By Will Petillo
Max Cruller knew he was late for work, but he couldn’t bring himself to hurry. Maybe because it was Monday, maybe because he didn’t get enough sleep (damn insomnia), or maybe his mood simply reflected the weather, a dull, monotone, grey sky constantly threatening rain but too full-of-itself to deliver. Kind of like his boss, city police chief Olivia Manning. Max smiled inwardly at the thought and his feet got a bit lighter. Not enough to make him on time, but enough to get his energy up to the point where he could think of a decent riposte to her inevitable morning criticisms.
Max was shaken from his thoughts by the mild but sudden jolt of pressure on his left shoulder as he bumped into a black robed figure. He turned to look at the strangely-clothed figure, and saw it was a woman, small build, no weapon bulges, serene face, unlikely to be a threat. She gave him a slight bow of apology and whispered, “Namaste”, before turned back away and disappearing into the anonymous mass of pedestrian commuters. Max looked out after her for a few moments—something about her bothered him in a way he couldn’t quite identify—before the mass of humanity behind him insisted on its endless forward march.
Walking up the steps to the station, twelve and a half minutes late, Max still hadn’t thought of a good excuse. He walked through the door and was surprised to see the entire staff, Manning included, staring at the Holo-Screen, its visual field floating in mid-air in the center of the room. They were blocking his view, but he could make out the words “Breaking News” in the upper left corner of the visual field. He maneuvered his way through the crowd for a better look. What he saw stopped him cold.
It was the woman he just ran into, not ten minutes ago. On fire. She was standing in the middle of Community Square, hands stretched towards the sky, flames coming out of her robes. All around her, people were caught between running away and staring back at her in morbid horror. At the bottom of the visual field, text ran across the screen, speculating, “Unidentified woman lights herself on fire in Community Square: terrorist plot by religious extremists?”
The Holo-Screen cut to a news anchor who would tell them what they just saw, with more words but less information. Max wasn’t listening. His hands were shaking and he had to find a wall to rest on before his legs buckled beneath him. He had never seen anyone die.
For the first time in decades, Max Cruller actually felt relieved to be called into Olivia Manning’s office. He wasn’t getting any work done that morning and he needed the chance to talk to another human being, even if it was Olivia. When he entered, she was straightening the items on her already perfectly organized desk. She paused for a moment in silence before speaking. Normally, the sight of her gave Max a slight feeling of revulsion. Her skin, though not wrinkled, showed the roughness and slight discolorations that had at one time signaled the onset of the Old Disease—and she didn’t even have the decency to dye away the grey streaks that infiltrated her long black hair. The anti-aging pills, now so ubiquitous even the street bums in the most desolate corners of the poorest countries had a lifetime supply, never could reverse the damage of the Old Disease after it had been inflicted. For her to have been alive for that long before the pills, Max knew, Olivia must be at least ninety years old.
Finally, she spoke, “Mr. Cruller. The woman you saw on the Holo-Screen this morning was Catherine Rothchild. I spent this morning in contact with other police departments across the Sub-Nation and have been informed this is just one of a series of similar incidents over the last few months. In Eastern Newhaven, a man deliberately vaulted off the Capitol building, falling beyond the reach of the Auto-Nets to his death. In Cariaga, a woman disabled her emergency lung and drowned herself in the bay. The list goes on for nearly a dozen incidents, but I think you get the picture.”
Max couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He asked, “Why haven’t I heard about this? If this has been going on for months, it should have been all over the Sub-National—hell, it should have been all over the World news!”
“Cover up.” Olivia replied, “The World Health authorities don’t want the public getting any ideas. Suicide is a symptom of memetic-illness and they don’t want it spreading.” Before Max could interrupt, Olivia held up a hand and continued, “The incidents have been on local news only. People who were there and saw the incident would get suspicious otherwise and that would encourage face-to-face rumors. They didn’t try to stop people from talking on the Internet, but they released a bunch of fake, contradictory stories so that no one would know what to believe and dismiss it all as a sensationalist conspiracy meme.”
Max couldn’t recall seeing any of those stories on his Feed, but then again he had carefully set his Internet setting to block anything that came from disreputable sources, lacked citations, or was considered unverified. The thought of a government suppression of information, in this day and age, was almost more shocking than the deaths themselves. He understood the logic, but at the same time Max had to wonder, what else didn’t the public know?
Olivia cleared her throat. Max must have allowed his facial features to betray the nature of his thoughts. Satisfied she had regained his attention, Olivia said, “It gets worse. While the public suicides have been getting all of the attention, for every one of those there have been five or six people who have simply disappeared. Many of them are still being searched for, but a few have been found dead, and at least a few of those are confirmed suicides.”
