“Transistor” by Hannah Newell

TWA 56 Hannah option 2-01

I remember my first headache. I was in the car after an Easter service with my grandmother, we were dressed to match. Pastel dresses with wide-­brimmed hats and white gloves, looking back on the day I must have been five or six years old. I had to sit in the backseat because she thought I wasn’t big enough to sit up front yet.

She was half singing, half humming “My Eyes Adored You”, and I was watching people going for walks in the parks and setting up picnics as we drove along. A fly was stuck inside the car and kept flinging himself against the window trying to get out. I watched as he bounced higher and higher up the window, if I pretended the window wasn’t there it almost looked like an enormous fly crawling along the clouds and across the sky. And it looked as though he had a shadow until he bounced away, leaving a large gray thing in view.

The thing moved slowly and smoothly. It seemed to be flashing on the bottom, and my young mind decided to take that as a ‘Hello!’ (I saw new friendship in every interaction, every pretty object, every animal that acknowledged my existence,) so I rushed to crank down the window to wave a greeting.

“Pierette, don’t open the window. Your hat will fly out.” Every day each one of us has the thing that would ruin our day if it happened. On this day, losing my hat was that thing for Grandmother Rosaline. I smiled wide at the craft and time seemed to slow. I stuck my hand out the window and waved while yelling “Hi!” A ringing sang in my ears as my grandmother told me again, this time in a firmer tone, to close the window. She was always afraid of me becoming a rebellious young girl like my mother, and tried to shut down anything that might be taken as acting out.

I used both of my hands to try to crank the window closed but the ringing shot up in volume and seemed to hit me like a wall. I made a sound and grandmother took it as me whining about the window, and explained impatiently that my hat would fly out and get filthy. The ringing died off rapidly but in its place a painful pressure grew. I closed the window, apologized to my grandmother, and the day went on as planned.

—–

It was the wee small hours in Area 51 and I was sleepwalking again. And sleep eating.­ I ate many apples in my years of sleepwalking. The other agents, and medics in the halls nearby who found me said I kept my eyes open as I walked. The halls of our section were lit by lights in the floor, the place was otherwise dim and a bit eerie at night. On this night I tripped over my own feet, and woke myself by getting the air knocked out of me as I landed on my apple.

It seemed only a moment passed and Nadia was trying to guide me into an examination space. Her sole purpose for being at 51 was to make sure our precious embedded transistors weren’t busted. She didn’t have to ask what happened or why I was wandering around the halls, we had been through this more times than I could count.

She slid her card through the reader and we stepped into her work space. A tiny office attached to a room with a bulky, white, cushioned chair in the middle. I dragged myself to the chair, wanting dearly to just go back to sleep, but I obediently rolled up my left sleeve to expose the transistor. Or rather, the tattoo mapping out the design below.

It was simple enough to examine and test out its functionality. They made these things to last a few lifetimes before we’d have to replace them. Nadia grabbed a chair and put an earpiece in. She nodded to me and I put two fingers to the circular design on my wrist and pressed down. I shot a thought to her. Coming through?

She smiled sleepily and nodded. She smelled of coffee and this cheap, powdered, vanilla creamer she insisted was the best in the world.

They didn’t give the medical team embedded transistors, so when it came to thought broadcasting, they used cheap, hastily made ear pieces that were prone to malfunctions. She put a finger to her ear piece and tried shooting a thought back. ​How much wood could a woodchuck chuck­​ I cracked up before she could finish.

“Pain, static, tingling?” She asked, putting the earpiece away in a pocket. “Nothing beyond the ordinary,” I said. The rest of the tests were just me pushing different marks on the tattoo and making sure corresponding marks lit up on a screen. After seeing everything worked alright after my latest unconscious journey to the 51­E community fridge, I was free to trudge back to bed.

—– 

I used to get angry, as a teenager, when I heard girls around me throw around the word ‘love.’ Very casually confident that they knew what it meant, that its weight was light and could be thrown around like a bucket overflowing. Throwing love on everyone, feeling love towards everything.

It wasn’t until later on that I realized I was angry with myself more than anything ­ because I knew I wasn’t capable of really loving something, or someone. And I envied their confidence at being able to throw around their claims of ever­extending affection. With every moment of truth in my life I had chosen the selfish path. Because with every moment of truth you’re faced with two choices, and you have to choose the one you know you can live with.

