talonkarrde: (argopup)
Henry remembers when they used to do everything by hand in the factory. With power drills and hydraulics, of course, but the sweat — and sometimes blood — was real. He remembers the ninety-six bolts that he used to put on every car, the three days that it took to create one.

He remembers the satisfaction of being the worker to slam the hood down at the end of the production process, the satisfying click, and the low growl of the engine as it was fired up.

There was that one night where one of the doors wasn't fitted properly, and the team spent an extra five hours replacing it. When they had finished, it was close to midnight; he felt a bit giddy, and revved the engine just a touch more than it should've been revved. Well, a touch being five thousand RPMs or so, to the cheers of his crew.

The next day, he was called into the foreman's office, who drew down the shades, raised an eyebrow, and said, "Well?"

He said, "I'll never do it again, sir."

The foreman said, "Apology accepted," and on his way out, added, "those beauties sure sound great red-lined, don't they?"

"They sure do, sir," he responded, and they share a brief grin.

Every two weeks, he gets a paycheck, and he puts a third of it to the house, a third in other resources, and saves the rest.

-

He goes hunting sometimes, bringing home game to cook. It's a good life. It's not an easy one, always, but it's a good one.

-

Henry remembers when they started bringing in the robots. It's the large ones — big, dumb things that are pretty much the same hydraulic arms they have before, but now they're on platforms and they're connected to a central brain somewhere and they still require a button to press, but they can do a lot of the heavy lifting. It doesn't take a crew of three to put on a door anymore; now it just takes a robotic arm and someone to help guide it.

At first, they make a lot of mistakes, and there's some grumbling on the floor that they're more trouble than they're worth. One time, Evan narrowly avoids getting impaled by one, as it missed picking up the door and swung back to put it in place. But as some of the issues — or 'bugs', as the guys in glasses that couldn't lift ten pounds over their head call them — get ironed out, he and the rest acknowledge that they do make things easier. Fewer back strains, for sure.

He still gets to click the hood shut, though. That's just not something a robot should do.

There's a commotion on the floor a few months in, on a Friday — some of the guys are being let go. Henry looks at the list of names and shrugs. Deadbeats, all of them, and now that the arms are in place, there just isn't room for those deadbeats anymore. Someone mentions something about union rights, but he's already turned away; he couldn't care less about those leeches anyway.

When he gets home, he opens his paycheck, and puts it away. He's been getting raises here and there, but some of the prices are going up, and he has to save for college for the little one now, and he's able to save less than he used to. Still some, but less.

-

He doesn't go hunting anymore; in fact, traded in his Winchester for a Glock 19. It's gotten a bit rougher in his neighborhood, and he sleeps better knowing that he has something, just in case something happens. There's been layoffs here and there, and there's a lot more loitering at street corners than there used to be. He wishes he could help, but there isn't much to go around. He has to provide for his family first before anyone else's.

-

Henry remembers shutting his last hood, the click as it shuts. It's one of the new electric vehicles. It doesn't slam, but they haven't for a while now. The engines don't purr, either; they don't anything.

He remembers it because it's his last day on the job.

He looks back now and sees the slow crawl of automation, the robots that got smaller and smarter until they handled all of the bolts and screws, until they took the car from the beginning to the end and pumped out a new car every sixteen hours. They started laying off more and more workers, workers that weren't deadbeats and hadn't done anything wrong, and while the union forestalled it for some time, it wasn't long until they didn't need anyone at all. Robots were the new scab workers.

There was a grace period of sorts for him; for a year or two, they kept some of the workers around to 'manage' the robots, until they performed well enough that they didn't really need some management except for some egghead that never lifted a wrench in his life. But in the end, even that was an unnecessary cost. And with that, a factory that once employed a workforce of over five hundred people now employed five.

He goes home, and looks over his savings, savings that have slowly drained over the years as unexpected expenses happened and raises didn't materialize and he kept doing the thing he was good at.

And he wonders about his mortgage, about his family and how to feed and clothe them, about his mother and her cancer and about how something that he’s done for thirty years no longer exists in this world. He thinks about the politicians talking about immigrants — as if they were ever the problem — and about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and about how someone in corporate headquarters now makes ten times what they did a decade ago and how this world just passed him by.

And he goes to get his gun.

Eventide

Jun. 2nd, 2016 12:40 pm
talonkarrde: (argopup)
A little girl stands on a beach, safely away from the water, and watches a star fall from the sky: a great, green comet that burns and burns as it drops into the ocean, somewhere beyond the horizon. She stands there for a moment, blinking slowly to clear her eyes from the afterimages, and wonders if there is more, or if the show is over.

She hears her mother calling her, but at her age, this falling star is much more interesting than anyone calling her for any reason. So she stands there, and a minute passes, and then two. And just as she thinks that there's nothing left to see, she hears a dull, building roar, and she suddenly remembers something that a sickly elder once told her, lying on a bed that he would never get up from:

"If you ever see them fall from the sky, run. Run from the cloud, Deesa. Run away and keep running."

She runs.

But it catches her anyway.

-

When that little girl comes of age and becomes a young woman, she is stronger, taller, healthier than all of the other women — and most of the other men. And she's forgotten, mostly, that one day on the beach, when she was caught by the cloud.

She remembers running, and falling, and the worry on her mother's face when she awoke in her arms. She remembers babbling about a cloud of green, about falling before she reached the grass.

She doesn't remember the whispers of blood sickness that circulated for weeks in the village, whispers of the long winter and the long death. The whispers gradually died as she grew up, not sickly at all.

But as the years went on, different whispers start. Whispers of blood magick, of rituals and rites that her mother must have done to save the child, of life leeched from others and tragedies caused by borrowing life. Dante's mother Iyala is the first to accuse her mother, after her son withers away, coughing up more and more blood every day for a month. But the community defends her; after all, only half of all children make it to their Age Day, and everyone has someone they lost.

It is the grief speaking, the elders say to Deesa and her mother, and tell them that it will all be fine. No one really believes that there is blood magic involved.

-

No one does, that is, until the tide starts coming in.

Not the regular tide, greyish green, that all children are taught never to touch. Instead, it is a green, shifting mass, one that advances just past the water itself, spreading itself across the beach, shifting, turning... waiting. Every night, it comes in as the sun sets, and every morning, it disappears, receding beneath back beneath the waves.

At first, there is no cause for alarm. There was already a firm admonition not to go to the water, and so the elders simply reinforce it. There are other things to worry about — family issues, community issues, the stocks of food for the upcoming winter, and so much more. The elders treat it practically, and turn their attention to other matters.

But then the tide starts growing, inching its way up the beach, until all of the sand is covered. At night, if you were standing in the grasslands, you could look to the beach and see this green, roiling mass, one that almost breathes.

The real alarm happens when the tide spills over to the grasslands, within sight of the village.

The real panic happens when the village discovers that the tide is killing much of the grass and shrubbery that it touches — and some of the smaller animals, too.

A meeting is called.

-

A young woman leans on the edge of a wooden tower, looking out past hastily constructed village walls, and watches as the tide comes in. The green carpet. The poisoned sea. The plague cloud. The names for it amongst the villagers are many, but everyone knows what they're talking about. And everyone knows that it's been advancing, and that tonight, there is a meeting to discuss it.

And Deesa knows a bit more than that. She's been reminded, more than once in the past fortnight, of an event that happened years and years ago, and she suspects that the village elders will have no choice but to do what the village wants. It's not just Dante's mother, this time, but many others, who know two things: that there is a green tide that is killing the land, and that it had likely once touched Deesa herself.

And to be honest, she can't blame them, because she knows those two things too, and in the absence of any other information, who is to say that the whispers aren't right — that the tide is seeking her, and will kill anything it touches to get her back?

"Deesa." A voice from the darkness, a voice that she knows well.

"Macce," she responds, a half smile coming to her face as she turns to face him. "Are you the bearer of bad news?"

He steps forward until he's next to her, smiles, and takes her hand in his before speaking.

"The green cloud has been tracking you," he says, and watches her eyes widen. "That's something that no one knew until today. Where you've been hunting - the paths that you've taken - the cloud has covered that ground faster. It — it prefers that area. It may cover the hunting grounds in a few days."

She turns back to look over the wall, and he waits, knowing her just almost as well as she knows herself.

"I must—"

"—do what’s right," he finishes, and they share a smile, though he takes a moment to cover his face, coughing. "Anyway, the village asked if I would tell you. I think they expected that you would know, but wanted a friendly face to do it, anyway."

"And you are the friendliest face I know,” she says softly, and then snorts. “It's hard not to know, when the entire village is at something that you are not invited to."

He chuckles, and they both fall silent for a bit.

"Deesa—" he starts, but she just shakes her head.

“Don’t make it harder, please. I’ll set out in the morning – can you let them know?”

He eyes her for just a second, and then nods, and leaves, after a brief hug.

-

She wakes later that night, and lies in bed for a few minutes before dressing herself. There’s a brief moment of hesitation at her mothers’ bedroom door, but, after the tears threaten to come, she knows that if she goes through that door, she won’t be able to leave. A few minutes later, she slips through the gates, gently letting them click shut behind her, and turns to look at the cloud, lighting up the darkness, as green as the poisoned frogs in the remaining forests. It’s closer to the village than it was earlier that night, and she feels a twinge of fear.

Maybe, she thinks, it’d just be better if she simply walked towards it, and let it swallow her up. But what if it stays around? What if it decides that I’m not enough?

She remembers what Macce says about it following her, and takes a few tentative steps out towards the roiling mass. It doesn’t seem to respond, and she takes a few more, and a few more, until she’s barely ten steps away. From here, it almost seems to make a sound. A slow, steady buzz, one that comes and goes. She looks at it, one more time, and then turns to her right, and starts walking. If it’s going to follow her, she’s going to give it something to follow, away from the village.

The night passes steadily as she walks, always careful to keep it to her left, but after some time, she realizes that the beach is no longer to her left, and that she’s surrounded by the grassland. The cloud is still to her left... but she realizes that she’s been going in an arc, curving back towards the village as she goes. In fact, they’re almost to the hunting grounds now, and she realizes with growing terror that the cloud has taken over all of it. It’s gotten there ahead of her.

Every inch of land where the village hunts and forages is covered by the knee high cloud of poison, and the death it brings cannot be far behind. She strains her eyes, looking for some of the wildlife, the shaggy beasts, and sees a group of them, in the distance, sleeping through it all – and most horrifyingly, she sees them inhaling and exhaling the gas, one breath at a time. As Deesa watches, the grass in front of her starts wilting.

“No- no! Our food! The village!” she cries out, starting to rush towards the beasts, ignorant of her own safety. She hears a noise behind her and turns as she runs, catches a rock, and the cloud catches her once more as she falls.

-

Deesa wakes for the second time that night, but this time, only sees the stars above her. The stars, the constellations, and a green haze. A green haze that she inhales... and exhales.

“Deesa?” she hears a voice from the darkness, and she tries to figure out where and when she is.

“Macce?” she asks, and she hears a groan. She slowly pulls herself to a sitting position, and looks around, mind still unclear. “The wildbeests – they were breathing it – I fell into the...”

And then she looks down, at the pale face of her friend, who is starting to shiver uncontrollably.

“What’s wrong? What happened? Oh, Macce, why did you follow me-?”

He forces a smile on his face, even as he can’t keep himself from shivering, twitching. “Had to- look out for you. Make sure you knew you weren’t alone.” His teeth chatter, and he pauses for a second, squeezing his eyes shut.

“What’s-“ she starts to ask, and then stops. The cloud surrounds them now, and she would swear that it’s even more active near them than anywhere else on the grass. She looks back at him, the tears starting, furious with him, and herself, and the cloud, and everything. “You should’ve stayed! I could’ve done this myself! Why is it you and not me? I thought I was the one that it wanted!”

His breath starts to come in fits and gasps, but he swallows, hard, and shakes his head, stopping her.

“No, y-see, I have... the blood sickness,” he says, coughing, and she realizes that it’s blood that he’s coughing up. “Didn’t want to tell anyone. Found out a month ago. Still okay, but-“

She tears off a part of his shirt and dabs at the blood. Tears flowing down her cheek.

“Deesa,” he says, taking her hands in his own and squeezing them tight. “You—you’re fine. You’re breathing and you’re fine. It might only—”

He coughs up more blood, and Deesa looks down at him, and then up at the beasts in the distance, realizing what he’s trying to say. “It kills— but not everything. Maybe only the sick. The blood sick. The ones that have drunk the water, or that have eaten the things that make them...”

“Slowly... die,” he finishes for her, as he’s done since they were both children. “I don’t... feel pain. I don’t know what it’s doing but it doesn’t— it doesn’t hurt. I know what happened to my grandpa, and I choose this any day.”

He coughs, again, a continuous, wracking cough as she holds him.

“Bring me back to my family,” he says.

“I will,” she says, and then they say no more.

-

She takes his body back to the village as day breaks. Some of the earlier wakers see her, and before she reaches the town hall, everyone is there, but no one says a word.

She set his body down, and backs up as his family surrounds him.

“Macce was my best and oldest friend, and he went out with me last night, after you... after I decided to leave. I wanted to lead it away from you, and went north, but the cloud had circled around to the hunting grounds. We saw it take over – we saw that everything there breathed it in, and many things died.”

She pauses.

“Macce – Macce died. But before he did, he told me that he had the blood sickness, too, that he was going to die, and that maybe – maybe the cloud only made it so that those who can’t be saved are given... release. He said – he said it didn’t hurt.”

“I don’t know what the green cloud does. I only know what it has done. I know that I’m standing here today, despite having breathed it in, and I feel healthy. I know that there has been something that has been slowly causing us to all get sick, something that our grandfathers and their grandfathers died from. Maybe – maybe this tide is one that washes away the sickness. I know that I saw the beasts this morning, and while some of them were dead, many of the young ones were not. I saw some of the grass near the beach, and it’s growing back faster than it’s ever done.”

“I think you know what I’m about to say now, what my suggestion is. But I don’t know what to do. I’m just one person, and maybe I just got lucky, and Macce got unlucky. This isn’t my decision to make. It’s yours. Macce wanted me to bring him back. And I think he wanted me to tell this story. The rest... is up to all of us. If you want me to leave again, I will.”

“And if we think that you should be killed?” A voice from the crowd.

She pauses.

“If you think I need to die and that will make it go away, that is a choice as well.”

The villages look at her for a long time.

They look at Macce's body.

And then they vote.



----------------

A/N: It's been a long time! The first part of a 30 in 30 challenge that I'm doing with some friends (so, uh, if you don't like fiction, you might want to defriend me, because you'll see a lot of it this month). With thanks to [livejournal.com profile] kickthehobbit for the prompt. A touch of nanotechnology, a dash of a post-apocalyptic world, and a nod to 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'.
-
talonkarrde: (argopup)
It's been a while, hasn't it? It looks like the last time I posted was... July of 2015, and jeepers, it's almost been a year! For the sake of something, I'm going to do a short update on my life, because, er, I assume you care. Maybe you don't — that's fine, too; I'm about to start writing again, because it is way past time. But if you do care, here's what I've been up to:

(I want bullet points. Where are my bullet points. Oh, I guess Unicode works.)

