We couldn’t hear each other. That was why we… that was why everything. The whole misbegotten chronicle.
When Ash was ten, he watched a movie called Blood Star Showdown with his big sister. As the household snored and muttered overhead, they sat at the foot of the basement sofa in a darkness held back only by the TV, bundled together in a massive wool blanket—her legs thrust carelessly through the coffee table that held their supplies, his knees tight against his chest as he subcategorized his already color-coded M&Ms by the distribution of scuff marks on the shells. When something awesome happened on-screen, Rae would chortle and clap and nudge him with her elbow; Ash made no response, but she could read enjoyment in the brief cessation of his fidgets.
About midway through the film, the lead male and female warriors were caught by a spell that transferred their spirits into one another’s bodies. It set up some repartee and a clever escape sequence, but they soon broke the spell and moved on to the next fight scene. Rae chuckled appreciatively and took a swig of her Dr. Pepper; Ash frowned.
“Oh, dear,” she sighed. “What’s that look?”
“How did they know?”
She hit pause on the remote. “Know what?”
“That they were in each other’s bodies.” His left foot began to tap, slowly.
“What do you mean, how? They were looking out through each other’s eyes.”
“But they would be using each other’s brains to think with.” The foot tapped faster. “Their new brains would still have all the old memories. They wouldn’t even realize they weren’t each other.”
“Okay, yes, but, um, in the Blood Star universe, your soul magically retains all its memories when it leaves your body.”
The table was starting to rattle. “No, that doesn’t make sense, because memories are made of electricity, but souls aren’t on the electromagnetic spectrum. I asked Mr. Pritchett about it and he said—”
“Ash, honey, listen. Souls are made of… uh… they’re made of a different… Oh! You know how a tiny bit of matter is really a huge amount of energy? Well, a tiny bit of energy is really a huge amount of… of soul. But our microscopes aren’t strong enough to see it yet.”
She tried not to hold her breath as he processed, but she couldn’t help it.
“Okay,” he said, and she slumped with relief. “That makes sense. Thanks, Rae.”
“…I love you, buddy.”
“Yep, same. Why’s the movie paused?”
“No reason.” She hit play.
When he was fifteen, Rae went away to college. She stood in the driveway and held him for a long time. Ash patted her matter-of-factly on the arm—waved and made a smile as she drove away. Four days later, he smashed the plexiglass face of a vending machine in the school cafeteria and individually punched every bag of pretzels, chips, and Pop-Tarts into bone-dust. Tattered and bloody in the counselor’s office, he shrugged placidly at his interrogators.
“Mr. Overlook,” Principal Garrick said with dangerous restraint, “do you understand how utterly unacceptable this behavior is? Quite apart from the damage to school property, it is terrifying to your fellow students to see this kind of violence in what is supposed to be a safe, nurturing environment.” She was loomingly tall and spectrally thin, with a presence like a brick wall. Ash liked her.
“Ash, my man,” said Dr. Appleyard. “You gotta know what you did was wrong. What’s goin’ on with you? You’re a good kid; this isn’t you.” His polo shirt, half a size too small, creaked almost audibly across his well-kept chest. Dr. Appleyard was everybody’s best friend.
Ash didn’t have a reliable metric for judging when a question was rhetorical. He had observed, however, that if he waited for the follow-up “Well?”, the questioner often seemed to become annoyed. So, rather than risk further ire, he gambled on their expecting at least a nominal reply.
“I’m very sorry,” he said. “I don’t know why that happened.”
“You don’t know why you assaulted a snack machine like a 900-pound orangutan? You’d better have some reason, young man.”
Perhaps he could try the truth. It would certainly be a novel approach. “It stole my dollar. I was mad.”
“Ash, pal, we all get mad, am I right? But you don’t see me flippin’ over cars in the parking lot just ’cause they took my designated space again.”
He discovered with surprise that he truly wanted to explain himself. He sat perfectly straight, organized his idiom, and said slowly, “You see… I was so mad. It’s like I was full of baking soda and someone poured a gallon of vinegar into me.”
“Then for God’s sake, go for a walk next time,” the principal snapped. “This is a high school, not a kindergarten.”
Ash felt the corners of his mouth crease. He should have known it was pointless. They just can’t hear me.
When he was twenty, Ash took his bachelor’s and went to work for an emerging corporation called Vigrid Sky. They were working on fully immersive virtual reality, next-gen stuff. Mostly for online gaming, of course—but if their ideas held up in the court of physics, they’d be up to their goggles in medical and military contracts.
He’d finally been diagnosed after the vending machine incident. The meds and therapy helped, a little. It helped even more to have something concrete to point to, a stronger phrase than “dunno,” when people asked, “What the hell is wrong with you?” And quirky geniuses were practically Vigrid Sky’s stock-in-trade: here, people got it.