—–

Those of us chosen to be agents used to be Targeted Individuals, people who believed that the government was having us watched and hunted, that we were being manipulated. And that the truth about UFOs, time travel and the like were being hidden from the world. Some of us were better at finding legitimate information than others, at which point 51 agents were sent to our home and wiped us of relevant memory and destroyed our evidence.

This works for most TIs. As for the rest, our memories were too persistent. Less intelligent individuals were rewarded for their persistence with gaslighting, all agents had to do was getting the ball rolling with the TI’s paranoia and let their natural suspicion do the rest. Eventually these people ended up carrying around cameras and shoving them in their mailman’s faces, asking who they really work for.

And then there were the special circumstances, those with higher intelligence and a resilient memory. We were presented with options when they realized they couldn’t get rid of us, and we wouldn’t be gaslit. Either we work for 51 as agents and assist with protecting information and the world from mass panic, or it would cost us our memory. Our actual neural tissue would be driven to rapid atrophy, resulting in what doctors would diagnose as early onset dementia.

At the beginning, agents didn’t have the ability to teleport to a TI’s home. They had to use aircraft and move swiftly and silently, mainly at night. But technology for the everyday person advanced, and photos could be clearer, film could be smoother, 51 had to reach out to a lifeform with better means of travel. Communication had always been a massive challenge, even with the development of a form of sign language to communicate with the Aliis people. They were more than hesitant to offer their information and technology to any human, after seeing how quickly valuable information could be used for evil. They believed if there had been a true even exchange of information (such as what the humans immediately requested upon meeting the Aliis) that the people of Earth would attempt to overtake them.

But 51 explained that either information for better travel tech would be handed over, or they couldn’t assure that the world wouldn’t discover the truth about their kind. After years of discussion, the Aliis agreed. And so teleportation was put into active practice. And the Aliis became more secretive than ever.

—–

I wish I could recall meeting Dane. Though they never told me, I remembered him as the man who attempted to wipe my memory before 51 realized my thoughts couldn’t be smothered. I remember he broke something in my home, but what I didn’t recall.

I remember when Dane taught me how to work on someone. The process of being teleported to their home, their private space. Of taking their hard work, their pool of evidence and just making it disappear. I understood very well at this point why the general public could not discover the truth about certain things, but something in me was repulsed at the thought of doing this to someone. I knew how long it must have taken, the late nights, the early mornings, knowing that when you go full force with your research that everyone must think you’re insane. Taking the fruit of these hours and destroying them.

We stood in a lab with a fake head drilled onto a pedestal in front of me. A large screen on the wall behind it showed what the manufactured brain inside looked like. Employees sent to supervise us in their blindingly white coats sat casually around making conversation and halfheartedly making sure we didn’t steal anything or play with any toys we weren’t supposed to.

Dane explained the very simple hand position to rest on the TIs forehead, and the command to punch into the transistor. He was dressed in the same black suit and tie he was wearing when he rid me of my evidence, seeing him this way made the memories more vivid. “What did you break?” I asked, staring at his suit.

He responded quickly, and I got the impression that he had been expecting my question. “A glass figure of Mary. But I left it as I had found it.” I glanced up at him to read an expression, I didn’t know why. He had the sort of eyes that always looked sad.

I turned to the head and looked it over, the whole thing was a beige tone with facial features molded into it. It had empty eyes and a soft smile, it seemed to stare into me with a quiet insanity. I felt myself trying to see some part of me in it, and thinking that perhaps if the thing holding me back was projecting myself onto other people, that if I could pretend as though I were doing this to myself, I might be free.

I quickly got it over with. Hand in position on the dummy’s forehead, I punched in a command and watched the screen. I had expected to feel a burn or tingling or something, but it felt as though nothing was happening. Yet I saw it on the screen, several small structures lit up. I held my hand in place until I heard a soft beep in my mind.

“Perfect.” He said. I looked at my shaking hands, then the dummy head. I could swear for a moment the corners of the mouth perked up the slightest bit. I felt that I had just witnessed and taken part in something very wrong. Dane asked me how I felt. “Disturbed, I think.”

