Return to the Windsong
by Gayla Chaney
forum: Return to the Windsong
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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Return to the Windsong



        "It wasn't meant to happen like that," the self-christened Nikolai said, shaking his head as he reviewed the archived, yellowed newspaper carrying the story of The Windsong Diner murders. "We must go back."

        "How can we, Teacher?" Nikolai's favorite student, Bernard, questioned his mentor. "The timeline is established. The boy died. If we were going to interfere, we should have done it that night. Had we only known the dopamine donors would react so violently! A little schizophrenia, a little Parkinson's Disease, we could predict. But a blood lust in a rural café? It was unpredictable, and thus, unavoidable. We mustn't waste more time dreaming of setting right what we set wrong."

        "To the contrary, my dear Bernie. Knowing what occurred then that led to what is occurring now obligates us to act. We cannot claim ignorance of our role in the impending human disaster. Knowledge has armed us."

        "What are you saying?" Bernard asked. "We can change all that? Two insane humans that we made insane kill three other humans in an eating establishment over fifty Earth years ago and now you think we can undo that?"

        "There may be a way."

        "Regardless how regrettable it is that we have assisted humans in escalating their own demise, we cannot undo the circumstances that killed Hoyt. The excessive amount of dopamine extracted that night and the murderous madness which developed cannot be undone."

        "Yes, Bernie, it can. If we go back, we can branch off and start another timeline. We caused a problem when we allowed a neophyte to extract without supervision."

        "We could make things worse, you realize. At least now we have a little time to evacuate a sample breeding stock."

        Nikolai ignored Bernard's remarks. "We need a scenario where the cook takes the bullet instead of young Rodney Gerald Hoyt. We need Hoyt to walk out of The Windsong Café that night."

        "Impossible," Bernard muttered.

        "No, just difficult. We'll need a storm."

        "I thought we tried that before. Several times, in fact," the young apprentice reminded his teacher. "Why can't we learn to produce synthetic dopamine? The humans have done it themselves."

        "You are beginning to sound like a heretic, Bernard. We are Gleaners, not producers. Humans are producers. To each species, a gift was given. If Gleaners were meant to manufacture products, we would have compulsively tinkered with matter until we recognized our gift and fulfilled our destiny. But that is not what we were created to do."

        Nikolai gave his protégé a stern look, but when Bernard returned the stare, Nikolai added, "To suggest changing the master plan is blasphemy, and you know what the Guardians of the High Council do to blasphemers? Exile, my young friend." Nikolai wanted to slap the insolence from his student's face; instead, he remained silent for a few moments, allowing the impact of his words to sink in.

        "Gleaners do not do well in exile. So, a word of caution, Bernie. Keep those reckless ideas to yourself. Besides, who among us would be willing to toil for days or weeks for what we can so easily extract in a couple of minutes?"

        "We could recruit some humans to set up laboratories here and—"

        "Conscription? Enslavement? Is that what you are suggesting?"

        "Time is running out, Nikolai. Attempting to go back to The Windsong only wastes resources that could be applied to rescuing a remnant of the species. I'm sorry, sir, but I refuse to support the vain hope that we can change history, only to discover we are not really capable in reality of doing what your esteemed colleagues claim we can do… in theory."

        Nikolai studied the face of his young apprentice before answering. "Think of what we are attempting to do as a stage drama. Characters are played by actors. If an actor falls ill or dies, another actor takes over. The character continues on, but within a different body. A different actor, but the same character."

        "It's unethical to take the life of a present day human to resurrect the life of a human who died years ago. The Ethics Committee will ban this foolhardy endeavor and with good reason."

        "The end justifies the means, Bernard. It is better for one to perish than for a species, namely our own, to languish in our former torpor. Should we be deprived of that exquisite, electrifying elixir to which we have admittedly become… dependent… because of some ethical question?"


