"Unk, the big trouble with dumb bastards is that they're too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart."
-Kurt Vonnegut "The Sirens of Titan"
God, this is like, what the nine-hundredth story that's ripped off or used Vonnegut in some way. I need a hobby.
A different hobby.
Not this hobby.
The Sirens of Conformity
The year was 2081, and everybody was finally the same. They weren't only the same in terms of clothing and styles—they were the same in every which way. Nobody held a different political opinion from anybody else. Nobody liked a different book than anybody else. Nobody treated one person different than another person. The only reason people didn't have the exact same skin colour, facial structure, and height or weight was due to the fact that MegaBank of America still needed bailing out every five or six years, and the money for mandatory reconstructive surgery just never materialized. It didn't particularly matter—as the ever-vigilant United States Solicitor-General for Conformity and Proper Herd Mentality would often say in her live addresses: "the same mind supersedes different matter."
Some things about living still weren't quite right though. Everybody hated the month of April, but for an assortment of different reasons (scientists were close to discovering how to synthesize it into a single, unified hatred, but MegaBank had defaulted yet again and money had to be reallocated). It was in this clammy month of April that agents of the United States Solicitor-General for Conformity and Proper Herd Mentality (shortened to Yes-Men for simplicity's sake) took Helen and Jake's 18 year old daughter, Daria, away.
It was tragic, all right, but Helen and Jake couldn't think about it very hard. Daria had expressed discontent with the current state of affairs, which everybody agreed was bad for everybody else. When the Yes-Men hauled Daria out by the scruff of her neck, Helen and Jake both said in unison that this was necessary to preserve the social order, and that it would benefit Daria greatly if she agreed with what they and the Yes-Men were saying to her.
Helen nearly asked the Yes-Men to be more gentle, but a powerful and overwhelming voice inside her head told her to 'shut it and look sad, Morgendorffer'.
The Morgendorffer's had another kid as well, Quinn, but she had disappeared many months ago. Everyone was in agreement that her disappearance was for the best, even Daria.
That had all taken place weeks ago. In the present, Helen and Jake were watching television. There were tears on Helen's cheeks, but she'd convinced herself to forget why, and to look as happy as her husband next to her. They stared at the television as one, both as cheery as a set of Barbie's.
On the television screen were ballerinas. They danced perfectly in sync with one another, like a field of flowers being blown by the wind.
"Wow!" Jake said. "That was a real pretty dance they just did!"
"Yes!" said Helen, mimicking Jake's high tone. "That dance—it was nice!"
They watched the ballerina's some more. All at once, the dancers leapt into the air and came down in an arc, like someone had temporarily painted the air pink and purple. Helen and Jake reclined further into the couch, their hands grasping their knees.
"Wow!" said Jake again. "Did you see that? These guys are amazing!"
"Yes!" said Helen, her voice again matching that of Jake's. "They really are incredible!" Her eyes shifted back to the television slowly, and inside her head she pounded down the thought of watching anything other than ballerina's into a fine powder. Her Jake-like smile became strained, and Jake noticed.
He tried to mimic her smile, but failed—his was far too sincere. Then a thought of his own dawned on him.
"Um," he said quietly. "If you want Helen, we could do something else! We could, um, we could read a book together! Or get something to eat!" He tried not to furrow his brow, since Helen wasn't doing that, as he thought of something else. "Or you could do something and I could stay here—I like watching the ballerinas!"
Helen's insincere smile became a very sincere look of terror, something Jake could easily imitate as the change startled him. "But Jakey," she said, very surprised and very nervous, "everybody is watching the ballerinas right now!" She almost said 'is supposed to', but decided quickly that it would make it sound like she was here against her own will. That wouldn't do, for people to find that out.
Jake continued to mimic Helen's facial expression, and now her tone of voice too, which made him sound like an actor reading out the wrong stage directions. "I know, but c'mon, if you wanna let lose and look at some legal briefs, I sure won't tell anyone!"
Helen shook her head, trying her best to sync it with the music from the television. It only marginally worked. "Jakey, I appreciate that," she said, "but you telling people doesn't worry me."
"The legal cases are that scary?" Jake said, in a twisted hybrid of genuine shock and Helen's regretful earlier tone. "Man, no wonder nobody's a lawyer anymore."
"Jake," Helen said, "I don't want to spend two years in prison or fork over ten-grand just because I walked out on Ballerina Night." She pointed at the television, which had a two-way camera and microphone embedded in it. "Sure, they're all watching the ballerina's too, but what happens if everyone decides to go to the bathroom early today, and they start watching our house again, and I'm somewhere with a lap full of cases like the worst kind of delinquent?"
Jake pondered this. "It'd be bad?" he said eventually.
