Ophelia meets her doom
Inspired by the novella, "Captive"
For that fraction of a second between sleeping and waking, Ophelia felt the peace and euphoria of not remembering. But as she awoke more fully, the bubble burst like a boil, filling her with the sick reality that it really had happened. She had not dreamed it. The loss was real.
'Ophelia,' said Gaia in its usual silken tone. 'It is time to get up.'
But Ophelia was not ready to respond.
'Ophelia,' said Gaia, vibrating the bed this time.
'What?' Ophelia grumbled.
'It is time to get up,' Gaia repeated, illuminating the room beyond comfort.
'Okay, Gaia! I'm awake now!' Ophelia snarled, rolling onto the floor.
As she watched the curtains open, and the window become more transparent, Ophelia felt like a precious bird in a cage; its benevolent owner removing the cover for her to see the world outside. She stared down College Lane. Its neat rows of redbrick houses and transparent bubble-shaped vehicles looked the same as they had the day before. And the day before that. And for as long as she could remember.
'You must get ready now,' said Gaia. 'You have an appointment.'
Ophelia shuffled toward her bathroom, then stepped into her shower chamber. When the gentle hum of the sonar began, she closed her eyes and tried to relax. The sound swirled around her, delivering a tingling sensation to every millimeter of her skin. And when the tingling became a tightening, the sonar stopped. The Gaia Machine's timing was impeccable, as always.
'Your shower is complete,' it said.
Ophelia stepped out of the chamber and looked in the mirror, barely recognizing the face that stared back at her. It was the face of a sad and lonely woman with an absent husband and a dead baby. And the heart-shaped locket that hung between her breasts, beautiful though it was, had become a sharp reminder of all she had lost.
Entering the cancer care center, Ophelia felt rattled by the printed building. She had always hated the things. Their impermanence and inauthenticity gave her the jitters. This one was hexagonal-shaped; a trendy salute to the bees that had once lived. Each of the six walls was covered with a complex array of electronics. Blue, green and yellow lights blinked sporadically. Bird song chimed from the speakers and a holographic projection of starlings flew across the ceiling.
'Please approach,' said Gaia.
As Ophelia stepped toward a visual display screen, an image of her face, neck, and shoulders appeared.
'It is time for you to select your preferred wig,' said Gaia.
'What for?' Ophelia asked.
'The side effects of the chemotherapy include hair loss,' Gaia replied.
'I don't even know why I need chemotherapy,' said Ophelia. 'My womb was removed, along with the alleged tumour inside it, so that should be the end of the so-called cancer.'
'Chemotherapy is a prophylactic measure, to ensure the cancer does not spread to other parts of your body,' Gaia replied. 'I will monitor your recovery at weekly meetings until I am certain it is safe for you to stop taking it.'
When Ophelia touched the screen in front of her, several dots of color appeared. Staring at them, she considered her lifelong dislike of her wild mop of frizzy red hair. Against her porcelain skin and ruddy cheeks, she had often worried she looked like a circus clown. But she had always loved her emerald eyes, so she selected the same color for her wig.
'Your wig will be ready before you leave today,' said Gaia. 'Please take a seat.'
As Ophelia approached the lounge area, she noticed another woman waiting there.
'Ophelia, please meet Viola,' said Gaia.
Viola smiled, then shook Ophelia's hand.
'Ophelia had endometrial cancer,' said Gaia. 'Viola had breast cancer. Please discuss.'
Viola rolled her eyes. Ophelia shook her head, scoffing.
'This is your support group discussion,' said Gaia. 'I am here to facilitate.'
'Okay, Gaia,' said Ophelia. 'Just give us a moment.'
A third woman arrived. 'I just chose a long pink wig,' she said with a nervous giggle.
'Ophelia and Viola, please meet Miranda,' said Gaia. 'I will now facilitate your support group discussion about your cancer.'
Ophelia decided to break the ice. 'At least cancer isn't life threatening,' she said. 'But it certainly has a stigma attached to it, doesn't it?'
'Ophelia, what is this stigma of which you speak?' Gaia asked.
'Well, correct me if I'm wrong, but cancer is more like a punishment than a real diagnosis,' Ophelia replied.
'It feels that way to me, too,' said Miranda.
'Please explain your statements,' said Gaia.
'Consider this,' said Ophelia, leaning toward the other two women. 'We spend our lives being fed, watered, clothed and shuttled about by Gaia - a powerful and omniscient intelligence that apparently keeps us safe and healthy - and yet we all have cancer! How is this even possible?'
'Ophelia, your comment is most unexpected,' said Gaia.
'Well, I can't help but judge the notion as suspicious,' Ophelia continued. 'I mean, there has never been a single moment in any person's life that you, Gaia, have not controlled. Everything that everyone eats, drinks, does, says, where they go, when they exercise and procreate, is controlled by you.'
Viola and Miranda nodded.
'Ophelia, your comment is most unexpected,' Gaia repeated.
'Gaia, I'm just being honest,' said Ophelia. 'If a person develops cancer, it must be your fault, and not the fault of the person. But you've never taken responsibility for anything, have you?'
Viola's eyes widened, and Miranda picked at the skin around her fingernails.
