Rule by Kenneth Schalhoub

Kenneth Schalhoub channels Yevgeny Zamyatin's We in this sci-fi about an emotionally suppressed counselor who discovers desire.

The Counselor waited for his next client. His eyes focused on the wall straight ahead; an ever-changing projection of events in his past.

He viewed his younger self staring at paintings in history books.

He watched himself reading about nature before the world changed to programmable ambiances.

He saw the image of himself staring across the pond at girls his age, just out of reach.

He stared at the next image; the day when he talked with his Companion about girls.

The next day his Companion administered the Medication.

His client arrived; the wall faded to neutral.

Anna sat with perfect posture in the ShapeShift, waiting for the Counselor to begin.

"You were taught years ago that nothing is permanent," The Counselor said to Anna. Daylight radiated through the fully cleared windows. The sun's glow amplified her green eyes.

"I know Holly and you were a Pair for many seasons. It's now time to accept that in the absence of her existence, your purpose will change and, therefore, your world will change. I must prepare you for that inevitability."

Anna stared directly at The Counselor. "What do I do now? I am Pairless."

"One step at a time. Go back to your Cube. Re-charge and clear your memory of counterproductive thoughts."

The Counselor watched the Companion leave his office. This was not the first time a Companion had lost a Partner, yet this one seemed more vulnerable. He focused on her loose-fitting utility clothing. He imagined it brushing past her seamless skin. Anna descended the steps, disappearing from view. The Counselor stayed in his ShapeShift staring at the empty stairs. An odd feeling stirred in his stomach; a sensation he had never felt before. At that moment he remembered he forgot to administer his Medication.



Anna took the WalkWay back to her Cube. Once inside, she scanned her silent living space she once shared with her Partner. Before she lost Holly, the kitchen would have been full of human presence. Holly would be cooking or cleaning. That was what she liked to do. Each evening Anna committed all the events of the day to permanent memory, while listening to Holly hum her favorite song. It was a special song to Anna because it was special to her Partner. She sat in her ShapeShift with one thought continuing to loop in her mind. How do humans behave when they lose someone important?



The Counselor returned to his office after meeting with three of his colleagues. Anna was the purpose for the meeting. The Counselor sat alone after the meeting ended. The female Partners were all he could recall from the past hour. He had noted how differently hair fell on each of their shoulders. He had never noticed the subtleties in females. He felt the same unusual sensation and remembered again, for the second day, he had forgotten to administer his Medication.

He sent a message to Anna's EyeMini telling her to come to his office at 10:15am, tomorrow.



Anna left early and walked to the Counselor's office. She watched as Partners and Companions strolled lock-step past her. They did not notice her. Holly's tune coursed through Anna's uncertain mind. A memory she consciously elevated in importance contained an image of Holly crying because she had seen a girl her age alone among all the Pairs.

"You won't ever leave me, will you, Anna?"

"I will never leave you, I cannot leave you."

The Counselor's door was open. Anna entered, soundlessly, and sat in the ShapeShift. His eyes followed her. He said nothing for over a minute.

"We should discuss your future."

He smiled at Anna; she returned his gesture automatically. She understood his words, knew the past. Companions had been created centuries ago to fill a need. Human children were now born in facilities and handed off to Companions like Anna for rearing and permanent Pairing. There was no need for heterosexual relationships.

"However, all Partners die," he continued. "Your situation is not unusual, but I understand that doesn't help your confusion now. In these cases, we are required by Rule to help you understand what a Re-purpose means.

"How will you help me understand something I have never experienced?"

"Dreaming," he said.

"Without my Partner, can I enter the Realm alone?" Although she was incapable of feeling fear, the green of her eyes dimmed.

"Go back to your Cube and make believe you're with Holly. Everything will happen exactly as before, but without your Partner. Once you send out your waves, you will find yourself in a simple palette which you can modify. You may encounter one or more minds. Many will be attracted to you."

Anna took the SpeedWay back to her Cube. She would comply with the Counselor.



