It was early evening when he knocked at my door. I was sorting darks from lights. His black suit and badge and manner made you forget whether he’d offered his name which you’d now forgotten or hadn’t offered it at all. He said in the vaguest of terms I was a person of interest, not under suspicion, but my situation was pertinent to matters of National Security.

National Security. The way he said it gave it capitals.

“It would be to your advantage to cooperate with us, Ms. Nodal.”

“Who’s us? The government?”

Not that I needed to ask. I just knew. That’s a phrase people use all the time, but with me it means something different. When I say I just knew, I mean it literally.

I told him I wasn’t biting, that it ran counter to my beliefs.

He smiled and bade me a good evening. Before he left, he took in the Alessi citrus juicer that sat atop a box of stuff destined for the thrift store and asked whether I ever got any joy out of it. Does anybody? I thought.

And all the time those voices whispered in my head: “Hatred makes you stronger. Hatred makes you stronger. Hatred makes you stronger.

A week later I was hauled up in front of the principal. In terms of vagueness, he was up there with Agent No-name. He bandied phrases like inappropriate behavior, breach of trust and accusations of dereliction in his wheezy nasal whine.

“What is it I’m meant to have done, Dave? Teach Creationism or debunk it? Remind me, which side of the Darwinian barricade is our educational system this month?”

His eyes narrowed. “For somebody so religious, Sally, your willingness to bend with the wind over such fundamentals does you credit. Many would call it hypocrisy.”

“Quakerism’s an orthopraxy, not an orthodoxy,” I replied.

I confess I enjoyed seeing him squirm, his mind drawing a lexical blank. I know that’s wicked, but whatever I was being charged with was trumped up. I had every right to be angry.

I was suspended, pending an investigation and promised written confirmation of the outcome. I had fifteen minutes to gather any personal items.

All I could sense was turmoil within him, his own confusion. He was being put up to this.

And throughout the voices in my head carried on like distant woodpeckers: “Hatred makes you stronger. Hatred makes you stronger. Hatred makes you stronger.

The knock on the door came just as I was loading the dryer.

“Come with me, Ms. Nodal,” said Agent No-name.

“I’m loading the dryer.”

He noticed the silver juicer on its three spindly legs had migrated back to a shelf, nodded to himself with gnomic satisfaction. “It’ll switch itself off, I’m sure.”

He spoke as we drove. “We’re aware you’re facing accusations at Pinewood High.”

“Baseless accusations.”

“Baseless or not, Ms. Nodal, we can help each other. Your ability makes you a person of interest. Help us, Ms. Nodal. I can make those accusations go away. If you’ll let me.”

“I would rather face my accusers, prove my innocence.”

He asked for a week of my time. This time. There would be future requirements. Coincidentally, a week was the length of my suspension.

I gazed out of the window as telegraph poles strobed by. He was behind the allegations and we both knew it. I knew it in a literal way, not in some colloquial or balance of probabilities way. Despite the voices getting ever louder, telling me over and over, hatred makes you stronger, I needed to find it within me to forgive him. There is something of God in everybody.

No-name took me to a ‘facility’ in the middle of nowhere that looked like a private school campus, statement buildings airily scattered in landscaped grounds around a sculpture garden. I didn’t need to ask whether agents would be in my house folding my laundry — he was going through a mental checklist and I could hear his every thought. Even above the same old mantra, now being yelled insistently.

As if to affirm my architectural assumptions, No-name was buttonholed in the corridor by an elderly professorial type in tweeds. “New recruit? Broadcast or targeted?”

“Broadcast,” No-name confirmed.

“And you’re right,” the old man said with a mischievous smile, “it was a college.”

No-name delivered me to a room like a school language class, desks of silent people wearing headphones, faces contorted with concentration.

“Hatred makes you stronger. Hatred makes you stronger. HATRED MAKES YOU STRONGER”. So loud I felt faint.

A fat woman with a throat microphone — hairstyle and glasses, like the rest of her, as old as space race optimism — bustled over proffering a pair of headphones. She pushed them on me as my vision began to tunnel. The voices stopped.

“Impervs forget what it’s like for us speakers,” she said, shooting No-name an accusing look, her voice coming through the headset. I followed her wagging finger to a spare desk. My neighbor gave me a wan should’ve-run-when-you-had-the-chance smile.

“Have you brought an aerial?” the fat woman asked.

Impervs? Speakers? Aerials?

Seeing my confusion, she waddled to a box on a shelf and came back with that self-same Philippe Starck-designed Alessi lemon squeezer.

“Yeah, I wondered what these were really for, too,” she drawled, placing it in front of me. Glancing around, I saw everybody had something: a statuette cat, a lightbulb, a birdcage.

“When you hear the words,” she instructed, “concentrate on your aerial and broadcast what you hear. I’m going to count you in. One. Two. Three.”

It was like a wave. In my mind, I was lifted off my feet, carried by the current. With it or against it, it doesn’t matter how you try to swim. Everybody broadcasts the mantra. I tried resisting, blanking my mind, then thinking of something else, like staring into the sun or the sound of screaming. But I had been chanting the mantra without realizing, helplessly broadcasting via the designer citrus juicer in my white-knuckled grip.

“Hatred makes you stronger. Hatred makes you stronger. HATRED MAKES YOU STRONGER.”

No-name found me in the sculpture garden.