Max asked, “Any apparent connection between the deaths?”
“I’m just getting to that,” Olivia said, “nearly all of the deaths and disappearances we have been able to trace seem to be pointing towards an organization known as Memento Mori. No internet presence; they operate and recruit on a pure face-to-face basis, so we don’t know much about them. That’s where you come in. We want you to go undercover and infiltrate Memento Mori. Find out who they are, what they stand for, and why their people are killing themselves. When you get back, I want you to report whether you think they are dangerous enough to be added to the Toxic Memes list.”
The sheer responsibility of the task gave Max chills. In modern society, free expression was considered sacred. Any idea, no matter how foolish, absurd, or even hateful, was considered off limits—it was the responsibility of the individual to choose their own thought patterns. The TM list, however, contained the ideas that society could not tolerate, that were so dangerous that thought-suppression, even with all its risks and side-effects, was justified. Having even a small role, even contributing the tiniest piece of relevant information, to any decision relating to the TM list was a massive responsibility, probably more important than all the decisions a Sub-National Director would make in a year combined. Olivia seemed to be implying that not only would he be obtaining the bulk of the relevant information in this case, he would actually be giving a formal opinion that might even be considered partially authoritative. It was like he had just been promoted from detective to deity.
Olivia stood up from her desk and looked Max in the eye, “You may be wondering, Mr. Cruller, why I have assigned you this task.” Max stared back blankly. She explained, “Frankly, it wasn’t my idea. I would have preferred to send a more senior officer—or let one of the other districts take the spotlight. To be honest, Mr. Cruller, your professionalism has left something to be desired.” Max knew that he was supposed to feel resentment, but for some reason that emotion just wasn’t happening. Olivia, visibly annoyed at his failure to respond to her baiting, continued, “However, my superiors insisted on you. They said your test scores, equally high in both empathy and objectivity, while also maintaining both conviction and flexibility, make you ideal. I think they are overinflating the importance and reliability of these tests, but I guess I’m just a narrow-minded Old-timer so what do I know? Whatever, here’s your Holo-Fold, these contain all of the information you will need to get started.”
Stiffly, Max nodded in acknowledgement and took the circular disk from Olivia’s hand.
“All right, get out of here, I have work to do.” Olivia said with a dismissiveness that failed to cover her resentment.
Max turned to leave. Just as he reached the door, Olivia called out, “Mr. Cruller. In all of the twenty years I have been in this position, Ms. Rothchild is the first person to have died—for any reason—in this city for over thirty years. I want to make sure she is the last. Is that clear?”
Giving up on even the half-lotus position, Max settled for criss-cross-applesauce--just like grade school, he thought. Within seconds, he could feel his right ankle digging into the floor. The yoga mat provided little protection against the hard wooden floor. Being one of the few men in the room made him feel even more out of place. Knowing that he actually was an imposter made him slightly less uncomfortable. But only slightly. Melody-Skye, the woman leading the meditation, might have been hot if she didn’t remind Max of his mother.
She spoke slowly and gently, as if she were trying to put Max to sleep, and babbled on about heart-centers and Earth-Mothers and other nonsense. Max paid special attention, however whenever she sprinkled in comments about the "impermanence of things", "living for the present alone", and "transcending attachment". These messages were woven into the rest of the mediatation so fluidly they were easy to miss, but Max suspected Melody-Skye may have been priming her audience for more dangerous messages to come.
And then she stopped talking and there was silence. For Max, uncomfortable silence. Meanwhile, despite the karmic waves (or whatever) Max felt he must have been sending, sighs and smiles of satisfaction filled the room. Then a laugh started to bubble up into Max's throat, like an itch that he didn't dare scratch. He tried desperately to suppress the laugh, drawing on every bit of professional cyncism he could muster. One of the other men yelled out, “Halleluiah!” Then a woman next to him made what was probably intended as a bird call in response. Max couldn’t take it anymore and belched a guffaw--suppressed quickly, but too late. To his surprise, the people around him starting laughing and soon the entire room, Melody-Skye included, was in an uproar of laughter that was half forced and half genuine mirth, though Max was sure none of them were laughing for the same reason as he was. It took several long minutes for the laughter to die down, though a few after-chuckles remained.
“All right everyone,” said Melody-Skye, as if the outburst was part of her lesson plan, “that’s all for today. One announcement, however, before you leave. Memento Mori is opening for a beginner’s retreat this next week. Those of you who have been before, contact Alex Masterson if you are able to make it out again. For those who haven’t, come talk to me.”