        "Whatever you wish to call it is fine with me. As long as I have my supply, you can disdain my dependency all you like. We have come to enjoy the humans' brain chemicals, as well as their art and literature and their very names and identities. Your own name, Bernie, and mine as well, we took as a way of acknowledging our appreciation of humans. If we occasionally harm one in the retrieval process, it is not done maliciously. Debate one human life's worth for an eon if you choose, just don't interfere with our methods of preserving our way of life."

        "If you continue on this path, you will have squandered our diminishing opportunities for evacuating fertile donors, and you will have eliminated our only hope of establishing a colony elsewhere. Then what? No other source of suitable dopamine exists anywhere near us, and we will all suffer the throes of withdrawal because of an unproved theory."

        "You and your scruples." Nikolai glided across the room to retrieve a document from the recently transcribed human archives. "Read this. They understand in their limited way that sometimes, the living and the dead meet. Go on, Bernie, read it aloud."

        "An amalgam… This is the season when the dead branch and the green branch are the same branch. Nightmares fill with light like a holiday… Good and evil, dead and alive everything blooms from one natural stem. Poetry translated from the writings of Jalalu'ddin Rumi, a thirteenth century Sufi Mystic." Bernard handed the slate back to Nikolai. "What does that prove? That you can pluck words from human documents to justify your actions? Killing another human in an attempt to unkill a dead human is insane as well as immoral."

        Nikolai took the tablet from Bernard's hand as he quickly offered one last suggestion. "What if we select an innocuous character to… substitute? We only need a stormy night. Another lightning strike, another barometric drop, another infinitesimal fissure and we send back—"

        "Stop!" Bernie covered his ears. "I won't listen to this madness."

        But Nikolai continued. "Someone who is historically more or less worthless. We send him back through time and he saves humanity. An ironic twist of fate, eh?" Nikolai added with a chuckle.

        "Worthless to who? His family? His community? How do you know who is worthless? How do you know with absolute certainty what Rodney Hoyt would have done if he had lived? He was barely more than a boy. How can you be so sure that he would have led a revolt against restrictive legislation? How can you know his colony would have survived the terrorists? You don't."

        "We have our projections, Bernard. Our projections! He was a born leader. If he had remained alive, he and his followers could have succeeded in impeaching their country's appeasing leader. What almost transpired was nearly miraculous. With Hoyt, we believe it would have worked."

        "Why do you think Hoyt's presence would have ensured anything different than another massacre? Humans are naturally self-destructive beings. The best we can hope for is to cull the herd and start human colonies that we can closely monitor. If our demand exceeds the available supply, assign the task of producing synthetic dopamine to the captive humans and let them occupy their time doing something useful."

        "You are referring to imprisonment. Enslavement is how it would be seen by the humans. And that, Bernie, would put us at risk. They might taint the source. In addition, humans fall prey to depression when in captivity. And we've learned that depression greatly corrupts organic dopamine. But perhaps you haven't gotten that far in your studies." Nikolai spoke in a patronizing tone, hoping to remind his student of the many years Nikolai had studied humans. "Our present arrangement is best. The way it is now, they know nothing of us and produce their dopamine effectively. They are happy; we are happy. I believe that is called a symbiotic relationship."

        "Parasitic is more accurate, unless you consider the not infrequent cases of Parkinson's Disease and schizophrenia we occasionally cause to be beneficial to humans."

        "Bernard, those individuals may well have developed those afflictions without our harvesting their—"

        "Always an answer, right, Professor?" Bernie smirked. "I expect no less from you, sir."

        "Docendo docemus. Teaching we learn," Nikolai offered, his eyes scanning the ancient scrolls rolled and stacked in the cubicles that lined the large auditorium. He kept his gaze high over his student's head. "I can't remember which human society I gleaned that from. I believe it is Latin, one of their dead languages."

        "How appropriate," Bernie responded in disgust before turning and charging out of the assembly hall.