My mind went back to school. When we had to cut apart a fetal pig. I was in a group with all girls and all of them squealed and gagged with every slice, a couple couldn’t bring themselves to watch. And so I handled all of the dissection, until it came to a part where I couldn’t see something in its throat, and it was explained that we would have to break its jaw.

I believed that I could do it, I had my hands prepared to break it apart, but then I pulled a little and felt the tension. Felt that it had physically reached a limit that would require hands­ on destruction in order to continue. I felt unsettled. My hands shook as I removed them from the pig, and when I looked at the creature I could swear it grinned at me for a moment.

—–

The next couple of weeks passed as though they were seconds, and the day arrived when I would handle my first TI. Dane was sent with me so he could monitor my behavior in the field. My TI’s name was Amber McCullen, she lived alone with her cat. 

It was New Year’s Eve and when we appeared in her walk ­in closet. I could hear the television, updates from Times Square, building up to the ball dropping.

I remembered Dane telling me she was in the basement, and he positioned himself at the end of a long hallway right behind the door she would emerge from. I stood at the end of the hall she would see when she stepped out. For about half an hour after teleporting, distance causes severe distortion of teleported objects. When she saw me I looked like a wavy silhouette. A mirage at the end of her hallway.

She was carrying a laundry basket and stopped when she opened the door to pick up a fallen sweater on the steps. She called for someone, and by the tone of her voice she as requesting the presence of a cat for ‘num nums’. When she looked up and saw me she didn’t seemed to react for a moment, her house was dim, perhaps she thought she was seeing things. But then she suddenly tensed, gasped and dropped the basket. Before I could stop myself the words slipped out, “I’m sorry.” Dane reached around from behind her, pressed two fingers to her forehead and she went limp.

We worked quickly, we had been told where all of the information was. When we had gathered her documents and taken care of the information she had stored on her computer, there was one thing left to do.

Her cat wandered into the office, a poofy ball of orange fluff. He hopped up onto Amber’s lap and meowed loudly. Probably inquiring as to the location of the previously promised num nums. I looked at her face, the only light in the room was an architect’s lamp on the desk. Half her features were in light and the others in darkness. She looked peaceful. The only sounds I could hear were coming from her television, the countdown was coming close.

I carefully placed my hand on her forehead. I became very aware that my choice at this moment was to either remove these important pieces of herself, her memories of her research, the people she had gained an understand of along the way, or to lose myself. I thought that even if I weren’t standing there, someone else would be. Dane would be, doing this himself. We’re all replaceable. But I knew in my gut that even if the choice were simply between her and I, I would still spare my memories and take hers.

I wondered if there were more complicated criteria to choosing agents than I originally thought. Perhaps they chose us because we were selfish enough to think of ourselves first and were easily intimidated.

“Dane,” I said, “are you a fearful man?” I looked over to him. He stood at the threshold of the room, hands holding her documents. “I’m not sure anyone lives past 20 without some healthy fear.” He said. I watched him for a moment, wondering how to rephrase my question. He seemed to sense what I meant and spoke again, “Yes. I am fearful.”

“Do you consider yourself to be selfish?”

“Yes, very much.”

Tears began filling my eyes and I wasn’t sure why. I looked back to Amber as the countdown to the new year reached its end. 

5

4

3

2

I punched in the command. “I’m sorry.”

—–

I woke up the next few nights in the middle of the hallway of 51­E. My sleepwalking occurred more and more frequently as I was sent on one assignment after another. They tended to pair me with Dane. I couldn’t say I enjoyed his company, or that I dreaded it, but I did feel that he was the most relatable to myself. Everyone else seemed to feel either imprisoned or thrilled to be working for 51. In the midst of this new life where we were given the impression that we had all seen behind the curtain at the very real Wizard, still the tendencies to sniff out lies and conspiracy ran smoothly daily.

One older lady by the name of Barbara, an educated behaviorist and collector of limited edition Minnie Mouse stamps, believed that the reason agents rarely attempted to flee or ever felt a sense of panic at being taken away from our former lives, was because 51 was slipping us drugs to make us generate slightly higher serotonin levels. She explained that the stuff can put you at ease, less likely to question change and open to accepting information at face value. I could certainly see the possibility of this being true, but I wasn’t sure it mattered to me truly. Perhaps it was the serotonin speaking.

