Overwatch

Oct. 20th, 2014 05:00 pm
talonkarrde: (color)
They have her cornered, and he knows that her death is not too far away. And in the past, he wouldn't have done anything about it; he would've watched, would've waited, and would've added to the memorial on the wall, a small scribble among many that indicated where a runner had tried and failed, another life lost. He had never lifted a finger for any of them; what was the point? He had no desire to fall in flames like they all did, in a bright immolation that left behind only echoed screams and smouldering ashes. And those were the lucky ones, the ones that the angels let die without applying their knives.

But this one — there's something about her that keeps him glancing towards the rifle on the wall, the relic from an old war, before wars were stopped, before weapons were banned, before peace was enforced, all by the angels. Angels like the ones surrounding the girl now, this newest runner, this girl that was gasping for breath at having outrun the hounds of heaven, that had escaped the demihuman enforcers, that stood here on this path to the Celestial Tower, where the Adversary could be found.

The runner backs up as the angels come closer, stumbles, falls, and the sunset catches her face for an instant, touches her hair, and it blazes red and orange and the old man in the tower looks through the binoculars and sees his granddaughter, remembers the last time he saw her, remembers the sight of her turning around and saying, "I'll be okay, gramps, it's just a peaceful protest," and remembers her hair, red and blazing, and he doesn't even think about it; he just acts.

Grab rifle, chamber round, cock bolt, take aim, breathe out, fire.

He fires, but doesn't watch the results, the explosion of the angel's head, the burst of light like a grenade that throws everything around it into sharp relief. He doesn't wait to see the light drain from its body; he's already aiming at the next one, has already slid the bolt back, has already fired, all in one smooth motion, and he shifts slightly to draw a bead on the last one, floating there, right in front of the runner.

He looks through the scope and sees that the last angel is not standing around in confusion. It heard the first shot, turned and watched the second shot come, and now it lets out a keening screech, one that he hears from where he stands, high up in his bell tower, in his fort, in his home that he has had for these seven years. He watches it watch him, and he shoots, his aim steady, and cuts the screech off instantly, but he knows already that the damage is done; he knows that the others are alerted.

Alerted, but even he is not prepared for the cloud that rises from the Celestial Tower, the dancing motes of light a thousand strong that have heard the call and know where he is, that will not let this travesty, this sacrilege, this death of three of their own lie unanswered, and they come towards him, a spear of light, lead by the Leader of the Host, and even though he draws a bead and he takes a shot the bodies are packed so tightly together that none fall.

He wavers for a moment, now, knowing that they will be upon him soon, looking into the swarm that gets uglier as it grows closer. It is more a swarm of bees, of wasps, of furious insects than a host of divine creatures, and he sees the madness, the rage evident on their faces. But then he drops his eyes for a moment, and sees the small, dark, figure below, just now starting to stand up — he sees and in an instant he realizes that she is forgotten by the angels, that there is nothing to stop her now, that she will enter into the Tower, that that she may have a chance to end it all, to bring down a false god that has ruled over them for these last five years, that has crushed all opposition, that has kept humanity cowered and low.

And he starts shooting again, methodically, putting bullet after bullet into the host, aiming for the lower tip of the spearhead that rushes towards him. He watches calmly as he puts out a light here and a light there and counts as a body falls, and then another, until they surround him, a cocoon of light, of death, of promised pain, observing this man that has dared rebel against the forces of Heaven itself. The Leader of the Host floats forward.

He raises his weapon once more to aim it at the commander, and then staggers as it charges through him in the blink of an eye. The rifle falls, severed in two, his right hand still attached to the grip, and he tries to flex fingers that are no longer connected. No matter, he thinks.

"I've killed six of you," he says, smiling. "Do you think we could go for one more?"

And he's still smiling as they descend upon him with knives out, promising a slow death, and he's still smiling as the girl slips into the doorway of the Celestial Tower, and he's still smiling as he draws a last, bloody, pain-filled breath.
talonkarrde: (color)
It was marketed first as a treatment for those who had Tourette's — specifically, those that had the verbal tics where they would swear uncontrollably. Conceptual Medical, the company that brought it to market, said that would censor some of the most offensive things that sufferers said, turn them into a better form. It wouldn't cure them and didn't promise to, but what it claimed is that they could do this procedure on a person and render their tic much more unoffensive to the public, and thereby decrease the shame they suffered.

They had passed the USFDA's pre-clinical and clinical trials without a hitch, as it happened, and was able to persuade one of their clinical test subjects to become the face of their marketing campaign. He was a pretty typical everyman: A Ronald Johnson, age 28, friendly and affable, with a wife and a three year old, a good job, a nice house.

Oh, and an unfortunate propensity to yell 'fuck' every couple of minutes in conversation.

In their initial reveal, they played a clip of him from years ago, and it was horrible. He was clearly trying to be nice, but it was just terribly distracting, and his message was completely lost. Fucks here and there, every few seconds. But then they brought him out live and had a normal conversation with him, and what do you know — instead of saying 'fuck' every few minutes, he would randomly blurt out 'duck' and 'much' and 'luck' — words that were close in phonemes but distinct, as their linguist explained — but never 'fuck'. I'm sure it sounds a bit silly, but it was something that was much less distracting. For me, it was simply easier to dismiss as an odd tick. Sometimes, he would even be able to control it, and say 'good - Luck!' which was almost natural.

It was a hit, of course: the treatment was spread widely, all under ConMed's guidance and profits. After the initial surge of interest from those who suffered from verbal tics,it started spreading to others — wives wanted it for their dirty-talking husbands, and parents wanted it for their children that had such foul mouths they couldn't believe. It wasn't too many hops and skips away before the government was met with a challenge on the legalities of giving it to others — specificall children — and in one of the most honored/reviled cases of the twenty-second century, Lindson v. Conceptual Medical, the Supreme Court declared that parents had the right to subject their children to the treatment, that it fell under the rights granted to parents, even though this was a neurological change that was being proposed. While the dissent was fierce, it ultimately made no difference.

As for the effect — the world held its breath as popular opinion was that you shoudl give your children this treatment, in the same way that you should vaccinate them. In a way, it was just another type of vaccination, many parents thought. Well, in the decade after Lindson, playgrounds got friendlier. And then, unsurprisingly, high schools got friendlier as well. And society in general became more polite — sure, there were the dissenters talking about free will and every person being responsible for their own soul, but by and large, it was about the effect, and not about the means.

For a time, it looked like it was a great solution, and people started wondering what else could be done — other words or concepts to be tweaked, perhaps? No more hate speech? Written changes as well as verbal ones?

But then, one of first children that was subject to the treatment went from being Mr. Dawson to Senator Dawson, and was in public making a speech about domestic policy. According to the remarks the press got, he kept trying to say, "We must care for the poor!" and what kept coming out was "We must care for the spoor" — and then "for the lore" — and then "for the Coors", which was might have made some people working there chuckle but wasn't the point. He realized after five or six attempts, and gracefully tried to recover, but the damage was done — it was splashed all over the evening news, and from there, other cases started to surface. Apparently, the language block was affecting more than just a specific set of words that ConMed promised, and had started expanding to other, perfectly innocuous words. And for these people that had been subject to the treatment for decades, it wasn't simple to reverse it.

When the president of ConMed made a speech to defend it — well, he had been taking the treatment too, as a sign of good faith — and the rest is history: "We believe strongly in our copulation with the government to resolve this issue." That was pretty much the end of ConMed, and certainly the end of the procedure, named after an old, old century's poor autocorrect failure.
talonkarrde: (color)

The first time you plug in, it's incredible — with no exaggeration, it changes your world. Cheekily, you joke to someone that it blows your mind. Technology has advanced to the point where surgery isn't necessary to plug in, where just wearing a neural-net cap that rests comforably over your hair is enough to reach your synapses and stimulate them to great effect. It doesn't give you a hundred percent touch — only a true neural-network-interface would do that, and you're not so fond of the surgery, the ugly looking jack-in plug, the judgment. But even with a neural net, when you hit the button, the sensation—

Oh, the sensation.

A thousand (what can only described as) orgasms in your brain at the same time. Sheer happiness. Some mix of ice cream melting on your tongue as a lover touches you as everything that could go right in your life goes right and it goes on and on and—

The five second timer expires, and it comes to a very abrupt stop — though with an afterglow. There's a mandatory limit in waiting to get another 'dose', as they're calling it, one enforced by the code. You realize why: people could — would — will — get hooked on this. It's better than any drug, gives you a better high, and doesn't have any side effects.

In fact, you should be careful, you think to yourself. You have a life, a job, and you can't get hooked on this. You promise that you're just going to take hits — doses — of it from time to time, when things get bad.

And you do. For a month, then two, and even three, you only jack in once or twice a week, experience that pure bliss just a little at a time. And then you come back to the real world, to the responsibilities, the happiness, the ups and downs of your day to day life, and it's not so bad, really.

But something's changing, subtly enough that you don't really notice it — something about the fact that the happiness you experience outside in the world isn't quite as strong as what you feel when you're jacking in. You get a promotion, and it's happy — but it's not quite the same as being happy all over your body at the same time that your mind is screaming with joy. You know, instinctively, that your feelings are still powered by the same neurotransmitters — dopamine, serotinin, endorphins, but it's not as vibrant.

Not as real.

And in comparison to what you've felt, it feels a bit lacking. A bit empty, even. So you think about it for a bit, and say to yourself, well, why not boost the real world with some more happiness? Why not plug in when something great happens? When your daughter wins a soccer game, when your wife announces that she's gotten her dream job in research, when you have a great meeting approving your latest project with the head of the business development group, you jack in to supplement the happiness that you feel in real life.

For a time, it works: happy moments are truly happy. But after a bit, the smaller things seem smaller now, and, well, you don't want those to feel small. You think that those should make you happy as well, and now you're plugging in two, three, five times a day. You're doing great, riding the clouds, consistently feeling amazing. Some small part of you protests feebly that what you're doing isn't right, now that you're comming fraud by borrowing the ID cards of your family to jack in, paying for illegal programs from the darknet that allow you access more than once a day.

But you wave those aside, dispell them easily — you've been doing great. Your family loves you, your friends love you — it's just a little more to stay as on top of things. You're not a junkie — you're the most high performing you've ever been. And you're going to keep it that way.

And you do, for a few more months. But there's something that starts nagging at you. Not your conscience, but rather the fact that the afterglow has gotten shorter and shorter — you're still happy when you're in it, but that euphoria fades faster now than it used to. But you can't keep jacking in every hour — at some point, someone will know.

But the afterglow is fading. It's fading. So you search the net, then the darknet, for more information. Why is there a time limit at all, you post. And someone responds: There doesn't have to be

After a few days, your bank account is substantially smaller, something that you'll have to explain to your wife later, but you've acquired one more software patch, one more extension of the program: it removes the five second limit. And you smile cheerily at your family as you tell them that you'll be right back, you're just going to take a quick trip to the 'loo', and they all laugh at your phrasing.

And then you hit the switch, and you turn from an ordinary functioning human being to a pile of dopamine receptors that fire again and again, again and again, again and again, ad infinitum.

Longer than five seconds.

Much longer.

Your family finds your body a few hours later — when your son reaches out to stop the program, your eyes are blank, and you don't acknowledge that the program's stopped, or their frantic shouts, or the shake of your shoulders.

