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for Jyotsana Singh At first, the smell is unbearable: hundreds of thousands of human musks co-mingling and clinging to the circulated, recycled air, permeating even the slick plastic benches, to then seep into your coat and stay there with you, like a ghost conglomerate. But, with repeated exposure, it became comforting proof that you are never as alone as you think you are, even in a population that has dwindled drastically since 2018. Humanity had given up on sight as a major sense since greenhouse gases clouded the atmosphere and substantially limited the amount of sunlight illuminating the earth's crust. Soon after a Northern and Southern Beep were installed in each hemisphere to aid in navigation. Whether travelling underground or street level, the view through tempered UV-resistant window is the same: yellowish-black smudge rubbing its back on your focus, blandly indistinguishable from the grey-yellow of the train car's interior. The pings of their stop cut Xerxes' attempts to make out the edges of the window from the blurred mass. They follow the pings to the interior of the station. The sky, filtered through filthy window, is a veil of yellow-grey smog. The station leads to escalators leads to Rockland, the shopping centre of Those Who the Light Hath Spared. A left turn at smell of roasting meat, another left at sounds of cursing and glass breaking, and a third to follow the whistling of a bar. The tune is polyrhythmic, and differs to advertise the specials of the week. Triplets over duplets means stock is running low. Xerxes locates the bar and whistles back the first movement of Mozart's twelfth sonata: they want tequila, two vials, but will take gin if necessary. The bar feels Xerxes' face with her hands and squeezes their earlobes to affirm the transaction. She then runs her hands over her bandolier, fingering the empty spots and remaining droppers, locates two, whistles that she has tequila and will contact Xerxes with an invoice. The bar deposits the droppers in Xerxes' outstretched hands and continues whistling the specials, the tune fading with distance. Xerxes sniffs for urine and garbage, and gropes toward a small niche between Vandelay Industries and an audiobook store. Squatting, they bring the dropper to their tongue, letting three drops fester, resisting the urge to salivate and thus dilute. The intense flavours of fermented agave and citrus notes followed by those of bile are borderline overwhelming, but this is one of the hedonistic pleasures left in 2030, so Xerxes really tries to prolong and savour it. Sufficiently tipsy, Xerxes uses the shopping mall sounds to navigate home before the forced attendance of tonight's ceremony. The audio book on the government conspiring against producing more oxygen in favour of profit has some very compelling evidence, and Xerxes is so very thirsty for proof that their current reality isn't the only one available. Ever since the Great Receding, after oxygen levels dropped to an all-time low, and after the Great Cleansing, when thousands deemed sub-human were sacrificed to the Ultimate Power, Xerxes had been studying. The government forces all citizens to worship the Ultimate Power through nightly ceremonies--as the sun's dying rays are refracted in the overly-polluted atmosphere, the visual effects are astounding explosions of violent oranges, purples, greens. So vivid that the average citizen, whose life other than during these two minutes every day, is completely void of any colours other than yellow and grey compounding into a confusing 2D hue, experiences an autonomous sensory response that they are coerced into believing is a spiritual experience, connecting them with the Ultimate Power. Xerxes had been aware of this coercion before listening to the audiobook. They had also figured that the government was using this "Ultimate Power" as fuel for profit. What else would explain clinging to office despite multiple coup attempts? And why not produce more oxygen, something that all humans, regardless of class or race, need to survive? A mere 109 steps away from their dwelling, Xerxes is frozen by the reverberation of LRADs announcing: COME WORSHIP AND BE CLEANSED OF YOUR SINS BY THE ULTIMATE POWER--TO IT WE OWE OUR LIVES, OUR HISTORY, AND OUR FUTURE! Masked riot squads saunter in through the residential aisles, lazily holding their shields and weapons. The squads' presence is enough: no longer does the populace actively resist, after witnessing countless others massacred for putting up a fight. The only way to avoid the ceremony is to hide in one of the many piles of garbage lying around and hold your breath until it begins. But today, I am equipped to resist and learn, thinks Xerxes,--I will not hide from the truth, but seek it carefully and with an open, relaxed and inebriated mind. Xerxes joins the grey throng of citizens being funnelled toward the Sanctuary for Those Who the Light Hath Spared. Every district has its own Sanctuary, the nearest neighbours being Those Who Are Meek and Therefore the Most Important to the east of the Northern Beep, and Those Who Serve None But the Ultimate to the west. Xerxes lags within the throng, peering desperately in the blank faces of citizens around them. The squads don't even seem to actively watch the citizens: their expressions are also blank, their lifeless eyes and earplugged noses seemingly floating on a pallid backdrop of skin and uniformed flesh, obscured by blast-proof plastic--just another day on the job, the complacent bliss of assuefaction. Upon entering the Sanctuary, the throng erupts in sighs and ahhhs; the room reeks with the most alluring scent known: two parts petrichor, one part new car smell. Xerxes remembers their earplugs, and