• After almost five years, three offices, and watching the company grow from 60 to 2000 people, I've finally moved on from Dropbox (you may have to be friends with me on Facebook to see this post) as of this past Monday. It's been a long time with an amazing group of people that I will keep in touch with, and there's much to be said about nights I'll never remember and people I'll never forget. There's a lot that I learned about being at a hypergrowth company, and I've worn many hats during that time, doing support, tools, legal, crisis response, and more. I don't think I'll ever start my own company, but my time at an early stage startup felt like it compacted an entire career's worth of lessons into five incredibly fast years.

I'm on a plane right now to surprise my mom for mother's day! :D

On Monday, I start at a small company you've probably heard of called reddit, handling legal operations there, which encompasses copyright/trademark, government data requests, child safety, and then some. Oh, and harassment. Helping to fix the harassment problem is one of my main charges, and in fact, one of the main reasons that I took the job. I wrote a lot more about my thoughts here, if you really care to read it (this one is open to all), but what it comes down to is that by helping reduce harassment I could potentially be impacting hundreds of thousands of people, and, well, I always wanted to make the world a better place. I have no illusions that it will be an easy job, but I think it's an important job, so I took the job. So there's that.

• In non-career news, I'm the owner of an HTC Vive, a sweet virtual reality headset that tracks you as you move around the room, and it is a kickass, incredible, lifechanging experience. I wrote a lot of stuff on it here, but the synopsis is that it's incredible and everyone I've demo'd it to thinks it's incredible and you — yes you, dear reader — should find someone with a Vive and try it out. It's the better version of the more well known Oculus Rift, which lacks the room-scale presence that the Vive grants. Try it out!

• And finally, after months of saying that I should write again, I posted a short experimental piece somewhere on the internet and it was well received, and I think that was enough to spur me to see if I still have it. So I think a few LJI home game entries will be on their way shortly. Probably some more experimental stuff, because I'm not sure what my current creative space it is, but it's certainly starting to look like a creative space that involves words and posting them.

• If you're in LJI and you're reading this: I'm cheering for you. You, yes, and you. And you. All of you. Keep writing! I'm still reading!

Alright. Non-fiction time over. See you on the fiction side :)
talonkarrde: (winter)
"Quo vadis?" he asks.

"Ad astra," she responds, and points up.

And there we go.
talonkarrde: (color)
I hear the steps before I see them and smile, adjusting myself, waiting for them to enter the room. Two slow, steady pacers and one much quicker one, occasionally skipping, or possibly trying to climb up the hospital walls, which his mother would not be happy with.

"Robert!" her voice calls out, on cue, and my smile widens.

They come in, and we get the usual greetings out of the way, the questions work and school and it drags on enough that I start to get tired, even though I've been saving energy for this.

Daniel — my son — sees it in my face, and his face betrays his concern, though he tries to hide it.

"Robert, it looks like grandpa's tired, so maybe we'll—"

"No," I say, shaking my head, mustering up my energy. "You came this far to see me on his birthday — I must give him the gift."

Dan's eyes widen, but he nods slowly — we've talked about it, once, a long time ago, a time that he remembers like it was yesterday. Jamie, on the other hand, doesn't have that talk to rely on, but as she looks between the two of us, a thoughtful look grows in her eyes, and I give her a smile that she returns.

I always knew my son married up.

"Robert—" I say, looking up and down at the eight year old in front of me.

"Yes, gran'pa?" he responds, standing by the hospital bed, looking vaguely uneasy, as children in hospitals often do.

"What sort of gifts have you gotten for your birthday?"

"Well, daddy got me a train and mommy got me a Batman lego set and one of my friends got me a videogame, and, and, there was a party, and a cake, and—" he falls silent at my knowing nod, a surprisingly mature act for a boy.

"Would you like to know a secret?" I ask, and of course, he nods, not knowing the dangers of secrets yet, only seeing the allure.

I take a deep breath, squeeze both of my hands together, and then reach out for his.

"Take my hand," I say, and he does, and the world melts away like caramel, leaving only the two of us.

-

The hard part isn't convincing an eight year old that the impossible is possible — the hard part is convincing them that they shouldn't immediately do every single thing that comes to mind.

-
"What is this place?" he asks, and I explain. As best I can, at least.

"The past," I say. "Or maybe the future."

He looks at me, curious. I have made it a habit of not lying to him and treating him as an adult for all his life, and I now lean on that trust, watching as he thinks about what I'm saying instead of discarding it, or turning to fear.

"Watch," I tell him, and the world melts back into place, exactly where we were. His parents are there, and I start talking to them, though I keep my eyes on Robert. After a few moments, I reach out and knock my IV over, ripping it out of my arm.

It's surprisingly painful, and I instantly wish I would've done something else as a demonstration instead. But as Dan and Jamie lean in, as Robert's face contorts in surprise, I pause, and the world disappears again, leaving only Robert and I.

He looks at me, eyes wider than I've ever seen them, and I know he's trying to figure out what's happening.

"Robert, I can do something that very few other people can. Your grandmother had it, and you'll have it as well. What you can do isn't quite rewinding time, but that's the easiest way to describe it. Whenever you want, you'll be able to relive your life. And in fact, you can live lifetimes that you've never done yet — it goes both ways."

Some of the words register with him, though, not all of it, but he has, starting now, an almost unlimited time to understand.

"Can I keep doing it?" he asks, a question that I'm prepared for.

"Yes and no. There's a limit, a bit like burning a candle. Eventually, you run out of candle, though it burns slowly enough that it's hard to tell how long you have."

He considers this for a moment. To him, it must sound like it's limitless, and his face lights up as he considers the possibilites.

Now to make him understand what it means.

"Robert, what do you think you'll be able to do with this?" I ask, and his answer is immediate.

"Anything!"

"Anything, like..."

"Become a firefighter! Become an astronaut! Win at America's Got Talent!"

And now I know what TV he watches.

"Actually—" I say, and his face already falls. He's young, but he already knows that there are often rules stopping young boys from doing what they want.

"There are rules," I say, watching him nod in resignation. "You can't do something that would..." and I pause, trying to find the words. "...change the way the world works," I finish, seeing if it holds.

It seems to, which is surprising, given that I remember challenging that assumption, both during the explanation and afterwards.

"But I can..." he starts, waiting for me to finish, but I don't.

He pauses.

"...Make it so that Rufus doesn't die?" he starts, and I blink in surprise. I'm not quite ready for him to get to reversing death so quickly, but I've gotten at least some experience at rolling with the punches.

"You can, Robert," I say, slowly, waiting.

"Could I make it so that... no one dies?" He asks, thinking. And then, just as quickly, "No, because that would disrupt things. But could I make it so that no one dies before they should? No accidents like what happened to Taylor's mom on Easter weekend?"

The look on his face reminds me of a line from an old musical — 'to love another person is to see the face of God'. I've never been religious, especially not after the gift... but watching this boy think of all the ways that he could save people — it was pure happiness. Pure altruism. Pure good.

As close to God as I'd ever get, I reflected.

And it was, of course, up to me to tell them, again, that there were rules. But this time... maybe in a more lasting way.

-
"Walk with me," I say to him, and he does, and we walk a year at a time, watching a play where Robert is the main character, our frame of reference, and everyone else is just a bit part, though some characters appear more often than others. Ten steps later, little Robert and I are standing in his college bedroom, watching as he sobs into the sheets — a girl, I assume. But then I see the picture that older Robert is holding, and I smack myself for my assumptions.

It turns out it's a boy that dumped him.

"This is a hurt, isn't it?" I ask Robert, the younger, and he nods, understanding the tears, even if he doesn't understand what triggered them.

"And you would make it so that it never happened?" He nods, again.

"But what happens," I say, knowing the answer already, "if we keep going forward?"

The little eight year old boy stands there for a moment, and then, of his own will, takes a few steps, and each step is another year. We stop just a few steps in, five or six years, at a wedding.

His wedding, of course, and he stares upon his future partner — a future partner, more accurately — and thinks very, very hard.

I simply watch, content to let him draw his own conclusions instead of offering him mine. You see, in the end, everyone needs to discover Truth for themselves.

Especially this little boy.

-
We come back into the world — the real one — no more than a minute later, judging by the clock on the wall and the slightly worried expressions on Daniel and Jamie's faces, but the eyes that Robert meets me with are not the eyes of the boy that skipped into the room, slightly cowed by his mother. They're still the baby blue that they've always been, but they're deeper now — and more than that, his face is a little more thoughtful, his posture a bit more composed.

I suspect it's what mine looked like, a million years ago, when my grandmother gave me the gift. I see him turning over his experience in his head, trying to understand, trying to test it, trying to accept, all at the same time. And I know that even now he might be testing out possible futures, trying to figure out if the sadness that one event brings is worth the perspective, the happiness that comes later.

The gift is his now, and I can see, using the last remnants of mine, that his will be a happy life, and one day, he will have this moment as well to pass on as well. I even get to see who he passes it on to, and I smile a smile that's for him alone.

My eyes start to droop, but I see him smile in understanding. It's a moment that lasts forever.







----

A writing duel between myself and [livejournal.com profile] gratefuladdict. Given that Idol was some time ago, we figured some writing was due, and we had some time tonight! [livejournal.com profile] kickthehobbit provided the topic, and the constraints were originally an hour and 500 words, which got extended to ~two hours, and no word limit.
talonkarrde: (color)
He looks around him, at the verdant glade, at the tranquil pool, at his surroundings so teeming with life that everywhere he looks, there is green and glowing and growing things. The vines nearby dip into the water as if drinking from it, and he reaches out to touch one, and isn't surprised at all when it pulses under his fingertips, a heartbeat strong and steady. He takes his shoes off, curls his toes in the emerald moss, and feels it curl back against him, its heartbeat palpable, softer but no less present.

Shibusa

Feb. 12th, 2015 05:35 pm
talonkarrde: (color)
For [livejournal.com profile] cislyn

-

A long time ago, when dragons and demons roamed the lands of the Jade Empire, when Tang Seng had yet to make his Journey to the West with Song Wu Kong and Niulang had just fallen in love with Zhinu, there was a little boy growing up called Xiaodi — in our tongue, little brother.

Xiaodi was a child full of curiosity. From the time he could speak, he asked why things were the way they were — why the sky was blue, for example, or where the huli jing — fox spirits — came from, or what made someone one of the Eight Immortals. His parents never tired of his questions and answered them the best they could, but all too soon, there were questions they could not answer.

When they didn't know the answers, though, they told him to consult the elders of the village, the scholars and the mayor, who was appointed by the Imperial City itself. And he did — as a boy Xiaodi played not with wooden toys but buried himself in the books that the scholars referred him to, as a teenager practiced penmanship instead of pretending to be a general of the army, and as a young man was seen more around the magistrate and the town council than the pretty girls that his peers were flirting with.

But every passion requires a devotion that causes other pursuits to fall by the wayside, and so while his knowledge grew, his friendships with others faltered. But to him, it was a fair trade — while he may not have been the trusted friend, he was the proven expert on many topics. While others may not have liked him as much, they did respect him.

Eventually, as he grew and learned, his questions grew beyond what even the wisest men and women village could answer, and their answers grew more and more uncertain and satisfied him less and less. They offered him a role assisting the magistrate with disputes between villagers, and that satisfied him for a while — dealing with cows that were sold as barren but turned out to be fertile and sorting out promises made based on the trickery of yao guai was a new and exciting experience for the young man, one that expanded his horizons.

But what he also learned was that there was a right way to do things, an optimal way — a perfect way, even. As his knowledge grew, he realized at once both how close and how far he was to this perfection — he was sure that his judgments came closer than the others, because he knew more than them — and indeed they often deferred to him as time went on — but at the same time, they were so far from the best outcome, which would require knowing even more.

Even then, there were questions that stayed in his head like mosquitoes, questions that itched for days that simply could not be answered by anyone in the village. But why do we not banish all the spirits, he asked, and shook his head in frustration when the magistrate simply said that it wasn't so easy to do. But why does the emperor not resolve all disputes by putting Qilin in every court, since they only punish the wicked, he asked, and was given only poor obfuscations, ones that he immediately saw through.

It came to a head when he wondered aloud if the government official test should be adapted for all citizens to take instead of only those that wished to be officials, so that those less fit could be removed from society, and openly disagreed with the magistrate's shocked opinion. "But why!" he shouted. "Perhaps then, every judge could answer every question, instead of only giving half answers and truths that are as flimsy as the kites we fly!"

In the silence that followed, Xiaodi knew he had made a mistake and made to apologize, but it was already too late. Disrespecting ones' elders was never tolerated, and the council and magistrate debated for long days and nights on what a suitable punishment would be, as his parents pleaded for leniency. Eventually, they all agreed: there could only be one path for this young man.

He was summoned to a meeting of the council. Perhaps, they said, it was time for him to take a journey — not just a short trip away, but one to the Imperial City itself, where there were libraries and universities and scholars that did nothing but consider and answer questions about how the world worked.

And, the magistrate added, they had sent word of his deeds and his questions, and received a favorable answer from none other than the emperor's majordomo for Xiaodi to study at the Emperor's Library.

And, his parents said, this was for the best, and it would look well upon their family and their ancestors would be proud.

So it was settled, then: exile — though clothed in the softest of silks, exile nonetheless. After a brief parting with his parents and a briefer parting with the rest of the village, Xiaodi was sent on his way to the capital.

It was a long journey of almost an entire moon, travelling across the mountains and the plains, ever north, but Xiaodi made it himself, knowing that he would have little to fear if he treated everyone with respect and took no one than was offered. He was not greedy, nor lustful, and he knew that he had little that the trickster and malevolent spirits wanted.

But he was in his heart of hearts a little bit vain, and there were demons afoot in those days, demons that followed men and women through the woods and took it upon themselves to create other demons like themselves. And there was one demon in particular that might have been a scholar when it was alive, one who took note of Xiaodi and thought that it could ensnare him. It set up a trap for him, weaving its glamour over a decrepit building a few hours away.

Xiaodi found a surprising view as he crested the next hill on the road — in front of him was a library, three stories tall, well maintained and quite luxurious, and he immediately altered his direction to approach it. It only grew more impressive as he got closer, and while Xiaodi had not seen a library on his path from the maps, his thoughts quickly turned to marvelling at the library instead of wondering at its existence.

"Ai!" He shouted, announcing his presence and stepping through the open door, stopping immediately inside and staring up in wonder at the floor-to-ceiling rows of books and scrolls, at the long tables with brackets set up to hold the unrolled scrolls, at the bronze and gold inlays, at the beautiful designs. Truly, this was one of the best libraries that he had ever seen, Xiaodi thought.

The owner turned from looking at one of the shelves in the back and headed down a staircase towards Xiaodi. He — or maybe she — was quite attractive, but of a curiously indeterminate gender. Regardless, Xiaodi bowed and smiled, and received one in return.

"Welcome to my humble library, young man," the owner — the demon — said, smiling widely at him. "I don't get visitors much, but I am fond of them — it's always good to meet new friends."

"Thank you, kind sir — I am a man of words, and I find this treasure simply extraordinary," Xiaodi responded, and the owner smiled even more broadly.