Max joined a small crowd of people around Melody-Skye as the rest of the participants slowly meandered out of the room. She handed out business cards as she explained, “Base cost this year is $1,500 per person, but that’s sliding-scale for financial hardship, so don’t worry if you can’t afford it. If you are going, send me a personal message by Internet no later than Thursday, payment is at the door, and be prepared to show up at the location by 8AM. The retreat officially ends at 5PM on Sunday, but you can leave early if you like. It’s going to be a really good one this year and I hope to see you all there!”
The small crowd started to disperse, including Max. As he walked, looking down at the card in his hand, he felt a light tap on his shoulder. He turned to face Melody-Skye. She said to him, “Max? Is that right?”
Max noticed the last of the other participants leaving the room, leaving him alone with Melody-Skye. He nodded and said, “Yeah, Max Cruller. Thanks for the class.”
“Are you going to the retreat?”
“I think I will, yeah, it sounds really interesting.”
She put a hand on his shoulder and said, warmly, “It’s nice to see your enthusiasm, I’m sure you will get a lot out of the experience.”
“I also noticed something in your aura. Like something doesn’t feel right.”
Max swallowed, thinking quickly, he said, “It’s just...it’s the news from this Monday. I guess I am still a bit shaken up by that.”
Meloday-Skye took her hand away and averted her eyes. She paused for a breath and then said, “I know, Catherine’s death has affected us all. She was a student here once, you know.”
“Really? I had no idea.” Max said, lying.
“Yes. I felt a certain sadness in her even while witnessing her greatest moments of serenity and bliss.”
“Did you see how she died?” Max asked.
Melody-Skye looked the detective in the eye and said, “I saw how she lived. See you at the retreat, Max.”
$1,500 was the least of the expenses Max had to get reimbursed for. There were no sleeping quarters for visitors at the retreat location itself, so visitors who didn’t know someone in the area had to book a hotel in Joshua Tree, California, and all of the hotels were savvy enough to take advantage of the yearly spike in demand. Also, there was travel. Given the short timeframe, Max had to book a round-trip SuperBus ticket on one day’s notice to get there on Friday. To Max, however, all of these expenses were an added perk, because Olivia had no choice but to sign off on them.
The first day held few surprises or insights. There was a mix of meditation, yoga exercises, shamanistic rituals, and community prayers—Max still couldn’t tell if these people were religious or just run-of-the-mill silly. Still he had a job to do, so when the day was over and he went to his room he resisted the urge to pass out from exhaustion on his bed, got out his noteboook, and wrote:
Day 1: I’ve finished my first day of, whatever the hell it is they have us do here. Mostly just sit around and listen to nonsense with terrible music in the background. Their “lessons” would make rationalist cringe, but I haven’t seen anything dangerous. Not yet, at least. Perhaps they are softening us up with feel-good buzz-crap so that we’ll be less resistant to more sinister ideas later. We’ll see how deep this rabbit hole goes. There was one sermon--sorry, "guided meditation"--where some guy was going off about the folly of modern society and its desire to cling to life forever, rather than celebrating impermanence and change or whatever. Nobody telling us to light ourselves on fire...yet. But maybe getting closer? Or maybe this is all just a wild goose chase.
Day 2: Now things are getting interesting. I've been told I am going to be assigned a "mentor" tomorrow. I'll need to be on my guard. Also, I saw some odd people in black robes with hoods covering their faces prowling about. They were all hunched over and walking slowly. Not sure what's up with that. I asked one of the other attendees about them, apparently they are called the "hooded ones" and that I shouldn't stare. Yeah, real descriptive. Jackass.
Max awoke on the third day to a gentle knock on his door. He got up quickly, slipped his notebook under the mattress, threw on some clothes, and opened the door, standing to the side of the swing path in case someone on the other side kicked it open the moment he turned the handle. He was disappointed to see a man in grey robes waiting patiently outside.
"Nice to meet you Max, my name is Gregory, I will be your mentor for this day. Come, walk with me."
They walked through some kind of museum, the walls filled with Medieval and Renaissance artwork. Must have cost a fortune, thought Max, who is paying for all of this? Meanwhile, Gregory rattled on about the history of the paintings and their cultural significance. Max half-listened, just enough to pick up on anything case-relevant that might come up, but Memento Mori's barbaric refusal to serve coffee ("Tea" was an absolutely inacceptable substitute for Max's needed daily caffene fix) was messing with Max's thinking abilities.