"Yes, Jake." Helen said. "It would be bad."
"Oh! Ok!" said Jake, happy that he and his wife were in agreement. He didn't bother to emulate her tone that time. Helen suppressed a sigh and put on her best happy face, matching that of her husbands, and started watching the ballerina's again. They were twirling in the shape of an infinity sign, all pink and puffy and perfectly uniform. "Wow!" Jake said. "They're amazing! You know, they should put the ballerinas on for two nights every week!"
Before Helen could agree, the ballerina's all stopped. Both Jake and Helen rose in their seats, a perfectly similar action as they were both equally surprised. The ballerina's all cluttered together at the edge of the screen, and for a second nothing at all was happening. Then, nervously, the United States Assistant Solicitor-General of Conformity and Proper Herd Mentality in charge of Unified Messages and the Explanation of Social Norms (called the Press Secretary for simplicity's sake) shuffled on screen. His name was Timothy O'Neil, and he constantly looked like a loud noise had startled him.
Jake and Helen looked that way too—Jake because Timothy O'Neil looked scared, and Helen because something scary always followed Timothy O'Neil's Unified Messages and Explanations of Social Norms.
"Aww man," said Jake, in tune with the shaking shoulders of Timothy O'Neil. "I hope MegaBank hasn't burned up it's bailout already."
"Me too," said Helen, completely and totally honestly.
Still shaking, Timothy O'Neil cleared his throat. All the ballerina's, the crowd in the theatre, and the hundreds of millions of listeners at home cleared their throat as well.
"Oh dear..." said Timothy O'Neil. "Um, good evening everyone. I'm terribly sorry to disrupt the performance..." Everyone's heads dropped. "But I have an urgent bulletin from the Office of the United States Solicitor-General of Conformity and Proper Herd Mentality."
You're shortening the name to something that doesn't suffocate the speaker? Helen thought. A powerful voice in her head told her to shut up again, much louder and more powerfully this time. Snarking wasn't allowed—it wouldn't do for people to see her mocking the system.
Timothy O'Neil continued. "I've just received word that...oh my...Daria Morgendorffer, age 18, has escaped from the custody of the United States Government!"
The crowds, ballerinas, and viewers at home all gasped, including Helen. The reasoning behind the gasp was different for Helen, as she remembered Daria—remembered the Yes-Men dragging her away. It left a feeling in her stomach that was like she'd swallowed broken glass.
Timothy O'Neil realized that he'd incited panic in the minds of America's citizens, so he toned his voice back to his normal, jittery self, and said, "There's no reason to panic everyone, no reason at all." A collective sigh was heard in the background, and the ballerinas posture became less fragile looking. Jake sighed too, but Helen didn't—despite herself, she was still staring ramrod straight at the television, and at Timothy O'Neil.
The man continued, "I'm merely being asked to tell you all that she's escaped in the event that—"
Before he could finish, a wall behind the camera exploded, showering the stage and the civil servant in plaster and brown powder. Everyone reacted the way a dog might react if a firecracker went off next to it's ear. At home, Jake and Helen shot back into their seats.
The camera shook, then shook some more. Timothy O'Neil didn't return to the front of the lens. Instead, the next figure to be seen was a red-haired girl, her eyes fiery and her lips parsed into a snarl.
Her hands wrapped around the camera, and roughly pulled it back to frame a group of four girls standing behind her. The red-haired one, and three of the other girls, could charitably be said to look as though an entire strip mall had been liquefied and poured onto them with a fire hose. Not a single part of their body, face, clothes, hair, or posture was the same. All four of them looked completely different from everything around them.
Helen's throat clamped shut, letting only a pained gurgle escape. She recognized the girls: it was Quinn, long lost Quinn, and three of her friends—Sandi, Stacy, and Tiffany. Then the camera shifted to the right, and the gurgle became much louder, like air roughly being released from a balloon.
Jake imitated this noise, though he wasn't sure why. O'Neil had said not to worry, but everyone on the television looked worried, and the four highlighted people looked like a mixture of everything and nothing, and his wife looked like she had just seen the corpse of her father rise from his grave. He decided to go with what his wife looked like—as he liked her better even though O'Neil was one of the most powerful people in the country—and again imitated her garbled noise even though he didn't know why.
The reason Helen had garbled like that was because the camera was highlighting a fifth girl, girl wearing a green jacket and thick black glasses, who looked about her in a completely unbelieving and disheartened way. It was Daria, Helen realized quickly—Daria who had been dragged away by Yes-Men and whom, Timothy O'Neil had just informed everyone, had escaped from jail.
The camera was forced back onto Quinn and her friends. Quinn stepped forward, then was roughly grabbed back by Sandi. Sandi moved towards the camera instead.