"Are you now? What fortune! Would you care for a wager, perhaps?" the owner asked, to which Xiaodi furrowed his brow.

"I am not a gambling man, sir, but a wager on words intrigues me. What do you propose?"

"That we trade off in knowledge," the owner said, spreading his arms. "Facts for facts, or perhaps theories for theories. Knowledge for knowledge, and we see who is more knowledgeable. It has been a long time since I have had a visitor, and I wish to learn about the world."

Xiaodi thought about this for some time. It would be a way to learn, he thinks, something that he has not had in some time — and yet, the logistics of it would be difficult. Who would check what facts there are, or if the theories are made up?

"How would we find out what is true?" he asked the demon, and the demon appeared to ponder this for a moment.

"Perhaps that would be too hard, indeed. If only we had a dragon to adjudicate, but they all seem to be busy at the moment," the demon said, though without the smile that Xiaodi expected at such a jest. But before he could address it, the demon continued.

"Let us try something different, instead. You see, this library does not just contain knowledge. It also contains a curious machine that I found from the Western mountains, far, far away, in the lands of Tianzhu. You see, there is a flat golden pan on this table, and what this pan does is create what you think. It must be small, smaller than the pan, but it will make whatever your mind shapes. It is a most wonderous thing."

"Let us — you and I — each create something, and have the next passer-by judge which is more perfect. Observe—" the demon said, and pointed to the table at the center of the room. It closed its eyes, and after a few seconds a golden cup appeared, simply materalizing out of pan. The demon filled the cup and drank it, and then tossed it to Xiaodi with a wink.

Xiaodi caught the cup, staring at it in wonder. "I accept," he said, reverently, thinking that whatever the cost, it was a wonderous device that he would perhaps not get to try if he did not defer to the owner's desire for a small wager.

The demon smiled, then, and snapped its fingers, and just like that, the illlusion crumbled away. Its teeth grow to be sharp and jagged, and the wonderous library is no more than a decrepit, abandoned mansion, without even a roof, and decay everywhere.

The golden pan, though, was still there, resting on a table that has only three legs.

"You should've asked what the stakes were," the demon said, gleefully. "But now that you've accepted, you can't back out. If you win, you get to leave; if I win, you stay, forever. So go on, make something. Anything."

Xiaodi closed his eyes, and then nodded. "I accept," he said again, and walked toward the pan. His thoughts are frantic, but in some sense, strangely clear; he will simply use the one thing that he's always relied on — his mind — to get him out of this. And so he started constructing: first a set of bronze, silver, golden chopsticks, then a plate, then a cup, then a chair, a table, then a meal, fresh and steaming — and as he worked, he watched as each item took its form on the golden pan, exactly as he constructed it in his mind, whatever materials, color, shape he could think of.

"Is that what you choose, then?" the demon said, and Xiaodi could almost hear the hunger in its voice.

"No," he responded. "I will tell you when I'm done." And he thinks, harder, faster. It must be more complicated, he thinks, more perfect, and so he directs his thoughts at the pan once more. It changes, then, from roast duck, from dumplings, to an oven, to a wheel that powers an oven, to a windmill, each item appearing and disappearing as his mind shuffles over the possibilities. As he thinks bigger, the edges start brushing up against the pan, but he simply thinks of them as being smaller, and realizes that he can still hold the image perfectly. It's a breakthrough: he doesn't have to make one thing smaller than the pan; he can simply make whatever it is he's thinking of smaller.

Then he thinks harder — if a windmill will work, why not a temple? If a temple, why not a few buildings, joined together? And slowly, a city begins to take form, a miniature village, then town, one that grows as Xiaodi imagines each and every structure, each roof, each wall, each road. Eventually, a full city is there — but it's empty. Empty, he thinks, and then he starts picturing people, and they — small people, only an inch tall, start to appear. The restaurateur, the magistrate, the mother and father, the children at play, the famers and laborers and scholars. With each thought, a person takes shape, until this city contains a reflection of the greatest city that his mind's eye can picture: the imperial capital.

He's almost done, he thinks, and he takes a step back, looking at what he's done. And he holds the picture in their mind, thinks of how everyone is moving, and how they go about their ways, how there are little patterns here and there, and then he smiles — a curious smile, one perhaps tinged with a touch of regret, a dash of understanding — and the city disappears. And in its place is a cup, a humble, wooden cup, one that he remembers drinking from as a child, with a crack on the top that goes an inch down, its handle worn from years of use.

"I'm done," he announces, and the demon looks shocked, the outcome completely unexpected.

"Is this some trick? Fine, then. You can have your cup. I'll win without any effort on my part, simply with your mind," the demon proclaims, striding up to the table and tossing the cup over its shoulder casually, which Xiaodi catches. The demon instantly recreates the miniature city, complete with the palace and the grounds and every bit of it exquisitely detailed. "Who would vote for you, with this wonderous creation here? What a good job you did with your mind, human. What an excellent job, indeed; I will enjoy feasting on you."

But Xiaodi, far from looking concerned, simply smiles. "I, too, once thought that the way to win was to know everything that could be known, to know how every piece of the world worked and be able to predict every action. But the world is too complicated for such things — no matter how much you can keep in your mind, demon, you can not predict everything, and so this miniature is only a poor attempt at capturing something uncapturable."

"Instead, I simply created something simple, something that any person who will walk through this door will know and understand — the beauty of something that is made for you by your father and given to you by your mother, and will stay with you from your first days until your last. That, demon, is a perfection that a clockwork city will never be able to match."

Tiles

Feb. 5th, 2015 05:13 pm
talonkarrde: (color)
You remember the television broadcast, remember the world collectively holding its breath, remember the words as every person remembers them:

"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

They are perhaps not the better known words, said a few minutes later, about steps and mankind, but these ones, the first spoken by humans from a world that they were not born from, you keep with you forever.

-

Just another job, just another contract. Tiles for heat shielding, the contract described, with a possibility of use in aerospace. A few different types — tetrasilicide and borosilicate cured glass tiles, mostly, with a requirement that it stand up to 1500˚C, but also be quite light, measuring no more than five inches thick.

"Spaceflight? Some new rocket, maybe? They've been working on some sort of reusable jet, haven't they?" you ask the project manager, who shrugs at you, clearly not as invested as you are.

"Just another subcontracting job we have to do? Gotta pay the bills and all that. The contractor didn't tell us what it's for, certainly. They don't tell us shit. It could be for some Lockheed skunkworks project, for all we know," he finishes, rolling his eyes.

You shrug back at him — it's true, that no one tells the sub-sub-contractors anything. You do, in fact, need to pay the bills, and your curiosity is set aside for the moment.

-

Decades later, you will also remember these words:

"We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

And you will think to yourself, what could I have done instead? What was it my job to do? What could I have known?
-

A few months after the contract, you've sent some prototypes to the contractor, who's passed them on to the client — or maybe another contractor, you think — and they've been approved. The only suggestion that comes back is a hastily scrawled note: Could you make it a bit lighter? We can go down to 1200˚C, if that makes it doable, and after some consultation with the other engineers, you think, yes, you can make it lighter, and you tweak the composition a bit, densifying it with some other silicate that someone suggests.

You send this new process back to them, and, naturally, they send it back, asking now if you can waterproof it. After another week or two, one of the other members of the team mentions injecting dimethylethoxysilane and, voilà, you've met all the specs.

Now they ask you to make twenty thousand, five hundred and forty eight of them, and the next few months go by in a very big hurry. The quality control is there — each tile is up to snuff, is just a gram lighter than what they asked for, and can handle about 1300˚C. You're still curious what it's going to be used for, but no one gives you a straight answer, so you content yourself with thinking that, maybe, you'll see it on TV one day.
-

When STS-1, the orbiter Columbia launches on April 12, 1981, you know, finally, what your tiles are being used for, and you burst into the office and shout at them to turn on their TVs, now, now, now, and you point at that beautiful, beautiful spaceship, sailing into space, on the back of two gigantic engines that fall away so gracefully.

You remember this moment in the decades to come, even when — especially when — successes seem few and far in between.

-

The tiles work well for years, and eventually decades, for Columbia, for Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. As missions and flights go off successfully one after another, as they descend upon an easy glide back to Earth, you watch each and every one.

And then Challenger happens, and you hear Reagan give the speech, and for a while the office is mute, and silent — brothers and sisters that you've never met but feel inherently connected to have paid the ultimate price. But as the reports come out, as the investigations are conducted, you nod to your coworkers — it was the O-rings, you say confidently, they should've caught that.

And eventually, when Discovery flew again with STS-26, you gave a sigh of relief. It was a true "Return to Flight", and you were ready for it to happen. The next fifteen years pass without much incident — a change of presidents, but a steady future for the space program — for your space program.
-

You turn on the news that morning, in 2003, right before you go to work, and you hear someone say "it's the top of the hour, nine in the morning, and we've received eyewitness reports that the Space Shuttle Columbia has encountered issues on its descent—" and the rest, well, the rest is history, scattered across the Texan desert.

In the months that follow, you put a plaque up on the wall, a plaque that holds words from one of the greatest men ever to run the space program. It reads as follows:

"When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write Tough and Competent on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control."

This time, you worry that it was your fault, and you and everyone you work with scramble through every single log that you have, look at every single tile, try and piece together data that exists only in the logs of those computers that never made it back to Earth.

Eventually — months, though to you it feels like as long as since you started working in the first place — NASA clears you. Congress clears you. You did nothing wrong — you couldn't have prepared for a circumstance that you were never taught about.

It's a relief, certainly.

But it's also not closure, and you notice it when you notice many of your coworkers leaving for other jobs, though there was still more than enough work here. It's just too much like returning to the scene of a crime, one of them says. I think of those that should've lived, every day.
-

You feel the same way too, sometimes. Enough that, one morning, you put in for a few days off, and drive the long, twelve hour drive from Alabama to Texas, to where the majority of the debris from Columbia fell.

You have a plaque with you, one that you got carved by an expert metalsmith, and for a moment, you simply stand in the field, where the scars left by the fiery pieces of metal have since healed, where there are only dirt and weeds remaining, and you watch the wind blow.

And then you set the plaque down, nestle it down where it won't easily be moved.

Ad astra per aspera, it reads, and you whisper the words to yourself: "It is a long, hard road to the stars," and you're greeted with only the sounds of the wind through the tall grass.

And then you turn, ready to start the long drive back to work. Orion, Constellation, and other projects await. And they — those who gave their lives to bring humanity forward to the stars — would not choose to walk another road just because they paid the greatest price.
talonkarrde: (color)
"Are you sure you want to do this?" she asks him as they lie together in bed, face to face, fingers interlaced.

"I want it to work," he says, with a nod that he turns into a brief kiss. "They think it has a good chance to, but it's on the cutting edge. No promises made, no contracts signed, you know?"

He cracks a half smile, one that she knows is for her benefit alone. She reaches up to touch his dimple, run her fingers over his stubble.

"Sounds like a one-way trip to me, officer." she murmurs, but he knows the tone of her voice, knows that what she's really saying is, I love you and I trust you: come back to me.

He says the words out loud to her: "I love you, and I'll come back to you, Sara," and she feels the promise float on her skin before he seals it with a kiss, and draws her to him.

-

"Are you sure you want to do this, Vash?" he hears one of the scientists say, and he's brought back to the conversation from last night.

"Haven't I already signed my life away?" he quips, causing a short chuckle from the others, though the head researcher frowns.

"Jeffrey..." she starts.

"No, no — look. We're on a time crunch, and we want to figure out where he is, right? We have to catch him, and this is the fastest way. Or at least, there's a chance that this will bring us to him before the next victim appears. So, yes, I want to do this, Doctor Hill."

The head researcher — Dr. Amber Hill, of Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and Mayo — nods at him.

"Alright, Vash. If you're sure. The neural net is set up, and we just have to do the transfer," she says, and looks at him, asking the question one more time, silently.

"Beam me up, Scotty," he jokes, and closes his eyes as someone in the room presses a button and he experiences a sensation he's never had before: his brain starts to itch.

-

When he wakes up, he's not exactly himself anymore. He's... Joseph Gordon, escaped serial killer. Or, at least, as close as modern science and supercomputing can get, compiled from background information, interviews, and many, many personality profiles of the man, from many angles, courtroom appearances, and psychological evaluations. That's what he learns later, much later.

At first, his initial thoughts are jumbled, the sort of jumbling that comes from being drunk, or high, or both at the same time. He remembers that he’s Jeffrey sometimes, but his memories are more of Joseph. Sometimes, he thinks he’s an officer, sometimes, he remembers killing a person, two, several — but he didn’t, did he? Did he?

As the days go on, he straightens his mind — minds — out, and starts to be able to answer questions more lucidly. He’s helped out by a kind doctor whose name is Amber, and a police officer that he finds familiar but can’t name. When he’s confused about who he is, they tell him: he’s Jeffrey Vash, but he’s also Joseph Gordon, and they want him to be Joseph and tell him where the real Joseph Gordon is — they tell him that Joseph was undercover but agreed to do this, and he needs to do it to help, as he's agreed to, and somewhere, deep down inside, a part of him seems to agree: he needs to do this.

He needs to remember, they tell him, remember his past and how he got here, and where he would be now, and he tries, but it’s too hard: there are too many things he doesn't quite know about himself.

“Take me to where I grew up? To where the memories should be?” he asks, and they do.

To Joseph’s elementary school, where classmates picked on him all day to the point that he wouldn't go to recess; to his high school, where he was thrown in the trash can, where there was a game of 'make Gordon's face hit the brick wall as many times as there are bikes parked outside'; to his first job at the local convenience store, where a gang came in and held his hand under boiling water for a minute, simply for daring to talk back to them when they were stealing.

In each location, Jeffrey — Joseph — remembers a bit more, fills in a bit more of the puzzle. He can't quite tell the police officer what he wants to know about where the other Joseph is now, but he starts guessing at details of the murders they already know about, and more often than not, he's right — about where the body was placed, about how the crime happened.

He also can't help but find that Amber seems more and more concerned about him, but there's a job to do. And in a way, the murders are almost... fun.
-

They go back, finally, to his childhood house, one that's long been burned down, but the frame is still there, and as he walks through it, he sees images that he shouldn't — couldn't — have, because there were no images that were been recorded of this. His mother, tall and skinny, redhaired; his father, lankly, with long fingers, hair loose in a ponytail; his uncle, heavier, thickset, with a smile that made Joseph feel safe, a smile that was absent that night. The fight. The fire. The red ribbon of blood, spraying out in front of the fireplace.

He freezes, for a moment, and understands.

He has what the others would call an epiphany, but they can't comprehend what has truly happened — he’s not Jeffrey Vash anymore, he’s Joseph Gordon. He understands, simply, accurately, completely, why it is that Joseph Gordon is a murderer, a sociopath, and with that understanding, he suddenly knows what Joseph has done, will do, and is right now. His brain has filled in the gaps of the mental model, and the model is no longer a model, a projection, but instead a skin that he’s wearing.

It’s his skin, specifically.

He hesitates for one, long, second, simply frozen in place, but in the end, he finds his phone, dials a number, speaks into it.

