Excerpt: Custodian


NINETY BILLION SOULS – Local time: 21.02 hours.

Excerpt: Custodian: Miss Asalah Al Faghori is one of Oxford University’s finest post-graduate researchers. This is the fourth year of her five-year D-Phil in Biochemistry, majoring in The Commercial Applications of RNA Research.

A twenty-three-year-old from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Her stridently Christian parents, natives of the Egyptian town of Qena on the eastern shore of the River Nile, came to Britain in the 1980s following President Anwar Sadat’s assassination.

Custodian-by-Mike-PhilbinCan you imagine how driven, how focused, how dedicated their ‘little girl’ must have been to have (within one immigrant generation) secured approval to study in the hallowed halls and libraries of Oxford University? Neither her younger brother nor her elder sister had so embraced the English way; fitted in so cleverly. And it’s the way she is with others that really sets her apart. It’s like, even though she’s no apparent leader, you’d go to war for her. In many ways, she’s a dark horse, quiet and considered, but gathered around here are a loyal network of avid researchers and close friends from all aspects of Oxford life, more than sterile colleagues or clock-watching associates.

There’s a bond, a spiritual connection with a higher plain that you see only after you’ve spent time in her presence.

Asalah Al Faghori has contributed to ESI or Eye Sys Industries in very-profitable ways during her four-year tenure at Oxford University and has been well remunerated for her commercial exploitation in the form of a well-equipped lab and external access to all relevant files, a corporate expense account, and regular appearances at trade conferences around the world in the field of bio-genetic research. She has her mother’s dark hair and her father’s darker eyes. She’s not a practicing Christian herself, but that sort of structured up-bringing rubs off on one, shapes one’s mind. She stands five-foot-nothing in her stockinged feet and has a bell-peeling laugh that could melt an iceberg with its sonority, its song. Though she has ‘adult curves,’ there’s not one ounce of excess fat on her.

Asalah Al Faghori will die tonight, and we shall share the moment of her passing so that she can fulfill her promise of a brand-new future so far denied the inhabitants of this cruelly commercial world.

She will die so that you, the people, can understand Creativity.

She will die so that you, the people, can translate Passion.

She will die so that you, the people, can share Kinship.

She’s not going to die strapped to a chair receiving four hundred stab wounds from some ‘lunatic home invader’ like unlucky French biochemists. She’s not going to be discovered in some GCHQ safe house, zipped into a locked pink sports bag, decomposed well beyond the few days since her demise. She’s not going to be discovered with her wrists slit in the wrong way, undigested Paracetamol in her gut, and no blood near her corpse in the woods.

She’s going to offer her life to the whole world, the scientific world, the political world, the living world. She’s going to commit the ultimate sacrifice of her flesh so that there’ll be no doubting her dedication, her resolve. She believes this to be the right thing to do. She believes that her sacrifice will be judged right and proper in the great accounting table of history’s more significant events. God is on her side, or so she believes.

Her bedsit walls are bare, painted limestone-white over embossed Edwardian wallpaper, which you can still see during early morning hours. No student posters. No family portraits. No flat-screen TV crucified on high. Along the far wall sprawls a large foldaway cushion bed the Japanese call a F’ton. Here’s a list of the additional fixtures and fittings:

An ancient oak double-bookshelf groaning with biochemistry books fills the back wall.

A white porcelain sink, where a single toothbrush stands guard in a clear glass beaker.

A clock radio, red LED, black Casio model from the year dot.

A white tourist coffee mug from the Mena House Hotel in Cairo.

A top of the range Dell laptop, with four co-processors and an 18.4-inch screen, donated by ESI so that she can be logged in 24/7/365, for the good of The Corporation.

The beige carpet is too plush, too clean, compared with the age of the building. It was probably re-laid before she took this room at the start of her tenure. No expense spared so that the golden egg-laying goose could roost.

Outside, below the open window of this Spartan bedsit, the Yellow Buses are transporting the last of the day’s summer tourists down High Street and out through The Wall, heading east out of the town centre, obedient to the Law of Curfew. Asalah Al Faghori has cleared an ample space in the middle of her bed-sitting room for tonight’s rite.

“Ninety billion souls,” she reminds herself as she prepares the backdrop her laptop camera will pick up, re-arranging some books, tidying a few knick-knacks. These will be the theatrical props, the elemental specters, behind her head as she commits suicide online to one of those private forums where it’s become something of a grunge sport; an acquired taste for when there’s nothing on the TV or you want to see how the nutter-half life (or die (or don’t die, as is often the case)).

She kneels in front of her ESI laptop on the floor. She sets the timer on her camera: ten minutes is all she’ll need.

“Ninety billion souls…” she says this like it’s the start of some personal performance she’s been practicing, rehearsing, troubled by, for quite some time. It’s the start of something she wants to get right. It’s the three most important words of an emotional outpouring that’ll probably even bore the investigative psychologist who’ll look upon this desperate ‘exeunt stage left’ as just another sad condemnation of student life in Oxford and the utter lack of anything to take your mind off the educational grind.

It’s not easy to kill yourself. You know what they say, ‘It’s the people you leave behind who have to bear the pain.’