Something in one of the painting caught Max's eye. In the corner of one of the more elaborate paintings, there was a weird, stretched out shape that kind of looked like a skull. Gregory caught Max staring and said with a smile, "Ah. One of my favorites. Take a look at it from this angle over here." Max obligingly walked to where his mentor was standing and looked again. This time he could clearly see a depiction of a human skull. Hidden as it was in the liveliness and color of the rest of the work, the presence of the skull felt quite unnerving.
Gregory explained, "What you are looking at was at the time, a common artistic motif known as the Memento Mori. It is a reminder that you are going to die."
Max said, "Huh? No I won't. What are you talking about?"
Gregory laughed and said, "Keep in mind this was made a long time ago, back when death was known by all to be an inevitable part of life. And even now, with all our playing God, we will die too someday. Maybe not in a hundred or even a thousand years, but someday the solar system, the galaxy, the universe will come to an end and bring us with it. Even in theory, nothing can last forever."
Max grudgingly accepted the point, but repied, "Yeah, well, no need to rub in it. Did these artists get off on bringing people down or something?"
Gregory answered, "No, Max. It was an important lesson, is an important lesson. We get so wrapped up in our lives and struggles, that we often fail to realize how small and unimportant they are, in the greater scheme of things. We cling to life, and yet so many of us forget how to live, always chasing some impossible dream of perfection forever out of reach. And even if we were to live forever, consider this. What is it that makes me older today than I was yesterday?"
"Um...being a day older"
"But how do you know you have been alive longer than you were before, if you didn't have a calendar to tell you?"
Max thought about it for a moment, "Well, I guess because I have memories that I didn't have before."
"Tell me then, how much do you remember of yesterday, of a week ago, a year ago, 10 years ago, 50 years ago?"
"It gets hazier the farther I go back, I forget things like everyone else."
"So, with each passing day, you gain new memories and forget old ones. Someday, if not already, you will each day forget as much or more than you learn. When that happens, are you really getting older?"
Max frowned. He sensed a trick and in any case wasn't convinced, but before he could place his objection, Gregory said, "Cherish and make the most of what you have, for tomorrow it may be gone, one way or another."
Perhaps it was the frustration of the argument, or maybe the lack of sleep, or maybe his annoyance with the whole damn retreat, but a bold impulse pushed Max to blurt out, "Is that how Catherine Rothchild was thinking when she killed herself? That the future doesn't matter and continuing to live is not important?"
A dark look passed through Gregory's face as he spoke between clenched teeth "You don't know what you're talking about." Then, he straightened and composed himself, saying "I think our session here is done for today, Max. Have a good rest of the day." Gregory turned and walked away briskly, leaving Max alone.
Max slapped himself on the forehead for being so stupidly blunt. He looked absent-mindedly at the painting for awhile, then begain to wander around. He had lost interest in the paintings and chose to focus on exploring the building as he gave his thoughts time to clear. He jogged up a flight of stairs and turned to climb the next. He didn't notice the Hooded One until its thin and reedy voice asked him for help. A woman's voice, but very bizarre-sounding, like if sandpaper could talk. Max the Hooded one his hand. The arm of the robe reached out. As their hands clasped, Max felt a jolt and barely stopeed himself from jumping away. The skin of this...person felt thin and cold and wrinkled like they had been inflicted with some terrible wasting disease. Max stifled his fear and started to walk slowly up the stairs. Half way up, he chanced a look into the hood and saw the face of...an elderly person.
Not like Olivia. An actual, genuine elderly person. He had heard of this condition before, but had never seen it. Max struggled to control his breathing until they reached the top of the stairs and he could finally release himself from her fragile grasp. She thanked him with a slight nod. He said to her, as politely as he could, "Your welcome. How are you feeling today?"
Max couldn't see the old woman's face, but he could feel the warmth of her smile as she said, "Lovely. I is always such a blessing to walk through these halls. I only do it once a year, on my birthday. It's my 87th, today.
Max had to grab the handrail to stop himself from a nasty fall down the stairs. 87! That's younger than I am! All he said was, "H-Happy birthday." As she hobbled slowy away, the horror of what happened set in on Max. She must have never taken the anti-aging pills. All of those people I saw in the hood, I bet they are the same. Every one of them, a dead man or woman walking, a Catherine Rothchild without the fire.
Max could not sleep more than two hours at a time without waking up from a nightmare. He saw his skin shriviling before his eyes and falling off, he tried to scream as he was buried alive, he saw his body consumed in fire, leaving only a laughing skull. He gave up and paced around the room and tried to think about something else, but all he could think about was the woman on the stairs and that damned skull in the painting. I need to get out of here, he thought, and planned his escape.