"He's in one of the homeless shelters, looking for the next person that he'll be killing," Joseph says, knowing with absolute conviction that what he's saying is true. It is, after all, what he should be doing right now.

In fact, he figures, he can do better than that. He asks for a map, and an officer brings one over. He scans it, thinking through what he wants to do, where it would be safe and where he would find a good, safe victim, someone that he'd enjoy taking apart, piece by piece, and he taps a point on the map.

“The family shelter,” he says quietly, “the one that caters to the orphans. He’s there, probably sitting in the back, watching the dinner line. You'll have twenty minutes.”

With that, the sirens sound over the phone, and Jeffrey Vash’s job is done.

He sits still for another moment, and then turns to find the nearest window that's still intact, and very methodically punches through it, reaches through, and draws the jagged shards down both arms, opening them up.

“What— what the—” he hears the panicked call behind him, as he rams his head into the crossbeam, as everything goes blessedly, mercifully dark.

-

"Vash?" she asks, sitting on the other side of the glass, both hands pressed against it.

He doesn't stir, looking down at the bandages on both arms, at the handcuffs.

"Vash?" Sara tries again. "I got here as soon as I could, Vash, they wouldn't tell me what happened, I just needed to see you. Vash?"

"I'm Joseph," he says, thickly, to the ground.

"No," she says, trying to fight the tears. "They caught him. You're Vash."

"No," he responds, still not meeting her eyes. "I'm Joseph Gordon. I have his memories, his fears, his desires, his needs, his everything. I can't ever be let out, because I would do what he does, because—"

"Because you think you're him?" she asks.


"Because to truly know someone, you don't have to love them, or whatever it is that you say. You have to be them. You have to internalize who they are, everything they are, everything they have been. I am more Joseph than I'll ever be Vash again," he says, spitting out the words at the end, reaching up to start beating his face with his hands.

"No — you made a promise, Vash," she says. "And I know this might have been a one-way trip but I also know that if you were truly Joseph you wouldn't have turned yourself in. There's still some part of you in there, and by God, I will stay here until I find him — until I find you."

"I love you, and I want you to come back to me," she says, and stares at the man on the other side of the glass, a man flanked by two burly orderlies, a man who promised her that she would come back to him.

After a moment, he lifts his head, looking back at her.

"Sara," he starts, and even though she knows he's about to disagree with her, she also knows that he's still in there, somewhere.

talonkarrde: (color)
A man stares at his desk. It's a nice desk, mahogany and huge and really probably an unnecessary purchase, but the unmistakable sign of someone that is Doing Well. He stares at the things surrounding the desk in his office — the bookcases, the high school trophies, the row of medals, the plaques and commendations and awards. He stares a bit at the knickknacks and curios and things that he's collected in his forty-six years, three months, and seven days, and sighs a bit.

And then he looks at his computer — at his email inbox, updating in real time — 'because I want to be on top of things', he explained to someone that asked — at his to-do list, currently hovering at fifteen items, three of them due before EOD, at three or four unfinished reports that he's been churning out.

And then he stops looking at anything at all. Eventually, he also stops clutching the papers in his hands. He sets them down, smooths out the wrinkles, and looks down at the unremarkable, nondescript manila envelope, and takes the papers inside out.

He spreads them out, one at a time, page after page telling him both things that he already knows and things that he doesn't want to know but suspected. He keeps on reading until he's read every word on every page, until his home office desk is layered with these letters that will stay there for the next four weeks.

The man doesn't speak - there's no one to speak to, not here, and so he simply bows his head, closes his eyes, and lets the teardrops fall silently.

After a time, he shakes his head, and, without moving the papers, starts answering his email and working on the projects that are due.

-

A woman stares at her phone. A missed call, from a number that she knows but hasn't seen in so long. She alternates between incredulity and anger, with two questions that war in her head. How dare he?! Why would he?!

After all these years, after missed calls and missed letters and clearly, clearly a complete lack of effort, this, here, now.

And then a thought strikes her:

Is something wrong?

She picks up the phone, hesitantly, and calls the number back, and starts a conversation with a man that she hasn't seen in ten years, hasn't talked to in five.

"Why?" she asks, and he struggles to come with an answer.

"I thought...I thought it was time?" he said. "I wanted to... to know how you were doing," he finishes, lamely.

She wants to scream in frustration, but she doesn't. On some level, she marvels at the irony, because he was the one to teach her that, to approach things rationally.

"I don't think that's good enough," she says. "You've been out of my life for half a decade, dad, and you can't just walk back in. I'm married. I have a kid on the way. I'm a director in my company."

"And I'm sorry," he says, slowly, something that she never thought she'd hear from him, and it opens up enough of a door that they start to have a conversation. It's not everything: she's still angry at him, for years of neglect and lack of care, but she's not so angry that they can't talk, and so there's a measure of reconciliation, a dose of peace. She talks about her life, at length, and he offers comments here and there.

"You've never been this patient," she says to him, eventually, and he responds lightheartedly: "Better late than never, right?"

Eventually, she asks him, flat out, "Is everything okay?" And then she tries to soften it, "—not that it shouldn't be, but your call was kind of out of the blue, you know, and I was just wondering."

"No," he says, "Everything is just fine; I just wanted to try and patch this up before something does happen, you know?"

She agrees and the moment passes, and he, quietly, breathes a sigh of relief.

They know that they're never going to be the people they could've been; they'll never have the conversation that some parents and children have, but they've mended at least enough of a bridge to talk to each other again, a few times a year.

That night, though, she turns his words over and over again, and in her heart of hearts wonders.

He was always good at telling people what they wanted to hear.

-

After a week, he asks his boss if he can work from home for a bit: just a temporary measure, he says, inventing some excuse about watching his sister's children for a bit. His boss easily agrees, the approval coming over instantly: If anything, you should take a vacation, John, but your work has always been top notch. Let us know if you need anything.

-

A grocery store owner stares at John as he walks in — he's a regular at this corner grocery, someone who's been coming around for years now. In fact, he had been shopping there before the current owner inherited the store from her mother, and both of them consider him more a friend than a customer.

But she's worried: he looks a bit off today.

"How's it going, Mister Wilson?" she asks.

"How many times, Rosa, do I have to ask you to call me John?" he responds, smiling. "I'm good. In fact, I was looking for something new today, actually — do you have any suggestions?"

The request is a bit unusual - sometimes he'll deviate from his usual preferences and try something new — one time, he bought three pounds of carrots, and she made a joke about him turning orange — but he usually doesn't ask.

"Well, that's not very specific, sir - are you looking for a new dish, or a new sauce, or a new something else entirely?"

He thoughtfully arcs an eyebrow.

"Have you seen Ratatouille?" he asks.

"As in, Remy, the rat that can cook?"

"Yup. There's a part in there where the food critic is waiting to test the quality of the food, and he says something really arrogant about-"

"—Wanting some perspective, right?" she finishes.

"Got it in one," he responds. "I was wondering if you had anything that might fit the bill."

"We-ell," she says thoughtfully, breaking it into two syllables as she ponders, "Speaking of ratatouille, have you ever had it?"

"The peasant dish?" he asks, imitating the line from the movie for a moment. "Is it going to bring me back to my childhood? Because that's a rather high bar."

She laughs, and shakes his head. "No, but my mom found a good recipe from a French friend of hers. I haven't tried it yet, but she swears by it."

"If it's good enough for your mom, it's good enough for me," he says, watching her scrawl the recipe down, and grab the ingredients for him. "Send your mom my regards, okay?"

"Alright, Mister Wilson. She asked about you the last time I saw her, so it'll be good to know that you're well." She's not quite fishing, she thinks, though he sees right through it.

Instead of answering, though, he simply hugs her — she accepts it, hugging him back, though it's another sign that something is off to her.

"Is... everything okay?" she finally asks.

"Just getting a bit of perspective," he replies, smiling, and then waves and heads into the night.
-

A doctor stares at the test results, frowning.

"How bad is it, Doctor?" he asks, and the doctor purses his lips.

"Six months," he starts, and is interrupted, something he's used to by now.

"No longer?"

"Maybe eight, if you're lucky," he says. "Your platelets are low, and getting lower, and the treatment that was supposed to stall it—" he starts, and the rest is lost on John, who's stopped listening.

Eventually, though, he realizes that the doctor is looking at him.

"No longer?" he asks again, and the doctor just shakes his head.

John goes home, and stares at his email, at his to-do list, at his five-year plan.
-

With every day, he walks a bit slower, talks a bit less, and finds it a bit harder to get out of bed. Eventually, it gets bad enough that he cancels his meetings, now, writing letters of apology, rescheduling them for later.

"Just a brief medical thing," he writes, and they wish him well.

He still works, every day, on things that he knows he won't see the launch of. But what else is there to do? Even when he can't get out of bed, he still works, writing emails, proposing solutions, troubleshooting problems.

Eventually, he calls his daughter, again.
-

"Why do you keep working?" she asks him, and she knows that she isn't just asking about the here and now.

"Because everything in my life has been about achieving a goal," he says. "I had a five-year plan when I was ten. I knew what college I wanted to go to, what I wanted to study, where I wanted to work, I knew what my life should look like, and I just never stopped pursuing it."

"And as a result..." she says, waiting for him to finish.

"And as a result neglected you more than I should have. As a result, didn't go to your soccer games, didn't pay attention to where you were going in college, and didn't talk to you for five years, and I'm so, so sorry for that," he says, and she knows that he means it, and simply hugs him close.

"What about mom?" she asks him, later in the day.

"She— she was the only thing I didn't plan for. It just...happened, really. It was a whirlwind romance, and she was the love of my life."

"Not part of the plan, though," she says, and he knows where she's going.

"No, but she fit in. I can't just not do anything, you know? I need to strive for something, or what's the point in living? I can't just sit around and..."

"Dad, you're dying," she says, sharply, and he exhales a breath he didn't know he was holding.

"I...well, yes. But I can't just sit around and die, you know?"

"But you're not going to achieve the goals you had. Whatever you thought your life was going to be, dad, it's not."

"Direct, aren't you?" he asks.

"I'm my father's daughter," she says, softly, and he smiles and closes his eyes.

"So is there any goal that you think you can still accomplish?" she says, after some time.

He shrugs, staring at the ceiling, and then slowly turns to her.

"I always wanted to go to space," he says, and she knows what he's asking.
-

She stands there in the early, pre-dawn light, digging into the sand with her bare toes and listening to the seagulls start to call. Any second now, she thinks, and she's rewarded with a flare in the distance, a flare that casts deep shadows and overwhelms the light of the not-yet-present sun. The rocket climbs into the sky and she watches as the ship arcs upwards, carrying her father's ashes into space, fulfilling one final goal.

musth

Jan. 15th, 2015 05:10 pm
talonkarrde: (color)
The phone rings, and rings again, and again, and finally goes to voicemail. This is Jared, a familiar voice tells him. I can't get to you right now, but let me know I can do and I'll be there to help. Leave a message!

"Hey," he says, after the beep, "I wouldn't be calling you right now if I didn't need it really badly, but I've just been... it's been bad, you know? I just don't know if I can handle it all, and I'm starting to- it's starting to get to me. I can't handle it anymore, and I've been thinking...bad thoughts. You know?"

He pauses, for a moment, wondering if he should add more, and takes a deep breath.

"I was wondering if you could help," he finishes, and then hangs up.

-
Marin County Police Blotter

In the first few months of 2015, violent crimes are have skyrocketed to at an all time high — reports indicate that there's been a twenty percent rise in violent crimes over the last year. Officials don't seem to have any explanation for it, though, when asked for comment, police chief James Ronaldson said that the city was "looking into all possible causes to get to the root of the matter".

-

He looks at the plastic baggie carefully, at each individual oblong pill that's inside. He counts them, one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine, and then again, and again. And then he looks at the small slip of paper that came with the baggy: this'll help. it offers hope. it says, written in an old, familiar scrawl, but use carefully, they say there's some side effects. It should calm you for a long time. After six hours, though, make sure you get enough sleep. so don't take it before two pm.

"This isn't me," he says, hearing his own voice waver just a bit. "I don't need this." It's weak, but it's enough: he sets the bag down on the bed and turns back to his desk. There are two stacks of envelopes on it, and he decides to go for the bad news first.

By the third bill, he's realized that there's not enough money in his account to cover everything. He slowly opens the rest, one at a time, each one finding it harder to look at the red number that screams at him how much he owes someone out there. It gets bad enough that he starts feeling the pounding in his heart as he opens the last few, as he tries to remember how much he owes in total, as he wonders how he'll do it. Eventually, all the letters are out of their envelopes and he lays them down, side by side, looking at each in turn. He orders them by necessity: he can't pay the electricity bill this month, but they'll probably let him go for at least another month before they shut things off. He needs to pay the water bill: that goes on top. The credit cards, the debt collectors from the emergency room trip, the insurance bills, all of those can wait.

He tries to ignore how much more waiting will cost him, tries to ignore the knowledge that more bills will be coming.

He turns to the second, much smaller stack — everything not bills — and sorts through it. A bit of spam, a few coupons he eagerly saves, some offers for debt consolidation that he's long since realized are bullshit, and one actual piece of mail from a local grocery store co-op that had a job opening. He tears it open eagerly, and reads the first line:

I'm sorry, but we're unable to offer you employment, it starts, and he doesn't need to read the rest of it. He's so frustrated he starts crying, sobbing, and he wants to shred the letter, wants to flip the table, wants to punch the wall, but he sees the existing hole in the wall, from a month ago, and it reminds him that he can't pay for repairing anything right now, so he shouldn't break anything.

He angrily wipes away his tears, fingers trembling, and balls up the letter, throwing it against the wall, where it bounces back and lands behind him on the bed, next to the pills.

He stares at the bag.

-
American Medical Association Statement on the Rise of 'masti'

Recently, a rash of emergency department visits have led the American Medical Association to report that a new drug — one popularly referred to as 'masti' — appears to be spreading on the streets. As a synthetic mixture of drugs that seems to have a phenethylamine compound at its core, the American Medical Association tells us that the drug is highly dangerous and its use should be avoided. While the general use of the drug may be difficult to ascertain due to a relatively low-key initial relaxed period, it is followed by a short refractory period where a user's aggression is highly amplified. The American Medical Association recommends that you immediately call 911 if you observe someone that exihibts these symptoms.

-

He's never felt better. He's been following the instructions religiously and hasn't had any side effects, are far as he can tell. He's simply felt more at ease than he's ever been, taking one of these pills every day — some days, he doesn't even need them. He's even read up on the pills a bit, just to soothe his conscience, though if he's honest he admits that he didn't follow after it started talking about methyl groups and neurotransmitter agonists. What it comes down to, he figures, is that it's not illegal yet and it's helping stabilize his life. He's started working part time at a liquor store and the pile of bills has shrunk from fifteen to five — though he has a few maxed credit cards to get through, still, he doesn't feel as hopeless anymore. Or, at least, he doesn't feel as hopeless as long as he's taken his masti for the day. He's gotten a few refills on from his friend, who seems happy to help him out.

