The assault in Bangkok’s flower market happened just five minutes after Saqueena arrived.
Earlier that morning, she’d showered, mashed her rebellious hair into a less offensive shape, pulled on her not-too-wrinkled Tiger beer t-shirt, and then checked on old Mrs. Huang next door.
The woman slumped in her worn recliner, her glasses on and her earbuds cranked up so loud Saqueena could hear tinny voices coming from them. Saqueena checked to be sure Mrs. Huang had eaten (the empty rice bowl and an open bag of pineapple chunks on the chairside table suggested she had) before wiping the old woman’s cheeks and hands with a damp cloth.
“I prefer the red polish,” Mrs. Huang said. “And etch each nail with those little flowers.”
Saqueena leaned in and raised her voice. “You have everything you need?”
Mrs. Huang cackled. “Such a gossip!”
Satisfied, Saqueena dashed back across the hall, snatched her own glasses and earbuds off the charging mat, and dashed out the door. Two MRT stops from her gritty little apartment, she slapped her glasses on, shoved an earbud in each ear, and tapped her left temple.
What she could see of the crowded, grimy train car interior brightened. The overhead lights shifted from blue-white to a honey-gold. The faces of the passengers around her softened. The loopy scrawls of Reality Church graffiti (“The Truth shall set U free!”) faded from view as her lenses re-rendered the train car’s interior walls with a virtual layer of polished aluminum. The roar of the subway car gave way to the sound of chants being sung in a cavernous temple.
The stationary clock in the upper left of her field of vision confirmed her worst fears: at this rate, she’d get to the market fifteen minutes late. Again. This time, Radalph — the wiry manager with the permanent frown — would do worse than dock her pay.
Her gear sensed her tensions, noted the time of day, and pulled a related journal entry. A media window opened in the air in front of her: her boss, Radalph, frowning, giving her a taste of the misery he could inflict by using his higher permissions against her. Like a wizard casting an incantation, he swiped at sliders in the air that only he could see. Immediately, her lenses re-rendered flower market’s bouquets into coils of hissing snakes, and her ear buds replaced every sound with the squalling of terrified infants.
She had taken it three minutes before breaking down in tears. Radalph shut it all off, then knelt beside her, drawing near enough for her to smell the onions on his breath. “Be late again, and I’ll make that your life for the next three weeks.”
Her eyes watered. Her throat tightened. She waved the window away. And that’s when she noticed the blinking battery icon in the upper right corner of her field of vision: five minutes of juice left. She must have misaligned her gear on the charging mat again.
“Shit.” She hissed the word loud enough for the passenger next to her to overhear it. Through her lenses, he appeared to be a smiling elderly monk, complete with saffron robes and a shaved head; she had no idea what he’d look like without augmentation.
He nodded at her, beaming. “Sawadee krup.”
On the one hand, his earpieces had probably equalized her profanity into a greeting; on the other, he might be cursing her, and her own gear was rendering this as a friendly hello.
She decided to err on the side of caution and respond politely. “Sawadee ka.”
The man wrinkled his brow, muttered under his breath, and turned his back to her. Regardless of what she’d actually said, his version of their interaction must have been annoying.
At Sanam Chai, she disembarked and took the escalators up to street level. Two exquisite American women — blonde hair, luminous eyes, porcelain skin — flanked her as she traversed the station, chattering about a body conditioning regimen that had changed their lives forever. Whoever had programmed the ads had done a bad job; the women’s lips didn’t sync with the Thai language soundtrack.
Saqueena wanted to dismiss them, but that would mean the sponsor wouldn’t pay for her MTS ride. So she endured their scripted conversation (“My boyfriend couldn’t keep his hands off me!”) until she exited the station and stepped out into the slick, brutal heat of Bangkok at noon.
Her gear couldn’t do anything about the weather, but her lenses replaced the smoggy sky and trash-lined street with cotton-candy clouds and a bamboo forest. She followed a bejeweled butterfly to Soi Tha Klang, where the animated insect turned right and guided her directly to her stall in the Pak Klang Talat market.
She had time to pull on her smock — frayed and stained, but her lenses rendered it in lovely red velvet — just before Radalph tapped her on the shoulder.
“Late again, I see.”
“I had to check on a neighbor.”
Radalph tilted his head to one side. “Know what I hear when you talk? Fingernails on a chalkboard.” He swiped around in the air, batting at controls. “I’m going to punish you now for being late, give you something that will keep you focused while you work. Sirens and strobe lights.”
