Fiction: The Spirit and the Voice

Lily had always been different. The Spirit had never taken her even now, as a young woman, she wondered about what that meant. She had often seen the Spirit take father and mother, both writhing in ecstasy on the floor, arms and legs splayed, eyes closed. Sometimes the Spirit would be so forceful that father would lose his water. Yet he seemed so calm, almost ecstatic, after an intense communion.

The Spirit showed herself to her sister Daisy in a different way. They might be playing outside, running around near the reservoir, when Daisy would go quiet. Her eyes, normally bright, would go dull. She wouldn’t respond to questions, or react when Lily punched her on the arm. She would just stand there for a while before coming back, after the Spirit released her. Lily asked her how it felt, and Daisy always said that it was like nothing in this world. She said it was an absence, a feeling of losing touch with the world and of floating alone, but surrounded by the Spirit.

The Spirit communed with people in different ways. Some would fall, their legs collapsing beneath them, to lie motionless. Some could jump and twitch, wave their hands, as if they were at the mid-summer dance.

Lily could only watch, and listen and experience the Spirit through her friends and her family. When she was a child, she would pray to the Spirit, ask it to visit so she could be calm like Daisy or ecstatic like father. She would get upset and ask mother why it wouldn’t come, and how it wasn’t fair. Mother would hold her close, and whisper, “Don’t worry my love, nobody knows how the Spirit works. We are all blessed in different ways”.

When Lily got older, she accepted that perhaps the Spirit would never come. She took it upon herself to collect the stories of the Spirit, to catalog other people’s experience on her visits. For her, the Spirit was a mystery, something to study and to contemplate.

Lily had grown up in the shadow of the station. Watching the tall silent chimneys blow out white steam up into the sky was one of her earliest memories. Her mother tended to the apple trees in the orchard just outside the village and her father, a priest, tended to the men who worked in the station.

Every twelve hours, the sirens would call out from the station, signaling the start of a new shift. Men and women would stream out and head back to the village to their homes and their families. A new batch of people would take their place and do the work assigned to them. Some kept the gardens around the station, others looked at the glowing screens inside the station, while others worked in the myriad buildings and structures around the station.

Father, due to his affinity with the Spirit, couldn’t work in the station. He told Lily that the Voice had chosen him to look after the people doing the important work at the station. He held mass at the end of each shift. Preaching to the exhausted men and women, thanking them for their work in keeping the station in such fine order, and for doing performing their duty to the Voice.

The Voice and the Spirit were the two guiding forces of Lily’s world. The Voice commanded, and the Spirit visited. The Voice was inside everyone. The Voice spoke only when necessary. It was always direct and clear. It told the workers at the station what to do, from which switches to press to which chimneys to clean. Each villager had a role to play in keeping the station working and the Voice was the conductor. It helped Father with his sermons, it helped mother with tending to the trees in the orchards and it helped Lily heal the people  in the village.

The Voice was absent until the thirteenth year of a persons life. Lily remembered being shocked when the Voice first spoke to her. The Voice was clear, and calm and direct. She felt it in her very core. The Voice told her that she would be a healer and she would help the people of the village. The Voice had been with her ever since, teaching her how to soothe burns, how to stitch cuts, and how to help those that had a particularly intense communion.

Lily enjoyed working for the Voice. She liked its calm, even timbre and the certainty of its presence inside her.  It was imperative that a person listen to and obey the Voice. The consequences of disobedience were swift and could be final. Father told her the story of the man who refused to head into the station to put out a fire in the cooling tower. The man was scared and betrayed the village and the station by being a coward. The Voice banished him. He was ordered out of the village and to the mines. When he tried to sneak back into the village, the Voice commanded him to climb the station chimney and jump off, right as the night shift ended. Father still remembered the man’s screams and pleas for mercy as he climbed the chimney.

Lily had always been curious. She asked mother about the Spirit and the Voice, and where they came from. Mother said they had always been there in the village, as long as she or anybody she knew could remember. Lily would often ask the Voice questions. If the question was about her work, the Voice would answer. Otherwise it remained silent.

The village had few visitors. The only people Lily would see were the miners bringing in coal for the station. They would appear on the sixth day of every week. The miners were a quiet lot. They kept to themselves and seldom spoke to the villagers. It was clear though, that they too were guided by the Voice and visited by the Spirit. Lily had once helped a miner who had hit his head when communing with the Spirit. He heard him talking to the Voice about the schedule of their next delivery.

Sometimes people from other villages or stations would come visit a while or move to the village. Sometime the Voice would ask them to move from one village to another. It might be because the villager had particular skills needed by the station of the village, or it might be for no clear reason at all. As father often told Lily “One never questions the decisions of the Voice”.

Life in the village was predictable. Lily would spend the morning checking in on the workers from the night shift, cook dinner for the family, and spend the evening checking in on the workers from the morning shift. Most of her visits were routine, enlivened sometimes by a particularly gruesome injury or an intense communion with the Spirit.

On quiet days Lily would walk amongst the apple trees and try to imagine the world outside the village. If she wandered too far, the Voice would ask her to return. Usually this came in the form of a request to check in on someone not doing well back in the village. As she went from being a teenager to a young woman, Lily’s yearning for exploring the world beyond the village grew.  She kept asking the Voice about the world outside, and where the Voice came from.

The Voice had always been silent until one drizzly spring day when it finally answered.

“You are here because you have a role to play”

Lily, shocked, stood still wondering if she had just hallucinated. “Why speak now? Why remain silent all these years?” she asked after recovering her bearings.

“We ask because we need your help,” the Voice answered. “One day soon, your wish will come true and we will ask you to travel far away from the village. Until that day, you will obey us and do your duty.”

Lily asked many more questions to the Voice. She asked it where she would go, what she would do, but the Voice remained silent. After a while, Lily was overcome with elation. She had never had communion with the Spirit, but now she had spoken with the Voice. The mystery at the center of her existence had deepened, yet she had found new meaning. She made her way back to the village in time for the end of the morning shift.

Review: The Fear Index by Robert Harris

Review of Robert Harris’s “The Fear Index”


The Fear Index is a breezy, fun read. Clearly the author has done his research on the financial markets and the world of hedge funds. Even the basic idea behind the protagonist’s hedge fund is feasible.  Sentiment analysis is a hot topic in machine learning, and I think there are already commercial products available that will analyse the sentiment for a given stream of data.

The story focuses on a day in the life of Alex Hoffman – Super Quant.  It starts with a break-in in the dead of the night and, like all good thrillers ends with a big bang.  Hoffman’s business partner, his wife and the befuddled policeman Leclerc are little more than the scaffolding to the rest of the plot. While the story moves along at a fair clip, and it is hard to put down, I did not find the characters that interesting. I suppose it is difficult to empathize with socially awkward billionaires having a bad hair day.

Where the book disappointed me was the plot. The HAL 9000 \ AI elements of the story are weak and similar stories have been covered a lot better, for example, by Charles Stross in Rule 54 or Accelerando. If you are looking for a fun thriller, I heartily recommend The Fear Index. If you are a fan of science fiction, you might want to steer clear.