The most recent batch is better than ever. It came with a note that said it was 'pure', and he'd agree — he's been feeling incredibly at ease, super patient, and honestly just okay with everything. All of his friends say that he seems to have really calmed down. The only weirdness has been that sometimes he wakes up in the morning and his arms and legs are sore, occasionally with fresh bruises on them, and he's woken up once or twice with everything that was on his nightstand a mess on the floor. Small side effects, he figures, but they're a tiny price to pay for getting his life back in order.

-

Hey, David — we're going to need you to come in early tomorrow, around 6am, to prep stock for Black Friday. Would you mind? It'd be double-overtime and a half, his voicemail tells him at 6pm. Once upon a time he would've been irritated, but now he simply thinks of the upsides. He calls back, telling them that it'd be perfectly fine, and thinks that this will be just the thing to pay off the last card. He's been doing everything responsibly, and this is no different — he even goes to sleep early, making sure that he's well rested for the next day.

In the middle of the night, though, he also wakes up, and just feels angry, for some reason. He looks around: his lamp doesn't look quite right. Why the hell did he even have that thing? He takes a swipe at it, knocking it to the ground, and nods in satisfaction. Screw that thing, he thinks. Shitty piece of decoration. He's good enough to buy another one. He looks around, but nothing else quite irritates him as much, and eventually, he falls back asleep.

When he wakes up, though, he's confused — he remembers something about the lamp, but why would he break it? It was a perfectly good lamp, he thinks. He spends some time picking up the pieces, and then just feels drained, and doesn't really want to go to work, but he promised he would be, after all. While he usually doesn't take a pill until later in the day, he figures that doing it just this once should be fine — it'll mean having a much better morning, anyway, and he'll probably be able to take off early, anyway.

-

"Hey David — would you mind staying for another couple of hours? The other stocker didn't show up, and we'd hate to lean on you like this, but we just need you for another hour or two."

"Honestly, I should get home..."

"Just another hour, then? It'll make a huge difference, and we'll give you a bonus for it?"

"Just an hour? I guess, yeah."

-
The Marin County Independent Journal

Local Florida man David Johnston was shot and killed today after an incredibly violent outburst at the liquor store that he's worked at for two months now. Witnesses reported that shortly after 1pm, Johnston started becoming incredibly belligerent, smashing bottles and yelling at everyone to get out of the store, that he was going to burn it down. When an individual attempted to calm him down, Johnston lunged at the individual and started viciously beating him — using not only his hands and feet but also his teeth. The individual suffered a few broken ribs and a broken collarbone, as well as multiple bites, and described Johnston as "a demon possessed". An off-duty cop was on the scene and attempted to intervene, but instead of stopping, Johnston's response was to attack the officer, who unfortunately was forced to defend himself. Another witness said that the officer had to shoot Johnston multiple times before he even showed signs of slowing, and that Johnston looked like "an animal, snarling and biting and rabid."

This attack appeared to be completely unprovoked and police are currently investigating Johnston's history. Surprisingly, friends said that he was a really good guy, someone who wouldn't wish anyone harm, and exhibited surprise that 'the most patient person they knew' would've done something like this. "He had really turned his life around, recently," said Jared Temple, a longtime friend. "I don't know why he'd do such a thing."
talonkarrde: (color)
What do you fear more, she asks me, the long sleep or staying up with only a few others for company?

I shrug, and feel her irritation without turning around.

Come on, she says, but I shake my head, focusing on the grains of sand under my palms, on the sound of the waves seeking the beach, on the smell of— well, once, it would've been the salty, briny smell of the sea, and the cry of the seagulls, and the clicks of the crabs, but nowadays, the smell isn't one of the sea as much as it is of something else. Something artificial.

Futility, perhaps.

She catches the expression on my face.

We're leaving for a reason, you know, she says, and I mutely nod. Of course we are. The reason's been plastered on every newsnet and repeated ad nauseam by every talking head that still had a channel.

"We can't stay," she says, this time out loud, and it breaks me out of my passiveness enough to at least look up at her, standing over me. I take in the thin, tight lines around her mouth, the deeper ones across her forehead, and the small, almost imperceptible twitch of her right eye as she stares past me, at the sea, and I wonder if she's remembering the same scene I am, from so long ago, back when we were children, playing in turquoise water, on a golden beach.

"Do—" I cough, my voice cracking from disuse. "Do you remember Santa Monica Pier?"

"I never wanted something more than this," she says, an old quote from an old memory. It's no more than a whisper, one that blends into the pink waves, and I can only nod.

That was before the red tides, before the famines, before the flash freezes, so many befores that we didn't see coming.

-

A few days later, the poll comes into our homenet, beeping incessantly until every member of the family fills it out. It has two choices:

* Sleep
* Stay awake

I stare at it for a long, long time, wondering which committee argued for how long over what the choice should look like. I wonder if they sat there for hours, or days, or weeks, and until someone finally boiled it down to this two-line decision and motioned to pass and everyone obediently fell into line. I wonder if there's some intrepid designer somewhere out there who said 'oh, this will be a good capstone project', and volunteered to design it. It's certainly a captive audience, though I suspect no one will care in a month's time.

I dismiss the poll from the screen. It puts up token resistance, popping up another, longer message:

* Please select a choice. This is an important matter. All selections will be collected and decisions on placement made before the end of the week.

So important that everyone already knows all the context, that you can boil down every person's future into three words, fourteen letters, and a checkmark.

Another gesture and it finally minimizes, pulsing softly every so often to remind me that I haven't finished it yet. Instead, I tell the console to show me scenes of the Earth's remaining beauty, and it obliges. A few beaches, a few mountains, one picture of the plains. About eighteen pictures in total, despite the fact that there are cameras on just about every square corner of the globe.

It starts cycling: there are no more current pictures that the algorithm deems acceptable. It's a short slideshow — shorter than it was a month ago. Shorter than it was a year ago. At this rate, by the time we lift off, there'll be only one beach left that you could enjoy in all the world. By the time people settle into the long sleep, there may not be a single ecosystem that's still functioning on a planet that once held almost nine million species. And according to the scientists, it's still getting worse.

"It's really best not to worry about the world a hundred years from now," I remember a doctor of ecology saying in an interview, shrugging apologetically. "It'll be closer to five hundred or a thousand before we'll be back, which should be more than enough time for the biosphere to recover."

"What about the Ecological Revitalizers?" the reporter asks.

"Well, they're a long shot, at best. They're really just an idea — a bit like the old Wall-E movie from the twenty-first century, you know? We think that the Earth will fix itself, most likely," the scientist responds, and I remember that patronizing smile, that secret that he held behind his eyes: the Earth will never be habitable again.

-

A week later, the poll disappears, even though I don't make a choice. My lack of a decision doesn't make a difference after all; a few days later, I get the a message, bright and cherry, in bold and italics. 'You've been assigned to stay awake for the first decade!' it tells me, that exclamation point irritating enough that I want to punch the writer in the face.

My ship is supposed to leave in a month — it's one of the last ones, actually; the first ones head out next week. I scour the nets for projections on how long it will take to bring the Earth back, but all I can find are halfhearted suggestions of a few centuries out and repeated statements about how the biosphere was self-correcting. If it's so self-correcting, I write here and there, how did we get here in the first place, with ninety percent of the planet completely uninhabitable, and most of the ecosystem completely dead? The response I get is underwhelming: most of the time, it simply kills the thread. In the few places where the conversation continues, the posters completely ignore my post, as if they never saw it.

Eventually, after weeks of trying to find actual data, weeks of trying to find someone that cared, I realize that there is no data. No one did a study, because no one was vested in something that they wouldn't see in their lifetimes. No one, as far as I could tell, cared. The Ecological Revitalizers — Ecovites, in short — were some rich person's last hurrah, back when they thought that the Earth could be fixed in three years instead of three centuries.

What it came down to, as far as I could tell, is that humanity is leaving its motherland, this poor, dried, used husk of a world, for good. For dead.

-


The day that the ship is supposed to take off, I obediently report to the medical officer for my biological checkup, to the steward for my berth, to all of the other functionaries that would take the role of society's guardians on the United Central Fleet Ship Transcendence, and watch as we're all herded around like livestock. Or, more charitably, like evacuees. Refugees, perhaps, except we were running away from something that we ourselves had created.

It's an hour before liftoff, and we're all getting familiar with our surroundings. We find ourselves on the observation deck, one that looks down from at the land from about thirty stories up. It's lucky that there's an Ecovite below us, a voice tells us over the intercom, because we'll get to see it start churning as we leave, starting to create fresh land from the garbage, starting to change the composition of the atmosphere to be more hospitable to life.

We stare at the hulking mechanical monstrosity, something that almost looks like the spawn of a Sand Crawler and a Gundam, and wait for it to turn on.

Any minute now... the intercom booms at us, but nothing happens. And nothing continues to happen, until the intercom at last gives up. Maybe there's a mechanical malfunction, it offers. But in better news, there are desserts that are available behind you! Obediently, all of us sheep turn and go for the tasty, tasty desserts.

I don't.

Instead, I head to the elevator, slap the console, and ride down to lowest floor, the cargo bay. They're still finishing up the intake for the long haul, and it's busy enough that no one notices me until I'm halfway across the floor. No one stops me, though. There's no reason for them to — it's just one fewer person that would be taking up resources. The only call comes from the police officer assigned to watch the ramp, his voice one that appears in my head, alone.

You'll die down there, you know! We won't come back for you! If you leave you're killing yourself!


Everyone else stops and watches, this curiosity that is running away from the ark instead of towards it. All I can hear are my footsteps on the metal, each thud ringing through the bay, and then I'm on the ramp and gravity is helping and finally, I hit the dirt, trip, stumble, fall, roll, coughing and gasping and gagging in the dust.

I pick myself up slowly, and look up the ramp. The officer meets my eyes for a moment, but then shakes his head and looks away. The others — the others stare at me like I'm some kind of animal, and perhaps I am, to reject the stars for the sand, to reject steel for dust, but I can't let go so easily, as easily as they have.

I'll make sure you have something to come back to, I say to them, and see at least a glimmer of reaction in a face or two, though none step to join me.

After another moment, I turn my back on them, heading towards the Ecovite, hoping to get it started before they lift off, so that they'll see a sign that not everyone has given up. And I try not to think about the rest of my life, to be spent on a spent world.

As I walk away from the Transcendence, I hear only the sound of the wind at first, but then there's something else: another set of footsteps coming down the ramp. Someone else understands, maybe. Or they're going to haul me back up and put me on trial, just because they can. I don't know which it is, and I resolve not to turn around: even if it is someone else, I don't want them to see the relief in my face for not being alone.

I should wait, though, so I do: I stop, take a deep breath, and wait. Maybe they'll say something first.

Instead, her hand finds mine, easily, and I'm lost for what to say. I'm torn between telling her to stay, to go, to live a full life, to find that one beach that is still beautiful, to get off this rock, to stay by my side until I die, to remember me, to something.

Instead, I say this:

"The pier?"

She squeezes my hand, a promise, and we walk forward, together, without looking back.

talonkarrde: (color)
Breaking in is a relatively simple matter: his personal network has, as usual, far fewer protections than the corporate network, and what would've taken a team, a couple of six-figure exploits, and three months takes me just over twenty minutes. With a port scanner, three programs, and a nice zero-day that I got as a favor, I'm root on his network, with more access than I would if I had the master key to his house.

Without further ado, I start downloading everything that's on his personal machine. The client requested a general dump, and a general dump is what they'll get. There's a promise of a bonus if there's specific information in the dump, and I could certainly use one — it would mean not having to worry about rent for the next four months, as well as some fun upgrades here and there for my rig.

It tells me it's going to take seven minutes, so I figure I might as well indulge my curiosity and browse around his network. The client didn't say I couldn't, after all, and it's always interesting seeing what kind of things people keep on their computers. Some people are impossible — I'm sure everyone has a friend or coworker that has a million files on their desktops, enough that you can't even see what their wallpaper is. Other people are organized to the point that you have to go five folders deep before you see any files at all, and each folder only has one file in it. What's the point in that?

This guy seems to be relatively normal, though, with some files on his desktop and some organization, but nothing too anal-retentive. I browse, looking at stock agreements and merger and acquisition docs and my eyes almost glaze over until I open a 'scratchpad.txt' file, the kind of thing that people put reminders in because they don't understand that to-do software exists. This one that starts with a reminder about Jessica's birthday and then has a schedule for wine tasting classes and turns into something that looks like twenty drafts of a letter asking for forgiveness.

It's only on the fifth letter attempt that I realize what I'm reading, and I almost fall out of my chair as I stare at the screen, now, everything else forgotten.

Sixteen minutes later, I very carefully jack out and try and figure out what the hell I'm supposed to do with what I know: one of the most trusted companies in America is hiding one of the biggest data breaches that the world has ever known. Selling information not just to a company but to the enemy. Do I give the data over to the client? I have to, I think — they'll know that I tried. And besides, maybe they won't notice the little throwaway document.

Before I sleep that night, I take a few precautions that I never thought I'd have to. I hope, more than anything, it'll just blow over, but I also realize that I have knowledge that has been very carefully hidden away, and I remember what my father the spymaster said about those that knew too much.

-

The first indication that there's trouble is from my contact who sought me out — and paid me — for the job.

Artsada, he starts, pinging me by handle on the darknet forum where job offers are made and taken. Question from the top.

Shoot, I write back. Top, in this case, would be the client, nameless for security reasons.

Top wants to know if you checked the dump.

I pause for a second. It's not a question you get very often — the job is the job, and anything I do outside of it is irrelevant.

I was waiting for dump to finish uploading and played around on his network, as usual. Didn't see everything in the dump, though. Problem?

K, he responds, and then goes silent, which doesn't quite answer my question. He doesn't disconnect, though, so I wait, curious to see what the next message is. Finally, he comes back:

Do you have a copy of the dump, outside of what you provided? he writes, and I'm starting to realize that the correct answer is 'no' — even if the truth is 'yes'.

No, I type. And then I delete it, hesitate, and type it again, and press enter.

You sure? he asks, and I frown. He shouldn't be doubting me; he never has before. Here, I get the inclination that he's not fully in control of the situation anymore.

Check my references, I offer, with more bravado than I feel.

Top says they will, he finishes and then signs off, before I can say anything else.

-

I get a letter, a day later, but instead of through the forum, it comes to my personal email.

Dear Artsada,

We believe that you may have read something that was not meant for your eyes. We apologize for the oversight on our part. We request that you delete it, if it is present on your computer. Unfortunately, it will be necessary to confirm that you will not disseminate this information. Please respond within twenty-four hours with assurances.


I get about three lines in before I realize that something's very, very wrong — they've cracked my security and know who I am, which should never, ever happen. Whoever this is wasn't playing, and I didn't have delusions that they would be willing to take any steps they found necessary to safeguard the secret I had in my head. The best way to handle it, I think, is to downplay it: I respond immediately with an assurance that I would simply like to live my life and would never speak of it, upon my reputation.

They respond, just as immediately.

Thank you for your cooperation. We unfortunately need to take steps to confirm that you will not disseminate the information, the next email reads, and as I'm reading it, my computer starts to whine, a noise that I've never heard it done. As I bring up the diagnostics, I realize that it's doing something I didn't tell it to: it's purging all information on the hard drive. It's deleting itself.