        Nikolai watched his departing protégé disappear behind the heavy doors, leaving the elder scholar to his own thoughts. "My self-righteous little Bernie. Without your dopamine injections, your outburst would be nothing more than a smudge of viscous drool. Your emotional tirade would be barely more moving than a yawn. You need our little addiction far more than I do," Nikolai muttered as he reached inside his pocket to check on his own dwindling supply.

        Humans, for all their trouble, were worth saving for their amazing production of a substance that would be difficult now to live without. "Yes, for the love and procurement of dopamine," the scholar whispered to himself, aware that his student Bernie would be of no assistance at all. A pity. Bernard had been Nikolai's first choice to earn the coveted apprenticeship at the Institute for the Study of Human Donors. The young aspirant had been christened with a human name for human studies, an honor bestowed only on those considered most likely to be leaders in the field. A wonderful name wasted.

        Thankfully, the scrolls contained other names of other interesting humans, and Nikolai could select a fitting one for another student. Still, it was disappointing to lose Bernie. Nikolai would be forced to work with less skilled, less probing minds. But the honor of being selected from the swarming pool of eager applicants would surely be flattering enough to guarantee compliance from his next nominee… whom he might call Bach or Milton, or maybe Rumi, after the Sufi mystic. He hadn't the time now to ruminate over which name would be more soothing to say over and over as he addressed a young follower. He'd think about that later.

        Nikolai needed to concentrate for now on how to recreate the scene at The Windsong Diner where young Rodney Hoyt had been gunned down by two enraged, well-armed invaders. That night, if recreated with a vital variation or two, could hopefully allow a future to emerge that could help preserve the rich supplies of natural dopamine.

        Bernard's objections seemed so idealistically immature. Humans, after all, were creatures under their care and dominion. Though they were fascinating to study with their arts and their wars, and exotic to behold with all that fur and those industrious digits with their prehensile thumbs, they were, in the end, another form of livestock and should be treated as such.

        To alter the self-destruction that was about to occur in the human population, Nikolai and a few likeminded scholars agreed they needed only to return to an event that was never meant to happen in the first place. When two neophyte Gleaners extracted too much dopamine from a couple who were never meant to stop at The Windsong Diner, insanity was the result. It was a pity. The enraged couple shot and killed three of the four occupants, including young Rodney Hoyt. He was shot while sipping a cup of coffee. Nikolai and his colleagues only wanted to put things right. They argued that a timeline correction could not be deemed as evolutionary interference. There was a huge difference, but they seemed to be the only ones that understood that.

        The boy that was killed that night and the cook that died a month later from a clogged heart valve needed to return to the diner one more time and switch places, despite the fact that their flesh had decayed decades ago. It made sense for the cook to take the bullet aimed at the boy so the boy could live to kill a future president, didn't it? That was the question that Nikolai and his associates asked each other as they planned the recreation of that dreadful night. They needed only to procure fresh flesh and replay the scene.

        "If you don't like history," Nikolai quoted aloud one of his favorite Gleaner philosophers, "be brave enough to re-write it with a more suitable outcome."

        His colleagues chanted, "Wisdom be praised."

        Though a select number of Nikolai's peers agreed with him, the majority of scholars from the Institute did not. The debate raged between those intent on accepting what they termed "the inevitable demise of the majority of donors" and those who believed along with Nikolai in the theory of splitting timelines and retrieving possible futures.

        "If madness had not been produced by an improper extraction process, for which we Gleaners accept full responsibility, humanity would not be on the verge of its own nuclear destruction," Nikolai offered to the assembled elite. "We have an obligation to undo the damage we did."

        "Internment camps are our only hope, and the humans' only hope, too." It was Bernie making the case for evacuating a breeding stock and exposing the extraction process to the captives. "They have a right to know what is being done to them."

        "Says who?" one of Nikolai's colleagues argued. "They are equivalent to livestock. If we take them, I say, tell them nothing. Their fear might escalate their dopamine production. With fewer donors, we'll need higher production. Keep 'em terrified, I'd say."