“Ninety billion souls,” she starts again, trying another voice a half octave deeper, and clears her throat, “Ninety billion souls…” happy with the way the sound reverberates within the sterile space. In a neighbouring student room, someone’s cooking a curry.

She had been dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, but now she is completely naked. There’s a glass of distilled water beside her right knee. The camera on her enormous laptop won’t pick up any of these details. She’s not filming a porn death, only a talking-head shot death. She’s filming her ideological death, and a state of undress (a return to primal purity) is essential.

To be exact, she is ‘ritualizing the death of all dogma.’ That’s how Miss Asalah Al Faghori would like this moment of transition to be remembered. That’s her intention. But that’s getting slightly ahead of ourselves. We’re looking for too many extenuating circumstances behind the death of this spirited young female from an Arabic country that’s just seen so much trauma and revolution that’s still pushing and bearing through the gut-busting contractions of Democracy.

Broadcasting to the world, eventually.

Unblinking eye, intentionally.

Red light recording, for posterity.

Having noted the time on her LED clock radio, she begins her prepared monologue to the camera.

“I had a dream last night. It was a dream about our little house in the English countryside. A cottage with a thatched roof and heavy oak doors. Beams in the lounge, the kitchen, and the bedrooms. Lead in the windows. It was snowing outside. All the foxes and deer brought their families to our house to avoid The Cull. You could hear the hunt dogs barking in the distance. Getting nearer. On TV was the story about the foxes and deer arriving because we’d saved one or two of them every year.

“I don’t have such a ‘little house in the English countryside.’ My family lives in a council block of flats. I don’t even have a TV. And these contradictions have helped me … understand … what the events of the next few minutes are going to cause. I realized this dream is about us. Our little group, our little coalition of the willing, I’ve called The Custodians. You have no idea who we are. Neither do our bosses, our superiors, our sponsors. Tonight, The Custodians will cut the heads of innovation free from their enslavement to the dollar, the Yuan, the t-bill. The Custodians are no longer going to allow the yoke of corporate slavery to polish the necks of humankind. It’s going to be a routing of Historic Proportions. Real Freedom for all is going to Sprout. And Flourish. And Thrive.”

She pauses there and places the transparent hundreds-and-thousands-filled capsule onto her tongue in a prescriptive fashion. She takes the glass of distilled water and sips from it. Swallows, with obvious effort. It looks about nostalgically and makes a frown. Then a smile appears on one side of her mouth. She drains the glass in big, loud gulps. Wipes her glistening mouth with the back of her hand. Takes a deep breath. Sets the glass down out of harm’s reach.


“Oh, ninety billion souls. I nearly forgot,” she adjusts her position, seems rushed.

“I’ve done some calculations, as part of my ‘thesis’,” she snorts ironically, “Without getting too technical … the human brain contains approximately ninety billion or so neurons. And ninety billion or so is an estimate of the number of humans that have ever lived throughout history. Ninety billion. Recently, the earth’s human population passed seven billion, and I wondered one day whether this planet could actually sustain ninety billion souls at the same time. What sacrifices would we all have to make for that to become a reality? What would the collateral damage figures be? … and I realized…”

She flinches. Just the once. Beads of sweat blossom on her forehead. A worried look skitters across her face. Her eyes dart about, then settle. She gulps. As she’s about to continue, she creases over in a blaze of pain. Dropping out of the shot from her laptop camera. You can hear her muffled groans of agony. You can see the arch of her back, three or four out-of-focus vertebrae protruding.

“I realized…” a sweat-mottled forehead re-surfaces, shoulders drawn up by her ears, the back of a fist across the opposite cheek like a boxer defending against a right cross, “I realized that…”

A lip-bitten scream erupts within her throat. She tries to keep it in. Her face goes bright red, and tears pour down her face. She keeps screaming like this for nearly a minute. Literally, sixty seconds of pure pain are carved across her face in tortured freeze-frame. She doesn’t blink once, keeps looking right into the camera as the crescendo of pain rises and rises then cascades away, draining the horror from the crevices in her face in tumbling blocks of marbled relief.

Sweat pours down her forehead from inside her hairline. She performs a series of deep, heavy gasps and pants before continuing, “This planet has a limited resource.

“I’m not talking about gold or diamonds or rare-earth elements or carbon, air, water. I’m talking about souls. Yes, souls. There’s something about how the Earth is wired such that only ninety billion souls are allowed to exist. Ever. Like there’s some dislocation between time and souls. Eternity is written into the human equation, and we ignore this at our peril. And by souls, I mean neurons, the ability to process, to share information.

“That is fundamentally what a soul is, a converter from starlight to intention. The physical….” she doubles over again like she’s been gut-punched by Stanley Kubrick’s Gunnery Sgt. Hartman.

Asalah has fallen off the shot entirely while the sounds of vomiting can be heard. Asalah is on her side, naked on the carpet of her room, in front of her devoted laptop. Her knees are drawn in. Her forearms wrapped around her shins. Her fingers balled into fists. Her toes curled in like claws. There is a watery puddle of puke in front of her, dangerously close to the laptop.

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