Sounding the Fall
by Jei D. Marcade
Sometimes, Narae can almost convince emself that the AI’s Voice was a dream. Some kind of minor stroke misremembered, a neurological glitch retroactively given recognizable shape.
But sometimes–less frequently of late, but still, sometimes–Narae wakes to find emself sitting up in the dark, jaw slack, a sustained, atonal note spooling from the back of eir throat.
Narae steps through the open archway of the southwestern gate, bare toes curling in the cool blades of real grass with which the temple grounds are seeded. The lotus-shaped lanterns hanging from the eaves go dim as the sun activates, and from its single-tiered pagoda at the top of the hill behind em, the morning bell tolls.
The alms left anonymously against the outer wall in the night include a couple bolts of inert grey fabric, some bags of rice, and a stack of real tea bricks. Upon hefting the rice, Narae’s eyebrows inch toward the shadow of eir hairline at each bag’s weight: not synthetic either, these. Something that is part bemusement, part nostalgia tugs at the corners of Narae’s mouth, and ey shakes eir head as ey piles the bags and bolts into the bottom of the wheelbarrow before turning to gather the rest.
There, on the topmost tea brick, tucked along the raised edge of an elaborate curlicue that must have gone overlooked when the temple’s faceless benefactor hastily scraped off the embossed logo, is a perfectly rolled joint.
Narae plucks the thing up by one tip and crosses the outer lawn, ready to cast it over the rail that wraps around the temple grounds and down along the winding stone staircase to the lower levels.
Steady as a heartbeat, the temple’s morning drum begins to sound out. When its reverberations subside, they leave an even deeper reservoir of silence behind them.
Narae falters at the edge of the lawn. Ey brings the roll of rice paper to eir nose, gives it a tentative sniff, and releases an explosive sigh; Narae would bet a week’s worth of chores that it’s real–none of that backstreet synth hash with its foul aftertaste. Muttering a guilty prayer, ey palms the joint.