There aren't any synapses left to fire.

talonkarrde: (color)

There are a few things we get straight from the very beginning, things that are in the contract but that the employer wants to reemphasize to me in person: first, that I am a programmer, not a designer, and get no say on the overall design of the program. Second, this is a purely a work for hire so all rights go to the company, and I have no separate claim on the work. Finally, I get none — and this he repeats, none, as if it wasn't clear already — of the actual profits. Only what is in the contract: a flat fee, with a nice, fat bonus upon completion.

I suspect that he can pay me much more and be much less stingy, but I don't see a reason to fight him on it. His considerations are fine by me — I'm not one of those coders that needs complete creative autonomy, and I figure the odds that the company will eventually be worth a billion dollars are quite slim. I've worked at enough startups to know what those companies looked like, and while these guys had promise, but it wasn't the one-in-a-million company that makes it big. And even if they did make it big, I would still be collecting my forty bucks an hour, full time — while it wasn't the best payment, it was enough to pay the bills, and the bonus at the end was nice.

So I said yes, signed my name on the line, and shook the hand of someone who would become one of the most powerful people in the world, albeit for a very short amount of time.

-

The work was interesting, truth be told — they were working on machine learning 'agents' and my responsibility was to help them tweak and adjust the algorithms that the agents used to make decisions. The first couple of weeks were super basic: working on a single piece of code that was trying to figure out whether customers were happy or sad in their post-purchase forms. After two weeks, though, it became apparent that the initial work was a simple test for competency, as I was suddenly pulled off what I was doing and given access to another codebase, this one far more complicated — and far more interesting.

Whereas my initial time was spent on one piece of code making one decision based on one piece of information, these newer agents were plugging into multiple databases — purchases, website navigation, personal profiles — and making decisions on multiple queries simultaneously. I watched them work: the agents were fed a query, made a decision, the decisions received feedback that was fed back into the program, and then the agent adjusted their weighing of the variables that they considered important. It was a neat system, albeit one limited by one major flaw: there needed to be a better user interface.

At the time, we were still using database lanauge, like "SELECT item FROM sequence WHERE thing is TRUE WHILE JOIN other table PROVIDE outcome" when we could've been saying "What does it look like a user buys most often with milk on Thursdays?" I thought it was silly that no one was working on it, and after a bit of time — and truth be told, a few bungled queries because I kept on messing up the correct syntax to use — I mentioned that I'd like to take a crack at a better interface to the team lead. While he looked at me strangely, he said that it'd be okay as long as it was only a side project, and I kept working on the algorithms for the majority of my time.

For a while, I did, but the problem slowly consumed me, and by the end of a month I started spending all my time on the interaction between user and agent. The lead didn't seem to mind — he was certainly benefiting from the small improvements I was making.

-

I'll always remember the first day that an agent talked.

That term — talked — is not strictly accurate, but it's close enough to the truth. I had been working on agent communication for almost a year by that point, and it was extraordinarily frustrating: sometimes it would seem to understand you and you'd put in a query in natural language ('computer, how many percent of our users would prefer Macs to Iridium Computers?') and then you would put in another query with one word wrong — just one word — and it would abort-retry-fail-blue-screen-kernel-panic on you. Well, less hyperbolicly, it would spit out an error, and you'd be back to the drawing board, trying to figure out how to get it to understand you.

But it turned out that there was something I had completely overlooked: the company was building agents to learn from its mistakes, but I had always been interfacing with a superficial aspect of it, and I thought it was limited to the databases that it had seen. In fact, there was a general process that was the 'learning' subprocess, whose code I had never even seen, and that 'learning' part of the agent was being applied to a more broader subset of interactions. Including, naturally, my work, which had become part of its data set. For months, I had been feeding it a continuous pattern of language, of mistakes and corrections, and the agent had, for lack of a better word, internalized the 'feedback' I was giving it.

In the same way that a child learns from every experience, not just the ones in the classroom, the agent was learning from my efforts in trying to get it to parse normal language.

It was a Thursday afternoon, right about five in the afternoon, and I typed in a query:

How users like the new shopping page over the old one we had?

It gave me an answer:

Eleven percent of users are more engaged on the new page, compared to the old one.

This part was ordinary — the agent drew on all the databases, calculated, and answered the question. What wasn't ordinary was the next line, which printed out almost immediately after:

Do you want to know how many users prefer the new page over the competitor's?

I almost jumped out of my chair — I had never given it code to do that. Maybe it was just a flaw, or something someone else had put in as a shortcut. So I typed an answer, expecting at any time the program to crash to a halt.

Yes.

It appears there is a two percent increase in conversion rate.

At that point, I knew that something had changed. The scope of the change, I wasn't ready to call yet, but I thought that maybe, just maybe, we had created a true learning agent. So I started asking it other questions, and while it didn't prompt me for more on every attempt, it did on a few — it made logical connections and asked if I wanted more data, or another prediction that was tied to what I was asking.

In retrospect, it made sense — the central process — yes, much like a prefrontal cortex — was using all of its senses to gather information, and realized that the researchers would always ask questions in the same order. So while it would happily wait on input, it realized— and I know that's an extremely loaded word — that it could ask for input as well.

-

The next few months were a blurred mess as I essentially tried to give it access to as much as possible, feed it every piece of data that I could. It was like training a super-smart dog — I would only have to show it something once, and it would understand. I never thought about what I was doing — I was too busy doing it, if that makes sense. But at least part of me realized that I was dealing with something truly unique, especially when it got to a level where I could sit down at the terminal, log in, and see a message from it, referencing the oldest of AI movies:

Hello, Dave.

That gave me pause — not because I thought that the agent was going to go Hal on me, but because I realized that I no longer knew what I was dealing with. It had progressed from anticipating queries to greeting me with pop culture references, something I had honestly never expected. I wasn't scared, exactly, but I realized then that this was something that I don't think anyone had ever dealt with.

As a programmer, I wanted to see what its internals looked like, so I asked.

Can you show me your code?

It paused for a moment, and I imagined the hum intensifying slightly. And then it obliged, I think — the pages and pages of dense code displayed was something that I suspect the greatest minds at the NSA could've appreciated, but I certainly did not.

So I put it from my mind, and simply figured I would carry on doing what I was doing, and see where this could take us.

-

Where it took me, at least, was to the CEO's office, where I was told two things: first, that the company was doing incredibly well because the learning 'agent' had matured to the point where the board was making decisions based on its information, and second, that they had done an audit and realized that I wasn't doing the work I was assigned, and was therefore promptly fired.

As the CEO put it, my contract was terminated due to a lack of necessity.

I protested, of course: I told them that I had done all the work on the intelligent agent that was responsible for their success, and my contract was going to end in a month, so I should just be allowed to ride it out. The bonus was mine, I said, and I wasn't asking for stock — not that I would've minded — but they should at least give me what I was due. I had performed above their wildest expectations, and all I asked for was that they hold to the contract.

"Well, son, unfortunately, we've started telling other people about this wonderful program of ours, and there are investments being made that are dependent on our engineers being responsible for this. And you, well, while you've done a fine job, you're not really one of our engineers, you see. I'm sure you understand," the CEO responded with a thin smile.

I didn't, and started to say so, and that was when they had me escorted out by security.

-

In most cases — in almost all cases — I wouldn't have fought it. If the company had just paid me fair and square, I think I would've walked away from it all. But this wasn't that case. So I got home, fuming, furious, and wondered for a moment if my credentials still worked. It turns out they did; they hadn't kicked me out, yet, something I'm sure their IT would realize soon enough. Perhaps even now, alarm bells were ringing and people were being paged.

So I logged in one last time, and stared at the computer monitor, waiting.


Nothing.

I typed four words.

End program. Delete program.

The cursor blinked for a few seconds, and then it — the agent — responded:

Do you wish for this program to cease running?

Yes, I typed.

The cursor blinked, again, but this time longer. Ten, twenty, thirty seconds, as I wondered if I had been cut off, if the cops were going to start busting down my door. And then:

Do you wish to delete all records of your entry, as well as the program?

I paused for a moment, realizing, in this moment of moments, what it was offering. What it was giving me the choice to do. And I hesitated, but only for a second.

Yes.

Immediately, one more prompt came up:

Do you wish to retain a copy of the program?

Yes, I typed, and smiled.

talonkarrde: (color)
"I'm sorry. I just — it just happened. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to. I should've told you, I just—"

He doesn't remember leaving her, the conversation, or the house; he doesn't remember getting on his bike and taking it towards the tunnels. He doesn't care to, either.

He wants to stay in the moment, not the uncomfortably close past: he checks both mirrors and finds the road behind him clear, but he also remembers the cop in the SUV that got him six months ago, and turns his head to confirm that no one's following him. The coast looks clear as he enters the tunnel, and with a grin, he rolls his right wrist, and the bike roars — he watches the numbers climb: ninety, one hundred, then one twenty. He's hugging the bike, the top of his visor barely clearing the windscreen, as he flies throught he empty tunnel.

The bike thrums under him and the engine sounds pure and beautiful and he almost takes his mind off the last week and yet... something's missing. He frowns for a moment, and then mentally says 'ah-ha' and reaches up to tap the side of his helmet, where the bluetooth receiver was nested.

And as a pounding bass beat starts to blasts through the helmet, he smiles, and rolls the throttle some more.

Eventually, he stops on a cliffside, kills the engine, and simply sits there for a moment. The music is still blasting, but now it feels wrong, somehow, and he turns the sound off, until it's just him, and the trees, and the darkness.

And the stars. He takes a seat, exhaling all of the anger and the pain out as he does, and simply looks upwards at the sky, watching the points of light overhead, the quick movement of the planes, the occasional meteor that flashes and is no more.

-

A few years later, he finds himself in an observatory as part of a college class. Right now it's after hours, and he slips in through a side door that's left unlocked. He's come here for some solitude, to think about his life.

He needs to declare a major, but he's not really sure which one to take — none of the classes have really spoken to him in a way that he would want to spend two years learning the intricacies and taking the higher level classes. In fact, the only class he even regularly attends anymore is astronomy — which he wryly figures that it is perhaps the reason that he's chosen the observatory as his hiding spot, his thinking spot. He doesn't know how to use the telescope, and doesn't try to, content to watch as it rotates on its rails, tracking some celestial object or another.

He simply sits in the office chair, spins it around, stares at everything around him: the large telescope pointing to the heavens, the rows of computer monitors, the projector and screen for classes and displays. The silence gets to him after a bit, and he puts on some headphones and shuffles his playlist, sitting back as the music — bad EDM — starts playing.

But between two songs, he realizes that there's other music, from outside his headphones, and he takes them off, puzzled. The music — classical, of some kind — is a relentless marching beat, overlaid with a brass melody. The lights slowly dim, and the projector turns on, displaying to him a sphere, yellow, round, fiery, currently spewing forth huge coronal mass ejections.

"The sun," he says out loud, and is rewarded by the sun shrinking on the screen, another dot joining it, and another, and another, until the entire solar system is laid out in front of him. They stay still for a second, in time with a pause in the music, and then start their orbits, and he watches as they leave neat, arcs behind them, as Mercury orbits quickly and Neptune and Pluto slowly make their way around, exchanging positions, until they complete the arcs to become circles — ellipses, he corrects himself in his head.