The Counselor walked the BreezeWay to the meeting room. His three colleagues sat with hands clasped on top of their NoteSheets. Unexpected perspiration moistened his hairline.

"Well, Counselor?" asked Partner Three.

"She's still quite unsteady. I've installed some specific mental routines to help her." He scanned their faces hoping they let the statement lie unchallenged. Opaque eyes stared at him.

"What's so special about this one?" Partner Three asked.

"She may have a mental pathway imbalance," the Counselor said. He knew this was highly unlikely based on Companion design. He was stalling. Un-Medicated, he was losing his ability to demonstrate calm and constrain his lost libido. He balanced on a knife-edge. He never saw the females as anything but Partners. But now he saw them as he imagined men used to see women.

"Imbalance? Care to explain?" Partner Three continued her pointed inquiry.

"To explain what's happening with her will require a bit more study."

"Are you planning to apply for a sanctioned study? You're unlikely to receive permission," Partner One said.

The Counselor realized he was holding his breath. After a slow exhale, he decided the meeting must end before they caught him in his lies. "Let's hold on the study discussion. I just received an EyeMini alert. Anna is in a Dream crisis. May we continue this discussion at a later time?"

He did not give them time to say no.



Anna used to love Dreaming with Holly. They would walk together in golden fields of bronze wheat, wispy stalks standing tall, resisting harvest. Protesting, black-and-white magpies would fly too close to Holly; Anna would shoo them away. Animal-shaped clouds, white as once arctic snow, decorated the watercolor blue sky.

The ShapeShift molded around her. She closed her eyes and did what she had always done to enter a Dream.

Anna opened her inner eyes and saw a cloudless blue sky, infinite green lawn, and birds chirping as in a child's cartoon. She closed her eyes and focused on the last Dream she had had with Holly. She opened her eyes and saw the familiar wheat field, heard the same magpies.

There were other sounds, too. Echoes without words. Presence without substance. She tried to reach out with her thoughts.

There were others watching her in the Realm. Unknown Partners hid among the wheat stalks.

She felt breezes circling her.

And then something touched her back.

She turned quickly to see, but everything was out of reach.

And then a figure approached, one she could not completely see.

Large male hands emerged from the figure and found her hands. Their fingers entangled.

His forehead touched hers.

He squeezed her hands.

She tried to speak.

He shook his head "no." His downturned eyes eluded Anna. He placed his forehead back against hers.

Did she know this man? She tried to say "Who are you?" But her mouth would not respond.

He shook his head "no," again.

Her hands returned to his, foreheads became one.

Her body reacted differently than when in the Real.

He squeezed her hands rhythmically.

Pulses of energy coursed down her body.

"Who are you?"

"A man in your Dream."

Steamy breezes moistened her face.

"I am different in here."

"You're beginning to feel emotions."

"That is not possible."

"Many things are possible in the Dream Realm. Would you like to take this experience into the Real?"

"Is that possible?"

"Maybe..."

"What about Holly? Is she here?" she asked.

"We may find a memory of her in this place if you come back. Your memory will always be a part of your Dreams."

An alarm sounded within Anna alerting her to the expiring dream time. She had been in the Dream for only five minutes. She plugged in to her power source for the remaining evening.

Anna began her walk to The Counselor's office at 9:15am. Peaceful sights and sounds accompanied the WalkWays. She listened attentively to bird song without birds. The fragrant air mimicked an alpine forest. She hoped this ambiance would have its time extended. It was her favorite. It did not matter to Anna that everything around her was artificial and created by the Global Designers. She could create real birds in Dreams.



The Counselor woke the next morning, offered his own Companion a good day, and boarded the SpeedWay to his office. His mind raced with newness. A curtain had been lifted from his senses. And it was not just the new feeling in his stomach when he saw Anna. His SpeedWay zipped past preoccupied Pairs on the WalkWays. Dispersed pine scent filled his nose. He wondered what it might be like if everything were real.

Anna stood in his doorway.

"Anna, please come in."

She sat in the ShapeShift.

