In the last installment of Karen Zipslicer stories, Karen is still using the black box machine to relive the memories of Dawn, the young Lady Emerald. In the flashback, Dawn spent an evening dancing with a suitor at the Harvest Festival, and then later that night, she saw him again whilst she sat at her bedroom window. The story continues with the remainder of the flashback, centred on Dawn, the following day.
Her father was calling her. It was the third time he had shouted her name. His harsh tone interrupted the tune still playing in her head. It was a tune from the dance last night. Today was Sunday, though Dawn was diligently at her books, mindful of completing her schoolwork before the time she had agreed to meet with Shaun.
She could hear him walking along the corridor. He would be at the door soon, so she got up and opened it before he could barge in.
“Sorry father, I was doing my studies.”
“That’s good, but I need your help now.”
“Please father, not today. I have a headache and there’s an essay I must hand in tomorrow.”
“Don’t contradict me,” and then his tone eased a little, “the production prototype’s nearly done. If you help me now, it should be finished soon.”
Dawn winced, and tried to think of an excuse. None came to her. He had already turned away and was walking back down the corridor. “Come on,” he cajoled as he reached the top of the stairs. Obediently, she followed her father to his laboratory. When there, she took her accustomed seat. The equipment was more compact now. He handed her the two black boxes that were the pinnacle of his life’s work. Without speaking, she pressed them over her eyes, holding them firmly there until they had glued themselves to her, merging with her face. Through them, she saw the world darkly. No longer attached to cables, her father was perfecting their remote interface. He sat across from her, staring into a glass orb. It swirled with colour and shapes that would not coalesce. The orb was large, twice as large as his head, though he sat with his face almost pressed to it. As he played with the dials and switches beneath it, images formed within the black boxes attached to Dawn’s eyes. These were fleeting experiences of her past. She saw them, and she saw through them, to the present. In the present, she could see the same images were also whirling around the glass orb. It was a strange thing, to see past and present at once, and to see another viewing your own past, in the present moment. It was strange, though Dawn was getting used to it.
“Good. Playback is working perfectly. Now let’s record.”
Without her willing it, the fragments of her memories stopped playing. The black boxes cleared and she only saw through them, to her current location. And then, in the orb, time moved backwards. This was Dawn’s time that was being rewound. Within the orb, Dawn retraced her steps when following her father. She was back at her books, unwriting her essay as her pen sucked up her carefully-formed letters, leaving the pages of her exercise book blank. Then she was sleeping, and fitful dreams flickered like candlelight. Then it was the night before, and she was at her window, looking down at Shaun.
“Please father, no.”
“Father, don’t do this.”
“Is this the boy you were dancing with last night?” He stopped rewinding and let last night’s conversation unfold, in sequence.”
“Please father, you don’t need to do this. We can test the prototypes on some other memory.”
“Some lad from the village? I recognize him.”
“Father!” But he would not stop.
Instead, he laughed. He rarely laughed, so the sound was more shocking to Dawn than any words he could have said.
“You can see boys, if you like. It’s about time, a girl of your age. I don’t care about that.”
“Father, please stop this.” But he stayed bent over the orb, intently listening. And he kept listening to everything that passed with Shaun last night, right up to the moment where she had suggested they meet for their walk.
“So that’s why you’re so especially eager to do your bookwork. You’re planning to meet this boy. We’d better hurry, or you’ll be late…” As he said this he replayed the scene again, from the moment she spied Shaun behind the hedgerow.
“Really, that’s enough, father.” Dawn was ashamed, and embarrassed. But she was also angry. She knew she had no reason to feel shame, and that fueled the flames of her loathing.
“Be with this boy, if you like. So long as you help me with my work, you can indulge your base desires. Such is the nature of women. Your mother had the same affliction; it’s no surprise that you got it from her.”
“I don’t know this lad. I was just talking with him.”
“Yes, and we all know where talk leads. So be it. The village is small and he’ll give you some entertainment. Then you’ll be happy to keep working with me.”
Dawn’s emotions were so extreme, they warped her thinking, which normally were iron in their sturdiness. Her father had no right to intrude on her private moments. She knew that. But what else was he saying? Dawn tested him, like he had tested her.
“You know I won’t be here much longer. I’m leaving. I’ll be going to the university soon, and our work will have to stop then.”
“I can’t allow that.” He spoke like this utterance was chiseled in stone. The point was hammered; it could not be erased.
“You’ve never said that before.”
“And you’ve never asked my permission to leave. You just assumed it. But I’ve been thinking on that, and your work is here, with me. Pursue science if you like. You’re good enough. But do it here, under my tutelage, where we can build great things together. Better here, with me, than wasting yourself in some university. You’ll only meet men there too, and you’ll get distracted. Before long you’ll be pregnant, then a mother, then a servant for some other man and your offspring. That’s the way of women, in this world. If you stay here, you can have your fun, and I’ll make sure that mind of yours gets put to good use too.” All this he said, never once looking up from the orb, or from its recreation of the night before.