"Like, people of America, or whatever," she said. The crowd started chattering to, like, themselves.
"Like, what is she talking about Helen?" said Jake. "Or whatever."
"Shush Jake!" she said, staring hard at the television. Jake whimpered.
"Ok..." he said.
Sandi continued. "This, like, travesty can't go any further. As members of the Secret Cabal of Independent Trend Setters we simply will not stand for it!"
"Agreed Sandi!" said Stacey.
"Like tooooootally," said Tiffany.
"Yarg," said Quinn, being a pirate so she could show everyone how different she was from everyone. Sandi gave her a look.
In the background, however, there was a large, pained groan. All eyes shifted to Daria at the same time, as she attempted to break the bridge of her nose with her fingers.
"The King is dead," she mumbled. "Long live the king."
"Long live the King!" shouted Jake at the television.
"Shush Jake!" Helen said. Jake again whimpered.
Back on the stage, Sandi scoffed. "Like, why did we even bring her again?" she said.
"Beeecaaaause she's diiiiiffffereeeeenttt," Tiffany said.
"Yeah," said Quinn, jumping quickly to take credit for her plan. "Remember? I told you that nobody on this planet was as different as my sister, and since she was on a government watch list we could really get people's attention! Remember Sandi?"
Sandi nodded. "Oh, um, right. Yes. I remember now. Good plan, Quinn."
"Yeeeeaaahhh," said Tiffany. "Gooood plaaaan Quiiiiin."
"You think so differently!" said an awed Stacy.
"Thanks!" Quinn said.
"While there is a soul in prison," Daria said, "I am not free." She then pinched the bridge of her nose so hard she thought she heard it crack. Back at home, both Jake and Helen did the same: Jake because Daria was doing it, Helen because she sympathized a great deal.
On the television, Sandi walked closer to the camera, and prepared her best speech posture she could think of (taking extra care to make sure nobody else was doing it). She then said, "It's, like, time for everybody to stop being the same. Like, look upon us, the Secret Cabal of Independent Trend Setters, and see how we're, like, each our own person."
"Yeah!" said Stacy.
"Who wouldn't want to be us?" said Quinn.
"Looooook upon meeeee," said Tiffany.
There were murmurs within the crowd. At home, Jake looked like a man in the thralls of a schizophrenic episode. Helen merely worried for her daughter's safety—they were fugitives of the law, after all.
Daria, however, was none of those things. To put it lightly, she was annoyed beyond measure, to the point where if you could in fact measure it, it would likely have looped around itself in a snarling, chaotic circle and come out the other side sprouting a luscious hate-tree.
She said, "You've got to be kidding me."
All eyes turned to her. She did not wilt under them—the hate-tree provided adequate shading.
She said, "Here's a scary thought. How about instead of caring whether we're following trends or setting trends, we just live life and focus on things that might actually matter in the long run?"
Silence followed. Except at home, where Jake said, "That is a scary thought."
"Jake..." said Helen.
"Sorry!" he said, recoiling on instinct.
On the television, Daria looked ready to leave. She didn't expect an answer, didn't want one either. She'd actually prefer to be in her cell—as cramped and oppressive and so thoroughly soul-shattering as it was, there were books, and books were always preferable to reality.
Her leave was prevented, however, by the form of the United States Solicitor-General of Conformity and Proper Herd Mentality—a Ms. Angela Li—bursting through the hole in the wall with an M4A1 Carbine and M203 under barrel grenade launcher pointed out in front of her. The Secret Cabal of Independent Trent Setters didn't know what to do. Daria managed to say "Eep".
Angela Li opened fire, mowing down the five girls in a maelstrom of bullets. Then she fired off a grenade at their corpses for good measure. Chunks of meat rained down on the ballerinas. They didn't react—they simply looked as angry as Angela Li.
Angela Li walked up to the camera and scowled into it. She said, "Alright people. Show's over, the fun's done. You'll forget everything you saw, and everything you heard. For your own sake, and for the sake of the United States of Ameeeeeeerica!"
She trudged back through the hole in the wall, as the crowd and the ballerinas shook their heads in agreement. Soon they forgot about what had happened on the stage, and why the ballerinas had meat on their costumes. They thought everyone was supposed to have meat on their clothes, and soon began distributing bits and pieces of Daria and Quinn and Sandi and Tiffany and Stacy so they could place them on their shoulders or sleeves or stomachs.
Jake had come back from the kitchen with two pieces of salami draped over his suit, when he noticed Helen's cheeks were moist with tears again. He sat down, realized he couldn't cry at that moment, and instead asked his wife what was wrong.
"Just something sad on TV Jakey," she said.
Then she got up and went to find her own pieces of salami.