They're not just on to me, I realize with growing horror, they can see everything that I've done. Which means that they know everything. But maybe, maybe if they didn't in until now, they won't have seen the failsafe I set up, the night that I found out about it all.

Which means—there's a knock at the door.

It doesn't surprise me, nor does the increasing insistence of the knocks, nor the sound of it being blown off its hinges. I hear footsteps down the hallway, and I know why they're here.

There's nothing left for me to do now. But I smile, spinning my chair around to meet them, as I realize this: there doesn't have to be.

-

From: Artsada <Artsada@hushmail.com>
Date: Fri, 09 Jan 2015 00:16:17 +0000
Message-ID: <CAHkKY2cvBCvs-Mpt24Zd6r=3-3MPbcFev8N5QY9Cf=vCiEpxaQ@mail.hushmail.com>
Subject: Re: Franconia
To: The Intercept <y6xjgkgwj47us5ca.onion>

If you're reading this, I'm dead. This is probably less exciting because you've never known me, but you'll want to see what I have. I set up a dead man's switch a week ago, because I figured what I was sitting on was going to get me killed, and it turns out, I was right. I wouldn't worry about avenging me, though; just get the truth out to the public, so they understand how deeply that they've been betrayed. Here are the documents that I have — you'll see how I got it, and the forensics to prove that it's been unedited.

And to quote a famous reporter, one that I hope would look upon what I've done here and approve: good night, and good luck.
talonkarrde: (color)
The first time was on my birthday, five years ago. Amber had just left me alone for a moment after a lovely day, full of friends and celebration, and I was sitting on our back porch, about to go up after her — a wife who says "I'll be waiting," is an invitation that I had every inclination of accepting. Joshua was already fast asleep, having been tired out by the evening, and so there was little likelihood of interruption.

As I stood up, though, the darkness lit up around me, transforming from a twilight lit by a crescent, low-hanging moon to a brighter, harsher, glaring fluorescent lighting. And the smell — the scent of sterility, of disease and death that is only sometimes kept at bay by chemicals and concoctions, of bleach above it all — invaded my nostrils. If I could've flinched, I would've, but I was rooted to the spot.

As my surroundings brightened, the brightness brought with it shapes, forms, objects — a hospital bed, the beeping of the incessantly invasive machines, the pumps and scopes and carts and drugs, the droning of the TV, the entirety of the terrible medical experience we subject ourselves to.

But the brightness wasn't done — after it formed the bed and the window and the ugly floral curtains and the bathroom — it brought to life people, shapes that stepped into the light and were given face and shape and voice.

My face, younger, with fewer lines but also a corresponding smaller understanding of the world. Amber, in a hospital gown, on the bed, clutching my — the younger me's — hand, and I knew what this was without reading the chart at the edge of the bed. It was the birth of our son, Joshua. There were others there — our friends, Chris and Danielle, Amber's sister, Sarah.

This was just after the birth — I remember her squeezing my hand hard enough that her nails drew blood; I could only imagine what she was going through. It was a relatively easy birth, the doctor said, but Amber told me later that it was hell on earth until the epidural came, and that she almost throttled the doctor for not giving it to her sooner.

Only then did I snap out of the vision enough to wonder how and why this vision was coming to me — but it was also that moment that our son was presented to us for the first time, with an adorable cap on his head, and all memories escaped from my mind but the vision of little Joshua, opening his eyes for the first time to the world.

And then, without further ado, I was back on my porch, my glass of mulled wine still steaming in my hand.

I did what any sensible father would do, I think. I went upstairs and kissed my son on the forehead, and went to bed with my wife.

-

It didn't happen again for months after that, and it got to a point where I was starting to wonder whether it happened at all, or whether I had just imagined it while I was nodding off, a gift from Morpheus himself. I asked Amber if she remembered the day, of course, and she had — at least enough to confirm that the TV was indeed playing Oprah and the curtains had a terribly ugly floral design, though she said that the rest was hazy. And I had seen the picture of Joshua taken shortly after we brought him home, still with that adorable cap on, and it looked very much like the vision that I had seen.

But I was content to put it from my mind, accepting it as a one-time gift from whatever deity may have been to relieve a very special day to me, until it happened again, a few months later. It was an innocuous day, too, which is what was strange to me — Amber had just kissed Joshua on his head and told our boy to go out and make his father proud, and then turned to smile at me. And as I was smiling back, I was transported, again, to that day.

It was a different position — a different vantage point, this time out in front of the nurse's station, and I watched the younger me go into the room, Chris and Danielle wait and then go in after the birth, the nurses kibitz and talk about their other experiences. There was no reason for me to be there, I thought — and no chance that I had even been in that position, observing those people, because I had to have been in the room.

And then, just as last time, I was back in my time and place, and Amber was smiling and I was already smiling back. Again, no time had passed.

After that occurrence, they started happening more frequently — each from a different position, a different moment, some before and some after the birth itself, and I started trying to figure out why. I read the books, of course: the Time Machine, the Time Traveler's Wife, A Connecticut Yankee, Doomsday Book, Slaughterhouse Five, all of them. It was dumb, I know — I was searching for a truth in fiction that could not be found. But even if none of those authors were time travellers, I thought that perhaps I could scour the limits of their imaginations to understand why, why I kept coming to this one place, this one time, this one moment of joy.

But none of them told me anything. I was not a literary figure, on a journey of love and self discovery; I was not Henry DeTamble or Professor James Dunworthy or anyone. I was just me, seeing the moment that my son was born, again and again. Or I was, until the day that Chris and Danielle and Amber and I got lunch, and as Chris poured Amber a cup of coffee, as she laughed at a joke of his and reached out to touch him on the shoulder, I was given another perspective on Joshua's birth.

It was a perspective from just in front of the bed, but my vision was narrowed to just my wife's face; her eyes. I watched as she struggled, I cried with her as her tears came, I imagined the soothing of the epidural, and I waited for the moment of joy as she saw Joshua for the first time.

And I saw it, and it was beautiful, in a way I can not describe. A gift beyond compare.

But I also saw that immediately after she looked at Joshua, she looked up — not at me, beside her, with her, but at Chris. And I see her smile at him, and finally, I think, I understood what I have been told, what these visions mean, and I think you do too. And I am reminded of a story I read once, about a merchant and an alchemist's gate, and I think of those words now: "past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully." In that story, it was a happiness that the past gave; in my story, it is not.

I know my past more fully now, but I do not know what to do — do I stay silent? Do I confront Amber? And if she denies it, how can I say that what I know, I know because of a vision? And at the heart of it all,
Joshua is my son; I have raised him, and I love him more than I love anything else in the world. If I had not known, then I would be living life happily. What does knowing change? And yet it is naive to say that it does not change anything; this knowledge casts into doubt everything that has been for the past decade, everything that may be in the future.

I love my son, whether he is mine or not. And I love my wife, in the past, and in the present. But I do not know what the future holds for any of us.
talonkarrde: (color)

It's just past midnight, and eight year old Jordan should definitely, absolutely, certainly be in bed. Or studying, maybe, but not writing. In fact, if his dad catches him like this, with his head under the covers and his pen scribbling away on the notepad, he's going to be grounded for at least a week for not sleeping when he should. But he can't sleep, not with the hero still running away from the big bad guy, the scene still unfinished, the town still being held captive.

The glowing numbers of the alarm clock slowly count the minutes — and then hours — away, unnoticed. It's not until two in the morning that Jordan, exhausted, a touch loopy, triumphantly throws his fists up under the covers and yells 'Yes!' to himself, as he pens the last line, where his hero, Jordanian Smith, defeats the evil monster Cyclopious, a very properly named one-eyed monster that's been threatening the town with homework and other horrors beyond imagining.

And then Jordan jumps as he hears the sound of footsteps — he must have woken his father! He scrambles to turn off his flashlight and push the paper over the side of the bed and pretend to be sleeping and don't-forget-the-covers, right, pull them over his shoulder just as the door opens and a column of light from the hallway illuminates his bed.

Jordan's quiet and still. Very still, just like one of his heroes in one of his adventure books, sneaking through the tombs of the great Egyptian kings. The boy freezes as his hero did when the light of Ra was looking for the intruder that had broken into the tomb, and neither of them are seen. The light recedes after a bit, the door closes, and the little boy smiles a secret smile that he carries into the world of dreams, where he takes on the mummies and the zombies and the vampires, and stands triumphantly above it all.

-


It's just past midnight again, ten years later, and Jordan's still caught between school and something his parents would disapprove of. This time, though, it's not a novel, though his mouse hovers over his work-in-progress-but-stalled-now-for-ages briefly before he double-clicks on the icon next to it, a voice-chat program.


He's gotten to know some friends on over the last couple of years of playing a game that has been somewhat detrimental to his schoolwork — and, honestly, his novel as well — and he logs on now, idly, just looking for a distraction on a boring Wednesday night. As he joins the server, though, a cacophony of voices hit him — "Move left, get out of the fire!" — "Pop your cooldowns!" — "I need more AOE" — "The tank's down, res him, res him!" — and he realizes that they're busy raiding, doing one of the late game scenarios that requires, at a minimum, ten people, acting in some coordinated fashion.

Well, semi-coordinated, at least, but just by the panic he hears in the others' voices, he knows that it's not going well. And as if on cue, someone speaks up, cutting through the other voices: Tessa, the leader of their group.

"All right, guys, wipe it. We'll try again, with better positioning going into phase two. We need to pick up those adds faster," she says, and Jordan hears the voices of everyone else assenting.

"Oh, Tessa — I can't keep going, the baby just woke up and it's my turn," he hears someone else say. Kevin, probably, who was still trying to keep raiding with a newborn, which Jordan was pretty awed by.

"No problem, Kev — go take care of it. We'll find someone else," Tessa responds, and before Jordan knows it: "Hey, Jordan. Aren't you supposed to be working on a novel or something? It's supposed to be done before New Years, isn't it?"

"Yeah," he responds, and then shrugs. "But it's not going well. A bit too cliché, honestly, what with the fantasy wizards and warlords and pretty much nothing's coming out but a regurgitation of the raid, almost."

"Well, would you mind joining in? Might as well regurgitate it after a victory, no?" Tessa says, a teasing note in her voice.

He stares glumly at the 'unfinished novel.doc' file that he has on his screen for another few seconds, and then shakes his head and double-clicks on the icon next to it, starting the game up.

"Alright, ladies and gents, let's get this show on the road."

-

Another ten years pass, and he spends more midnights raiding, but also some of them writing. He finishes a novel about the exploits of a group of heroes (no longer named Jordanian, thankfully) and their trials and travails, triumphs and tribulations, and how they save the world. It's standard fantasy stuff, mostly, but it's also compelling enough that a small publisher called Conceptual Publishing picks it up, and puts it out for the world to read.

Jordan finds himself at a local bookstore in San Francisco, giving a reading. It's a small one, one that hasn't seen its best fortunes lately. He doesn't rate to be invited to the Barnes and Noble, or even the more prominent indie shops like City Lights — or more likely, for his genre, Borderlands Books. But he doesn't mind, really. He likes the smaller crowds anyway, and this afternoon there are only six or seven people there. Five of them have read his work, and two have just stopped in, but his reading — about defeating an necromancer and fallen king from the North with a group of friends that have come from very separate backgrounds — has kept them there, and he's glad to see that maybe he'll make a fan or two more.

Really glad, truth be told, because his book hasn't sold that well — nowhere near R.A. Salvatore, but really, nowhere even close to the second-string Forgotten Realms writers. But he's not complaining — he's been able to finish the book, found someone to publish it, and in a lot of ways, it's good enough for him.

As he finishes the reading, though, he thanks them all for coming, and after a bit of applause, his audience heads their separate ways. Two people stay behind, though — one, a small boy about eight or nine years old, and a woman that looks to be his mother, a few years older than him.

"My son," the woman starts, "really loves your work."

Jordan pauses for a second — her voice is strangely familiar, though he can't place her face for the life of him. But there are more pressing concerns, first.

"Well, I'm honored! I'm always glad to meet a fan," he says, and bends down to shake the boy's hand, who is clearly awestruck.

"I like the part about the heroes, and about their journey, and about how they're beaten back but they can recover and how they eventually end up defeating the ice dragon and and I really want to be a writer, one day! And your books are like some of the games that my mom used to play and—"

His mom comes forward, patting him on the shoulder, and the little boy calms down without being told to. "Okay, mom! Your turn!"

"I like your work, too," she says, and he smiles offers his hand, as well, but she shakes his head. "But it feels like some parts of it are drawn a bit strongly from a game that used to be popular about ten years ago. Maybe something about raiding, and guilds, and having a raid leader named Tessa, perhaps?"

He blinks, squinting for a second. How could she — and suddenly it hits him. "Tessa?" he says, slack-jawed in wonder.

She laughs, and the sound brings back all the memories — nights and weekends and conversations way past midnight, a 'let's keep in touch' that they held to, long after they had stopped playing.

They reach out simultaneously, to hug each other, laughing and
both trying to get the words out, but he manages to get there first, and pulls back to ask her a question.

"Would you like to get dinner?" he asks, and her smile makes it all worthwhile.

gauntlet

Nov. 25th, 2014 05:09 pm
talonkarrde: (color)
The sun rising over the Earth is one of the most beautiful things she's ever seen. She floats in the capsule, one arm hooked around the support bar, watching as the fiery star peeks over the horizon of her home, lighting the crescent edge of the world on fire, slowly taking the land back from the shadow, inch by inch, mountain range by mountain range.

And then she heads off to do the spacewalk, an EVA to replace one of the central connectors to the outer solar panels of the ISS. As she slips on the spacesuit and checks and rechecks and triple-checks all of the buckles, the clamps, the connectors, she closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, and the memories rush towards her like the water of the 'dunk tank'. It's a diminutive name for something rather grand, actually — the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory — but spend enough time around anything grand, even a pool large enough to drop a spaceship in, and you start giving it a pet name.

The difference, of course, is that instead of being surrounded by hundreds of gallons of water and being a few stories from the air, she's about to step out into an ocean of vacuum, where it wouldn't be a matter of holding her breath until the rescue divers come in to bring her up and give her oxygen. The other memory, the one that gnaws at the edges of her consciousness, starts to form, but it's interrupted by a radio check. She responds, clear and confident, and then cycles the airlock.

The 'air' — the vacuum of space, really — gets a little colder, but that's it. No sound but for her breathing and the slight crackling of the radio, no visible dispelling of the oxygen and nitrogen particles into the solar winds of space. Just her, travelling at about 17,000 miles per hour, with the boot of Italy far below her, the azure of the Mediterranean.

She pushes off lightly and steps out into nothingness, adding a small twist to slowly turn in place. She drifts off, away from the crew module, watching and waiting for the tug on her waist, a sign that the cord was taut. And then she heads towards the solar panels, replacement in hand, taking care, as she was trained, to make sure that every step is in the right place, every handhold gripped firmly.