Dawn was unable to respond. Her father’s revelation had been sudden, unanticipated. Now she wondered if this had always been his intention. He had encouraged her study, waiting to see if it might be useful to him. It was plain now; utility was all that mattered to her father, whether it be the utility of a machine, or that of a person. The air had been sucked from her lungs, and she mouthed silent sentences, which lay stillborn on her lips. She caved over, cradling her head in her own two hands, her fingers clawing into the rivulets of her hair. Her pose grotesquely mirrored that of her father, who hunched over the orb, peering deeply into it, his fingers gently touching its surface as Dawn’s experiences danced for his amusement, within. Dawn’s hands slid down her face, and she grasped the black boxes upon her eyes, wrenching them loose. She tossed them aside. Her father was too engrossed to notice. “It’s working perfectly. You’ll help me make many more, and then we’ll both be happy. We’ll profit from them, I’ll buy a title, and one for you too. With this, I’ll be feted again. We’re going to change the world. What more can a father give his only daughter? You’ll have money, and suitors, and, of course, you can still have your fun and games in the meantime. How’s that, compared to a few years at some university?” As he spoke, she moved around behind him, and watched over his shoulder, as he watched Shaun through her own eyes. Over and over he watched, and Dawn placed her hands upon her father’s shoulders, and watched with him. “It’s perfect,” he said, transfixed. With one hand, she stroked his neck, and then weaved into his graying hair. “We’re nearly there now,” he said, “soon we’ll enjoy the fruits of all our hard work.” And with this, her grip tightened, and she lifted his head up from the orb.
“No,” she screamed.
“No.” She smashed his face into the glowing orb. Cracks formed in its surface.
“No.” With both hands now, she pushed his head through the glass, into the intoxicating light. Now he was screaming too. The light streamed out from the broken sphere, engulfing his face. It burned her hands. She cried, in agony and anger, bearing all her weight down upon him, holding him down whilst the escaping colours consumed their skin. His head, her hands, charred and blackened but still she would not let go. She held him there, though he soon stopped moving. He was not dead. His mind, however, expired. It somehow evaporated in the fires of his daughter’s involuntary extrospection. What was him, was overlayed with her. The orb had possessed her, and it flooded out, drowning his consciousness. His mind gone, his body was breathing still. She lifted him back. His eyes had dried to husks, his face turned to cinders, and the stench of burning emanated from what was left of his hair. But he breathed still, and drool trickled from the corner of his mouth as his head lolled around like a macabre toy. Dawn went to the laboratory’s sink, an oversized rectangular sink, and she drenched her scolded hands under icy cold water, as the tears poured down her cheeks. It was already past three o’clock. As best she could, she wrapped her hands with gauze and bandage, and then hid them under woolen mittens. Struggling to dress herself, she hurried out to meet with Shaun. At the junction, he had left already, thinking she was not coming. She waited for a full hour, sat by the side of the path, relieved to be out of her house.
Realizing that Shaun had left, or would never come, she stirred herself and walked alone, up a road that winded toward a nearby mountain-top. When the road had reached its highest point before plunging down the other side, Dawn scrambled the remainder of her way. Up, she went, as quickly as she could. Dawn used her mittened hands to cling and pull herself up. It was hard work to climb, and the sun was low by the time she reached the top. Once there, she sat, alone, above everyone. The shadows of the valley grew long, and the village grew dark. From up there, the houses all seemed so small; they were insignificant compared to the natural terrain. Their lights were meagre, even compared to a setting sun. She turned to face the wind, defying it to move her. She would not be moved, no matter how the wind blew. She was safe up there.
Karen threw the headset off. She looked at the backs of her hands, cupping each one, in turn. They were fine. These were not her memories. She should not have them. Nobody should. Overwhelmed, she curled into a ball in a corner of the Lady Emerald’s laboratory. This was real. The here, and the now, was real. This was where Karen had been all along; she tried to remind herself. She was Karen Zipslicer, a bright young woman who wanted to go home, accidentally caught up in the story of a place she never knew existed, caught up in the stories of people she had only just met. Now she knew the Lady Emerald’s story, and it was a terrible story to know. It was a story that needed its end.
Though lying asunder, the machine whirred on. Karen got up, and switched it off. The machine was no good. Karen wanted to be rid of it, wanted Lundern to be rid of it. She wanted to be back with her family. Karen thought of her dad, and of her brother, James. She wanted to forget Lundern, but she also wanted it safe from this abominable wizardry that had taken it over. The light of the black boxes needed to be extinguished, permanently. Looking about her, she contemplated how to destroy this malevolent device. Karen opened the drawers, looking for a heavy tool with which to smash everything she saw. There were thick leather gauntlets, used for insulating the wearer. She could put them on and use them like boxing gloves, but she would break her hands long before she broke all the machines. She put one on, imagining the Lady Emerald pulling it on, over her scars, but then she threw it aside. There was a heavy stand, used for clamping equipment to, but it was too thin to wield effectively. Frustrated, she picked up a wooden stool and threw it across the room. It smashed into a storage rack, and sent one unknown device crashing to the floor where it briefly showered sparks before dying, though the rack was firmly screwed to the wall, and did not sway.
‘Calm down’ she thought to herself. Karen had been panicked. How long had she been here? There was no clock, and she felt a fresh surge of anxiety. She had to destroy this place, and she had to escape from it, and she had to do both soon. ‘Think, think’ she said to herself, but doing this was a substitute for clear thought. She felt scrambled, unsure of herself, unsure of who she was or where she was, like the floor beneath her might be torn away at any moment. If only she could think clearly for a minute, she would find a solution and find a way out. Think. Think. She was like two people now, wrapped around each other, tying herself in knots. One Karen wanted to run, and be far away from this place. The other wanted to fight, and to win, and she knew that she could win, if only she could focus. The two Karens got in the way of one another. Seconds elapsed, and she was immobile. Think. Think.
And then there was a sound. The elevator descended. Somebody had called it. There was no time left to think.