything but provocatively, in rolled up jeans, street runners and a baggy bomber style coat. She gives off an air of innocence combined with mature sexiness. Her backpack most likely means she’s a student, starting out in the world, really. She’s a gentle reminder of better days.

He picks up the line drive punt at the 40-yard mark. He runs with the ball at top-notch speed. Both sturdy and agile, he manages to maneuver around four (four!) near tackles. 

A few of his teammates have surrounded him, forming a secure, protective shield. He dashes to the end zone, eyes on the prize. Those bright, adrenaline fueled eyes.

Holy shit, he’s going to make it. Yes, touch down! 

The crowd is chanting his name; his chest is pounding, and his teammates are high-fiving and hugging him. 

It’s unbelievable. Without a doubt, it’s the play of the year. It might even go down as one of the best plays of all time.

He sees Kimberly, the teenage boy’s wet dream, cheering ecstatically from the sidelines. Her overly large breasts are firmly tucked into her white knit sweater, partially hidden by the red and white pom-poms. She’ll be at the victory celebration down at the Irish pub, where he’ll get her tipsy on a couple of vodka cocktails. Then they’ll make out like crazy in the first truck he ever owned, a second-hand short bed Chevy.

The girl has caught him staring. It takes a few seconds for her to turn away, cheeks flushed – as if she would consider him. Even if she did think he was somewhat attractive or eventually let him touch her, it might be a wasteful endeavour. He would want to tear her clothes off and take her from behind but what’s the point? He probably couldn’t get it up anyway. It’s like his manhood has been stripped from him; rendered useless. Not that it matters any more really, he reckons, she’s no Kimberly.

He wasn’t contemplating counselling or anything of the kind until he picked up a flyer on a table underneath the bulletin board on his way out of the job centre. He had folded it in half and stuffed it into his back pocket. At home, after pouring himself a whiskey, he takes the paper out, smoothes over the creases and reads its words, over and over. It’s an advertisement for a men’s drop-in group, offered by the suicide prevention centre. 

Now, two days later, he unexpectedly finds himself outside the door of the community hall that hosts the session. He fidgets nervously, rubbing his hands on top of his bristled brush cut. Once he dares to enter, Graham the facilitator of the group, welcomes him and encourages him to get a cup of coffee. There are eight other guys in the room and because he’s late, this is probably it. He’s right because the session starts as soon as he takes his seat. As they go around the circle with introductions, he notices they are all middle-aged. 

Graham asks if anyone would like to share anything about their week, or if there have been any obstacles or challenges. As the stories are told, most of the men divulge their insecurities and struggles. Rick realizes he’s not alone. Other guys, some who look much tougher, have felt like running their trucks into a tree or ditch. He doesn’t say anything and better yet, Graham doesn’t pressure him to talk. Afterwards, when Graham asks if he’ll come back next week, his voice cracks at an attempted reply. He clears his throat and promises that he’ll try.

In bed that night, his reverie is a fishing trip with the boys.


They’ve set up camp at one of their preferred spots in the heart of the Rockies, just a short hike from a magnificent, thundering waterfall.

“Dad, dad! Wake-up, I hear a strange noise,” pleads Josh, panic stricken. 

He quickly awakes from his slumber, ready to take on the threat.

Aaron jumps out of bed too, flashlight in hand. 

He takes the flashlight from his son, opens the camper door and shines it through the screen. There it is, the beast, almost blending into the night. He’s thankful his family is safely tucked away in the camper trailer rather than the flimsy pop-up tent they shared during their first trip.

The black bear stops in its tracks, surprised by the change from darkness.

“Get outta here,” he warns. “I said, get!”

He claps his hands and yells louder. He sucks in the cool, crisp air. 

As if contemplating how serious the danger, the bear finally turns and saunters back into the thickness of the forest.

“Wow dad, that was scary… but so cool,” says Aaron, who’s right behind him. 