And then, three things happened at once.
First, her glasses and earbuds went dead. Above her, the overlaid image of wrought-iron latticework flickered and vanished, replaced by the pockmarked concrete ceiling of the market. The glowing digital signage directing shoppers to vegetables and succulents evaporated, replaced by stained, handwritten signs. The soft music in her ears dissolved into the clatter of wooden packing crates being broken down for the day. The only thing she could see that persisted were the flowers: jasmine, chrysanthemum, orchids, delphinium, still brilliant despite drab surroundings.
At the same time, three Reality Church terrorists came roaring into the market on motorcycles, spraying bullets. They careened past her stall, screaming slogans (“The truth will set you free!”) and pointing their blunt little assault rifles directly at her. Saqueena dove for the filthy floor, covering her head with her hands. She heard a burst of sharp reports: ba-ba-ba-ba-bang! Shards of wood and flower petals pelted her skin, along with something warm and wet.
And finally, just as she drew a breath to scream, Radalph, limp and heavy as a burlap sack of tulip bulbs, collapsed on top of her.
The police officer in charge picked his way through the wreckage of the flower market, making his way to Saqueena and a small knot of survivors. Not far away, other officers carried stretchers laden with shrouded bodies toward a cluster of ambulances. Pedestrians sidestepped them, laughing and chatting, their lenses glittering in the afternoon light.
Saqueena wished her glasses and earbuds were working, so she could overlay all this with cartoon animals and birdsong.
The officer — a youngish Thai man with an earnest face and a physique like a Muay Thai boxer — addressed Saqueena’s group. “I am Officer Saetang. I am here to collect your versions of what happened.”
A moon-faced woman on Saqueena’s right stepped forward. “I was using an overlay from my cousin’s wedding! I was remembering the ceremony and enjoying the flowers when three tigers came through and began attacking guests!”
A pot-bellied man in a crop top, stained shorts, and flip flops shook his head. “I was overlaying an episode of Lonely Seaside Hearts. That wispy-looking girl — you know, the one that’s also on that show about the manicurist? — she was about to confront her mother about the arranged marriage, and suddenly there were these … I don’t know … seals? Sea lions? Anyway, big water creatures with leathery skin and long tusks. Walruses! That’s it. These walruses came crashing through the ceiling.”
A German tourist with a cruise ship ID card strung around his neck rolled his eyes. “My tour group was buying herbs for a cooking class. We were following the teacher around the market, while watching an overlay of the chef describing today’s recipe, when someone dashed through the demo overturning a dozen boiling pots of soup!”
The officer held up his gloved hands. “I don’t have all day. Don’t tell me about it. Just transmit your saved entries to me.”
The moon-faced woman flinched. “I’m not sure I saved it.”
“In times of trauma, your gear autosaves everything into a read it later file.” The officer tapped his glasses. “Now I’m in receive mode. Just blink your codes and swipe the last hour of your journals to me. We will average out the stories at the station and come to a verdict.”
The little group donned their glasses and earbuds, swiped around in the air, and then began wandering off — dismissed, perhaps, by a version of Officer Saetang that only they could see. Actual Saetang turned to Saqueena and peered at her over his reflective lenses. “I don’t seem to have your record.” He frowned. “Or your identity, for that matter.”
“My battery ran out on my gear,” Saqueena said. “But I saw what happened. It was Reality Church terrorists. They had guns.” She looked down at the floor, where a red-black stain remained on the dirty concrete. “They shot Radalph.”
“You have a record of this?”
“No,” Saqueena said. “My gear wasn’t working. I just … I just saw what was actually happening.”
Officer Saetang pursed his lips. “You are legally obligated to wear your gear. Advertisers pay a lot of money. And it keeps us all safe.”
“I know!” Saqueena said. “But my gear wasn’t on the pad just right, and it didn’t charge.”
“I don’t care,” the officer said, tapping and gesturing in the air. “Now we have to go to the station and take a manual statement.”
“I just gave you my statement! I saw the whole thing!”
“Let me tell you how this works,” the officer said. “We must do what we call a progressive summarization. Everyone sees things differently, so every one has a different version of the truth. The police take these versions and experience each one, exactly as it was experienced by those who made the recording. Then we summarize these experiences, logging them and making connections to other cases, looking for parallels and common themes. This enables us to synthesize something new: a restatement of the facts in our own words.” He gestured at the ruined flower market. “The synthetic truth.”