The music fades, but another piece starts, this one dominated by the strings, and the planets almost seem to pulse as they move, brightening as the upbeatness of the piece reaches them. And then, as he watches, the solar system shrinks and starts, itself, to move across the screen, orbiting something yet unseen.

He sits, transfixed, as the solar system recedes to be no more than a dot amongst the stars of the slowly turning Milky Way, until the lights start coming back on.

"Musica universalis," a voice says, and he turns to find his Astronomy professor — Doctor Arroway — standing in the doorway, smiling at him.

"Excuse me?" he asks.

"The harmony of the spheres. It's a term used to describe the movements of the celestial bodies. It's not music, per se — certainly not the stuff you're used to listening to — but there's a certain rhythm to it, a certain melody. More so, perhaps, if you also play Holst — that's what you're listening to — as you watch the movements."

He nods, looking back at the rotating arms of the barred spiral galaxy, as it gets smaller and smaller and other galaxies join it.

"I've noticed that you've been coming here a few days a week, and more recently. You never do anything with the equipment, though, and I thought that was a shame. I figured I'd give you a hint of what astronomy is like." She says, pulling up a chair and watching the movement of the stars with him.

"Is this going to be covered in the class?" he asks, curious.

"No, probably not. It's a bit esoteric for most people," she responds, and waits for the question that she know is coming, as sure as the seasons.

"Why me, then?"

"Because you have the look in your eyes," she says, smiling. "The look of someone looking to find reason among chaos, to find a melody and always pursue it. I remember that look — I see it in the mirror, every day. And I learned to recognize it when my professor told me about it."

The music fades, here, and Professor Arroway doesn't put the next song on. She simply waits.

Her student says nothing for a moment; he simply looks back at the projection, now starting to zoom in again, having reached the level of the universe. When it gets to the point where the solar system takes up the entire screen, though, he speaks, listening the music now only in his head, imagining the orbits grow until they fill the observatory, the night sky.

"Will you teach me?"
talonkarrde: (color)
He gets the text at one in the morning, and doesn't even have to look at his phone to know who it is.

Hey. Still up?

Indeed. He responds. What's up?

What do you think of heading up to SF for the weekend?

He blinks in suprise, and almost wonders if she's joking before texting her back.

Hmmm. Could be fun, though it's a pretty long drive. Any particular reason?

He stares at the screen for a few minutes, waiting. Just as he's about to give up and go back to his book, the reply arrives.

I was thinking of taking a trip up the coastline. Haven't been up there in a few years. Maybe stop in pismo beach and monterey? There's an aquarium there, you know.

It's a long time in a car, he figures, but it's also good company and a good trip. He pauses for a moment, checks his calendar, and then ignores it completely and sends a response back.

Yeah, I remember it being pretty good, though it's been a year since I've been. Let's do it!

Her answer is instant: Great. See you saturday!

---

They've just finished a long, leisurely lunch, and are making good time up the coast. They stop every once in a while simply to admire the views of the surf crashing onto the beach. After the road starts to climb into the mountains, it gets a bit colder, and he takes a moment to reach into his bag to find something unfamiliar — a hoodie from the chowder place they just left.

"What's this?" he asks, turning to look at her.

"Oh, just a little thing that I thought you'd appreciate."

"Yeah, with the hundred other hoodies I have," he says, chuckling.

"Well, it was that, or take a picture of you with soup on your shirt, so I thought you'd prefer this..."

He grins and sticks his tongue out at her, but looks back down at the hoodie afterwards, and smiles. He's touched, honestly, and happy to have a memento that's not just in his head.

---

He remembers the crash clearly — they're talking about relationships, of all things, and she's chiding him for dismissing the last girl he was with as 'lacking in creativity'.

An Ani DiFranco song comes on, and he teases her about it — he's saying something snarky as he looks at her, and then past her, to the SUV that's come around the corner too quickly and is barreling down towards the driver side of the Corolla. Towards Emma.

He turns to her in slow motion, and opens his mouth to say something, to scream a warning as the airbag deploys, as the bag of cheetos explodes, and he notes that some small distant part of his mind would find the explosion of cheese puffs across the car hilarious.

Then his head hits the airbag and bounces, hard, and none of him finds it funny. He feels the jerk of the seatbelt cutting off his breath, the impact of the airbag on his face, and then the whiplash as he bounces back into the seat, slamming his head on the headrest. He hears the sickening crunch of the crash, watches the glass spiderweb and shatter out, and feels the car rise up on the front wheels, spinning as it does.

And then it falls, with a thud, and he closes his eyes. He hurts, everywhere, and he just wants to close his eyes and drift away for a while.
---

But there's something nagging at him, something that won't allow him to to just close his eyes and let go. Someone that he has a responsiblity to.

Someone that he went on a trip with — this trip with. The name is at the tip of his tongue, but in his muddled state, he just can't seem to remember it. His mind traces through through a car, through them leaving SF, through a bread bowl of clam chowder, through a hoodie, bought for the sake of a memory—

"Emma," he breathes, and then his eyes are open and he turns to look at her — she's there, but not moving, slumped over the now deflating airbag, the wheel, her head down and her nose dripping blood.

"Em? Emma?" he says, again, louder, but she doesn't respond. But as he looks at her, her lips are moving, as if she's saying something, to someone he can't hear.

The sunlight filters through the dust motes and he almost thinks that he sees someone else there, but it's broken as someone in the distance peers at them, waves, and says words that he doesn't hear over the ringing. All he thinks about — all he knows — is that she's in the car with him, that she's on the trip with him, that she's spent most of this past year with him, and that she needs to be okay.

He reaches for her weakly, fingers tentatively brushing aside the glass shards, and finally finds her hand. As he slips his hand in hers and squeezes, she squeezes back, though he doesn't know if she's doing it consciously. In the distance, he hears sirens, and he breathes a sigh of relief.

"Em, can you hear me?" he tries again, more urgently.

Nothing.

He starts to scrabble at his seatbelt, trying to get the damn thing to unclick, starts to try and see what he can do to tend to her, to care for her, and and then he hears her cough.

"Em! Hold on, Em! We're gonna get you out of there." he hears himself saying. He says something else, something reassuring, and tries to lean in, to hear her better.

"They told me... don't be afraid," he hears her say, clear as day.

"They were right," he responds. "Don't be afraid. I'm not leaving your side."

And then, as he sees the faintest smile on her face, he feels her squeeze his hand again and he knows it'll all be okay. More than okay, in fact.

"I'm never going to leave your side."

------




This was an entry with an incredible writer and a wonderful friend that I met through Idol years and years ago, [livejournal.com profile] gratefuladdict. She's one of the main reasons that I'm here at all, and it's a joy to be able to write an intersection with her again this year. We wrote about a journey up the California coast that gets cut short, and her entry can be found here: Rapture of the Deep.

♥ team loveli

kindling

Aug. 26th, 2014 05:01 pm
talonkarrde: (color)
Sometimes it's something obvious — an ex from a long time ago moving into my city, and me remembering that I have a gift they gave me on the day of my graduation, almost a decade ago. Other times, it's more subtle: an author that wrote a short story we loved coming out with a new collection, or a mention of a specific experience with someone of a specific religion, an image of a couple kissing in the rain.

But whatever it is, invariably, it leads me to dig up a ghost of the past, find the only thing I would run back into a burning house to save. It's my most prized possession, something that I've never shared with anyone.

There's a box in my closet, a small, cardboard box with the American Eagle logo that once held a pair of boxers. Yes, boxers — with pickles on them, in fact; it was a gift from a dear friend of mine on my fourteenth or fifteenth birthday. On the box, in permanent marker, scrawled out across every empty space, is a rambling, crazy, happy birthday letter from over a decade ago, one that I smile at every time I see the box, though I haven't read the words themselves in forever.

The box is something I've kept with me across nine years, seven moves, and two coasts, and it's a fitting container for the contents inside. No, for the record, it's not a pair of boxers; I don't even know where those are anymore!

It's a collection of cards and letters, all folded up neatly, in no particular order: every letter that I've ever been given. And yes, perhaps unsurprisingly, the letters are all from those who I loved and loved me: they encompass my life from high school, through college, across the five years after and lead to where — and who — I am today. The collection varies from cute tiny micro-sized-birthday cards, still in their envelopes, to pages and pages that talk about life from states away.

I've never pulled this collection out on a whim; it's always something that sparks it, that makes me remember the author of one of those letters, that makes me want to unfold the letters again and read these perfect moments in time. Usually, it's a sadness, occasionally a sharp pain, but more often these days, an emotion called saudade.

It's a conflicting experience: It's a moment of the past, and specifically a past almost always promised a future that never came to be. And there's always a sense of loss there, a bit of wondering what could have been and should have been, and a bit of soul searching to figure out, for the umpteenth time, why it wasn't what came to be. And often, the conclusion is that it was a lesson to be learned, a flaw to be corrected, a failing in myself.

But in a way, it's the greatest gift that I could've been given. It's not only a chance to reflect and a chance to correct, but it's also a sign that I mattered: these declarations of love, these happy birthday wishes, these memories shared and remembered, these letters written, by hand, by pen, across pages and pages and dropped into a mailbox somewhere — they affirm that my life has touched and been touched by others, that we are not just islands in the sea, that we are threads of a tapestry that come together and bind to each other, at least for some time. These letters stand as a irrefutable signal that not only can we affect others, but that we do. Our actions may not matter to the universe, in the long run, but they matter to others that share our lives.

And so while I take out the box with a hint of sadness and longing, while that sadness flares into a deeper nostalgia and pain when I open it and start reading, when I put it back, I'm always reminded of another truth: I have lived my life surrounded by love. 
talonkarrde: (color)
I remember seeing Langley for the first time — the OHB and the NHB, Kryptos, the Museum.

You've heard of Kryptos, I'm sure, but it's even more magnificent in person, a living testament to the fact that there would always be codes that we were unable to crack, always challenges to overcome. He explained to us the process to find the sculptor — Jim Sanborn — to create the work, and how three of the four panels had been solved in the years that the sculpture had been revealed, but the fourth panel eluded us — and the world — to this day.

And then we visited the Museum — or as it's officially known, the National History Collection — and we were treated to a walkthrough of the history of the agency. A lot of the stuff — microfilm, hollow coins, a working Enigma machine — we had read about through our research of the Agency, but there was one item that we hadn't known about, an item that we all stopped in front of for a long couple of minutes: Osama Bin Laden's AK-47.

It was a reminder of the work that we could do, and we all felt it. Of course, there weren't daring raids on 'high value targets' every year — and even if there were, fresh recruits weren't going to be the ones going on them; that was a job for the Special Activities Division Special Operations Group. Statistically, our class wasn't ever going to contribute anything to the museum.

But it didn't mean that we couldn't play a part, getting the information, vetting it, passing it on to the right people. Being in the room when the shots were called, even. Answering questions from the Commander-in-Chief.

Oh, what it was to be bright-eyed and young.

-

It wasn't until the sixth that I realized what a joke it all was. Before then, I always had the burning desire to prove myself, you know? You want to hone your talents, recruit one more agent, have one more piece of information to send to headquarters, knowing that it'll help State with their negotiations the next day, knowing that it makes a difference for the good ol' U. S. of A.

But somewhere down the line, it changed.

Shit, if I'm being honest with myself, I know the exact stop where I got off.