Josh is crouched behind his brother, quivering.

They would retell that story, over and over again at family reunions and around campfires for years to come. He swore he would always protect his boys from wandering wild things or anything else they find daunting. He promised he would always be there for them.

He bolts up, fully awake. It’s 2 am.

He climbs out of bed and heads for the bar. He pours himself a strong one, well over a double. His reflection in the mirror tells the bitter truth. He rubs his eyes and looks again. He’s a failure. He failed at taking care of his family and now he’s failing in general. 

The thing about finally getting help or making the first steps to recovery is that it’s a slippery slope. There are good days and bad, still. Do people really believe someone can be “cured” from depression or thoughts of suicide just because of a few drop-in counselling sessions?

“What a bunch of bullshit,” he says, out loud.

The mirror seemingly mocks him.

“Loser,” it taunts.

Far too accessible, in one of the bar’s cabinets, is the gun. He takes it out, laying it down on the hard oak surface. He downs his drink. When he picks up the pistol for the final time, his hands are steady. He looks at himself triumphantly. He’s no failure. 


He pulls the trigger.

Click.

Nothing. It doesn’t fire.

It doesn’t fire!


Relief transcends shock.

He doesn’t want to die. He wants to live!

He’ll never know why the trigger failed. Maybe the primer, the piece responsible for pushing the bullets out, was defective. Or perhaps the primer had massive carbon build-up and needed a thorough cleaning. It doesn’t matter why. All that matters, he decides in this very moment, is that he’s tough enough.

He’s tough enough to go back to the men’s group.

He’s tough enough to go the doctor and talk about it.

He’s tough enough to get help for his drinking.

He’s tough enough to tell his boys the truth.

He’s tough enough to get through another day.

He’s tough enough.

Photo courtesy Andrea Piacquadio/Pexel

In Pursuit of the Uncanny: The Unchanging Writing Techniques of Gothic Literature

By Tracy Thomas

The horror (or gothic) genre dates back to 18th century England and has grossed billions of dollars in movies alone. Whether a gothic creation takes the form of literature (including films), folktale, partaking in Halloween, pranking or getting pranked, there are common elements that must exist to make it qualify as horror or gothic. They must bear elements of the uncanny. When British novelist Horace Walpole first applied gothic writing techniques in his 1764 novel “The Castle of Otranto” (also titled A Gothic Story in its second edition), the novel merged medievalism and terror in a style that has endured ever since (Walpole). Gothic writing techniques have remained the same and are as effective in modern-day horror literature as they were in old times. Comparing Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, to analyze various techniques that have stood the test of time in gothic horror, this paper tests this theory.

There can be no horror without uncanny elements, so the various techniques used in gothic literature have one purpose: creating the uncanny. Uncanny refers to something strange or mysterious in an unsettling way.  Since fear occurs when there is an aberration, there must be knowledge of a normalized version of a thing for it to be considered strange. Sigmund Freud explains this in “The Uncanny” as our brains repressing information from past experiences that comes back to haunt us. In literature, these elements of uncanniness mainly adopt words and darkness to create a sense of horror and are created through character, setting, and plot design (Han and Guo, 2020). Furthermore, although the plots, settings, and characters change with each gothic literature, the techniques and style used by Walpole in his horror literature have been replicated by pioneering gothic writers like Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe and by various modern gothic literature creators to date (Han and Guo, 2020).

One of the ways uncanny moments are created through characters is the use of doubles or doppelgangers. Freud defines uncanny as a “class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” (1). For instance, it is not customary for people to have duplicates, except they are monozygotic twins. So, in Black Swan, seeing more than one Nina in a scene (15:35-55) causes horror because the audience knows that one of them should not be there. Similarly, in Solaris, the audience is aware that “the visitors” do not belong on the space station, so their presence causes horror. If it was an accepted societal concept to have doppelgangers, then the element of horror is lost. This concept is best explained by Jean Baudrillard’s “Simulations”, where he defines simulacra as a “generation by models of a real without origin or reality – a hyperreal”. In simpler terms, society is a social construct, and what is real, or fake depends on what society agrees it to be.