In the morning, all thoughts of escape had been suppressed by his better judgment. He only had one more day left, anyways. Might as well stick it out. Realizing it was breakfast time, he put on his clothes and walked to the door. He saw a note had been slipped in under the door and he bent down to pick it up. It was from Gregory, asking to meet him by the painting with the skull.
Gregory was staring into the painting when Max arrived. As Max approached, Gregory said apologetically, "I am sorry for snapping at you yesterday. Lots of people were distraught at Catherines death, me most of all. I haven't talked about this with anyone before, but...I was her counsellor in the last days before she died." Gregory paused a moment while Max took this in, then continued, "Catherine came to us looking for answers. She was chronically depressed, had always been for as long as she could remember. She had tried, I know she had, every possible thing to make her life better, but it was like there was a demon inside her, consuming her, refusing to let her feel anything but sadness. I tried my best for years to ease the pain, to offer solace, to show her alternatives to what life could be, but nothing seemed to work. I could tell that she wanted to die, and this broke my heart because...well by then, despite all my professional training, I had allowed myself to fall in love with her. Of course, I couldn't tell her, but I think she may have known. And even though I never expressed my love, it was the wrong thing to feel because it made me hold back. She wanted to die, and I tried so hard to blind myself to the reality that was staring me in the face. I made excuses, I urged her to delay, to reconsider, to try again, but I was only hurting her, every day she held on was another day of torment. Finally, I made myself do the right thing and help her make peace with death. I had never seen her so grateful, it was like the first time anyone had ever understood her. The words I said and the lessons I gave were unimportant, it was like she was waiting for my, for anyone's permission to do what she knew she had wanted all along. I gave her the materials she wanted, and let het go her way and, well, I can see you know the rest. And now, even though I know she is in a better place, wherever that may be, I still feel...I still feel like I...I..." Gregory broke into sobs, unable to finish his story.
Max had a lot to learn about social graces, but he knew that now was the time to shut the hell up. He put his hand on Gregory's shoulder in a way he hoped was comforting as the man cried for what must have been minutes. Finally, Gregory straightened and said, "Well then. I hope your visit here has been a useful one. Now it is time for you to go. Report to your authorities what you will. I don't know whether you will allow us to continue our existence. If you declare us a Toxic Meme, we will not fight you--though I cannot say others will not take up our cause. After all, nothing lives forever, not even ideas."
Formal Evaluation on Potential Toxic Meme: Memento Mori. By Max Cruller.
Memento Mori is even more dangerous than suspected. Not only are deaths like that of Catherine Rothchild normalized and, at times, encouraged, but countless more minds are destroyed by old age, previously thought eradicated. Practicioners spread insidious folk "wisdom" normalizing death and criticizing modern life-extension practices. While joining this organization is voluntary and all deaths are freely chosen by the individuals, it is clear that they are gradually and subtly persuaded to destroy their lives through subtle messages, which more susceptable minds may not know how to resist. Records investigation has revealed a possible motive: most of those who die leave all or most of their possessions to the organization--this is not mandatory, but given the participants level of involvement in the organization, the choice is not a meaningful one.
However, I believe that the success of Memento Mori in its recruitment efforts is based more on the fact that they tap into sentiments that have always been present to various extents throughout societal history, including a vague sense of regret for how things are and a nostalgia for forgotten times past. These sentiments will exist indpendently of the existence of Memento Mori, and will only come out in other--less predictable and therefore more dangerous--ways if participation in Memento Mori is banned by our addition of them to our Toxic Meme's list.
Memento Mori respects human choice, at least on a nominal level. Their process attempts to be rational and within ethical constraints, misguided as they may be. Since their sin in primarily one of ignorance, albeit willful, I believe that the current strategy of public education is the best possible vaccination to their ideas. It is therefore my recommendation that Memento Mori's admission to the Toxic Memes list be DENIED.
When Max got home that evening, he fell onto his bed in exhaustion. His recent promotion did nothing to fill the feeling of emptiniess he had inside. As he stared up at the ceiling, trying to lose himself in his thoughts, he felt something in his back pocket. It was Melody-Skye's business card. The words "This too shall pass" were artistically printed in the center, and her contact information was in the upper-right corner. As he looked at her card, he thought about calling Melody-Skye in the morning. Or maybe he would just keep the card and tape it to the corner of his bathroom mirror. His own little Memento Mori.