—–

I had been at 51 for six months before they decided to send me out on my own. I liked the trips to 51J,­ the section of the place housing transportation related equipment. Time machines, flying saucers, and the means of travel used by agents that I had never been told the name of, were all simply referred to as the teleport tubes.

The teleport tubes were 20 huge clear tubes with white bases, they reminded me of the sort of thing you’d see at waterparks. The tubes were necessary for this travel because they were set as the ‘home’ location on the transistors, with a predetermined spot in the TIs home being labeled as the ‘visiting’ spot. These spaces were important to identify because they were spots where we could be certain that an object wasn’t already occupying the space when an agent was sent over to it.

As I walked to the back of the warehouse space, information about the TI was being fed to me via thought broadcast. ​Scrapbook and small notebook in white desk in bedroom, no information on desktop computer but photographs on a flashdrive in top drawer of dresser. Rosaline Renoir, lives alone. I froze. Rosaline didn’t even own a computer. I told myself firmly that it had to be a sick coincidence and walked onward. The information continued. ​She’s resting in her bedroom. ​I opened the door to tube 18 and stepped inside. I put two fingers to my wrist and informed whoever was listening that I was at my home location.

I closed my eyes and when I breathed in I smelled her perfume. I opened my eyes and I stood in her kitchen. I wanted to call out for her, but I had trained myself to not allow words to slip out anymore, and so I was silent. I looked around for a moment and I saw my face on a small square in the newspaper on her counter. People were looking for me. They were looking because I had disappeared without a trace.

Below the newspaper sat a scrapbook with my face on the front. I only needed to see a page or two before understanding it was progress in everyone’s search for me. I was surprised at my lack of guilt, lack of remorse. I wanted to feel sadness or regret. I wanted to feel like I was one of them again, one of the real humans. But this felt like just business at the moment, it truly did.

I had solidified my feelings regarding these people very quickly. I had asked myself again and again which of the two options I wanted more than the other, which one I could live with. My answer had always been the same, and I knew it would remain this way. I closed the scrapbook and began a walk to the back of the home where her room sat. I saw magazines and books in her living room, she had been researching UFOs. I believed then that I knew why I was here.

My mother was young when she became pregnant, barely sixteen. She refused to give the name of my father and so went through the experience of becoming a mother with only Rosaline by her side. No sisters, no real friends, no aunts. She was a child giving birth to a child. She felt no attachment to me, she felt no affection for me. I was an inconvenience and a reminder of a stupid boy she knew once in high school. When she turned eighteen she explained in simple terms to Rosaline that she wanted to give me up.

I was little, surely some family dying for a beautiful baby girl would take me. But Rosaline saw in me a chance to do something good for the world. She saw the chance to create a force of compassion and respectfulness, of goodness. She knew she had failed with my mother, my grandfather passed not too long after my mother was born, and Rosaline allowed grief and anger to overtake her abilities to raise a child with proper attention and discipline. And I represented a final opportunity to leave behind a blood legacy worthwhile. My mother left in the middle of the night on the eve of her 19th birthday.

I had told my grandmother when I was twenty of my interest in things not of this world, she had heard me ramble about the evidence I held. I told her about people who had disappeared in their search for the truth. She admired my passion, I was not prone to passion about very many things. But the subject concerned her. And then six months ago her legacy goes missing, and she knows of only one place to look. And she was very good at looking, so it seemed. She certainly had a reason to be driven about it.

I came to the door of her room and had to stop myself from knocking. With a smooth set of motions I stepped in and towards her bed, and put a hand to her head just as she opened her eyes from a nap. Her mind was able to fight back for a moment before I put her out, glancing over to me with first a glint of fear followed by wide­ eyes before she faded to sleep. I felt emotions stirring below the surface but they didn’t break through. Because I knew my options. I still felt a desire to say something, this being an opportunity to say goodbye or explain myself, even if she would never recall this.

“Grandmother.” My mind was a crowded mob of so many words flying around, so many things I wanted to say suddenly. That I didn’t know I had wanted to say. I felt a longing creep out of the fog of indifference I called my home. “If I could turn back time for you, if I had that right, I would give you a life with all of the love that you deserve. I wish I could wrap you in life’s better things, I wish I could give you back the years you wasted on me. I love you more than anything in the world. But I know the thing I can live with.”

I punched in the command and returned to the fog.

