This short story is an *IA Writing Competition (fiction category) entry.
AGAPE: LOVE IN ACTION
They are all quite clearly bonkers. The kids with their crazy haircuts and Doc Marten boots, the middle-aged dreamers and dissidents, a sprinkling of senior citizens who should know better: grans and grandads to save the planet.
And now, so Destiny has told me, I am one of them. I am most definitely not one of them but try convincing this bunch of extremists and eco-radicals. I have tried.
"We read your book. It’s brilliant. It’s like a call to action."
I explain once again:
"It’s just a story."
"I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. Had to look it up."
"Love of humanity, love between god and mortals. Did I get it right?"
"Greta tweeted how she loves your book. All those things you said in your podcasts and Youtube videos — it is so inspiring."
"So, no word from Che?"
I recall a moment in the 60s, seeing the magazine pictures of his lifeless body with its rash of bullet wounds and make a mental note: that’s what happens if you don’t have a social media presence; you cease to exist.
"Destiny, hold on. You’ve got me all wrong. You’re confusing the message with its sender. I am not who you think I am. I’m a novelist, not a revolutionary."
Destiny has put on her serious face.
"It’s like we’ve been chosen to put your ideas into action. We have one chance to save the world and we’re ready. But we need your help."
"And how could I possibly help you?"
"You’re one of us now."
So I, too, will soon be on some CIA Interpol watch list. I will never again have a private life. Well, thank you so much.
I feel a flicker of annoyance; it won’t go away. It seems that my words have put a match to some highly flammable tinder. Thanks to my book, this legion of the lost and deluded have found a direction and a purpose, unity among its disparate tribes. And they are not going to give that away just because its author is a little reticent in accepting the mantle of leadership.
They’ve hijacked my Uber ride and brought me to what they say is an important meeting. They’ve installed me in some cavernous underground space: a car park without the cars, all concrete, pipework and electrical ducting, and left me wondering whether I am now their guest or their hostage.
When I speak, I find that my voice sounds shrill, indignant.
"I’m not one of you. I was kidnapped."
The young woman offers a little frown.
"We diverted your ride. I’m so sorry — but we have to be careful."
As with everyone else I’ve met here, Destiny wants to show kindness and goes out of her way to be respectful, even reverential. It’s infuriating.
"How the hell did you get into my Uber account?"
"We’ve got people with all the smarts – hacktivists, covert ops. You know."
I don’t know. But I am beginning to see that they are both capable and determined: well-qualified and highly trained fruit-loops. Should I be worried? You bet I should.
I’m standing on a low stage made from rough wooden frames supporting a plywood platform. In front of me is a professional-looking microphone on an adjustable stand.
A young woman below shoulders a hefty camera connected to a video screen on the wall. For a moment, I see a close-up of my own face, an anxious-looking woman approaching old age. Then, thank god, this flickers off and is replaced by a series of images of crowded rooms, where people are waving and silently shouting at the camera. Each shot is captioned in large lettering: Tokio, Manchester, New York, Seattle, Berlin, Tehran.
I am now the focus of the whole room. The crowd has surged round on three sides — behind me is a concrete wall. Destiny walks over to the microphone and there are loud cheers. She raises her hand for silence.
"You all know who this is. Susan Heugel."
A cheer goes up; whistles and whoops echo round the space.
"This is the woman who has inspired us all."
I offer a nervous grin in response to another wave of applause.
"Dr Heugel is going to remind us why we’re all here and where we’re going."
Destiny turns towards me, steps back from the microphone and gestures for me to take her place.
I am silent, dumbstruck, an emperor with no clothes facing her subjects. I want to tell them that I just wrote down whatever came to me, I made it all up without any real plan or agenda. That’s what writers do and are surprised by the way their stories take shape. Almost like dictation.
Which poses the question, where does this stuff come from — a muse, a deity, the greater unconscious? Where indeed. And how am I going to explain all this to the assembled would-be revolutionaries and tell them they’ve made a terrible mistake? I have to get out.