Another way gothic writers use characters to create the uncanny is through echopraxia. It is the involuntary repetition or imitation of another person’s actions. An example of this is when Nina’s double on the train mimics her (5:20-27). Freud states that “it is only this factor of involuntary repetition which surrounds with an uncanny atmosphere what would otherwise be innocent enough…” (11). Although this concept was not expressly used in Solaris, Snow’s visitor was able to pass off as Snow by imitating Snow’s actions.

Gothic writers also use characters to create uncanniness by establishing a loss of control. It occurs when the character appears to be dealing with forces beyond their control. Freud refers to this as the fear of castration. He states that this “fear of castration itself contains no other significance and no deeper secret than a justifiable dread of this kind” (p.7). For example, in Solaris, Gordon expresses this fear when she says, “…just that I want it to stop…” (18:53-19:28). In Black Swan, Nina struggles with losing control throughout the movie. Some examples are instances where she senses the darkness of the black swan (34:35-35:01), when she sees her double (15:35-55), and when she sees her mutation (1:28:23-34). Similar to mishaps that might occur if a person loses control in real life, watching a character lose control creates horror in the audience.

Settings are also used to create horror in the gothic genre. When we get an eerie feeling from a scenery, it is because we find that setting uncanny. Freud states that for a thing to be uncanny, “something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar to make it uncanny” (1). To establish abnormality in a setting, gothic creators use chiaroscuro to create an imbalance between light and dark, in which there is a surplus of dark in comparison to light. An example of chiaroscuro in Black Swan is when Nina alone is lit in the subway, and her entire surroundings are dark. The disproportion of light and darkness in the scene creates an eerie feeling. That weird feeling, in turn, creates fear when her doppelganger walks out of the dark and past her (15:35-55). In Solaris, chiaroscuro was used in slightly different forms. Like, the space station surrounded by total darkness, and moments like when Kris is in his room, there is limited lighting and much darkness that creates an eerie feeling that something abnormal might happen (21:00-34).

Finally, the old gothic writing techniques are here to stay. An inquest into why these techniques have remained the same requires knowledge of how they work. Scientifically, when we feel frightened, there is an increase in the hormones: adrenaline and cortisol (Lilienfeld et al.). These hormones boost our energy levels and prepare us for a fight or flight response (Lilienfeld et al.). The adrenal gland also produces estrogen in men and female, so as adrenaline and cortisol levels increase, we are scared and aroused (Lilienfeld et al.). Unlike being in situations of real danger, when we watch horror movies, we know we are not in real trouble, so we enjoy the feel-good benefits of being aroused. Since the old gothic writing style does an excellent job at producing these targeted hormonal reactions, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

In conclusion, the pioneers of gothic writing techniques created a horror inducing recipe that will always work. While pioneering gothic writers relied on a delightful kind of horror in the form of “an expansion of Romantic literary joys that were relatively new at the age of Walpole’s fiction”. Modern literature is viewed as a “natural revealment of female’s fear towards uneven society or as the release of the authors’ twisted sexual desire (Han and Guo, 2020). When viewed as a whole, the goal is the same, to cause fear (and arousal) through the uncanny.

Photo courtesy Pedro Figueras/Pexel

Zenith of Humanity’s Collective Intelligence

By Samar Pant

Can we, in all honesty, stake the claim that humanity’s collective intelligence has reached its zenith? Like the flag planted on the Moon, a testament to humanity’s breakthrough in space travel, could we plant a flag on the highest peak of intelligence and knowledge? We are, after all, living in an age where kids have access to voluminous amounts of knowledge, right on their fingertips. We are living in an age where entire populations have greater access to knowledge than ever before. 

To state the obvious, I am referring to the internet. But despite having access to so much knowledge, are we putting this to best use?