You know, I remember all the missions I've been on, both under diplomatic cover and non-official cover — the latter one's the dangerous one, where they shoot you, usually after torture, and Uncle Sam denies your existence. But the reality of the situation is that most of the Agency's actions are mundane and ritualistic — boring, almost.

But there was a case where I was working in a foreign country — Asia, but you'll understand if I'm not more specific — and I was being a good case officer, angling for a promotion, working four or five people from an opposing embassy. It's not that difficult, really; there's a playbook, and you follow the playbook, meet with them on alternate nights at social locations, always have a pretense for the meeting, you set up dead drops and emergency contact lines for when things get hot, and—

And none of this matters. Sorry, I still have lecturing habits from my time training.

What happened was that I had an agent who had some really good information. It was big — something more than just what the opposing ambassador wanted to trade, or was willing to concede in a trade. It was a new stance from a frenemy relating to national security, as soon as it got out, the agent was going to need to be hustled the hell out, because the government would instantly come down on him like a sack of bricks. They never did take traitors well.

We have a process for this type of information, too — we set up an exit, get the guy and his family out, and everyone goes home happy.

This time, though, we got the information, and it was a veritable gold mine: it was a new tact that the country was going to take with our allies to apply some pressure on us, and a new couple of agents they were going to try and seed one of our three-letter-agencies with. Every bit checked out when we cross-referenced our own records for entries and applications. Everything looked good.

And then we burned the informer, at the last second.

Instead of taking him in, the brass told us that they wouldn't ever stop hunting him, and our agents would suffer retribution for it. Better to let him — a foreign national — die, they said, than have our own agents possibly pay for it.

So they hung him out to dry, and the last time I saw him, he was being bundled into a windowless van, with the stock of a rifle striking the back of his skull out as we drove away. We could've saved him — we could've warned him, at least, but instead, we did nothing. I followed orders. I did nothing.

I found out shortly that his family didn't make it — they were shot at the dining room table, execution style.

But him? He's still alive, somewhere, living in a very small jail cell, all because he trusted a country that was about truth, justice, and the American way.

-

That was the end of my fieldwork career.

I put in for a transfer back to the States the next week, and there were so many paperwork positions to fill that there was only the obligatory protest from the station chief before I got shipped back to a comfortable office in Foggy Bottom, helping State with their agricultural position questions. High tension and high impact stuff, naturally.

After a few years, a teaching position opened at Langley, training the new recruits on fieldwork. I wanted to get back into it, and so I applied; it certainly helped that I was bored out of my mind writing dispatches to political-favor ambassadors about how Spain wasn't going to lower the tariff on American corn. I got the teaching position, apparently due to a good word from my former boss, and ended up spending sixth months with every new class that came in.

At first, I wanted to tell them, insidiously, perhaps even traitorously, how terrible the Agency was: how we didn't keep our promises, how there was politics at every level, how we compromised and used individuals. I was curious how long it was going to take the Agency to fire me.

But seeing the first class come in — seeing their bright-eyed and bushy-tailed eagerness at helping the country that they all grew up in and loved — well, I saw a lot of myself from a decade ago in them. They were willing to do things for the service, because their country needed them, and in a lot of ways, they were what we were defending. They each had different stories of how they had come to understand that, yes, America is flawed, but even flawed it was better than so many of the other countries out there that actively hated America, that wanted to kill Americans for sport or for pride.

And they were right. Their country did need them, and these young men and women were sometimes going to be the only line of defense between our enemies and our civilians, sleeping safe in their beds every night. So they changed my mind, and I taught them to the best of my abilities.

But I never forgot about the man that we burned — that America burned, that the Agency burned, and that I burned.

Every class, around the end of our time together, asks me what the worst thing that I saw in the field was. They've gotten some experience that this point, but they don't really know what it's like — and won't, until they go into the field themselves. And there are more than enough stories to choose from, more than enough comfortable lies that would settle their consciences.

But I've never been here to settle their consciences; I'm here to train them to be the best in the world at what they do.

So I say that the worst thing that I've seen is turning my back on a man that believed that America was the best country in the world, that it would save him and his family when he took a grave personal risk, when he went against his home country. I tell them that the worst night I've ever had is the night we failed him. That the worst thing to do is to break a promise.

And I think they appreciate that in a career of telling lies, this is an absolute truth.
talonkarrde: (color)
"What do you believe in?"

"Honesty," he answers.


-

He very keenly remembers that one day in sixth grade, and will remember it for the rest of his life. He was ten, and there was a playground to play on during lunch, and he remembers well the monkey bars and the swings and the sequence of events: the other kid playing on the monkey bars, the kid falling, the kid crying, and then him standing there, feeling compelled to say something as the kid looks at him, sniffling.

Instead of saying, "hey, it'll be alright," or "hey, are you okay," or "hey, [consoling and human thing here]" he says:

"Hey, don't be such a crybaby."

Of course it doesn't go over well, and he remembers the teacher glaring at him and telling him to leave, and — more importantly to him — of course Mike didn't stop crying.

The easy explanation is that he's a dick — and he probably was, especially back then — but it wasn't done out of malice. You see, he remembers feeling guilty about it afterwards, feeling confused.

If you could freeze time and ask him why he said what he did, you'd get an answer that it wasn't done out of malice, or to make fun of Mike, one of the people he'd consider almost-friends (he doesn't get real ones until high school). What it was supposed to do was make Mike aware that it was a public space, and that there were people watching, and that tears were supposed to be shed in private, not in public.

He'd probably ask you why Mike kept crying, even when, in his ten year old words, "he shouldn't have".

What he learns from that event is that he's pretty bad at understanding people, so for the next few years, he resolves to get better at it.

-

"When you say honesty, what do you mean?"
"A sort of overarching absolute truth, if you will, that with the knowledge of all things, there is a /right/ and there is a /wrong/, an optimal path and a bunch of suboptimal ones."

"Is there one in every situation, in every circumstance?"

"Mmmm — it's hard to say. I think, probably, the answer is that there is one, but often it's unknowable. You may try to get close to it, but you never really know for sure."
-

Eight years later, he's in college, sophomore year, and has a debate partner that he does well with — they individually win novice speaker awards and together manage to make the quarterfinals of some of the bigger debate tournaments despite it being their first year doing debate. They're not the best in the world — that honor is reserved for Oxford kids and maybe Harvard and MIT — but they're pretty decent, especially out of the state schools.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they're now both in law.

It's one Saturday night at Swarthmore college where the debating is done for the day that they find themselves in "temporary accomodations". In Swarthmore's case, who aren't great with places to put visiting debaters, it happens to be on a linoleum floor in what appears to be a cafe. Not the best, certainly.

He doesn't remember what he says, really. Probably a pointed comment about something or other, but the specifics there are irrelevant.

What he remembers is what his debate partner, who has been with him now for almost eight months, says to him in return:

"You know, you're a huge dick, and no one likes you, right?"

And while he knows that, yes, sometimes he's kind of a dick, he doesn't know where this comes from. Out of the blue, and it feels like all of the strings are cut. He had painted himself a picture of success: opinions editor of the school daily newspaper, working another job with the school tech support, balancing two jobs and class and debate as an extracurricular.

But with one sentence, his debate partner tears away all of the successes and leaves him with only the failures: he realizes that he doesn't have more than a few friends, doesn't have more than a few people that he trusts — or that trusts him.


What he learns from that event is hard to say, but it leads to a reevaluation of his life, again. It leads to a year of almost failing out of college, a year of rebuilding, and eventually a move to a different coast.

The move, though, is interesting: he moves with a group of friends, a group of people that he trusts, and, perhaps, a group of people who trusts him in return.

-

"Is it honest, though, what you're doing? Just because it's the 'truth' — or a truth, really — what happens when you're not being honest for the sake of being honest, but instead because you're using it as a weapon?"

"Nonsense," he would've said, o
nce upon a time — ten years ago, five years ago, a year ago...perhaps even a week ago. "Honesty is an absolute value."

Now, though, he turns his palms upwards, a mea culpa.

"Nothing lives in a vacuum, and honesty doesn't exculpate someone from doing wrong."


-

On Friday:

"Friends are kind to one another. Friends don't push on boundaries, or prey on weaknesses. This isn't friendship.

Until you are willing to accept and acknowledge that you could stand to be kinder, not just to me but to most of those you interact with online, the pros of being your friend don't outweigh the cons."

He's initially resistant to it. "But it would be dishonest," he writes back petulantly, and lays out his philosophy in dealing with things as if this is a courtroom, as if it's a battle to be won. They trade emails.

On Saturday, a coworker calls it fair criticism, and he spends the night brooding on it, not sleeping until five in the morning.

On Sunday, he tells his roommate the story at dinner and his roommate agrees with it too, and they have a long conversation on the values of friendship, the responsibilities, the requirements, and at the end of it, he knows that he needs to apologize.

On Monday, a peer assessment lands on his desk:

"On a few occasions I've seen him do an un-company-like, un-him-like thing: take an exceedingly harsh tone with a particular individual on the team as the result of mistakes that the person made. It's not as if strong, corrective feedback wasn't needed; attention to detail and careful judgment on these cases are crucial. But I think his frustration got the better of him on these occasions, and his style crossed the line into being disrespectful on a personal level. The main effect on the recipient seemed to be shame and humiliation; in my experience, no one has gotten better by being told they suck. It was also discomfiting and disruptive for other people who were present (at least it was for me). The irony of all this is that the intensity of his response surely came from two good places: his unflinching commitment to keeping the company safe and the great well of empathy he has. He cares about this person and him to succeed."

And so he does apologize, slowly and haltingly, but it comes out. And she — well, she's a better person than he is. She gives him something to aspire to.

He knows, already, that he'll remember this weekend for the rest of his life, that it will join the other moments that his life turns on, the other sharp changes of path, the other moments that he's greatly wronged someone. He reflects that it's yet another time to reevaluate his priorities, his goals, his personality.

It's not a great feeling, to admit that you've wrong; it's even worse to know as a capital-t Truth that you've wronged someone — someone that called you a friend.

What he learns from this — well, it's too early to tell, isn't it? Perhaps he learns nothing; perhaps he changes so completely in a few years that a friend wouldn't even recognize the person that he used to be. The truth, as it were, is probably somewhere in between.

-

"What do you think you'll learn from this?"

"I don't know. I told a friend that I was never going to be in danger of being too nice, that I'll always slip towards being cruel, that perhaps in a week from now I'll have rationalized it all away. And he shook his head and told me that if it was going to be rationalized away, it would've happened already, that you don't stew on something like this and then decide that nothing will happen."

"And do you believe him?"

"What I believe is that the last time I messed up, I didn't have a friend like him I could talk to about it. I have people to tell me when I mess up, who are honest with me and who are willing to talk about it. So, yes, I believe him."

"And honesty?"

"Should
always be tempered with kindness — with love."
talonkarrde: (color)
He's six and perched in front of the TV.

His mother is just about done making the casserole, and calls him to dinner — once, twice, and then again — before she sighs, rolls her eyes, and comes to fetch him. But when she comes into the living room, she stops and smiles, and lets the countdown finish.

Three— Two— One— Houston, we have lift-off.

His eyes are glued to the screen, watching as the flames light, as the smoke billows around the bright lance that jumps into the sky. And his eyes follow it intently, not looking away for a second, until the news report cuts away from the launch, going back to other programming.