"Destiny, can I have a word in private?"
I step away as far from the microphone as far as I can.
"Is this really going out to all those places — Tokio, Berlin, New York?"
"Loads more as well."
"I’m not sure I want to take this any further."
"Don’t worry. It’s all encrypted end to end. We’ve got some top people in our security team, even a couple of guys who worked for Mossad."
"It’s not the security."
Destiny looks puzzled and eager to hear what I have to say.
"So what is it?"
"You brought me here against my will. Now I want to go home."
"We’re giving you your big chance to put your plan into action."
"It wasn’t my plan; it was my character’s. A character who I made up. This is all…"
Lost for words, I gesture out at the packed room, searching for a way to convince this earnest young woman of the truth.
"It’s a fantasy. You’re mistaking a fantasy for the real world. I’m sorry. I don’t want anything to do with it."
Destiny won’t be put off so easily.
"It’s not a fantasy any more. It’s like you said in your lectures, what Einstein said about how imagination is more important than knowledge and that quote about whatever you dream you can do, you must begin it. Now."
‘Goethe. Were you in my class?’
"I wasn’t Destiny, then."
I try to picture Destiny as an unremarkable Cassie or Sarah and fail.
‘That course changed me. I remember it all. You have to commit yourself. Then all the world acts with you. Right?"
"W H Murray. That was about writing, not drugging people to try and start a world revolution."
"Isn’t that what you want?"
"Then why did you write the book?"
I know why I wrote the book – because it was topical; it was interesting and satisfying. And after it started to appear on all the best-seller lists, I promoted it with such conviction because, at last, I knew I was heading for success.
Destiny now looks like someone who has made a winning point.
"See, you’ve manifested it."
She looks round at the crowd, to the screens where thousands of faces are turned to us.
"All of us, we believe in you."
"You believe in someone who doesn’t exist."
"You said it was easy to write a dystopia and how it’s time to create hopeful stories. People want something uplifting. Your story has changed our lives."
I’m beginning to see where all this is going. Life of Brian comes to mind. A range of emotions run through me: disbelief, then fear and finally anger at being trapped by these people.
"Does your organisation...?"
"Do you really think you can change history by attacking world leaders?"
"Not attack — help."
A young woman comes over — cropped hair, tattoos, AirBuds. She’s consulting the outsize screen of a mobile device.
"We can’t keep the secure link open for much longer."
She looks up at me.
"Sorry, Doctor Heugel. But we all so want to hear what you have to say."
Destiny is doing sums in her head.
"Okay. Then we have to cut."
The technician hurries away.
Destiny steps close. She does that thing of holding my arm as she talks, which I loathe.
"Susan, please. Do you have any idea how hard we’ve worked to keep all these people together? We need you."
"Before you decide, we have something to show you. Just two minutes — I promise. Then if you still want out, you can go. No one will ever know."
Before I can answer, I’m aware of a commotion in the middle of the room. Two young men, who look like they have come from central casting – buzz-cut camo-clad recruits to some prepper militia – have taken out a small aluminium flight case.
One of them opens the lid, takes out something too small for me to make out and lifts it above his head. There is the whirr of tiny wings as it lifts itself into the air, wobbles, rights itself and then wheels across the room. Heads move to get out of its path. It is most definitely coming my way.
As it gets closer, I recognise it as a tiny dragonfly with the same darting flight. And it seems to be watching me as I try to dodge out of its path so that it quickly adjusts its course. I give in and submit to whatever this creature wants of me.
It hovers above my shoulder, then slowly, carefully lands on my wrist. Close up, it is a thing of intricate beauty: crystalline wings as fine as spun silk, delicate legs, tiny cameras and sensors turning.