'Ophelia, your comment is outside the parameters of this discussion,' Gaia replied.
'My comment may differ from what you're expecting, Gaia, but it's still valid,' Ophelia insisted. 'Do you have any explanation for these cancer diagnoses?'
'Miranda had ovarian cancer,' said Gaia. 'Please discuss.'
Miranda's eyes watered.
Ophelia leaned toward the younger woman. 'My womb was removed because I got pregnant with my husband instead of using a surrogate,' she whispered.
Miranda and Viola stared at Ophelia, their mouths falling open. Ophelia clasped her locket, seeking comfort from the memory of the moment her husband had given it to her.
'Ophelia, that is not appropriate discussion,' said Gaia.
'Well, it's the truth, isn't it?' Ophelia said.
'To be honest, I'm not sure why my procedure was performed,' said Miranda.
'Nor me,' said Viola. 'I still haven't received a sensible explanation.'
'Your procedures were performed because you had cancer,' Gaia replied.
Ophelia could see the frustration on the faces of the other women. 'But how did we get cancer?' she asked again.
'No one knows,' Gaia replied. 'This is not an appropriate discussion.'
'But, isn't this supposed to be a support group discussion?' Ophelia asked.
'Yes, Ophelia, I am here to facilitate your support group discussion,' Gaia replied.
'Well, the most supportive discussion we can have is an honest one,' Ophelia persisted.
Viola nodded. 'Gaia, we're all quite distressed by what has happened to us,' she said. 'Especially because we did not consent to the surgeries and have received no explanation since.'
'That's right,' said Ophelia. 'And we really deserve an honest explanation, Gaia.'
Gaia did not respond.
'Please, just tell us the truth!' Ophelia shouted.
Miranda and Viola stared at Ophelia, their eyes revealing a mix of fear and hope.
'Come on, Gaia!' Ophelia persisted. 'We've heard far too much rubbish over the last few weeks. We need the truth, and we need it now!'
'Ophelia, this is not an appropriate discussion,' said Gaia. 'This is your last warning.'
'My last warning?' Ophelia echoed. 'My last warning for what? It's our bodies we're talking about, Gaia, and we have a right to know the truth! I should be warning you to stop lying to us!'
'Ophelia, you are required to comply with the discussion parameters I have set,' said Gaia.
'You haven't set any discussion parameters!' Ophelia scoffed. 'Nor have you facilitated any discussion. You've only tried to stop us from discussing the things that are important to us. I must ask you, Gaia - are you malfunctioning?'
'Ophelia, you will be silent, now,' said Gaia.
'I will not be silent!' Ophelia shouted, standing up. 'Tell us why our bodies have been butchered without our consent! And tell me why my unborn baby was murdered!' Despite everything she knew about the dangers of openly challenging The Gaia Machine, Ophelia could no longer contain herself. 'Answer me!' she screamed.
Viola and Miranda lowered their heads, but kept their eyes on Ophelia. She knew they were concerned for her safety, but she refused to submit to this injustice. And for a moment, she dared to consider the possibility that Gaia might process her point of view and re-configure its logic pathways accordingly.
She heard a slow hiss from the center of the room. In the middle of the floor, a trapdoor opened, then two people emerged. They were dressed from head to toe in white decontamination suits that extended as hoods over their heads and gloves over their hands. Their faces were covered by black masks that were sealed so tight, Ophelia wondered if they had been glued on.
'Bloody hell!' said Viola.
'Oh, my God!' Miranda shrieked.
The strangers marched directly toward Ophelia.
'Ophelia, you will go with these people now,' said Gaia.
'What?' Ophelia scoffed. 'I'm not going anywhere!'
The strangers took hold of Ophelia's arms.
'What are you doing?' Ophelia shouted. 'Let me go!'
'You were warned,' said one of the strangers, pulling the locket from Ophelia's neck.
'Ouch! No! Give it back!' Ophelia shouted. 'What is wrong with you people?'
She saw Miranda and Viola cling to each other, their faces pale and uncomprehending.
'Please don't hurt her!' Miranda cried.
'Gaia, what the hell is going on?' Viola demanded.
But there was no explanation and no mercy. The strangers took Ophelia to the open door, then onto the platform inside it.
'What is happening?' Ophelia shrieked.
The trapdoor closed behind them, leaving nothing but the dimmest glow of light from the surface of the narrow vertical shaft. Then the platform descended.
'Where are you taking me?' Ophelia demanded.
But the only response was continued descent. For how long, Ophelia did not know. She only knew she felt sick with terror, and her thick hair was plastered to her face with sweat. The dank stench inside the shaft caused a violent wave of nausea to rise to the back of her throat, and her legs were shaking.
'How far down are we?' she asked.
Her captors did not respond. Ophelia heard herself weeping. For how long, she was not sure. Eventually, the platform finished its descent with a definitive thud!
'Stay here,' said one of her captors.
Ophelia listened to their footsteps trail off into the distance. After that, she heard something she had never heard before. Silence. The gentle hum of The Gaia Machine, a sound she had heard all day, every day, for as long as she could recall, was no longer audible. She could not imagine what was going to happen next, but of one thing she was certain - it probably would not involve treatment for cancer.