There's another tug on her memory, as she almost, almost slips, as her breath catches, as she prompts another radio check-in, which she acknowledges quickly, hurriedly. She had — she remembers being in the tank, doing something routine, for the fifteenth time, how she missed a handhold, how she windmilled her free arm to try and slow her momentum, how she failed, and slammed her head against the metal rung of the ladder, how the spiderweb of cracks had expanded, and expanded, and that first taste of water—

She dismisses it from her mind with a physical shake: focus, she thinks, on the here, the now. And she does, staring intently at the next rung, the next clip-in position, and slowly makes her way from the inner modules to the kelp fronds of the solar panels, each one huge and gleaming and angled to catch the sun. Her mission is here, and she's going to do it, she tells herself; she just needs to keep moving. She's gotten all the way out here, with no incidents, and there's only one thing left: an untethered jaunt to the far panel, where the connector is that needs to be replaced. She tests the thrusters, unclips from the support strut, and mutters a very, very quiet prayer before powering away from the attachment, replacement panel in one hand, other hand making small, tiny adjustments to her velocity.

Here is where the memory that's been hovering around the edges of her vision, around the edges of her helmet, becomes too hard to ignore. Here, even though she has her eyes open, she stops seeing stars and starts sees the flow of water in front of her, sees the water as she's maneuvering away from the support structure, towards the panel. At first, it's coming towards her at the right speed, slowly, surely, but suddenly, she's going fast — too fast — too fast — the warnings blare, but she can't do anything, can't do anything, her retro-thrusters are fully firing, she's going to hit it, splatter across the panel like a bug across a windshield, she might break it and go with it and be lost forever and all she can do is, all she can do is—

Her radio crackles. "Space," he says, calmly, in his I-am-playing-this-straight voice that she's come to get to know quite well. "The final frontier," and with her laugh, the water disappears from her vision as she comes back to here and now, and not what happened in a training accident once upon a time. She's been firing her retros, but not as much as she feared — she's simply floating in space, at a perfect standstill.

She doesn't say anything for a moment, and then keys the mike, and says, quietly, "Thanks, Scotty," with a voice that's carefully not trembling, and she can picture so well the half-smile on his face, as the two of them share an understanding that mission control and the rest of humanity isn't let in on. She makes the landing on the maintenance panel gently and gracefully, and completes the disconnect and replacement quickly — unscrew, snap out, snap in, power on. And then she floats back to the superstructure — without any further visions — and starts walking back to the crew module, though she doesn't say anything except to respond to regular check-ins as per protocol.

But then she stops, a few paces from the airlock, and looks out one more time, towards the sphere that takes up most of their sight. She sees now the edge of sunset, where the dark is creeping into the area that the light had occupied, and simply takes a few slow breaths. She had come so close, so close to panicking, to doing something that she shouldn't have, to going into a spin, to slicing open her suit, to perhaps being stranded out there, forever, trying to figure out whether it would be better to wait for the oxygen to run out or to simply unlatch the helmet.

But she didn't. She had made it through, she focused, she did what she had to do. And she could let a breath out, now, and appreciate the view.

"It's really something," she whispers.

"The blue marble," he says, and she nods in agreement, knowing that he'll know she agrees, even if he can't see.

And then, after a moment of silence, "Thank you, for—"

"Nothing to thank me for," he interrupts. "Everyone has their first walk," and he pauses just long enough so that she understands.

"Now come on in — there's much more to do."
talonkarrde: (color)
In 1687, Isaac Newton published his law of universal gravitation: everything, he posited, is affected by gravity in the same way, regardless of how heavy it is. A bowling ball and a feather, if you remove air resistance, should fall to the ground at the same rate.

They don't, of course, because of air resistance.

-

"Surely," I say, "there's been some mistake. I was told— well, my colleagues were given Marathon, and Hastings, and Orléans, and—" Even to me, my words sound small, hollow, empty. I hear the phantom whispers of my parents telling me that I should accept what I'm given, feel the casually dismissive clap of my older brother on my back, and wince involuntarily. At least they placed you somewhere, little brother, and that's better than the nothing that everyone expected, wasn't it?

"No," the provost said, still looking down at his paper. "There has been no mistake. Is there a problem, Master Keenan?"

Stiff upper lip, I think, and simply shake my head, briefly, and wheel around like the wooden soldier that I've been trained to be, as the provost dismisses me without ever having met my eyes.

"Kent! You're next." I walk out, glumly, without making eye contact with the next observer to be placed. "Saratoga!" I hear, as the door slides shut behind me, and I scowl at the trash can.

And then I realize that the valedictorian, Taylor, has looked up from her readings and is smiling at me. "Keen! Where'd you get placed?"

I lift my shoulders and then let them fall in what I hope is a convincing imitation of a casual shrug, and contort my face into what should pass for a smile. She looks alarmed, and I quickly adjust. I'm probably showing too much teeth.

"I— I got Amsterdam."

She blinks. "The Battle of Amsterdam? I haven't heard of it. What year? Who fought? What was the effect?" Suddenly, I don't want to be on this conversation anymore.

"I, uh. I'm not sure. I'll let you know when I come back, I guess. I hope you have fun." I mumble, and then I've ducked away, blinking furiously as the tears start to come.

-

In 1911, Einstein realized something extraordinary: objects that were falling weren't, necessarily, falling at all. If you put a box around two objects that you dropped from the tower of Pisa and replaced one of them with a very small person, that person wouldn't be able to tell that they were falling. It's not about how observant they were — it would actually be impossible for them to know that they were falling.

It all depended on what your frame of reference was — from one position, they were moving together; from another, they weren't moving at all.

-

Amsterdam, May, 1990.

I looked it up before stepping through, just in case I had missed something and it was one of the Highlights — as far as I could tell, everyone else had gotten a Highlight, and so there was no reason that I shouldn't have.

But I didn't.

There's nothing — it's a historically quiet time, in a place that was also historically quiet. Boring, possibly, if I'm not being charitable. Or even 'unnecessary', as some of my classmates said, quietly, pointedly, within earshot. The placement isn't even the city proper, with its canals and its colorful buildings and everything else that Amsterdam was famous for at the turn of the 21st century: it's a suburb — Uithoorn — one that hasn't been important for as far back as I could find in our history books.

It's never been important.

Still, I did my duties diligently; I recorded events, I made observations, I behaved as a properly trained Archivist should. I took detailed notes on the news: a cat escaped two weeks ago, on Tuesday. It had tuxedo-coloring. Its name was Cheshire. And it was found, this last Friday, without any harm having come to it, and in fact looked quite pleased as she sauntered back into her owners house. Her owner's name is Jana, and she runs a flower shop, and always has a kind word and a smile, though she's trying to support her family in Rotterdam.

That's the news that's fit to record. There's more, of course: the usual comings and goings of semi-notable people (there are no notable ones that visit this suburb), some births and deaths, some petty troubles and jealousies, but it's all so mundane. Whereas the other trainees are out observing great men and women making history through their words and actions, writing about the trials of Locke and the travails of Demosthenes, I'm here, watching grass grow, trees blow in the wind, and lovers squabble.

What is there to report on, when I return to the Council, and to my class? Is this it? How would they not laugh me out of the Archives?

-

'How fast are you moving?' is a question that's sometimes posed to young physics students, in their first college class.

'I'm not' is the most common, immediate, and, of course, incorrect answer. But it's a place to start, a reference point that says: we're moving at zero miles an hour.

"But the Earth's rotating, isn't it?" the professor responds. And the students say, yes, yes it is, and then we go through a few equations and we come to a conclusion: the earth's surface, at the equator, moves at about a thousand miles per hour, or about 460 meters per second. Suddenly, much faster than zero miles an hour.

"Okay, that's a start. But isn't the Earth orbiting around the sun? What does that mean?" And a few equations later, we have an answer: the Earth is rotating around the sun at about 67,000 miles per hour, or about 18.6 miles a second. In fifteen or so minutes that it's taken the class to figure out the information, we've all travelled more than 10,000 miles — enough to go from pole to pole.

"But what about the speed that the Sun moves around the Milky Way?" — and so on.

Some of them get it faster than others, but at the end of the lecture, the point is made to everyone: it's useless to ask 'how fast are you moving?' because it's missing an important second part of the question: 'Compared to what?'

And as we change what we compare it to — or, in other words, our frame of reference — the answer changes as well, going from what looks to be a standstill to over 500,000 miles per hour, a speed that's inconceivable.

The corollary is this: a sports car going a hundred miles an hour feels like it's incredibly past when it's rushing by us, but that hundred miles per hour doesn't matter at all when you're looking at the speed that everyone on the Earth is moving through the galaxy.

-

Jana died today.

She was hit by a car, someone who had a seizure at the wheel, despite having no previous history. He's not at fault, and neither was Jana, and yet, there is one fewer member of the community here in Uithoorn, one fewer smiling face, one fewer person to talk to.

I went to her funeral. I wasn't supposed to, I don't think — we're here as observers, and are supposed to minimalize our interactions with the community, though we're to blend in — but I couldn't not pay my respects. She was someone that I had bought a few flowers from, someone who hadn't wondered at my strange accent, someone who had answered my curious questions without making fun of them. She had accepted me.

So I attended, standing quietly in the back as Adriaan and Jakob and Marijke and Sanne spoke about her, about shared childhoods and innocent mistakes and missed chances, and when the priest asked if anyone else wanted to speak, I found myself making eye contact, and nodding. I went up to the front, and said a few words as well, impulsively — I just wanted to express that even as a stranger, a foreigner in more than one sense of the world, she had an impact on my life. And the others — the community — they didn't know me, but they accepted me, there, nodding at my words, offering me kind words and gentle hugs after I stepped down.

In their time of grief, they chose to take a stranger in instead of turning him away.

I think I see what I've been sent here for, now; I know what I will report to the Council. The others may have been sent to follow the great leaders, and they may have great stories to tell, great observations to make, but I have my own stories that will rival theirs. I have a story of a woman who smiled at everyone, even days when she was suffering from kidney stones, because she knew that it would brighten their lives, not because it would help sell flowers. I have a story of a cat who always brushes up against the flower stand that her mistress owned, and waiting to see if this is the time that Jana will pop out from under the counter. I have the story of a community that accepted a stranger and allowed his grief to mingle with theirs and in sharing, lessen it.

It is not a shame, not a penalty, to have been sent here, to watch this little suburb grow, live, mourn, and rebuild. History — and the Archive — isn't just about the movers and shakers in the world. It's also about parents and children, bricklayers and flowergirls, the quiet moments and quiet suburbs that are what great leaders fight for. We are all the heroes of our own stories, and the story of Jana is no less than any other. 

Open Topic

Nov. 10th, 2014 05:04 pm
talonkarrde: (color)
He looks out at the audience — one thousand three hundred and twenty six seats, every one filled, bankers and politicians and schoolteachers and children. They're sitting on the edge of their seats, eyes darting between the six cameras that follow him around, waiting for him to speak, to surprise and entrance and delight them.

He is, after all, the world's preeminent magician. And this is, purportedly, his last show. And where another performer might be thinking of the audience, of the show, of the tricks that he should be pulling off — all he can think about is the last time he did this trick. It was for an audience of one, and it ended much sooner than he meant to.

And without meaning to, his fingers give the slightest tremble as he holds the deck of cards in his left hand, remembering the motions, playing through the actions in his head, the illusion, the turn, the finale, where a card was left on the table, face down.

But that was then, and this is now, and he made her a promise. He remembers the oldest tenet of show business, and he takes a deep breath and starts the speech — the patter, as they call it, the story that both distracts and enhances the performance.

"Fifty-two cards, ladies and gentlemen, fifty-two separate, distinct cards. Four suits, thirteen cards per suit, the ace through the ten, the jack, the queen, the king. I'm sure you all know this, but just in case one of you hasn't seen something like this before, I want to start by assuring you it's all real."

Roll up the sleeves, spread the cards out, get to work.

-

He first got into magic at the age of eight — his big brother had seen a Youtube video, bought a book, and took a coin out from behind his ear. He was excited, and asked for more, and got to see a few more tricks; clumsy and unpracticed as they were, it opened up a whole world to the little boy. For a few weeks, they were an inseparable pair, teaching each other and showing each other and practicing with each other, trying to spot the sleight of hand. But his brother was older, and thought of this only a diversion, and soon a girl came by and the older brother lost interest in spending time with the younger brother, preferring to spend time with the girl, instead.

But Jay, the younger brother, he kept at it — practicing with cards, and coins, and toys, and small knickknacks, under the encouragement of his mother and amused interest of his father, and soon started attending magic shows, studying the local magicians and trying to add their tricks to his repertoire.

He brought his skills to school after a few months of practicing, and demonstrated his skills at the talent show. He didn't win — that went to a singer, a girl with an incredible voice — but he got attention, and curiosity, and the admiration of his peers, and that was enough for him. It became a way to break the ice, to make friends, and to pass the time, and that was enough for him.

Then, when he was fifteen, a girl transferred in to his high school from California, and she had apparently seen the greats at Vegas — Ricky Jay, Lance Burton, Penn and Teller, Jeff McBride, and Copperfield. He tried some magic in front of her, and she watched him carefully, and then told him — and everyone else — where the coin was hiding, when the double-lift happened, and how the pencil was tucked into his pants when no one was looking.

Everyone laughed — but no longer with him — and the magic was lost, and he wasn't asked to do magic again for months. When he offered, they just shrugged casually, as high schoolers do, and said things like 'but it's all just sleight of hand', and 'are you just going to deal the second card again'?

"But— I have new tricks!" He said, but they weren't interested anymore — it was passé. And he realized how much he had been doing it for the admiration of others, and without the admiration, it became harder to practice, harder to shuffle the cards over and over, knowing that no one wanted to see him master this latest shuffle, or hear the stage patter he was memorizing.

It got to the point where he almost didn't want to do it anymore, but one day, out of the blue, the girl — Rachel — asked him to do a trick for her. He almost declined, but she insisted — just a few, she said, because it had been a while, and if he didn't have any prepared, how about the next day at lunch?

"So you can take them all apart?" he asked, quietly enough that no one else would hear.

"Only if you're sloppy," she said, and smiled at him.

It was a challenge — and one that soon spread to others around them, as everyone heard that the school magician was going to perform again, for the critic that saw through all of his magic as soon as she arrived. What would he come up with? Would she be able to see through him again?

There was a crowd there at lunch, gathered around the center tables, where Jay sat patiently, deck of cards in hand, his fingers trembling only a bit.

"Nervous, Jay?" someone called out. "Your hands are trembling!"

"Absolutely, Winston," he responded, and then smiled, offering a challenge. "But not nervous enough to guess a card that you picked."

The crowd pushed Winston forward, and he obligingly took a card.

"Okay," Jay said. "Shuffle the deck." And Winston does, and then smirks, handing it back to the magician. But right after he touches it, he frowns, looking down at it — his hands have only covered it for a moment.

"Did you hide the card, Winston?"

"What, can't find the card now? Magic failing you?"

"No, Winston," he says, and gestures to the deck. It's actually right here, the top card on the deck. Why would you leave it on the top?"

"I didn-" Wilson doesn't finish, snatching the top card and revealing that, yes, it is indeed his card. "How did you—"

"Easy," a voice calls out, and the crowd parts for Rachel. "He lifted the card when everyone's attention was on you, when he asked you if you had hid the card."