 

 

 

 


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Hannah-Elizabeth Noelle ThompsonHannah-Elizabeth Noelle Thompson Newell:  Hannah Newell has a long name. She is also terrible at starting bios.

A restless little whippersnapper, Hannah grew up never staying in the same town for longer than a few years, and eventually she never stayed in the same state for very long. She currently resides in Fairmont, West Virginia. Her spare time is spent fixing (and accidentally breaking) her typewriters, making things one might call ‘art’, and attacking everyone online and elsewhere with hugs (if you’d like frequent hug attacks, you may follow her on Twitter @SherlockMadame.) Also she kinda loves you. And she is terrible at ending bios.

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5 Comments

  1. Reading Hannah’s work is always a treat. Her grasp on language and emotion far surpass my own, and it is definitely something to be envied.

    TI stories are fascinating. I’ve had bits of paranoia at times, especially before the Snowden announcements, but thank fully mine have been justified. The main character in this found her suspicions to be true as well, and that is an interesting story in itself. I’d love to know what the moment of impact was, that first time she is taken away and all the validation and fear that comes with it.

    The conflict at the end was pretty hardcore. Blast the memories of a loved one away, specifically the ones that loved you most. That decision was rough.

    Also, i really want a teleporter. Good work, Hannah!

  2. One of the weirder things about the arena is that I wind up reading great stories from people I know, and who I’ve talked to *while* they’re writing them. I’m sort of a purist when it comes to these things, I always feel the art should stand on its own, so discussing a story or getting emails about it from the author’s perspective is new to me. I can never tell if I’m cheating or not with that sort of insight, if my take on the story is really my take or partially what the author has already put into my head.

    Anyway, I’m babbling. I loved this story, it is everything I’ve come to expect from Hannah. She has a way of bringing me into a genre in completely unexpected ways. “Pillow” remains one of my favorite arena stories just for that reason, and this one does the same. The opening scene of church hats and grandmas was delightful and then all of a sudden we’re in Area 51 and while I want to say “What?!” instead I find myself saying “Yeah that completely works.”

    The character’s motivations and conflicts are all nicely on display and there are a number of perfectly poignant moments. The ending is harsh and yet somehow beautiful…though maybe I’m weird.

    I have to throw some complaints in, because this is the arena, so I would say that we’re definitely skirting the edge of the prompt here. Also, while I enjoyed a LOT of the sci-fi goodness that was thrown in, I’m not sure I needed all of the backstory on how the infiltration teams progressed in their work and what not. Interesting, but I was already totally sold on the world so maybe things could have been streamlined.

  3. Hannah writes things that make me want to go away and think about them for a while. In this case, I had to go away and think carefully about what this story was trying to do.

    I enjoyed the experience of reading it very much. Hannah’s effortless worldbuilding makes everything that happens in her stories seem perfectly reasonable. She has a talent for creating fascinating narrator voices, and all the way through this story I wanted to do nothing more than sit and listen as the tale unfolded.

    Hannah and Tony both seem to have written stories about coming to terms with your life, and have done so in ways that couldn’t be more different. My sole issue with it is about how it relates to or connects to the prompt. And it’s not an issue, it’s a quibble.

  4. This made me sad. It hurt to think about that little girl growing up and finding that the thing she wanted to find most in the world would cost her her soul. I wanted the girl to let the grandma go. I wanted her to stop like she stopped with the pig. But she had gone too far. She had grown up, and lost that part of herself. She did what was necessary, what she had to do. Just like Eve, her innocence was replaced by knowledge, and just like Eve she found herself poorer for the exchange.

  5. The first time I read this story, I felt a little disappointed that it didn’t honor some of the classic unities; it doesn’t focus on a discrete event, but chooses instead to meander over a span of the protagonist’s life.

    Thanks to re-reading and reflection, I realized that that was part of the point—the Pierette is trapped by the circumstances of her life. In fact, the more she might try to free herself, the deeper she is sucked in. The winding flow of the narrative underlines the labyrinth in which she has become ensnared.

    I do wish that more use had been made of the prompt. I love the idea of imbedded technology. I wonder if a simple tweak would have made the tattooing more essential. Perhaps the further an agent gets into 51, the more tech is imbedded? Thus the technology becomes another form of captivity.

    But there is a subtle hand at work here that I’ve come to appreciate even more on re-reading. A very poignant tale.

    Good job!

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