        "Humans are violent by nature." A young zealot took up the argument. "Sooner or later, they would have self-destructed. Our inadvertent interference in their histories may have hastened the date, but we are not responsible for their own inadequacies. Their lack of foresight shows that they have learned nothing about their own nature, despite centuries of warfare. Not arming against suicidal invaders cannot be laid at the feet of the Institute. Humans must be protected against their own stupidity. Let us vote for where the first colony should be established."

        "Hear, hear!" the chorus cried, and the vote went down. Specific populations were earmarked for deportation based more on their entertainment value than strictly fertility and dopamine production. Watching humans had become a favorite pastime and certain societies were more interesting than others. The meeting was adjourned after votes were tallied for most popular human cultures and artifacts. The Institute would do its best, all agreed, to retrieve the relics deemed most meaningful to the humans chosen.

        Nikolai caught the eyes of those who had voted against immediate evacuations. He nodded slightly and they, in turn, nodded back. The clandestine meeting, which had previously been discussed, would indeed transpire later when the other members of the Institute were smugly patting each other on the back, congratulating the body for its egalitarian principles, confident their mandate would be enforced.

        The storm was coming. Nikolai and several others among the Institute's elite understood Rodney Hoyt's real purpose. Yet to have explained that would have surely set off all sorts of alarms. Better their opponents think Hoyt would be a future leader than to know he would drive his vehicle drunk one night across the center line into oncoming headlights. The other driver, an idealistic grad student who without Rodney Hoyt on the road that night would have driven on safely and years later become known as the Appeasement President, was fiddling with his radio, momentarily distracted, so close to home.

        "For the greater good, sacrifices must be made," Nikolai was saying to the secretly gathered cabal as they each donned a green, glowing monocle and focused in unison on former events through a tiny lens, changing the scene ever so slightly, but just enough, they hoped.

        First a biker arrived. He pulled his Harley Davidson into the parking lot of a defunct restaurant. This night it appeared to be open for business with its neon lights shining an appealing invitation to a select few.

        The biker dashed inside the diner to escape the rain, removing his helmet as he stepped through Time. His head was suddenly covered by a Confederate flag bandanna. He grinned at the décor of the newly resurrected Windsong Diner. Shaking off the water like a wet dog before depositing some coins in a Wurlitzer Jukebox in the corner, the biker hollered out, "Anybody here?" He didn't get a response, but he didn't feel uncomfortable, even if he were alone. The music was nice; the weather was not. He seated himself in a booth near the jukebox. The lyrics flowed, and the biker began singing along like he knew the song by heart.

        The flashing neon lights in the parking lot grew brighter, drawing two more cars, each pulling off the road at the sight of The Windsong Diner. A blonde woman rushed inside first, holding a magazine over her head to keep off the rain. For a moment, she stared at the biker, perhaps nervous to be alone in a diner with him. But then, as though she suddenly remembered they were good friends, she grinned and called out, "Hi, ya' handsome." He grinned as she grabbed an apron hanging on a nail over a framed photograph of President Eisenhower. She reached beneath the counter for a spray bottle of Shalimar cologne, spraying herself generously before tossing the magazine she had used as an umbrella into the kitchen for the cook to read when he had some time.

        The other arrival was slower to exit his car. Did he think the appearance of the diner was substandard? Perhaps, he sensed something else. Nikolai and his fellow conspirators leaned in, joining in thought as they intensified the glow from The Windsong Diner sign. With its neon green and red colors mystically flashing, it beckoned to hungry, tired travelers to stop and rest, perchance to dream. But more importantly, to be there when the doors flew open and let in the past.

        Maybe, just maybe they could save young Rodney Hoyt from the spray of bullets that showered the diner that horrifying night documented in the yellowed newspaper that Nikolai had retrieved from the archives.

        "If we don't want to go back to that stilted state of apathetic complacency, we must focus!" Nikolai instructed his companions to unify their concentration. "It can be done. It must be, if we are to maintain our way of life."