I can’t say I welcomed his company. I needed to process the revelation that my ability to sense the thoughts of others, but simultaneously have that wretched chant forced on me, were two facets of the same ‘gift’. Some mental filter in others that I lacked. And no jagged creations called Catalan Peasant by Starlight or granite imitations of quick-setting putty accidents entitled Ennui Part Seven could help me forget I had pushed that bile into the minds of others.

“You’re confused and angry,” he said, having acquired a throat mike.

“I thought I was the telepath.”

“To us impervs, it’s the zeitgeist. We just shrug and say that’s how the world is. But you speakers can hear the instructions, the actual words.”

“‘Hatred makes you stronger’?”

“That phrasing did best in focus groups. To be honest, being able to hear the actual words tends to send people a little… nuts. You’re remarkably balanced.”

How little he understood of my philosophy, I thought.

I gazed at a piece I thought was a whale but was, apparently, Contrition. “So you give us sculpture to calm our minds. Or did somebody have a week to make use of a budget underspend? We had that at school, ended up with a thousand-foot hammocks.”

Agent No-name looked puzzled. “A thousand-foot hammock?”

“No, under-desk hammocks for feet. A thousand of them.”

“A foot hammock? Is that a thing?” And then, considering the sculptures, “These aren’t for your amusement. These are the aerials our most advanced speakers use. If you always wondered what modern art was for, here’s your answer: National Security.”

“You mean… Henry Moore, Jeff Koons…” I said, incredulous. “Government agents?”

He laughed at my misunderstanding. “They were never in our pocket. But if somebody keeps buying them, they keep making them. I doubt they ever guessed the true purpose.”

I put my fingertips to a perfectly mirrored Anish Kapoor, studied the reflection of my hand as it twisted into the distance, but also felt the dampened mantra become audible.

“What about all the ones outside corporate headquarters? Are they all aerials too?”

“Think of them as booster stations. Tax breaks encourage decent coverage.”

My head swam. This was way bigger than I thought. “When I was a girl, I thought I was hearing the voice of God. Then I thought it must be the Devil.”

“It was more likely to be Moira who handed you your juicer. She started about then.”

As if on cue, the elderly academic type I encountered that morning shuffled towards the art, cracked a knuckle, and cupped the curves of a Barbara Hepworth. For no reason I could explain, I was filled with thoughts of the Moon landings, absolute certainty our nation went to the Moon, that we sent men there and brought them back.

No-name laughed along at my confusion. “It’s the conspiracy theory nobody’s thought of, that the government’s quite literally telling us what to think, day in, day out, because we don’t notice what’s all around us: it’s the air we breathe, the water we swim in. We’ll have you on one of the big ones really quick, Sally. I think you may be a Zen master at this game.”

Zen master? It clicked. No-name saw me as a protégé. I wasn’t just being blackmailed — I was being groomed. Had he learnt nothing about me?

My mind made up, I put my arms around a spindly figure in cold bronze that looked like it would snap if the breeze picked up.

“Hatred makes you stronger. Hatred makes you stronger. HATRED MAKES YOU STRONGER”. Coming at me as if from Marshall stacks despite the JPL headphones.

“Careful there, Sally,” Agent No-name exclaimed. Panic shot through his mind, confusion as to my next move. “That’s a genuine Giacometti.”

I just gripped tighter. The mantra was being screamed so loud it drowned out No-name telling me to let go, that I shouldn’t run before I could walk, to remember what I did there decided what happened back at Pinewood High.

“Hatred makes you stronger. Hatred makes you stronger. HATRED MAKES YOU STRONGER.”

I was being swept away. I could do nothing but parrot the words. My mind was not my own. The bronze Giacometti was a thousand times more powerful than a mere lemon juicer.

But I couldn’t let myself fail like I had that morning. I had to overcome — or die trying.

“Sim…”

I grasped the first syllable of the first word, pushed it forward in my mind, fought against the howling mental gale, shoulder down, forced myself forward…

“Simplicity…”

Agent No-name was shouting, tearing at my arms, but I was locked to the Giacometti, my limbs wrapped solid.

“Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality.”

I repeated my mantra slowly, deliberately, into the hurricane that held only hatred.

“Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality. Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality.”

“Hatred makes you stronger,” came straight back at me.

Tweeds was looking up from his Hepworth. It didn’t matter what No-name said or did. I wasn’t letting go.

“Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality. Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality. SIMPLICITY, PEACE, INTEGRITY, COMMUNITY, EQUALITY.”

I was screaming myself hoarse. Hands tugged at me but couldn’t peel me loose.

“Hatred makes you stronger?”

The chorus was still as loud as thunder, but now had a lilt of doubt.

“Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality. Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality. SIMPLICITY, PEACE, INTEGRITY, COMMUNITY, EQUALITY.”

“Hatred makes you stronger?” It was there. Disbelief. Incomprehension.

“Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality. Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality. SIMPLICITY, PEACE, INTEGRITY, COMMUNITY, EQUALITY.”

And then I was laughing, crying. The old words had stopped. I had silenced them. No-name stared at me, unable to comprehend the indefinable, indescribable change he felt.

Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality.

There was a new zeitgeist. America had a new mantra.

Robert Bagnall
Robert Bagnall lives in Devon, England. He is the author of the sci-fi thriller 2084—The Meschera Bandwidth, and 24 0s & a 2, which collects two dozen of his 50-plus published short stories. He blogs at meschera.blogspot.com.