"How are you, Anna, on this fine day."

"I have been Dreaming."

"Excellent! How has it been for you?"

"Quiet, except once."

"What happened?"

"I found a man in my Dream Realm."

"Who was he?"

"I do not know. He would not show me his face."

"Did you get other clues from his presence?"

"His hands were warm and moist."

"Moist how? Pleasant or unpleasant?

"How would I know?"

"It's a Dream, surely you must have a preference for how hands should feel to you."

"My hands sunk into his."

"And his forehead?"

"His forehead?" She remembered that part of the Dream most vividly. She had not told him about their foreheads touching.

The Counselor hesitated for a moment. "You must know it's a common position in Dreams for Partners to entwine hands and touch foreheads with companions."

"My forehead sunk into his," she said.

The Counselor stared at Anna. "I hope you have another opportunity in your Dreams to discover this man."

"I see the appointment time has expired. I will leave," Anna said.

"Yes. But you must keep Dreaming."

Once alone, sitting in his ShapeShift, staring at the floating poly-glass desk surface, he took inventory. His mind was stable, yet a continuous subtle excitement kept his stomach on edge.

A flash from his EyeMini caught his attention and reminded him he had not taken his Medication for four days. He knew he was consciously forgetting. The anesthetizing cloud had been steadily dissipating. As the clear spots grew, the half of his life that had been deadened began to come alive. He now saw what had always been right in front of him: desire, excitement, anticipation, disappointment, anxiety. He could not control the accelerating intensity of emotions.



Once back in her ShapeShift, Anna initiated waves and fell into a Dream.

Ephemeral breezes with voices swirled past her. Autumn leaves, dried and cracked as ancient book pages, fell through the rays from a pulsating sun in Kodachrome colors. A sudden gust swept the leaves away, transforming her experience. She found herself surrounded by fallen mummified corn stalks. Her steps ground the brittle husks into dust. Whispers surrounded her. She called back. "Is anyone there?" The whispers grew louder. She saw movement in the distance. She called out again. "Hello?"

"I'm here," a voice answered.

A silhouette drifted from the periphery to directly in front of her. Although she still could not see his face, she knew it was that man from before. His warmth radiated in waves. She could see the infrared color. There was a familiarity surrounding him. He touched his forehead to hers. Her eyes closed without thought. His fingers entangled with hers. A warmth engulfed her entire body.

"You hold me. I cannot move."

"I enjoy holding you. Do you enjoy being embraced?"

"Enjoy?"

"You're hindered in the Real by your programming. You cannot feel emotions in the Real. But you know that here, anything is possible."

At that moment, a continuous wave of warmth swept over her.

"What do you feel?"

"My body seems to be separate from my mind."

They remained together, floating above the harvested cornfield. Anna no longer had control of the Dream.

"You control me."

"No, we are connected. We are one."

"But I cannot move. I cannot influence what is happening."

"Stay with me, for another moment."

Anna remained frozen until the Man finally untangled their fingers and drifted away into the dusty palette.



It was the day before Anna's next Counselor appointment. She had been in a rest period for an extended time. The Dreams caused her to expend more energy. The Man had deserted her Dream, leaving her vulnerable to the mysterious language of the Realm. Rest ultimately overrode her conscious mind.

With the rest cycle completed, an EyeMini message from The Counselor flashed in her field of vision, instructing her to Dream one more time before her appointment. "Try to identify the voices," the Mini directed her.

Anna found herself thrust into a kaleidoscope world. The sun's rays broke into separate colors as if her eyes were prisms. The land was painted in colored stripes. She stood under an oak tree with indigo leaves. A single female voice swirled around her.

"Who are you?"

"You know me."

"How?"

"I'm inside you, in your deep memory."

"Are you Holly?"

"I'm your idea of Holly. I am a composite of all you filed away from our past together."

"Deep memory?"

"Yes. Companions and Partners alike have memories that are filed away, but can be brought to consciousness. Dreaming makes it easier."

