Von’s mood seemed to change. He picked up the crystal decanter, a beautiful antique that Kyra made a note to ask him about some day, and slowly poured two more glasses full with amber snoot. Kyra could have sworn she saw his hand shaking ever so slight.

“To answer your question, I call them connections. They define our life, give it meaning. Most of the time, we never think about the web we live in, the thousands of little touches that shape everything we do—that is, until someone or something takes them away. Then,” Von raised his glass in silent salute, “as if someone pulled back the blinders, all is clear and all is both terrifying and serene at the same time.”

Von took a sip without taking his eyes off Kyra. She didn’t move nor did she break eye contact and so he continued. “Back on Hyneria, on-world and in society, everything is connected to everything else. Get sick, you call your doctor and he or she takes care of you. Need a loan, a thousand bankers will vie for your business. Wreak your transport, one call and a tow is there, a second call and a shop repairs. Hungry? Go to a restaurant, pay by cash or credit. Want entertainment, a hundred shows await. Every one and a thousand more is a connection.”

“I can see that,” said Kyra, enthralled with the Papaesque nature of this conversation.

“It goes deeper,” continued Von. “Our systems, our language, our traditions—all of these are connections in their own right. Our nationality, our politics, count them too. And then, there is family. Parents, siblings, relatives. At work, we have colleagues, bosses and subordinates. And when we get home, our pets or even Goldie. Every one of them, again, a connection.”

Kyra took a sip and the lights seemed to dim as if on schedule. Only thing missing was the crashing of the waves and a campfire. “Please continue Von.”

“Well, there is also Hyneria itself. The pungent smell of fresh turned farmland. The salty sea breeze or even just the ground under our feet on a hike in the mountains. More connections. You see, in a way, everything we do, everywhere we go, touches someone or something that literally defines who we are.”

“Very interesting Von, but what does all this have to do with Em’s soulless comment?”

“A lot. On the surface, everything we knew about who we were, who we are, everything that defined our lives, is gone. Think about that for a second. We no longer have firm soil under our feet or fresh air to breath. Get sick, there is no doctor. Want an education, there is no university. Want to get married, neither church nor minister. Support a cause, no political party to join. Bravo breaks down, nowhere to take her. You see, our thousands upon thousands of connections, they’re gone. We still have a few, but the contrast is night and day. Here on Bravo, just the seven or eight of us, well, I suppose it’s kinda like walking to the cliff and looking over the edge and the net that was always there, is gone. I’m only surprised it has taken the better part of a year for anyone to voice this feeling, although I suspect the angst has been present for quite some time.”

“I think you’re right Von. Has been one helluva year with hardly time to catch our breath. Can I ask you a question?”

“Go for it.”

“It’s rather personal so if you don’t want to answer just tell me it’s none of my business.”

“Fair enough?”

“I’m thinking you didn’t just stumble upon this view one day out picking flowers?”

Von tried to smile. “Well, no, I wouldn’t quite put it that way.”

Kyra put her chin on her chest and widened her eyes. “You don’t have to continue if you don’t want. I really don’t mean to pry.”

“No, no, good for the soul to share. As you know, many years ago, I was taken prisoner and tortured at the hands of the Javalinas. Most know of the neural trace they implanted in my brain, long since removed, although that damned ghost of an itch remains, and probably will so until the day my spirit departs to places unknown. But there is another part of the story I’ve not shared.” Von’s complexion changed and his face suddenly appeared drawn and old, the creases of which looked like dry riverbeds as seen from above.

“The greatest torture is passive, not active. Once the neural trace was planted and they had what they wanted, well, I can’t speculate on motive, but the bastards put me in solitary confinement. They took away food and light and space and gave me only enough water to keep me alive and for forty days I endured what no living creature should have to endure at the hands of another. Torture comes in two forms. Brute force is perhaps the crudest and least skillful, although I must say eventually either produces results or kills the prisoner. But there is another form of torture, a form much more sinister, more imaginative, and, if pure hell is the goal, much more effective—solitude.

“You see, brute force, no matter how painful or agonizing actually gives the prisoner something useful. It gives him affirmation, it gives contact, a connection to another living entity, an entity that at least thinks enough of you to torture you, to expend their time and energy on you, and as strange as it may sound, you feel important with each blow, or punch, or slap or beating. Now don’t get me wrong, physical torture will break you and you will curse the day you were ever born, but it doesn’t take everything.

“Solitude of total deprivation, however, is something very, very different. The torture is simple. They put you in a very small box, lock you up, and leave. In effect, they remove every connection you have to virtually everything. I would ask you to stop and think about that for a second, but try as you might, the exercise would be pointless. There are some experiences that simply go pass the ability of the imagination.

“Slowly, you feel a dismantling. You see, before they put you in the hole, they tell you things, plant seeds. They tell you you will never see another living soul again, nor will you ever see light, or taste food, or read, or walk, or stand upright. They tell you they already have everything they need from you such that not even your torturers have need or desire of you anymore.

“They strip from you the most basic need of significance, the need to matter—to someone, even if that someone is just the person who beats you every day. They sever every living connection to everyone and everything and in this state one of three things happens and they happen rather quickly, although at the time it did not seem that way nor even now does it seem as short a time as I have come to learn it was.

“First, most prisoners give up and die. Second, most of those that don’t die go insane. But there are a few, not many, who manage somehow to come out the other side. I would like to tell you I did it on my own, but the credit goes to my training, the very training Zeke instilled in me. You see, in solitary confinement, you are forced to see your face before you had a face and when you see that, the stark terror cannot be put into words. That terror, however, is a mistress and she will take you one of two ways. If you try to hold on to the external connections that defined who you thought you were, she will take you under the veil of insanity. If, however, you are able to let go of those illusions, to allow the current to take you out to sea and trust that although the shore is receding that this is the only way home, then and only then will she take you to places you never imagined existed.

“My dear Kyra, I do not know how to tell you what it is like to go within, but I can tell you this, when you release yourself into the flow of the mistress and you taste your own tongue and swim in your own blood, you enter a non-conceptual world, a world without words, or sights or sounds, a world where there is nothing to be connected and at first you don’t understand, but quickly you feel, I suppose as fish do underwater, but you come to understand the reason there is nothing to be connected, nothing to be in relationship with is, well, how do I say this, hell, here it is, there is just a oneness and that oneness is full and complete. Now don’t ask me no questions because I can’t give you any answers.”

Kyra sat stunned and even if she did have a question she wasn’t at all sure her tongue was willing to move.

“Getting back to your original query on soullessness and my answer about connections I hope you see there are three basic positions. First is where we live without the awareness of the conceptual web of relationships that some call society or civilization, although I feel both definitions miss the mark. This is where most live their lives, unaware, unthinking, caught in a fantasy world that literally exists only in their own heads, and, I suppose, what is most sad, is most of those never even realize their whole life is nothing but a dream. Second is where Em is at the moment, although I would hazard a guess she is only vaguely aware that all is not as it is or should be. Em is in that space between unawareness and awareness and I can tell you, that is a most uncomfortable place to be, very close to being lost, of feeling dispossessed. It is, however, the first step to the third stage or position, the position of oneness in which the illusion of separation disappears.”

Kyra sat for a long time and so did Von and neither said anything. Then slowly a smile emerged from Kyra’s face and she stood up, emptied her glass and slammed it down on the table. “Von, you are one righteous dude. Now do right by this Hynerian and pour us both another.”

And so he did, and the two drank into the night such as Kyra had never partaken before. She missed her Papa, but Von was doing a damn fine imitation and that was just alright with her.

Categories: Story, Kyra, Von