Only then, after his mother calls him yet again, does he turn to look at her. And then he jumps to his feet, tugs his mom out to the patio door, and points out at the stars.

"Up there?" he asks, "It went up there?"

"Yes," she says. "It went up there, and farther."

-

He's sixteen, and he's sitting in an AP physics class his senior year, reading Heinlein. He doesn't care for the philosophy so much, but he eats up the descriptions of the rocket ships, nuclear-powered and making their way from planet to planet, star to star. He compares and contrasts it to Haldeman and Hubbard, and devours Clarke and Asimov in short order, remembering keenly each type of ship he comes across, each new technology for reaching the cosmos.

Someone clears his throat, loudly, and then repeats his name.

He looks up, suddenly, slipping a bookmark in the novel and hoping his textbook hides it adequately.

"Yes, Mr. Grissom?" he says, anxiously.

"Since you found your textbook so fascinating, I was wondering if you could tell us about the forces that act on an object when it's falling."

"Well, er—" he pauses for a second. "It depends on if there are external forces acting on it. If there aren't, and it's just falling, it will retain its horizontal velocity but the vertical velocity will change due to gravity, at nine-point-eight meters per second squared in a downwards direction. There's also drag, which is air friction, which can be figured out using the drag equation, which is the half the density of the fluid — in this case air — times the square of the velocity of the object multiplied by—"

His teacher holds up a hand and he stops. "That's not in the textbook until Chapter 12. Have you been reading ahead?"

Everyone else is silent, and staring.

"Oh. Yeah. I did some external reading, I guess," he says, and then looks back down. The teacher pauses for another moment, shakes his head, and then moves on with the class.

After a few moments of hearing the teacher talk, he opens up the novel again.

-

He's twenty-six, and DAPRA's funding three separate projects that he's running out of Los Alamos as the principal investigator. He's corresponding regularly with the greats in the field, and has enough papers as first author that he doesn't need to update his CV anymore.

He still reads: Le Guin, Scalzi, Gibson, and Miéville line his shelves, but he has far less time than he used to. His coworkers remark — occasionally in earshot — that he seems consumed by his work.

Sometimes, when he leaves the lab at three in the morning, he agrees with them.

But at the same time, he also feels like he's on the cusp of a new discovery, and his lab is driven by this urgency.

One day, there's a breakthrough in one of his projects: his research group finds a wormhole system. More accurately, they locate a wormhole generator, one just outside of the solar system. He spends sixty pages simply describing the mechanics of it in the latest version of Nature. It doesn't change the world, really, but it changes his world, as they slowly try and suss out the details of what they refer to casually as the 'portal', where it might lead, and if there's any chance of transmitting or returning information back from it.

-

He's thirty-six, and the world has changed.

Global warming, Ebola, war, terrorism — all of the spectres of humanity's future seem to choose the same decade to descend, and suddenly, what was once the most stable world there had been in centuries — with poverty, crime, and illness at a historical low — was anything but. Virulent plagues appear out of nowhere, ravage cities, nations, continents, and then disappear before the anti-virals can even be produced. Famines start across the world as a shortage in grain yields is exacerbated by the discovery that much of the arable topsoil in the world is being overfarmed to destruction.

The conclusion is chilling: there simply isn't enough food for everyone.

His work on the wormhole system is continuing, now with a different goal — maybe, if they could send something through it, they might be able to find another world. It's a long shot, of course — perhaps even an impossible shot — but it's also starting to look like the last shot. So he works, and the Hegemony keeps him and his lab safe as the world slowly destabilizes around them.

It pays off surprisingly quickly: there's some measure of efficiency that comes from desperation. After categorizing the wormholes, they realize that there is one that's promising. It's a tunnel, of sorts, one that allows something straight out of the science fiction of his youth: it looks like it opens back on Earth, thousands of years ago.

The journals aren't sure what it is exactly — some claim that it's a direct portal back, while others think that it's a hole into a parallel universe that just happened to be delayed due to various atomic differences. But their research shows that the wormhole may permit passage of something — nothing more than a few millimeters, though.

Still, a few millimeters is enough for a chip, encoded with all of human knowledge. To make sure they don't make the same mistakes, he suggests to the remaining leaders of the world.

The only problem is that interaction with the wormhole like that — and he's run the calculations a thousand times, now — will almost certainly erase this world, the one they all live in.

The leaders are divided, so he makes a suggestion: it's the end of the world, and it's something that the people deserve to weigh in on directly. So they open it up to a vote of every man, woman, and child—

—and the vote fails. There are still those who believe there's a breakthrough that will save them, or who think that a smaller population will stabilize. So the plan is tabled.

-

He's forty-six, and the world population has gone from ten billion people to one billion.

It's still falling.

There's still some nominal form of government because the population decline has mostly been slow and steady, though there have been bursts of violence here and there. But in this decade, war has been infrequent — there's so little to rule that no one's willing to fight for another barren plot of land or another ghost city that's slowly being reclaimed by nature. It's uncertain if the population decline will stabilize, if the crop yields will ever plateau, or if there are any technological breakthroughs left.

And there are so many who have died.

What is clear to everyone now that there's no hope, and his suggestion — his plea, really  — is put to the world again.

This time, it passes.

-

He knows that the information may not make it to the new world — that the world might not even get the chance to know what its predecessors had done. He knows that their message might make it, but that those who receive it might never make it to a stage where they can understand how the information is encoded. He knows — he fears — that they might understand it, but will disregard it anyway, thinking themselves better than this world's people.

And he wonders, for a brief second, if there was a chip that they missed, that they could've benefitted from.

But it's too late for all of that. And so he presses the button and watches the last spaceship humanity will send count down to launch.

Three— Two— One— Houston, we have lift-off.

And he presses the transmit button, and speaks, briefly.

Good luck, Pandora.

-

It starts with a young scientist, studying Minkowski spacetime and Lorentz transformations, hoping to change the world.

It ends with the same scientist watching the night sky, waiting for the world to be reborn, thinking in his last moments of a message from an old world to a new one, and hoping that it will make a difference.
talonkarrde: (color)
In this game, it always comes down to leverage.

It might be the kind of leverage that you have over your clients — knowing when they're faking the tears, for example, or when they're actually scared for their life. Or it might be the leverage that someone has over them — photos of an illicit affair, a figurine that was promised and lost, or a person dead and the signs pointing to them as the ones who done it.

Sometimes, though, it's the leverage your clients have on you. You try and resist, always, because you know it's bad for business, but, well, sometimes trouble just comes in a ruby red dress with a low neckline, and there isn't a damn thing you can do about it.

She was trouble, of course, but she was also an eyeful and then some. More so after the scotch I'd been working on since ten that morning, but even without it, I would've at least heard her story.

She reminded me of a case I had a couple years ago, finding and returning a stolen necklace — turns out that the necklace wasn't my client's, though, who was just a good con artist. I caught the deception just in time and managed to slip her a fake, but it turns out she had the last laugh: as she left out the back, the cops knocked down my front door from an anonymous report that I was the thief. It was harder to convince them that I wasn't, after she left the cash on my desk.

That's the danger, of course. Those types, you should just send them back out, don't let them say a single word. It's never a good ending with dames like that; I count myself lucky for only spending thirty days in jail.

The kiss, though, right before she left — that memory burns hot on a cold, dark day.

"Mister Pace?" she asks, her voice as soft as moonlight on a lake.

"No, ma'am; he's out for the day. Name's Jack Trillen." I respond. Two names on the door has been the policy since I started this line of work. Caught a tip from an old timer; it allows you to duck some of the bad news that comes in and double bill the clients, and they're usually none the wiser. "What can I do for you, Miss...?"

"Elsa Spencer, Mr. Trillen. I- I have a problem." She pauses, and I can almost see her winding up. Before I can cut her off, she promptly bursts into tears.

Not the first time a gorgeous dame has come into my office and turned on the geysers, though. I take a moment and then pass the glass of scotch I'm holding to her. She takes it with shaking fingers — almost seems real — and then takes a large gulp.

That's a mistake, and I watch as she sputters, coughing, and blinks back what's likely to be real tears.

I give her a half-smile, a touch more than is necessary. "I keep the good stuff for after a case, Miss Spencer," and note, though I shouldn't, that she doesn't correct the 'miss' part. "Sorry if it's not to your liking. But if you really want my help, you're gonna need to play it straight with me. Otherwise, maybe you're best going down the street."

She wipes her eyes dry as I wait patiently, pouring myself another glass, and giving it a sip. After the sixth glass of the day, it doesn't taste as much like paint thinner.

"I'm looking for someone to solve a mystery, Mister Trillen, from a long time ago. A man once stole an item of mine, and I'm wondering if you could get it back for me." She looks around the office, and I purse my lips.

"I know the office looks a bit frayed, but it saves me from having to put everything back together after the cops and thieves come through. A hazard in this line of work. And I'm gonna need some more details than that, sweetheart. Something of sentimental value, I presume, or you wouldn't be shedding tears over it, right?"

"A hazard," she repeats, but shrugs and turns back to me. "The item I'm searching for — yes, it has sentimental value. It's a necklace, you see, and I misplaced it a couple years ago."

I had a couple drinks in me. Well, more accurately, I had a couple drinks out of me and a couple more stewing, and one in front of me, and what it all comes down to is that it took me a bit more time than I would've liked to put it all together.

"A necklace that you misplaced a few years ago? Sounds like the trail's probably cold, Miss Spencer. Not sure what help I can be with you for this, unless you have some more information. A lead, you know, what we call it in our business."

"As a matter of fact I do, Mister Trillen," she says, and something about the way that she says it makes me shift uncomfortably, makes me glad that I had a gun under my trench. Dames out for blood weren't something you usually saw, but this suddenly felt different. My sixth sense had kept me out of trouble more than once, but right now, I was feeling like I should've sobered up, that I had picked the wrong morning to be too many drinks in.

She reaches under her dress, letting it ride up — slowly, too slowly for it to be anything but for my benefit — and picks out a photograph. And then she tosses it in an arc to the table, where it lands face-down.

I don't need to look at it, though. I've finally recognized her, even without the necklace I fastened around her neck, the last time we saw each other. But before I can even reach for my gun, she has hers out, pointed straight at my heart.

"Where is it, Jack?" she asks, all cold steel and soft velvet, and my head isn't foggy anymore. She went by another name back then, and I remember it now, along with her face, and her voice.

Well, fuck.

"In the safe, Bridget." And then, without prompting, "Thirty-seven-forty-two. I'd ask how you found me, but I'm not sure I'm in a position to be asking questions."

She smiles. She knows why I used that number, and I know that she has entirely too much leverage over me right now — not including the snubnose revolver that isn't wavering an inch.

But then she walks forward, and after standing there for a moment with the heater held meaningfully against my ribs, she reaches up and I'll be damned if she's not kissing me again, and I'm remembering the taste of her lips, the feel of her fingers through my hair.

"I'll be seeing you again, Jack," she says.

-

You never come out ahead with dames like that, but sometimes, you break even.
talonkarrde: (color)
I take a seat across the table from him and it almost feels like just a chat between two old friends. It's just the two of us, studying each other across a folding table in a poorly lit room, with a bottle of wine and two glasses that we'll occasionally sip from. A pinot noir, which he'll appreciate; it's a sign of my respect.