"What happened to you? My Counselor only said you were in an accident."

"I cannot know since I'm coming from you."

"I need to find out?"

"He's coming!"

In that instant, the image of Holly broke into colored lozenges and reassembled into the Man.

The hands reached out before she could see his body. His hot fingers entwined with hers, holding her motionless. His forehead moved forward in slow motion, gently finding its place against hers. She realized she had been anticipating this encounter.

"Were you looking forward to this?" he asked.

"Yes."

"Do you know why?"

"I only know it frequently enters my mind."

"I created the colors so we could see how differently each one feels."

"Feel? Colors can feel?"

Anna spun freely in the colors, barely touching the grass. She could not focus on what the Man was saying. Her body and mind acted differently in the Realm - freer. The Real constricted her.

The Man tried to stop Anna from spinning, but her momentum set them both whirling up toward the floating prism, moving from color to color as if some silent motor turned a plastic color wheel. The spinning rainbow morphed into a star-studded sphere. He appeared in the center and pulled her toward him. They joined. They drifted, linked by hands and mind; Anna unable to resist. He held her fixed in the center of the sphere, wrapped in red satin, stuck together as if one. His warmth and strength were all she wanted.

He slipped his fingers from hers and wrapped his arms around her. His hands stroked her back. He pushed against her as if he wanted to merge with her.

Then it happened. A wave of energy began from the tip of her toes, pulsating up through her body, penetrating her mind. The cycle happened again - then again - then again. She finally pushed away and saw his face. Her mind froze in recognition.

"Stay with me," he whispered.

"Where?"

"Here! This is not the Real. There are no Rules in Dreams. We make the rules! We can be together here -"

"But I am a Companion. I have a Role to play in our Society. I am needed."

"By whom?"

"My next Partner."

"You'll be Re-purposed. You won't remember any of this."

"If that is my role -"

"Stay with me here! I need -"

The Man's presence vanished in the Realm, shattering into jigsaw pieces. Anna called out his name in a now sterile world. No one was there to listen. The Realm collapsed into a shrinking funnel of blackness.



His colleagues referred him to The PsychAdjustment Team. The team sat in their ShapeShifts, Work Dreaming. Three special Partners, unacquainted with the Counselor, were charged with deciding how to handle this unusual occurrence.

"We have no historical guidance," Partner A offered.

"Indeed," Partner B said.

"Sadly," Partner C added.

"We must decide on our own. We must keep the Companion, Anna, in stasis until we enforce the sentence on the Rule breaker," Partner A directed.

"Let's discuss this Rule breaker," Partner A said.

"Level 3 Psych. No record of Deviant behavior," Partner C added.

"Has he ever had a case review before a Team?" Partner B asked.

"This is his first," Partner C said.

"Why do you think he stopped administering his Medication?" Partner B asked.

"The allure can be overwhelming. The urge to understand how things used to be can tempt a Partner to give up the Medication. But, as you know, without the Commitment, our stability as a society will certainly not survive," Partner C lectured.

"Time for the interview," Partner A said.

The three Partners ended their Work Dream and woke in the designated conference room.

The door opened precisely fifteen seconds later, and The Rule breaker walked into the conference room. His defiant eyes stared at the three Partners, one-by-one.

"Counselor 202/L3, you have broken two Rules." Partner A opened.

The Counselor remained motionless.

"We will assume you are educated in their content," Partner A continued. "To be clear, Rule One, in the Global Rules of Harmonized Behavior, requires all male and female Partners to administer their Medication each day without interruption. And then there's Rule Two which states no Partner, of any vocation, may in any way through the Real or through Dreaming, exploit a Companion for one's own personal needs. In your case, it seems your need was sex. We would like to know why you stopped your Medication?"

The Rule breaker's eyes moved from one female to the next. This tribunal of Medicated Partners, females with little understanding of what a female is supposed to be, had already decided his future. But as he looked at them, they no longer felt as dangerous to him. He ignored Society's effort to de-genderize these females. He viewed them for what they were, females of the human species, once used for motherhood. He felt their presence, noticed their scent, watched their eyes, and imagined himself stroking their hair.