Saqueena brushed at her bare temples, trying in vain to insulate herself from this unpleasantness with an overlay. Even one of the sponsored ones would do. “What I’m telling you is what really happened. I saw it with my own eyes.”
The officer fished around in his pockets, produced a zip-tie, and gestured for Saqueena to put her hands behind her back. “And because you weren’t wearing your gear, all we have is your word for that. So now, whoever you are, you must come to the station and further complicate my day.”
Because of heavy street traffic, the drive to the station took more than an hour. Saqueena sat in the back of the police cruiser, frowning at the stench and the grime. Each time the cruiser hit a pothole (which was frequently, given the state of Bangkok’s inner-city streets) empty energy drink cans rattled around Saqueena’s feet.
Up front, while the cop car dutifully wound its way past accidents and stalled vehicles, Officer Saetang giggled and chatted with someone Saqueena couldn’t see. “You’re not the first to tell me I’m a beautiful woman,” Saetang said, gesturing as though he were making a toast. “But it still pleases me.”
Inside the station, uniformed officers sat in a series of sterile stalls. Most were gesturing and pawing at the air; another, a squatty woman who crouched near the entrance, seemed to be a sort of receptionist. Saetang murmured something to this female officer, who rolled her eyes when she saw Saqueena’s lack of gear. “This will take forever,” the female officer said.
“Even so, we must do the work” He gestured at the other officer and then at Saqueena. “You must lead her through the work.”
The female officer shrugged, motioned for Saqueena to follow. She led the way to a cramped, windowless office with room for little more than a steel table and an unpadded metal chair. “In here. If the decor doesn’t suit you, you can overlay anything you please.” The officer glanced at Saqueena’s bare temples and empty ears. “Or in your case, you’ll just have to make do.”
Saqueena sat down. “I gave Officer Seatang my statement.”
The female officer pawed at the air. “I am Officer Saelim. You are working with me now. I am in receipt of the accounts of the incident at the market, and have also seen how other officers have rephrased those accounts in their own words.”
“Three men, on motorcycles, shooting up the market. They were Church of Reality protesters.”
Saelim raked her fingers through the air; if she heard Saqueena, she didn’t respond. “I have now averaged these rephrased accounts, noting common features among them, and, as a result, have a more holistic perspective on the truth than any one eyewitness can supply.”
“I saw the attack with my own eyes!”
Saelim swiped and tapped at controls that only she could see. “But your story conflicts with the facts. A wedding was being held at Pak Klang Talat: an arranged marriage between a German tourist and a famous chef. An unkempt woman, dressed in a sweatshirt with the Tiger beer logo on it, arrived late to work, and, as part of an altercation with her boss, doused the poor man with a pot of boiling soup. When police arrived, the man found the man limp and dead on the ground, collapsed on top of his killer like a beached walrus.”
Saqueena’s eyes bulged. “It! Was! Terrorists!”
“So you say.” Officer Saelim closed the door, sealing the two of them in the claustrophobic little office. “But protestors and terrorists do not appear in any other stories, and you are wearing clothing that matches the paraphrased description of the killer.”
Saqueena began trembling. “I killed no one!”
“I’m sorry, but the version of events I’ve recounted here is favored over all other variants. Confidence is very high that the official story, while perhaps not literal, is dynamically equivalent to the truth. And while your testimony has been noted, audiences don’t rank its reliability highly, it’s politically unpopular, and it has won over no commercial sponsors.” Saelim unfastened a pouch on her belt and produced a tiny forced-air needle gun the size of cigarette pack. “Of course, your objection has been noted for the record.”
Saelim squeezed the sides of the little metal box.
A sharp puff of air, like the world’s tiniest sneeze. A whine, like a mosquito. A sigh, as Saqueena slumped forward. A thud, as her head hit the tabletop.
Officer Saelim left the room, sealed it, thumbed the sanitation switch. Her lenses rendered the flames behind the viewing glass into a radiant sunset, and her earbuds converted the roar of the furnace into pounding surf.
She left work two hours later, a smile on her face, recalling a beach day she’d spent in Hua Hin. As she moved through the foul and crowded streets, the city’s sights and sounds rippled and shifted, conforming to the stories she told herself about the world.
“Bloom,” a short fiction piece by Mark McElroy, is (c) Copyright 2021 by Mark McElroy. All rights are reserved. Please use with permission only.