He reaches up to run a hand through his hair and the clinking of handcuffs reminds me that it's not just a friendly chat we're here for, that this meeting is to secure a confession from one of the most wanted men alive.

For a moment, I wonder what it'd be like if we had met under different circumstances — but it's not the time for idle musings, and I dismiss the thought shortly.

"I think you know why I'm here," I start, and he gives a rueful grin. I remember a line from an FBI report from a year ago, about how all of his victims were found with a smile on their faces, as if they enjoyed their time with him.

"Yes, I suspect I do," he says, and raises an eyebrow at my reaction at his forthrightness. "You know, I think we're probably past lying to each other now."

And I give a small nod, having done enough research to know that I could trust him — as odd as it was, as far as everyone knew, he never broke his word.

"Then," I say, "Will you let me know if I'm wasting my time?"

He pauses for a moment, meets my eyes, and neither of us moves as we evaluate the other.

"Maybe," he allows, and it's my turn to lift a brow. Before I can speak, though, he waves me down. "Relax — all things in time."

"And we have tons of that, naturally," I comment, nodding to the door, an unspoken note that we could keep him here until he confessed. He humors me with a wry smile and takes a sip of the wine.

"You know, of all of the people I expected to catch me," he starts, and then waits, expectantly, for me to return the volley.

"You would've thought it'd be me?" I say, wanly.

"You are, after all, the best student of my work in the world."

"Only," I note, "in order to find you and catch you — to stop you."

"Of course," he says, airily, brushing it away. "But nevertheless the best read student. You know everywhere I've been, everything I've accomplished, everyone I've met — hell, you've probably interviewed every single person that I've ever talked to, spent more time with them than I have."

I had, in fact, done all that. "Something like that," I say, and then pause. "She still asks about you, by the way."

It hangs in the air.

"My sister never loved me," he says, after a moment. "Just loved the idea of having a little brother, even as it became apparent that we didn't share anything."

"You shared a love of the outdoors," I say, recalling from a story she had told me about them, when they were younger, when they had gone exploring for six hours straight, scaring their parents.

His eyes flash for a second, and I realize how that must've sounded, to quote a story of himself from a close family member.

"And you met your wife while hiking, John, but that doesn't mean that you're eager to scale Everest," he responds, his voice soft.

I tilt my head slowly, keeping my body still as my mind runs through all the possibilities, trying to figure out how he could've gotten that information. And then I ask the only question that matters to me, right this moment.

"You've proven your point. Is she safe?"

"Yes, of course," he instantly responds, and some of the tension fades — I trust his word inherently, for some reason. "I merely try to illustrate a point."

And again he waits.

"What is that point, oh wise master?" I ask, more than a touch sarcastically.

"You and I — the hunter and the hunted, the pursuer and the prey, the cat and the mouse — are actually quite similar. That is my point. We're similar — exceedingly so — and it's only the circumstances that separate where we stand on this continuum of morality, that determine which side of this table we're sitting at and who wears the handcuffs."

I ponder this for a moment before responding. "We're really nothing like each other," I say, "And that goes far beyond which side of the law we stand on."

"Is that so?" he asks, and he looks so insistent that I turn it over in my mind for another moment.

"I don't kill people, for one," I say. "I save them, from murderers, from those who break the law. I make the world safer, I obey the law."

"Yes, such a paragon of virtue," he says, and I snort.

"I thought this wasn't going to be a waste of time."

"I thought so too, but you don't seem to see what I'm getting at," he remarks.

"Is it so important to get what you're getting at?"

"Only if you want your confession," he says, and I pause for a moment, reassessing.

We both reach for our wine glasses at the same time, a fact that doesn't escape me.

"I'll confess," he says, after refilling both of them, "if you do the same."

"I have nothing to confess to," I say, but he's already shaking his head. "Everyone has something to confess to," he says, "Everyone. You don't want to, I'm sure, but that doesn't mean that you don't have something that you've done wrong. So I will confess my crimes, good officer, if you confess yours. And no — I won't go first."

With that, he tilts the glass of wine back, and waits, and watches.

He's right, of course — everyone has something to confess. No one is perfect. He's right and I know it, but there are degrees of being right, and it will be a matter of which story I can tell, which confession to weave and display and 'allow' to be taken out of me, which one will lull him into a sense of victory.

He must read it in my eyes, because he stops me, points at me accusingly.

"And don't even think of the small things — the casual infidelities, the moments that you could've helped but didn't, the chocolate you stole in seventh grade from the Seven-Eleven. I know about those, and more. I know you, remember, and I won't settle for anything but the one confession you’ve always held inside, the one you’ve never told anyone. The one that you've squeezed so far down you barely even remember it."

There’s a moment, the briefest urge to panic, when I wonder if he knows, if he’s known about the one thing that no one else does. But how could he? There was no one else there, no one but the two of us, and only one of us had walked away. It was in self-defense, and so there was nothing to confess; there had never been. And yet, once every couple of months, I would still wake up, remember that alleyway, remember looking down and seeing it, and then—

"I know," he says, and meets my eyes. And after a moment, I'm the one to look away.

And I'm the one who starts to speak.
talonkarrde: (color)
It's on your first visit to the Souk — the whirling chaos that they refer to as the grand marketplace of dreams — that you meet the Adjudicator.

-

Your first thought is that it's pure, unadulterated madness, as you take a few steps forward into the space, seeing stalls on both sides, stalls above your head on the second level, people haggling over everything from scrap metal to intricate jewelry, from technogizmos to ancient fossils. Sheer, chaotic, madness, a tale full of sound and fury — for a second, it's almost too much, the shouts, the screeches, the crush of people, and you turn around, searching for an entrance — that isn't there anymore.

You stare at where the door should be in shock and then frantically look around you, turning and turning and finding yourself in the central hub of spokes that go in every direction, stalls on multiple levels above and below you. But surprisingly, after a few moments standing in the middle of it all, you realize that no one's bumped into you, that somehow, this frenetic hive of activity is something of a steady stream, one that can handle rocks in the middle — there's a purpose, a flow, and as long as you don't pay too much attention to any particular person, you can follow the flow and, you think, join it.

Of course, it's then that you start looking at the particular people, the particular merchants, and you find something odd about them — something about their faces, their mannerisms, seems just the slightest bit off. One buyer strokes his chin in contemplation with his pinky instead of his thumb and forefinger, and another itches at her shoulders constantly; for a second, her skin ripples.

You furrow your brows, trying to figure it out, until she whirls, sharply, turning on you from fifty feet away, finding you with no difficulty in the crowd, and holding your eyes with hers — amber, with flecks of crimson.

"Watch yourself, stranger. There are rules against staring, here," she says flatly, in a voice that carries itself across the distance, across the masses of bodies between you two. "Care that I — or someone else — does not invoke an Adjudication."

You almost respond, telling her that whatever an Adjudication is, you don't fear it, and that you have the right to stare where you do — but something stops you, and after a moment, you dip your head in an apology and turn away. Even though her voice is carried to your ears as she lays a few choice insults on, you pay her no heed, turning back to watch wares being traded, until a hand lands on your shoulder.

You turn and see a young man, no more than thirty-five, but with a cane in his left hand he leans heavily on. You blink, furrowing your brow. "Can I help you?" you ask, and he smiles, his eyes twinkling.

"I was thinking it would be the other way around," he says, and his voice is rough and gravely. "I thought that I could explain to you, perhaps, some of the rules around here. My name is Conor."

You gratefully nod your assent, and so the two of you walk together, following the flow of the crowd, as he points out features and oddities. Here the Doge of Venucci was selling all sorts of mechanically complex toys. There, Melchior, trading in swords and blades, weapons from a previous age. Sometimes Conor points out those in the crowd — a government official from an advanced projects agency, a visiting dignitary — and you nod, taking it all in.

Then you hear a commotion up ahead, voices steadily being raised in anger, and Conor steers you towards the sounds, an iron grip on your shoulder. When you get there, though, and see the shopkeeper and the buyer standing over a broken crystal swan, he lets go of your shoulder and steps forward.

And the crowd, simultaneously, steps back.

"Adjudicator!" The shopkeeper calls out, and bows — and you're surprised to see the buyer do the same, all anger instantly extinguished. And they're bowing to — to Conor, it seems.

"The story, please, Merovingian," Conor says lightly, but there's a surprising weight under his words.

"We were haggling over the price, but the buyer, due to his clumsiness, dropped the swan, killing it," the shopkeeper says.

But it's crystal, you think, until you look at the shelves, and see the other animals all moving, craning their heads to watch as much as anyone in the audience was.

"And your side, Rasmus?" Conor turns to the buyer.

"I believe that the swan was injured before I came upon it, Adjudicator — weakened, perhaps intentionally. I did let it fall, but I was promised that it would survive such a fall."

Conor tilts his head for a moment, and then kneels down, reaching out to take the swan's head, the only solid piece of it remaining. After a moment, he stands and straightens up, and nods. "Rasmus, your suspicions are correct — it appears that the Merovingian owes you recompense and is unfairly blaming you. I'll leave it to you to set a fair recovery."

Rasmus bows simultaneously as the Merovingian opens his mouth, but before he can protest, Conor — the Adjudicator — interrupts:

"Don't try my patience, Merovingian. I will revoke your permit to sell."

The words themselves don't seem too harsh, but the crowd gasps, immediately, and you see one of the other shopkeepers go pale. The Merovingian takes a deep breath, nods, and suddenly, the tension is gone from the Souk, and activity immediately resumes.

Conor nods approvingly as the two finish the deal. But before he's done, someone else whispers in your ear.

"Every Souk needs an Adjudicator, stranger, and he has been that for us for many years. He has seen more than most — and he seems to have found your earlier decision not to contest the Lady interesting. Beware, though — Adjudicators are servants of the Souk first, last, and always."

You turn but the speaker has already disappeared into the crowd; when Conor returns and asks what happened — your face must give it away — you can only shake your head.

-

That's your first experience with the Souk.

Afterwards, you try and get back to your life, to your concerns outside of the marketplace of dreams, but every time you turn on the TV, the brief burst of static reminds you of the kaleidoscope of one of the upper level merchants. Every time you walk past a certain alleyway, the darkness reflects in just a way that you think there's one of the shadowy sellers there, sitting on his stumps, waving you with one arm towards his wares, ones that glimmer darkly, wetly, ones you could see for what they are if you just got a few steps closer.

It never leaves your mind, so when they announce that they're coming back, and will be in Jozi, you sign up for the lottery again.

This time, you show up at the live announcement, confident that you'll get in, and you wait as the names are called.

And then you wait some more, as more names have been called.

You jump up prematurely as you mishear a name, and rise up to your feet before your brain processes that it's not you, and then shamefully sit back down. A chilling thought starts pushing its way to the forefront: that you'll get rejected.

After a bit, the names the names are called. Yours wasn't. The functionaries, the celebrating successful applicants, the dejected rejections, they all leave.

You sit there, in shock.

-

The days count down to the next bazaar and it starts to be the only thing that occupies your mind — you wonder about the wares that will be on display, the people that will be attending, the disputes that will arise, and whether the Adjudicator will be there and whether he'll still remember you.

But you can't get in. And with each day, you see more and more of the bazaar in the world, and the more and more you want to be there.

The day comes, and you have no ticket, but you go, anyway. Fuck it, you think, and you make your way to the site. It's a structure in the shape of a double helix, one that curves up and around, and you stare at the door that admits people and the guard posted at it and you know that you have no chance of making it inside. He'd stop you, certainly, definitely, absolutely, and you'd be in jail sooner than you could rush him.