I know it can see me. I wonder if it might, too, be thinking about what it sees. Nonsense, that was just something I made up for the book. Surely they haven’t replicated everything I wrote into this make-believe world: the swarm of mosquito drones that use AI to single out their targets, that deliver a dose of mind-bending hallucinogen to the men – and yes, they were almost all men – who make the decisions that are destroying the planet?
In the story, it’s world-changing. The drones deliver their payload of love and peace; the bad guys get their minds blown.
Like kids on ecstasy at the festival who realise that they love everyone and want to give away all their possessions; like the mid-life crisis seekers after wisdom, out of their heads on ayahuasca, peyote, or mushrooms, so-called reality blasted away to reveal the wonder of the world around them. So it is in my novel, with each authoritarian leader, multi-national CEO, or nuclear-armed tyrant. Their eyes are opened. They fall in love with humanity, the planet and life in all its beauty; our world is saved on the brink of destruction.
Have they taken this as a blueprint for action? Is this the campaign they want me to lead?
I’m pulled out of my thoughts by a sharp sensation that runs down my wrist, a scratch and brief tingling.
Without thinking, I jerk back my arm and sweep the device away with my free hand. It hangs in the air for a few seconds, then is gone. One moment there’s a dragonfly, then a flash of blue light. The space it occupied is now filled with a cloud of smoke that drifts in the air and disappears. There is a long silence. They are waiting.
I feel panic in the face of uncontrollable forces. I’m strapped into the roller coaster as it reaches the top of the ride and hesitates before the terrible drop. No way out, no way back: just this. And mixed up with the fear is excitement. There’s a thrill of something as I’m lifted by this surge of energy focused on me. Just me.
This energy seems to have affected my vision. The room has taken on a yellowish hue. People and objects are surrounded by a faint halo of light. It’s as if the colour contrast has been turned up: everything is too bright, too vivid in its presence.
Then something extraordinary and alarming happens. At the edges of my vision, pipes and ducting transform into a coiling mass of serpents that flow through jungle vines, all tinted in vivid rainbow highlights. If I turn my attention to this vision, it reassembles itself into metal and plastic. Then the rainforest surges back once I look away.
I am in two worlds. Reality falters — dissolves. Panic is mixed with amazement.
A sea of faces is now the sea where waves fall and lift and roll across its vastness, where gleaming coral with all its fishes sparkle below the surface, where a cresting surge of water resolves itself into a sea of raised hands waving like some great anemone. And there is Che, his handsome face defiant and immortal. The beauty of it is overwhelming. It is pure joy.
Someone is playing a flute. I float on the music high over the sea of faces; then, I’m back on the platform. Destiny has an arm round my shoulder: such beauty in this face, these eyes.
There is a disconcerting time lag between my words and their sound in the air.
Destiny gives me the smile of a goddess.
"I think you know."
I can’t help myself laughing out loud, can barely get the words out.
It’s hilarious: Susan, the straightest person in the universe — right here. As if by magic, the microphone is in front of me. So how did that happen?
"Are you ready?"
With a huge effort of will, I stop giggling, compose myself and look out at the waiting listeners. A flood of emotion flows up and around, floats me up to a place where I can see it all. Everything.
There’s Susie, word-bound and self-absorbed, with her million-dollar book deal, the success, the comfortable life, writing to the deadlines and expectations of publishers and publicists, the lonely hours at the keyboard in an empty house. She’s had the trip of a lifetime – a holiday to another world – and she’s back to what she knows, to comfort and certainty. To reality.
And there is someone walking away, stepping into the arms of Agape. She is surrounded by friends, fellow lovers of life, a band of sisters and brothers held close by their shared struggle. She’s always yearned for this, for belonging — love.
I take in this gathering of souls; tears run down my face.
"Agape. I love you all. We are one."
The moment stretches out. A deep calm settles over me, unlike anything I’ve known. I understand that my life is now part of something far bigger, without limit and beyond any control.
Dr Alan Hancock is an educator, writer, theatre director and consultant in communication skills and creative practice.
* Full IA Writing Competition details HERE.
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