“Ready?” she asked invisibly, and he gave her a blind thumbs-up.
She was Caitlin North, two years his senior, willowy, katana-keen, the first person he’d met apart from Rae who seemed to like him as he was. The second he hoisted his opposable digit, she activated the pupilluminators in his goggles and was gone. He knew at once he was missing someone, but he couldn’t remember whom.
The average gamer had proven resistant to the expedient of a quick, simple surgery to install a USB port in the brain stem; so Vigrid Sky had shrugged and pioneered the REM interface. Coded bursts of information from the pupilluminators passed through the eyelid and convinced the optic nerve that it was entering a deep dream, and the central nervous system frowned, shuffled the papers on its desk, and acquiesced. The brain dutifully released glycine and GABA, lulling the muscles, as the gamer’s mind ascended into a lucid state. In a matter of minutes, player one was ready to stride into the MMORPG of their choice, retaining as much or as little “real-world” self-identity as they desired. For tonight’s diagnostic, Ash was entering the game with the minimum possible memory of his life outside. The life in which monsters were imaginary.
As it crashed ever closer through the underbrush—slavering, rapacious—Yi Shi’s grip tightened on the hilt of her double-edged jian. The oncoming nightmare was grey-skinned, thew-knotted, eight feet tall, and fanged; it was horrible, and beautiful, and horrible. A fight like she’d never had. She freed the glinting blade from its lacquered sheath and felt the lips peel back from her teeth in a snarling battle-grin. Come then, demon. Come and die.
But the monster faltered. Stepped two, three times over the same spot and left a jittering afterimage. Revealed itself as a concatenation of tiny colored boxes. Pixels, she remembered, they’re called pixels. Then Ash felt the weight of his thin body in the gaming chair.
“… hear me? Ash?” Gentle hands loosening the goggles on his face. “Hey, partner. You okay?”
“Caitlin,” he murmured.
“Speaking! Do I have the pleasure of addressing a Mr. Ash Overlook?”
“I’m me.” He took in a slow, deep breath through his nose. “Did you pull me out early?”
She nodded. “You were hyper-somnambulant. Kicked over my chair, with me in it. Good thing I’m a badass, or I might’ve bruised a butt cheek.”
This was an easy one. “I’m very sorry.”
“Don’t sweat it! That’s why we’re running total immersion trials, right?” She didn’t look upset. In fact, he was fairly sure the look meant elation. “So? What was it like, really being another person?”
“I don’t… it was… wonderful.” A cave-dweller viewing his first sunrise. “I knew her. I could hear. I could hear!”
And the first glimmer of The Idea awakened, deep inside.
When he was twenty-three and a half, his sister came and told him she’d been raped.
* * *
The rainclouds and the fog were a grey continuum. The Overlook siblings hunched in their old, neglected tree house, fish-mouthing cigarettes like preteens playing tough, and the smoke blended numinously with the drizzling mist. Above them in the pine branches, a murder of wet crows hopped and fluttered, croaking every now and then. Ash said nothing.
“They got him for hacking,” Rae said greyly. “Criminal intimidation. Invasion of privacy. It’s his first offense—he might get a few months.”
For most people, the first question when putting on REM goggles was, how does one take them off? There were no fewer than eleven ways to disengage gameplay—verbal commands, dropdown menus, hand signals, emergency phone-outs to 911 or designated game-sitters, redundant variations on all of these. For those who had chosen minimal real-life memory access, “You’re in a game” reminders popped up when a certain threshold of anxiety was detected. There were automatic shutoffs for any player whose vital signs became dangerously agitated. Remotely disabling the whole gamut of safety measures to trap a player in cyberspace must have taken a level of skill that Ash admired and hated. He wasn’t sure he’d ever understood hate before.
“It wasn’t real. I kept telling myself that while it was happening. I’m still telling myself that. But why use a useless word. I experienced it. I felt it. It was real.”
He reached out, clumsily, to pat her knee. She flinched away.
Tapping of droplets on his pant leg. Not from rain.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“It’s okay,” he said, sensing somehow that it wasn’t the right thing to say. “I’m not mad at you.”
“I know, Ash.” She reached up and wiped his cheek with her thumb. “I love you.”
When he was twenty-four, he found the guy.
In Realm of Blood Star, the guy had been a half-troll barbarian, Kajarg of Jastor. For the twelve weeks in prison, he was Jason Morley. Now he was out, and back in Blood Star, and his name was Quislith of Suul, an elven sorcerer with no discernible ties to the ostracized Kajarg. It wasn’t cheap—or legal—to track down his online persona.