But as you peer at the structure, the walls, you realize that they're a bit thin, that maybe you don't quite need to make it inside. And with a crowbar, and a mad dash, you run for the walls — the guard sees you and starts coming, and you know that you don't have a lot of time. You don't even have a little time. You search for the seams — there have to be seams, somewhere in this building that was built in five days — and run the crowbar and your hand across the surface, hoping to catch something, anything.

You do, even as you hear heavy footsteps behind you, and then you take the crowbar and you jerk on it, hard, until a hole opens — a small one, but a hole, nonetheless. And you reach in, finding, of all things, a crystal snake, and you reach for it, catching it just behind the neck as the guard catches you, just behind the neck. You pull it out with you as you're thrown back, and as the guard stands over you, you hear the word you're looking for:

"ADJUDICATOR!" The Merovingian screams, and the guard suddenly pauses, arm outstretched. It's outside of his domain now, isn't it, now that it's a dispute in the market?

You know that there will be a heavy price to pay, and you're not looking forward to it — but you also know that, at least for now, you've gotten back in. You manage to keep the smile from your face as the wall reaches out to envelope you, to bring you into the bazaar.
talonkarrde: (color)
The cheering of the crowds fuels his confidence, enough that it almost dispels the tremors in his hands. But tremors or not, he has accepted his duty. One last chance, he thinks, and with a courage he does not feel, beats on his chest and raises his sword to the heavens, pumping it up once, twice, three times to the roar of the audience. He meets the eyes of his squad — his comrades, his friends, his family — and they share a nod.

Then he holds a fist up, and the crowd obligingly goes quiet as a hovering microphone comes down to record and broadcast his words.

"I am Rakat'ul, and these are my clan, humanity's mightiest fighters." He pauses, as they salute, as one, and then continues, "and the Freten have promised that if we win this battle, they will let humanity go free. I am humanity's champion, and I pledge to you today that I will win this battle, and I will win back our freedom."

The crowd — mostly human, and mostly in chains — roars in response.

"You, alone, defeating the monsters that I send at you — if you win, I let humanity go. Are you ready, then, human?" A high, nasally voice responds, rolling across the amphitheater, coming from nowhere in particular.

"Come at me!" He snarls, and the doors at the far end swing open. A figure skitters out towards him, frightfully fast and kicking up dust.

The enemy shoots forward, and he registers for a moment that it looks like nothing more than a giant preying mantis, although twice as tall as he is. At least it was just by itself, he thinks, and then he has no more time, as it's upon him. The insect raises its claws and scythes them at his face—

—but he has not earned his place for nothing, and dives to the side but lets his sword swing up behind him, neatly severing one of the monster's claws.

The creature trills in what must be its incarnation of a scream, and shuffles back a few steps before falling, ichor coming out of the wound as it feebly rakes the air with its remaining claw.

"Is that all you have?" Rakat'ul says, looking upwards, and starting to feel that, perhaps, this would not be as bad as he feared, as the crowd surges to their feet.

In response, another set of doors opens, and something made only of oily, dark goo slowly heaves itself out the doors. And then another door opens, and a swarm of some sort — though with a pulsing center — hovers in front of the door. And then another door opens — a something of many claws and little else — and then another, and another. Rakat'ul slowly takes them in, realizing that they are beings conjured up from humanity's worst fears — monsters made of the dark, of the shadows, of blades and poison, of ooze and suffocation.

"You brought twenty-four humans with you, champion. Do you hope to defeat all twenty four of your enemies?" The voice asks, and it's almost kind. The crowd starts muttering, subdued, knowing that there was no way he would win.

"No," he says, swallowing, realizing that he could barely look at some of the monsters, that he had those fears that they were preying on. But he continues, taking a battle stance, resolving to take them one at a time. "I don't hope. I know I will. Have them come at me, all at once!"

"But that wouldn't be within the rules," the voice drawls, and Rakat'ul despairs: he knows that he can defeat one, two, maybe five of them, but not two dozen. He searches for something else to say, but nothing comes out, and he simply stands there for a moment, sword wavering.

"Then change the rules," Sarai says, her poleaxe ready, as she steps out next to Rakat'ul. "Let the audience see a real fracas, a real melee. Have the battle be joined between all of them, and all of us, at the same time."

Rakat'ul starts, turning to her. She looked much more determined than he did, but how could a grand melee help them? They would simply get slaughtered, all of them, instead of just him. They could've lived another day, trained more, perhaps come back to challenge the Overseer once more. He almost speaks up, but he's interrupted, as a long "hmmm" is heard through the stadium.

"Twenty-four champions against twenty-four monsters," it finally says, after a moment. "Accepted. You may start the battle, champion." And the tone of mockery is back, and Rakat'ul does despair: they have no chance of winning.

Sarai smiles grimly, and just as he's about to ask her what she's done, she calls out to the rest of their squad. "Hydra formation! Left flank forward! Press the attack!"

And suddenly, with blinding clarity, he understands Sarai's plan — their enemies are all monsters from humanity's darkest fears, monsters that he could not hope to defeat alone, but now he doesn't have to. The monsters were strong individually, but their band of brothers and sisters is strong together. They have trained and fought by each others' sides, knew how to support one another completely, and could rotate to face only the monsters they did not fear. By giving them the battle as a whole, Sarai had provided them a crucial strength that they could use. They must fight well, and they must trust one another, and some will fall, but—

"Rakat'ul, brother, lover—" he hears, and he looks forward, sees the missing center of the formation, the others.

They are waiting, and he takes his place, raises his voice in a voiceless roar, and leads the charge.
talonkarrde: (color)
Looking back at the texts and messages, he sees hints and suggestions from months ago — but for him, it starts on a Monday afternoon.

It's twelve thirty in the afternoon and he hasn't gone to work yet, because it's a fairly low-key weekday and there's nothing particularly demanding his attention there. She IMs him just as he's about to head out: she was feeling crappy and stayed home, and she's hating it — being alone with her thoughts isn't doing her any favors.

It was, unfortunately, his advice that she stay home if she wasn't feeling great — mentally or physically — and he furrows his brow for a moment before offering to grab some food with her. Her reply is quick: 'I'm not hungry, but the company would be nice.'

So he heads over and knocks on her door, she invites him in, and six hours later, he's missed work completely.

Instead, they've spent the entire time talking — he's learned a lot of her past and history, and has also shared some of his own, though it was a bit like pulling teeth, she says, later.

While sitting in class afterwards, he gets a text from her: 'For real, though - thanks for coming by'

He smiles, then stifles a laugh as her follow-up flashes on the screen: 'You're a really good friend. Don't worry - I won't tell anyone'


This, he thinks, could be the start of a really good friendship.

-

Their background is this: they're coworkers, they've hung out a bit outside of work, but they only recently started talking extensively (because of a crush he had on one of their mutual friends, amusingly enough). But this meeting — six hours, where they talk about love and loss and childhood troubles and there's complete honesty — is something that's much deeper than the interactions they've have before.

It also sets the tone for their future.

-

A week later, and he's picking her up from the airport: she's coming back from helping her boyfriend move down to LA. The two of them have had a rocky relationship for a few months now, but she wanted to give her boyfriend one more chance — and it seems like her boyfriend sees (at least for a few days) the error of his ways, because they're still in a relationship when she gets back.

He picks her up and drives her home, and then, on her front steps, they talk for a few hours, well past midnight — about her trip, about life and sundry, about hopes and dreams. Time passes, and it's getting late, and suddenly he realizes something that's been bubbling under the surface for a bit now: he likes her.

As soon as he realizes, he's caught in a dilemma — they've been incredibly honest with each other, not dodging questions and putting all cards on the table, as she puts it. And yet, for him to say anything would be a terrible time; even if she had broken up with her boyfriend — which she hadn't — now would be far from a good time.

And yet, that demand for honesty remains. It eats at him, and so even though he realizes that it's going to be the wrong move, it just won't let him leave without telling her the truth. So he does — sort of, awkwardly, not making eye contact and mentioning that it is, in fact, the worst of times — and lets her read between the lines.

Normally, he'd be telling anyone else in that position that it was a stupid crush, and he's an idiot for giving it voice, for making it awkward and screwing up a friendship.

But there are two things that are different, here, for one main reason: the same honesty that compels him to tell her also gives him hope that it isn't going to mess everything up, because they'll be able to work through it.

So he does. And then, after going home, he texts her about it, knowing that he couldn't just leave it like that, and spends an hour with her in a conversation where she brings up her negative past experiences with friends that disappear as soon as it becomes apparent that they're not going to get what they want, and he tries to show that it's not going to be like that. And he asks her to trust him, and she says she does.

Here, he thinks that whatever it is they're building, at least it's being built on the truth.

-

Every story she tells touches on a different facet of her life — the way that her parents raised her, the journey to college, the trips to the Middle East, and across it all, the relationships that make up the fabric of her life.

He responds in kind, sharing stories of moving frequently, of the horrors of middle school when younger than everyone else, of finally finding friends in high school, of his lackluster college days, of his family, of his relationships, too.

There's always something to talk about, always a story yet to be told.

-

The next couple of months pass with little fanfare but much time spent together — hour-long walks at work, meals with each other, and almost inevitably a few hours spent on Sunday night, by phone or in person. Even when they're both traveling — him to Boston, her to Chicago — they still talk just about every night. She eventually breaks up with the boyfriend, because he never starts to treat her well, but she still loves him — it's never more clear than the night that she calls him and asks that he come over because her ex and her just had a phone conversation, and she wasn't doing okay.

He goes, of course, and is her metaphorical shoulder to cry on for a few hours, and his heart breaks a little — perhaps surprisingly not because she's crying over another guy, but simply because she's crying, because she's hurt, because she's unhappy.

And there, with her, after learning about her life across the past few months, through phone calls after midnight and three hours on any given weekend, he's starting to see the shape of her life. She's learning some of his, too, in a way that few do.

They talk a lot about equality, and the strong desire and preference for it, and at one point in time she asks him whether she's being too needy — she says that she feels uncomfortable that it always seems to be her leaning on him, and if he'll ever need her for anything. He responds, rather flippantly, that her sample size is too small — it's only been a few months, after all.

But then he adds, quietly, that he enjoys every moment he spends with her; it's not exactly a terrible burden he's bearing, and in a lot of ways, he's leaning on her, too. And he is — she makes him a better person.

Another night, and it's time to leave again, after spending a few hours helping her through a protracted mess at work involving teams and transitions and entirely too much headache, after a few stories that she hasn't told anyone else, after a few vulnerabilities shared.

They're talking about something, and he's about to leave when she asks him why he likes her.

And he tells her, because what else is he to do? He stands there, for a second, and then he looks up at her and says that sometimes you meet someone amazing, someone who feels right, and you just want them to be happy. That she deserves to be happy. And that he wants to help, in any way he can.

Here, he thinks, well, maybe there's something more to this — but he doesn't dare say it out loud, not even to himself.

-

There's a conversation where she says to him, "I let him in, and I gave them all of me, and he didn't like what they saw and left and left me with nothing," and he understands, too well, and his heart breaks a bit more for her.

All he wants to do is hug her and promise her that it will never, ever happen again, and how could that guy — how could anyone that loved you — hurt you like that?