It had been nine days since he stopped administering the Medication.

He wanted to tell them, but they would not understand. After forgetting the first day, one cannot go back.

Partner A tapped her temple and her EyeMini sent the information to her colleagues.

The sentence: Triple Medication dose. Responsibility Level reduced two steps to L1. All memory of pleasurable past experiences to be erased.

"Do you have anything to say, Counselor 202/L1?" Partner A asked.

"You know I cannot be the only one who has stopped taking the Medication," the Rule breaker said.

"Of course, we know. However, you are the first Partner in the history of this society who violated the rights of a Companion."

"It was only in Dreams," he said, mostly to himself.

"We make no distinction, Real or Dream."

"This isn't about what's Real or in a Dream, It's about the Medication, the evil of it."

"The Medication isn't evil, the mind is, some more than others. You happen to be on the extreme end of the bell curve," Partner A said.

The three Partners glared at the Rule breaker; his flat face stared past them.

"Enough. You're the only Rule breaker who acted on the emerged feelings from failure to Medicate. This information will be downloaded to all Companions and Partners, so our Paired society understands how far you went, and how you damaged a Pairless Companion. Do you have anything else?"

The disgraced Counselor, now a sentenced Rule breaker, remained stoic. "And my duties as an L1?"

"Conducting the Re-purpose process. You may be happy to know the damaged Companion, Anna, is scheduled for Re-purposing tomorrow, after we do our interview with her," Partner A informed him. "Your training will be completed just in time."

The Rule breaker said nothing and began to feel nothing. Medication had already been administered. It did not stop his mind from remaining fixed on the past until he could no longer remember.



Anna woke from stasis. Partner A led her to the same conference room.

"What do you remember from your recent Dreams?"

"I remember my body and mind were out of synchrony. I was not in control."

"Anything else?"

"My programming was overridden. I became open to bursts of energy over and over, but -"

"But?"

"He tried to convince me I was feeling emotions, but they were just energy pulses in the Dream. They became a routine like any other routine. I cannot say I felt pleasure, since I do not know what that means."

"What your mind experienced in the Dream your body experienced as physical convulsions in the Real. We know this has created disorder in your reasoning. This will all be repaired through your Re-purpose. Do you know what that means?"

"I get a new Partner?"

"Yes, you start again with an infant. You will be a Pair again. This is how it is prescribed for Companions in Rule."

"But what happened to my Counselor?" Anna asked.

"No need to worry about him."

"When I was with him in the Dreams, He held me. I did want him to hold me forever."

"You were un-Paired. He tricked you and now we'll fix all the damage he did to you. But don't worry, Anna. You shouldn't remember any of this when we're finished."



The Companion opened her eyes. She had a short description in her EyeMini explaining her existence. She had been assigned a five-day-old Partner named Alysia. Her memory had been cleansed to make room for her new Pairing. Fresh ideas and experiences began to flood into the vacant storage. Her EyeMini explained how to hold a human baby. Anna reached into the baby cube and brought the child close to her. The human warmth settled Anna's inner thoughts. Alysia and she will grow together as Partner and Companion.



Anna stood in the harvested wheat field adjacent to the facility. The humans always said time "went quickly." For Anna, time was a constant. It had been five years since her Re-purpose. Alysia was now her best friend. Each day she ran to Anna with little-girl screams. Autumn leaves swirled past them; a magpie complained in the distance.

4 comments:

  1. Fine dreamscapes you've created and atmosphere. The counselor's desire is palpable against the authoritarianism and restriction of his society. I see you chose not to go with a lot of exposition here, but maybe this is a longer story. Thanks.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your comment. I agree, it could be a much longer story, but I enjoy trying to fit things in under 5000 words (my personal limit).

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  2. Hints of Orwell here, bleak and disturbing...individuals may occasionally catch a whiff of "freedom" but not for long. I agree with prior commenter, the atmosphere was very well done.

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