The crowd claps, grinning, as she takes a seat opposite him, and everyone crowds in.

"So, Jay," she continues. "Have a trick for me?"

He gulps, and then smiles and takes three cards from inside his backpack.

"Sure," he offers nonchalantly, and battle is joined.

"I have three playing cards," he says. "This card" — and he flips over a card, labeled 'this'. "This card" — and another card labeled 'this' — "And that card" — and flips over a card labeled that.

"All you have to do is keep your eye on 'that' card, and tell me where it is." he says, and as he says it, he moves the top card to the bottom.

"That's easy," Rachel says. "It's on the bottom."

"Well, no," he says, smiling, and flips over the bottom card. It's a 'this' card.

"It's on the top, then!" Someone yells out, and Jay shakes his head.

"Nope!" he says, and he flips over the top card — also a 'this' card. And he pauses for just a moment, and just as someone's about to say that it's in the middle, he spreads the three cards out, flips over the middle card, and it's also a 'this' card.

"Well that's cheating — you're using three of 'this' card." He shakes his head, again, and flips over the bottom card — 'that' card. And then the top: another 'that' card. And then the middle, and, yes, 'that' card it is.

Rachel prods him.

"So you have three of this and that cards?"

"No," he says, and lays them down one at a time. "In life, you get a little of this" — and he sets down a 'this' card — "A little of that" — and he sets down a 'that' card — "But not much of the other" — and he sets down a card that hasn't previously been seen, with the word 'other' on it.

There's silence for a moment, and then the room erupts in applause — one that's held for three, then five, then ten seconds, until everyone is silenced again by Rachel standing up. Jay can see the focus on her — is she going to tell them all how he did it? Does she know?

"That," she says quietly, "was very good. I think I know how you did it, but I can't be sure. Double-lifts, maybe...but I couldn't see them happen."

And another cheer goes up, as Jay allows himself to smile for real. He shakes her hand, and is subject to many claps on the back as the crowd disperses.

"You're one of the best that I've seen, Jay," she said to him afterwards, when it's just the two of them on the steps outside, waiting for the bus. "Promise me that you'll keep going, no matter what, okay? You're as good as my dad, and that's something."

"Who's your dad?" he asks, his interest piqued.

"I'll tell you later. Promise me you'll keep it up, okay?"

"Okay," he says, and then blushes as she slips her hand in his.

-

Jay goes into and through the audience, asking for volunteers here and there, performing close-up magic but with a large crowd, counting on the cameras to display his work to the masses, as he successfully guesses eighteen picked cards in a row, deals himself four aces after dealing someone else four kings with a normal shuffle, and flicking a king into a wooden board at the center stage, and then having an audience draw that same card from his deck. He does a bit of illusory magic too, producing coins and wallets and watches from audience members after a simple handshake or hug, each illusion building on the previous one.

He's chattering throughout, telling a story — his story, in fact — about how he got into magic, about how he learned to do this and that, and he weaves the tale deftly with his tricks, with references to the real world, references to friends and fellow magicians that the audience may have seen. He even spoofs their tricks, once or twice, improving on them subtly, or adding an extra flourish on top.

He earns smiles, and laughter, applause and astonishment in kind, and he seems perfectly content, a master in his element, a ruler watching over his domain, dispensing magic, at will. He's building them all up, slowly, to the conclusion, the finale, the prestige. He's looking for someone special, though, someone he can bring up to the stage, for the finale: he's always been a close-up magician, and he knows what he wants his final trick to be. He's looking, and then he sees her.
-

He stands there in the semi-dawn darkness, watching as the clouds slowly turn pale and rosy, as the sun peeks over the horizon and breaks free from the mountain ranges. The sound of slow, steady breathing comes from behind him, a sound that competes with the soft riffling of a deck of playing cards that he shuffles from hand to hand, steadily, slowly.

Every so often, he picks out a card — and then resumes shuffling, resumes listening, resumes watching the light creep down the wall. And then he shuffles it back into the deck, and picks it out, again and again. Often, he smiles, one practiced but still convincing; every so often, he frowns, when the card isn’t quite what he was hoping for.

The breathing pauses for a moment, and he stops shuffling, waiting for her to release her breath, holding his own as well. Then she yawns, and he relaxes, and a genuine smile appears on his face.

“Jay?” she asks.

“Pick a card, Rachel,” he says, softly, coming back and taking a seat on the bed.

“It’s seven a.m., you prat,” she says as she rubs the sleep out of her eyes, but she’s smiling and she does as he asks. A seven of hearts, and she kisses it before handing it back to him, facedown.

He shuffles, slowly, deliberately, watching as she watches him instead of the cards, and then throws in a flourish, a completely unnecessary bridge that they share a grin at. And then he finishes, and spreads out the cards on the fluffy bedspread, gesturing dramatically.

“One of these cards is your card!” he says, and then, “Flip one over.”

She does — and it’s a four of clubs. Before she can even shake her head, he’s started to speak.

“Oh, looks like it’s not that one. Huh. Flip another one?”

And she does — and it’s a six of spades. Now she’s grinning. “You messed up! You messed up the trick!”

He arranges his face into a confused expression, and then starts flipping over the other cards. Other hearts, clubs, diamonds, face cards, everything but the seven of hearts. Only after all the cards have been flipped does she realize that this wasn’t a coincidence, that this was deliberate, and she scowls as he looks innocent, though she can see the beginning of the grin on his face.

“All right,” she says, with a huge eyeroll. “Where is it?”

He shrugs, looking down. “I dunno, Rachel. Under one of the other cards, maybe?”

She just crosses her arms over her chest, knowing that he’ll give in sooner or later, and after a few seconds, he throws up his hands. “You know, there was more patter! Maybe, well, maybe we just need a bit more light—”

And she can already tell where he’s going with it, and reaches over to the lamp to turn it on. A tug on the chain, and the light illuminates the room — a light that just happens to hit the opposite wall and include the shadow of a card: the seven of hearts.

She tries — she really does — to keep the smile off her face. But as she thinks through it - the fact that the light shining through meant that he would’ve had to cut the hearts out of the card, that he would’ve needed to plan this while she was sleeping — she can’t help but be at least a touch impressed. Her smile only broadens as she looks towards him, at the hoping-but-trying-not-to-show-it expression on his face, and she reaches out and grabs his sleeve.

“Okay, I’m impressed. C’mere, you,” she says, and draws him down to her, and the cards are brushed aside, carelessly.
-

It's been years since he's seen her, years since they mutually agreed to part, each understanding that wasn't working out, though they couldn't quite articulate why. And yet, to him, it feels like it was yesterday that he was sitting in that hotel room with her, watching the sun rise, and the day before that when he was fifteen and performing for her the first time. And in an instant, he knows what he's going to do, has made up his mind on the finale, and signals the assistants that he's made a choice.

It's fitting, he thinks, as he remembers the old story about the magician and escaping fate only to find it again. And so, as his show builds to the finale, he steps back to the center stage, looks around, and then asks for a volunteer.

Rachel raises her hand, and he makes eye contact only briefly, making a show of looking around, of going through the entire audience, before he chooses her, as she knew he would, as he knew he would.

She takes a seat opposite him and the cameras swivel down low as he takes a seat as well, and spreads a deck of cards out on the table before shaking his head and taking out three cards from his jacket pocket.

"You know, I do a lot of tricks with a pack of cards," he says, starting the patter, as they both smile, lightly, tightly, keeping their secret between them, two conspirators acting on a stage for an audience of a thousand, "but I've found that my favorite trick is one that you only need three cards for. It's about simplicity, I think, about boiling things down to the essentials. Like in life, you know?"

"You see, in life, you have some time for play" — and he puts down a card marked 'play' — "and some time for work" — and he puts down a card marked 'work', and they smile at each other, for the briefest of moments — but there's still a show to put on for everyone else, even though the two of them know that this is now a show for one.

But Rachel obliges, and says all the lines when Jay expects her to, and he goes through the trick beautifully, fingers perfectly steady, double-lifts completely invisible. She sets him up for the ending:

"So life is just about balancing work and play, then?"

"No," he says, shaking his head, and she indulges him in a tilt of the head, one that they both smile at, again.

"In life, you're going to have a lot of work" — a pause, here, and a card set down, face up, as the cameras focus on it.

"And a lot of play, as well" — and with it, another card, another moment as the cameras display it to the audience.

"But the most important thing of all is something that can be hard to find, something that may be elusive, something that may disappear if you're not careful. The most important thing in life is to make sure that there's a lot of love." — and this last card he flips over and then hands directly to her, as the crowd rises to its feet and starts clapping, as the curtain falls, as the two of them stare at each other from across the table, as she reaches out to take his hand once more.



------------------

A/N:I don't usually do author's notes, but I wanted to add a short one here, given the heavy card-trick-action at some stages. This is an ode to magic as something that I've always enjoyed as an amateur: I am the older brother of this story, someone who briefly experimented with it whereas my younger brother is the magician in the family. The tricks described are all real tricks, most notably the this'n'that trick; which is one of my favorites. Others described are mainly from the incredible work of Ricky Jay, particularly this show that he did. Thanks for reading!
talonkarrde: (color)
We draw straws to determine who plays what role: who creates the diversion, who acts as the sentry, and most importantly, who will be the one to scramble over the fence for the moments that it's not guarded. The group — the eight of us — walk forward, one at a time, and they take a straw from my fist, each one staring at it, hiding it from the others until we're all done, until there's only one left in my hand.

And then we all open our hands, our calloused, bloody, scarred hands, and we see who has the short straws: Harrison's going to be diversion, and likely go under the lash for his transgressions, Jones will scale the fence, running the risk of being shot, and I — I'll be overwatch, the one responsible for alerting the others, though if I'm too obvious about it, I will no doubt suffer for it as well. Everyone else has a part to play, but they have plausible deniability — we three alone do not.

So perhaps it is no surprise that it is the three of us that find each other later on that night, the three of us that hold a meeting after the general meeting, the three of us that look at each other and voice truths that we would not otherwise say in the open, in the group of confederates that we've established to try and break out of this jail.

"I don't trust Toby," Harrison starts, squinting out at the fence that surrounds the camp, his eyes constantly moving, darting around, evaluating the circumstances.

"Nor I," Jones agrees, as he spits a piece of chewed spice onto the ground. He had to have traded a week's worth of labor for a wad as big as that, but if it all went well, it wouldn't make a difference — and if it didn't, he'd might be too far gone to pay up. Smart one, Jones.

"They'll fall into place," I say quietly. "They know that this is the best hope for them to not rot in this place, that when you reach the other side, you'll come back for us. There are, after all, a couple of colonels and whatnot in here — once they know for sure where they are, they wouldn't leave us here."

"Though," Harrison adds speculatively, "maybe they just shoot the lot of us once someone makes it out."

I shrug at that, a weary shrug that acknowledges all of the parade of horribles that could happen. Jones says it for me.

"But we have to try, no?" And he spits out another wad of the spice, and we watch as it flashes a few times in the open air before going dark.

---

The day of the breakout, we are as every bit our normal selves, with nary a sign of the nervous energy that I'm sure is flowing through all our veins. That energy, that easy sign that something is up — it's been trained out of us through years in the military, but also through more than a few attempts where our jailors noticed and preemptively put everyone on double, and then triple shifts, whipping each man if they flagged for even a second.

So we are our normal, haggard, laggard selves, bargaining with the jailors for an extra bit of sleep, another cigarette, an easier work shift, and getting the usual curses, threats, and cuffs in return.

It's just after noon when Harrison starts his part of the plan — he walks from table to table in the mess, telling us to stand up, to fight, to never forget our homelands and our families and the reasons that we fight. He does so subtly, a word here, a phrase there, and moves from table to table until all eyes are on him. He's trying to incite the crowd — albeit subtlety — and slowly stoke a fire that needs to blaze hot and fast but not quite yet, and it looks like it's working. The guards are used to some movement, and don't stop him right away, and he has an easy five or ten minutes before someone finally realizes that we're not really eating, and that someone is going around saying something that people are paying attention to. The guard calls it in, of course, and it isn't long before he draws out a response, as the base commandant tells him, directly, to stop.

That's when he puts on the theatrics, full stop, as he bars the mess doors and stands before them, and starts shouting at us to rise up, rise up and not forget our homelands, and though not everyone stands, enough do that the rest — the cowards, the traitors, the ones that would rather lie low — must stand as well, and the guards that are trying to reach Harrison are suitably delayed.

A door opens from the kitchen, propped open by a single carrot, and Jones and I and a few others that are in on the plan see the sign and make our way out. As I leave, I hear the general alarm sound, see the pounding against the outside of the door, and I see Harrison's face curled in a wicked smile, one that stays on as gunfire sounds, as the guards realize that this is no ordinary uprising.

"They'll be looking towards the fences," I mutter as we run, a beeline away from the attention that's drawn, "if they have any sense at all."

Jones pauses for a moment, and then licks his lips and looks at me with those grey eyes. "Then we'll have to be quick, won't we?"

And I nod and we split, him going towards the fence with a couple of fellow prisoners to boost him and be captured in his stead, me to the roof where I'll be able to warn him to cut or run. I watch as he powers forward, head down through the base, as his fellow prisoners push guards to the side and take punches and slowly his entourage shrinks but Jones doesn't pause in his sprint, a dead lilt towards the twenty foot fence. He starts scaling and I see that the guard towers are still focused on the melee that's by the mess hall, that none of the snipers are looking this way yet, and I grow increasingly certain that he'll make it, that he'll scale the wall, be free, and disappear into the other side.

That Jones will make it out into the wilderness, and for a moment, I see something that can't be, a vision that comes to me of Jones making it back behind friendly lines, of him lighting up a cigar and sitting on a plush chair and smiling at his wife, reaching up to caress her face, and the phrase that comes out of his mouth:

"Well, we couldn't save them, unfortunately, but I'm glad to be able to see you again."

I snap back to reality and the present as I hear a shout, a shout that alerts a guard in a nearby tower, a shout that causes him to look towards the fence, towards the man climbing. It's a shout that gets him to raise his rifle, look through the scope, and take a shot that he's been training to take, one that he is commanded to make when prisoners are at danger of fleeing.

The shot rings across the courtyard and enters the back of a prisoner that has just made it over the fence, a prisoner named Jones that was once a major, a puppet now that topples over the top and collapses in a heap on the other side, along with our hopes and dreams of escape.

Then, and only then, do I realize that the shout came from me.

---

"What happened?" Harrison asks me, later, a week later, when we can finally talk about it in private, when the beatings have been doled out, when the security is relaxed again.

When my guilt has stopped threatening to consume me.

I shrug, and then look down, and look out. "Someone saw him," I say. "One of the prisoners in the courtyard not in it — they must not have wanted him to get out. They weren't thinking of the greater good, only of what would've happened to Jones, I guess. They were jealous. People break in prison, you know that."

He nods, and then sighs. "Jones didn't die, you know," he says, slowly. "They've been treating him. He'll be back in the general populace, I think, in a month."

I keep my face clear and my voice calm. "Then there will be hell to pay if we find out who it was that alerted the sentry, won't there?"

"Yes, I suppose there will," Harrison says, and I hold my breath as the guilt eats me alive.

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