Here’s what I am getting at: We have so much “power” on our fingertips, but do we use it in the most optimal way possible. Alright, I do it, too. I watch silly cat videos and kids being total knobs (any Hasbullah and Abdu Rozik fans here?) I need entertainment and the internet is there for me. But for the last few years, the curious side of me, just like I suspect it is for billions of you, has been hungering for knowledge. From art to science, I am interested in learning and growing as a human being. But perhaps I could do more of that and less of watching cats on youtube. 

I think this is an important discussion, because our future might depend on it.

Seriously, take global warming, for instance. There is a plethora of knowledge available on the internet. Yet, to the best of my recollection, not every human being is onboard with this. In fact, some downright think it’s non-existent. And that’s the second danger, accessing wrong information. What if I told you there is a man on youtube who claims dinosaurs never existed? He sounds pretty convincing, too, especially if you are new to the topic. Or people who claim entropy is consistent with the existence of god? That guy sounds pretty convincing, too. And so does the guy saying Covid isn’t real

See, that’s the thing. We have access to an unbridled flow of knowledge, yet we need to work on deciphering the accurate from the lie. We need to work on spotting the facts and the fiction. 

And how about state controlled internet. In nations like China and perhaps few others, certain websites are blocked, so netizens have to use Virtual Private Network (VPNs) to get around this. But if you don’t have that, you are left choosing what the government deems appropriate as a source of knowledge leading to the formation of particular opinions or even brainwashing. 

So, clearly we have challenges to deal with when it comes to using the internet. But 21st century problems require 21st century solutions. Where there is disinformation, we counter that with reliable information. Where there is state control of the internet, we used tools like VPNs. As for the cat videos, well, we just need to be cognisant of how much time we spend doing that and actively participate in gathering knowledge on the net. 

Photo courtesy pexel.com/pixabay

Fibromyalgia’s Reigns

By Ela Sakotic

On a cold day, every muscle in my back feels like concrete: stiff and unyielding. I can tell you that it’s cold outside before I even open my eyes in the morning because my hips are so cramped that getting out of bed seems like an impossible task. Eventually, I heave myself out of bed, and the first thing I reach for is a hair tie. Pulling my hair to the top of my head and tying it into a loose yet secure bun is imperative. If I don’t, every strand of hair feels like a razor slicing into my skin.

On a cold day, I will choose my clothing more deliberately than I do on any other day. My shirt will have to be loose but not so baggy that it will incessantly rub against my stomach or back. It will also have to be soft. Fleece or plush is ideal because it is gentle on my skin. But, in a pinch, cotton will do too. Once I decide which shirt will cause me the least amount of pain, the dread of putting on pants will set in.

On a cold day, every pair of pants in my closet will seem impossibly small and constrictive. I will consider where I have to go and debate whether I can manage to stay inside the whole day. If I’m lucky and I don’t have to go anywhere that day, I will reach for a pair of fleece-lined sweatpants – the kind I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing outside of the house. Their soft lining will keep me warm without aggravating the pain in my legs. Next, I will slide my feet into my wool-lined slippers, look at myself in the full-length mirror beside my closet, and hate what I see. I will remind myself that it is better to stay home and be poorly dressed than to wear a beautiful outfit and feel like my skin is being sanded off.

On a cold day, my body will feel like it was hit by a truck. That’s because one New Year’s Eve, my body was hit by a truck. A truck whose driver happened to not see a stop sign or a swarm of oncoming traffic. Every day, but especially on a cold day, my nervous system will remind me where the impact was. I will pull away from what you think is a gentle touch because even a simple caress is torture to me. I will feel pain deep in my bones, especially down my spine. Even the smallest muscles throughout my body will seize and cramp up. And on a cold day, I will choke on a lump in my throat and want to cry as I yearn for a body that isn’t riddled with Fibromyalgia.

Photo courtesy Ivan Samkov/Pexel