stoops down to insert them into their nostrils. Immediately the Sanctuary transforms into a cold, uninviting place. Despite the plugs, Xerxes can taste the pungency of burning plastic on their tongue. They had previously attributed this sensation to intense pleasure. They also notice the guards arguing loudly over the throng. "EVERY DAY IS THE BLOODY SAME, SAL! IS TODAY THE DAY WE KILL THE LOT OF THEM AND SEND THEM TO THE CARBON HARVESTERS?" Xerxes becomes aware of a repetitive creaking and whooshing coming from above. "NAH, YOU FOOL, THAT'S TOMORROW. SHUT UP ALREADY, I HATE THE TASTE OF THIS PLACE ENOUGH TO KEEP MY MOUTH SHUT!" "THEY DON'T SEEM TO MIND, OR EVEN HEAR US..." "THAT'S CAUSE THEY'RE DRUGGED BY SMELL, YOU NEOPHYTE! NOW GET BACK TO WORK, IN SILENCE!" Xerxes feels something swoosh near their head, and ducks to dodge a swinging fleshy lump. Squinting and trying to time the next one to touch it, Xerxes begins to make out the movement of thousands of severed hands attached to giant ceiling fans. Lifeless fingers skim the heads of the throng. Xerxes is appalled: I always wondered what that tingling sensation on my scalp was stimulated by--how physical and disgusting. The burning sensation on their tongue increases as green light floods the sanctuary. The entire place is dead silent, the lifeless hands hanging limp, camouflaged in the green blur of everything. Xerxes closes their eyes. The delicate pattern of veins flashes yellow, green, orange, purple, so intense, that Xerxes second-guesses themself: are my eyes actually closed? Do my eyelids even exist?? And what is that buzzing?! A super-high frequency, swelling as if trapped in a feedback loop, blankets the Sanctuary. The room vibrates with this frequency, and although Xerxes is resisting, their heart vibrates to join its surroundings. It is so violent a sensation, and Xerxes worries: it feels as if my heart will ricochet up my chest, throat, and force itself through the gaps in my gritted teeth! Agh, I must resist! During situations like this, Xerxes finds it best to focus on hopes for the future: citizens running through fields of flowers, waterfalls, climbing trees, laughing, sharing, everything bathed in bright light, the pleasure of seeing clearly, choosing to watch the sunset instead of being forced into this charade. Focusing hard enough, Xerxes can cancel out everything else but these thoughts, and sometimes manages to smile, although their teeth are still clenched. The swooshing starts up again, and the frequency decreases in intensity as the LRADs announce: NOW YOU ARE FULFILLED GO AND BE GOOD CITIZENS THE ULTIMATE POWER BLESSES YOU and the throng is funnelled out of the Sanctuary back to the residential aisles. Xerxes lags behind the majority of the throng to remove and hide their plugs. The residential aisles' mixed bag of smells and sounds is comforting in contrast to the Sanctuary, and Xerxes is flooded with a need to preserve and celebrate humanity--I cannot give up on them, and I cannot let them give up on themselves, Xerxes reflects. Not if, but when my vision of the future happens, I will not need thanking, because it will be a return to the normalcy of proper human experience. Xerxes feels the way to their dwelling. It is bare, save for a small styrofoam cot, kerosene lamp, and a tape player. The audiobook on government conspiracy, acquired on the heliotrope market, will have to wait until tomorrow; Xerxes is exhausted. As they try to calm their body, still experiencing after-shock vibrations, Xerxes whispers to themself the last thing their best friend, Qfwfq, said before being sacrificed after his aboriginal heritage was uncovered. Xerxes has found that repeating it is comforting enough to bring upon the blankness of sleep. Do not give up, Xerxes: until the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of truth are reconciled, we are all trapped. Do not give up, Xerxes: until the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of truth are reconciled, we are all trapped. Do not give up, Xerxes: until the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of truth are reconciled, we are all trapped. Do not give up, Xerxes: until the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of truth are reconciled, we are all trapped. Do not give up, Xerxes: until the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of truth are reconciled, we are all trapped. Do not give up, Xerxes: until the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of truth are reconciled, we are all trapped. Do not give up, Xerxes: until the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of truth are reconciled, we are all trapped. Do not give up, Xerxes: until the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of truth are reconciled, we are all trapped. Do not give up, Xerxes: until the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of truth are reconciled, we are all trapped. Do not give up, Xerxes: until the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of truth are reconciled, we are all trapped. Do not give up, Xerxes: until the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of truth are reconciled, we are all trapped. Do not give up, Xerxes: until the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of truth are reconciled, we are all trapped.Do not give up, Xerxes: until the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of truth are reconciled, we are all trapped. Do not give up, Xerxes: until the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of truth are reconciled, we are all trapped.Do not give up, Xerxes: until the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of truth are reconciled, we are all trapped. Do not give up, Xerxes: until the pursuit of happiness and the