        The diner's occupants were ready for the psychopaths. As the approaching car rounded a curve in the storm, the driver and his passenger were unaware that cell phones could become handguns when aimed correctly. They were equally unaware that their names would soon be Lorene and Bubba instead of Charlotte and Martin, at least temporarily, while they executed other travelers taking refuge from the storm. The diner sign lighted up the dark stretch of a wet, slick highway. They were drawing closer as the rain intensified, making it nearly impossible to see anything beyond The Windsong's glowing marquee.

        "I think it's working," Nikolai whispered as he and his companions watched the cook scraping something off the grill. "Nudge him," Nikolai said. "Harder. Again. Bring him out from the kitchen toward the jukebox. Send the kid quickly to the kitchen to fetch the magazine. There, boy, the waitress has asked you nicely to please get her magazine. She wants to show her boyfriend and the cook something…"

        "It's done!" a hollow voice cried out as the door of the diner swung open and shots rang out. The cook lunged forward to shield the waitress, and the boy in the kitchen ducked down, clutching the magazine to his chest, frozen with terror as the bullets struck first the cook, then the waitress, then the jukebox, then the biker. Wild laughter, the cash register dinged and somebody hollered, "Lorene, we ain't broke no more!"

        The boy hid under a counter, listening as the crazy couple rampaged through the diner. When they finally departed, Rodney Hoyt was alone with three dead bodies sprawled on the floor and a gurgling drain that sucked down a faltering future.

        "My cell phone is smoking!" Charlotte Phelps exclaimed as the couple stepped outside the abandoned diner. "What do you think could have caused that?"

        "Let me see. Wow. Lightning, maybe?" her husband suggested, glancing back at the darkened, burned out shell where a restaurant had once stood, wondering what in the world they were thinking to stop at a dark, deserted building in the middle of a storm. "Let's get out of here," Martin Phelps said, noting that his hands were trembling and that he felt oddly nauseous as he reached for the car door.

        "Hoyt survived," Nikolai sighed with relief. "Dopamine shall be plentiful for a while longer."

        "Who became president?" someone asked.

        "An unyielding, headstrong type," Hannibal, the senior member of the collective asserted, after having reviewed the incoming data. He smiled before adding, "This wouldn't have been possible if our dopamine supplies had run out. We couldn't have mustered the desire to concentrate and fix the problem. If the Institute were allowed to have its way, we'd all be languishing back in our own Dark Ages."

        "Dopamine be praised," they chanted, knowing they could never share what they had done with their fellow citizens.

        Nikolai thought of Bernard, his prized student, still so naïve. Bernie sincerely believed that maintaining ethical standards was nobler than survival. Someday, Nikolai mused, he would reveal to his young student what had transpired here tonight. But for now, he would let life unfold and the plentiful supplies of dopamine continue to be harvested.

        A colony of humans would have been so much trouble. Feeding, corralling, vaccinating, and whatever other chores were entailed in providing a suitable environment for human livestock. This way was much better with the animals running wild and fending for themselves until needed. A restraint, a probe, an extractor, and a little hypnotic amnesia provided all the maintenance required for harvesting the highly prized dopamine.

        Yes, someday, Bernie would understand when he was older, wiser, and more accustomed to the exhilarating effects of consuming an extra dose occasionally. There were large, unexplored areas of expression waiting to be tapped inside his brain and, like the rest of Nikolai's close associates, Bernie would eventually tire of the rationed amounts of mild emotions. He was too bright not to question what experiences were possible beyond what were permitted.

        In time, Bernard would surely join the rogue league and dare to indulge his curiosity. Until then, Nikolai would continue to covertly explore his own sensory potential, delighting in his mental adventures, pondering how far his mind would let him go.



copyright 2007 Gayla Chaney.

Gayla Chaney lives and writes in central Texas. Her fiction has appeared online and in print journals, including Potomac Review, Natural Bridge, Sojourner, Thema, Cicada, Concho River Review, and The Literary Bone.

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