Caitlin was grave. “All the new laws they made after Morley did what he did. If they catch you, they’ll throw the whole library at you. They’ll have to.”
She handed him the last schematic. “We installed a whole new array of safeguards. You’d have to be brilliant to the brink of lunacy to get through.”
“You’re a wonderful brother, Ash.”
The good moments were when he knew what he was supposed to do, and it turned out to be what he wanted to do. He kissed her.
Then he went home and locked the doors and windows. Turned off the lights and phones. Entered the Realm of Blood Star.
Crafting the data into a spell took a long time. The Haunted Moon was rising as he exited his hut. The Quislith icon blinked lucently in his heads-up display; Morley had logged in about an hour ago, and no doubt planned to be online for most of the night. Which he would be.
Ash came upon the blue-robed elf-mage in the woods near Sendroval. Limned by eerie green moonlight sifting down through the boughs, he paced toward Quislith of Suul in his Aerosmith pajamas. The wizard’s gaze met his.
“Are you admin? ’Cause I am allowed to be online. You can’t harass a player based on personal—”
Ash let the globe drop from his hand. It shattered in the springy grass. They were in a white room.
“Hey, what the hell?” Morley shouted. He looked down at his hands: they were pink hands with dirty nails, afire with no mystical potencies. He was in his underwear. “All right, screw this.” He made a log-out gesture. “What the shit!” He gestured for the heads-up, the drop-down, the side-swipe. Finally he quit and stood glaring at Ash with his hands balling slowly into fists. “I remember now. You’re that bitch’s brother.”
“Raven Marie Overlook.”
When he said her name, a door opened in the plain white wall. Rae walked in.
“Aw, gimme a break,” Morley groaned. “I already sat through all the whiny Oprah crap with that prison shrink. It’s just a game, you dumb bastards, it’s not even real.”
“It’s real,” Ash said, and heard his own voice shaking. “It’s like a bomb blast. Everything has holes in it now. Not just the future, not just the rest of my life—the past too. All my memories. All the times she made me feel like monsters were make-believe. God damn you.”
“Yeah, so, what’re you gonna do? Shake your finger at me till I feel bad? We both know if you had the nut to try anything real, you’d’ve come and found me outside the game.”
He’d spent uncountable hours refining The Idea, boiling and cooling it into a sensible shape. Technically, it had been ready for several months now; he hadn’t shown it anyone yet because of the potential side effects, which could range from lingering hallucinations to full-blown dissociative personality disorder. In the present case, however, that was not a bug, but a feature.
“She kept telling you to stop. With her words and with her fighting. If you could have heard, you wouldn’t have done what you did. You would have understood how much hurt you were causing. But you couldn’t hear.” The Rae-bot stepped closer. “You’ll hear this.”
It opened its mouth and screamed: a warbling digital scream, the scream of a modem uploading a nightmare. Morley clapped his hands to his ears and howled in turn, the long raw howl of a gutted animal, as far away from human as the Rae-bot’s. He fell and shook and hugged his knees—sobbing, sobbing.
We couldn’t hear each other. We were all trapped in our brains, helpless to communicate the constellations of experience and emotion, the absurd clandestine aspirations, the gut-clutching terrors that others laughed at because their terrors were different. Ash couldn’t convey, with his words or with the body-language he’d never been able to comprehend, how it felt when someone rearranged the pencils on his desk—how the floor went marshy underfoot and the walls leaned in and the light bulbs buzzed and sparked—how his diaphragm clenched and his rectum went slack and nothing in his cosmos could function till he put them back in order. For another human being to truly grasp his inner experience, he would have to put his brain into theirs. With Vigrid Sky’s REM breakthrough as a jumping-off point, he’d found a way to do that.
But it wasn’t his own pain that he wanted Morley to suffer.
After a while, the man who had raped his sister got back to his feet. His face was wet with snot, his legs with piss. “I don’t know how you did that.” His voice trembled. “But that was some sweet-ass tech. I felt everything she felt.” The brutalized face began to ease back into a smile. “You could really even some scores with that tech.” The rattled voice began to grow smug. “I’m gonna reverse-engineer what you did, Overlook. I’m gonna get payback on every bitch that ever crossed me. Starting with her.”
“You know what’s funny?” Ash said. “A flock of crows is called a murder. But a flock of ravens is only an unkindness. I always thought, since ravens are bigger and stronger, a group of them should be called something even worse. But then, I always figured, there’s nothing worse than murder.” He made a smile. “I was wrong.”
With a sorcerous gesture, Ash enacted the program. The wall with the door disappeared. Outside the room was a larger room—one thousand square feet of featureless white. On every square foot of floorspace, another Rae stood waiting.
* * *
When he was twenty-eight, he told his sister what he’d done.
Christmas at the old house: family back together, ancient jokes and grudges, Jack Daniels in the eggnog. It was late; Rae and Ash were on the basement sofa, swaddled in the old wool blanket. He hadn’t decided to tell her. It just came out.
“I always wondered,” she said. “Killing himself just a few months after getting out of prison… it seemed…”
Ash was quiet.
“Does Caitlin know?”
“She helped me.”
“How did you get my… whatever, my brain waves? My feelings?”
“You had nightmares. On my couch.”
“So you held your thing up to my eyelids and harvested.”
“I didn’t want you to be involved.”
“You raped my mind.”
“I’m very sorry.”
“I wanted to give him context. If he’d shown regret, I would’ve left it at that. But he threatened you.”
“…Did you ever think I might have needed to be there? To see him go through what he put me through?” No answer. “Of course not. You don’t―”
Upstairs in the kitchen, the living room, the dining room, all was still. The nieces and nephews were in motels with the elder siblings; the rest were on the second floor in a cold chrysalis of sleep-masks and white-noise machines.
“God damn it, Ash.”
“I wanted to do something for you. I didn’t know what else—”
“God damn you!” she screamed. Her elbow flew up and crushed his septum, and he fell to the floor and curled up in a ball, tangled in the blanket, bleeding everywhere. “You fucking freak! You fucking goddamn Rain-Man psycho!” She heel-stomped him with every shrieking curse, bruising his hip, bruising his shoulder, cracking a floating rib. “You… you… oh…”
She flopped back down, deflated.
“I love you,” he kept whispering. “I love you. I love you.”
“Yeah, yeah, same.” She came and sat cross-legged in front of him, digging out a handkerchief. “Here, kid. You’re making a mess.”
“Thanks.” He pinched it to his face, and it turned red. “You boke by dose.”
“Looks like.” She chuckled, a bit crazily, and then abruptly she was laughing—cackling, wailing with laughter, spitting out the poison that had clogged her heart for half a decade. She laughed until her tears ran clean. Then she reached down and smoothed his crow’s-nest hair, the way she used to do. “Ash, we’re all broken. You, me, everyone. Everything’s broken.” She leaned over, finally, and kissed her brother on the forehead. “Are you okay?”
She helped him onto the couch, and they sat for a while.
“So what happened to your tech? The empathy engine?”
“That’s a good name. I still have it. But I can’t decide what to do with it. What Morley said… people could do a lot of bad things with it.”
“Well, yes. Have you talked about it with Caitlin?”
He nodded. “She thinks it’s too important to hide from the world. But she’s giving me time.”
“I think maybe you’ve had enough time, Ash. She’s a smart lady, you should listen to her.”
“I think maybe you’re right.” Pause. “I’m in a lot of pain.”
“Come on.” She patted his shoulder, and he winced. “There’s plenty of bourbon left.”
As she led the way toward the stairs, Ash said softly, “It’s hard, Rae. Finding the right thing to do.”
“I hear you, little brother.”
He smiled. It was a weak, uncertain, bloody smile. But it was real. “I hear you too,” he said.
J.B. Toner studied Literature at Thomas More College and holds a black belt in Ohana Kilohana Kenpo-Jujitsu. He was recently diagnosed, at age 43, with level one autism, formerly called Asperger’s Syndrome. Toner posts strange and terrible things on Instagram.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “A Rape of Ravens”:
Here’s the thing: The title of this piece by author J. B. Toner admittedly could turn some readers off. In fact, the author himself pointed that out in his cover letter.
Certain elements in any story submission will cause us to step carefully when considering the piece for publication. These include senseless violence, murder, physical abuse, rape, drug use, and suicide. We don’t avoid these out of any sense of political correctness (of which we were recently accused) or because we’re unaware that all of these are prevalent in our society. We recognize that stories involving them can be powerful. We simply don’t want to publish a piece that offhand glorifies them, condones them, or depicts them without consequences.
The existence of one or more of these elements in a submitted piece does not automatically disqualify it for publication with us. If the story is strong, well-composed, impactful, and has a strong character arc (and delivering something unexpected helps), then we will put our reservations aside. We have published several such pieces in the past and have no plans to change.
In “A Rape of Ravens” we found everything we look for in good writing. It has a strong, interesting, and flawed protagonist who seeks to right a wrong done to someone he cares about. On top of that, it adds a controversial virtual reality element that Ash invents, one with the potential to do harm as well as good. The result is an emotionally charged piece of writing that the author perfectly caps with Ash’s powerful and all-too-true line: “It’s hard, Rae. Finding the right thing to do.”
And this is why we chose to publish “A Rape of Ravens.”