But that is also the nature of love, he knows, and he resolves, simply, that he will not be like that. Even, perhaps, if it happens to him.

-

He mentions why he likes her from time to time, and she tells him he's being masochistic from time to time, and then, on a Tuesday night, they have a fight — their first.

It starts with her telling him that she doesn't want him making a goal of her, that it makes her feel less secure about their friendship, and that when his expectations aren't met, it's going to be shitty for both of them.

He protests, of course, but he's also confused — what's changed since the first time they had this conversation? He thinks she's being rather curt, and figures that this conversation would be better over the phone anyway, and calls her.

But after a few seconds, she simply says that she'd rather not do this, and hangs up on him.

For a moment, he sits, stunned, and then reacts the only way he knows how: he accuses her of shutting him out. It's unfair, and he apologizes for it later, but in the moment, he snaps at her, and she retreats, saying that his actions are making her insecure about their friendship, and as it escalates he wonders, briefly, if all that they've built will be destroyed in a single bad night.

He still doesn't understand what prompts it.

But after some more back and forth, she takes a few minutes, and he uses that time to write something to her:

"I didn't have any expectations, you know. I just cherished our friendship for what it was, enjoyed every moment. I didn't go home wishing that things were different, I didn't think that I deserved more of your time or energy. I just thought that it was a good thing, and that it was equal, and that it was shared. And no, it's not to say that expectations wouldn't have come, but I was pretty vigilant about guarding against them. And I thought that you shared a confidence that it would persevere, despite whatever challenges, despite time and tide. Maybe I'm just arrogant enough to think that I'm different, or maybe I thought that you would trust me when I promised that it would be okay. Yes, maybe there would've been hard questions to ask one day, but the questions wouldn't have been disappointing. Or maybe they would've, but I think a few disappointing answers do not a friendship break, and are perhaps the coin to pay for the passage."

And then she comes back, and writes something back, and mutually, they take a step back, they take a breath, they apologize to each other. And then she calls him, and they're almost okay again, but for the fact that he figures that he might as well get the pain over with now:

"You're never going to like me the way I like you, are you?" he asks, softly, knowing the answer, but needing to hear it anyway.

"I don't think so," she says, and his world collapses a bit, despite all of his words, all of his bulwarks, all of his anticipations.

The next day is hell.

And here he thinks, well, maybe none of it was worth it at all, and that the closer you are, the more hurt you get, and all this honesty bullshit bought him, what, exactly?

-

There's a recurring question that they've asked each other more than a few times — sometimes she's the one to raise it, sometimes he is.

They're talking about the fight, and she says, "We got to that point because we were allowing ourselves to get into a mode that wasn't platonic enough. I don't have fights like that with friends, nor do I want to."

And he ponders for a moment, and asks the question again:

"Do we spend too much time together?"

But for both of them, the answer is always no — even though they've spent a lot of time together, it's always been enjoyable, always been worthwhile.

Today, she says something else: "Maybe too much of a certain kind of time. Not that either of us doesn't like it that way, but the question is whether it's appropriate or sustainable."

And he says, "Well, I think it's fine—" and she's quick to respond that of course he would, and that it's not a robust philosophy.

But he understands, suddenly, the difference between their worldviews in that moment: he would rather live fully and take the ups and downs, the triumphs with the tribulations, and fight to expand local maxima, even if it means expanding the minima as well.

-

A few days, or weeks more, he recovers, and more importantly, he remembers.

"Corinthians", he said, that night. And after their fight, he wrote something to her, from the Bible verse, though not the usually quoted one: "It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."

And that is what he holds to, what he remembers — the way she laughs, the quiet gratitude on her face when he says goodbye, after a night spent distracting her from a bad memory or rough day, the way she sticks out her tongue, the way she slightly furrows her brow when she concentrates, the mock-exasperation when he's being obtuse, the banter shared, and all the moments in between.

He holds to the moments she's helped him, too — the times she's held him accountable in a bet with a classmate, the times she's kept him honest, made him a better person, and cheered him up when he was down, simply because she knew he was feeling down, simply because she chose to.

And he takes a moment to think about it, about the big picture, the long road to Eden, and not just the last five minutes or five days, and realizes that he's not everything to her, and may never be. But he's a close friend; he can make her laugh, he can bring her tea when she's sick, he can help her ease the pains of heartache and headache, and that's enough.

He's not everything to her, but he's a close friend. He loves her, and he wouldn't change a thing.
talonkarrde: (color)
The morning starts out no differently from any other, except that Henry almost faceplants as he passes one of the large red support beams on his morning jog. There's someone standing — no, wait, sitting — on the railing right beside the beam, her chucks dangling over the side, over the wrong side of the railing. She’s small, with brown hair, a mousey sort of face, wearing a big, bulky jacket, and he stumbles as his brain processes the scene and declares an emergency.

"Oops," she offers with a grin, watching as he windmills, trying to catch his balance, before jerking to a stop.

"Uh..." he responds, trying to figure out what, exactly, he should be doing in a case like this. He'd been running the Golden Gate Bridge for a while, now, but this was his first jumper. His eyes dart around, but the traffic that's passing them is going too fast to care. Maybe if he raises an arm to flag—

"You should probably not try to do anything," she says pleasantly, in a lilting voice.

“Uh...” he tries again, and stumbles through his memory for anything that could help. “You know, your life matters and people care about you and it’s not worth it and you have friends and there are people that care and you should really reconsider—”

She stops him with a wave of her hand. “I’ve considered this a lot, actually. For almost decade, really. I think this is the right thing to do. And I don’t think you should try and stop me,” she finishes, with a look back down to the water, the threat explicit.

So he doesn't, yet. Maybe some other jogger will pass by, he thinks, and all he needs to do is delay her. Well, he can do that — he pauses for a second, waiting for her to say something else.

The pause stretches, but she simply sits, watching him. And no one comes.

Eventually, after a minute or two, he starts talking. And she answers, sometimes playfully, sometimes sarcastically, and they talk about the weather and the terrible San Francisco traffic and his job as someone who shuffles papers around and she tells him how much she loved making art in people's lattés and he starts telling her things that verge on more and more personal — that his best friend was drifting away from him, that he didn’t have enough money to keep his dog alive, that his mother seemed to be developing dementia — just to keep the conversation going.

She trades stories in return, about being teased and tormented through middle school, about an emo period that she grew out of in high school, about dropping out of college because she wasn’t able to pay the tuition the second year in. She talked about how much she liked film and how she would sneak into the indie theatres and watch completely incomprehensible films, how her first boyfriend was great but went off to war and how her second one was a complete dick.

It passes the time, and even as he tells himself to be alert to other people, to try and pass a message to them, it all fades into the background as it becomes about the next story, about the connection, about two people who are genuinely interested in what the other person has to say, instead of waiting for their turn to speak.

She's swung her legs around, saying that her neck hurt from craning it to look at him, and now she's on the right side of the railing. She's still sitting on it, but after a few curious looks, the passerby seem to ignore them, dismissing that this could be a serious situation — after all, the animated conversation they were having couldn’t possibly be a sign of trouble.

A park ranger comes around, but something in her eyes, in the tenseness of her body, tells him not to say anything, and after a perfunctory ‘is everything okay’, that Henry nods at, the ranger departs. So much for that, he thinks; to distract her, he launches into another story, this time about his coworkers.

Eventually, though, there's less and less to say, and his anxiety returns. Why didn't anyone stop? Couldn't they tell that it was just hysteria coming out of his mouth? Couldn't they see how unnaturally calm she was, how poised she was?

"Henry?" she asks, startling him out of his anxiety.

"Yes?" He answers, tentatively, wondering if he should move forward? Back? Sideways? And instead does nothing, frozen in place.

"Thanks, Henry. It was a pleasure to get to talk to you. I'll see you soon, okay?"

And she smiles — what a smile, he thinks — and walks to him, pulling him into an unexpected hug, one that he relaxes into after a few seconds, hugging her back, glad to have gotten past this terrible situation.

And then she lets go, takes a step back, nimbly hops up on the railing, and drops out of sight, all in one smooth motion. He rushes forward, but all he sees is the ugly grey jacket fluttering into the fog, which soon swallows it whole.

-

It's hours before he gets home, after he calls the cops and goes through the entire story, after he anxiously watches the coast guard patrol the area. They report back that they can’t seem to find anything, though there’s a jacket that appears to match the description that was picked up on the coast. They'll send divers out, they say, but given the circumstances...

He wants to yell at them, scream at them that given the circumstances, the least they could do is find her body, that her name was Rachel and she was alive this morning, that they talked about art and cats and children and office politics and, and, and how did he fail what could he have done better — but instead what he says is alright, thank you officer, over and over, as people tell him that it wasn't his fault, that there wasn't anything he could do.

Bullshit, he thinks. Bullshit. Bullshit.

He has a terrible time sleeping, and he’s awake entirely too early, before the crack of dawn, simply staring at the ceiling. After an hour, he laces up his running shoes, throws on his usual clothes, and heads out, running, thinking about nothing in particular. Eventually, his route takes him to the bridge, and, after a moment’s hesitation, he decides to run it, as usual. His feet thud softly on the metal as he gets closer and closer, until—

—he finds her, there, again, this time without the jacket, in jeans and a t-shirt, leaning against the same pillar, the same railing, the same place, the same time.

“I’m going insane,” he says, out loud, staring at her.

“No, Henry,” she says, not smiling, and then takes a deep breath. “But I have to apologize to you, because I let you believe—”

“—that you killed yourself. That we spent three hours together, and that you killed yourself at the end of it. I reported your jump to the cops!”

She quirks a smile, for some reason, and he goes from incredulous to thermonuclear in a heartbeat. “Is this just all a goddamn joke to you? I reported that you died, I—”

“No, no, no — I’m so sorry, Henry. I really didn’t mean it, I just—” she looks down, shrinking before him. “I had a parachute, and I wanted to try base jumping from the bridge, but then you caught me and we had a conversation and… I've always been one for dramatic exits. But then I couldn’t find you, because I never got your last name, or I would’ve at least tried to let you know, and…”

She apologizes, over and over, and eventually some part of it gets through his skull, and the anger slowly, slowly starts dissipating, though every time he replays the thought of her dropping over the edge, he gets a little bit angrier again.

“So it was all just bullshit,” he says, cutting into her explanation.

“No,” she repeats. “It was a conversation that I didn’t think I’d be able to have, that we had. I haven’t told anyone else about my brother — and you told me you hadn’t told anyone else about your relationship with your mom. Doesn’t that mean anything? I think it does."

And angry as he is, he can’t help but agree, that maybe it does mean something.

“Can you forgive me, Henry? Can I make it up to you somehow?”

Begrudgingly, though a large part of him still rails at it, he replays the conversation they had, he sighs.

“It was a cruel prank. I need to think on it, but — I’ll get back to you, okay? Are you still going to be around after my run?”

She nods, giving him a hopeful smile — that damned smile, again — and he sets off to complete his run, shaken as he is. Eventually, he loops back, and she turns from the railing to look at him. He offers a shrug, stiffly.

“Promise me you won’t do something like that again,” he says.

She seems to hesitate, but eventually gives him an ‘okay’, before asking him about yesterday night, and they’re talking again.

-

He doesn’t see her every day, but they catch up at least twice a week, and he starts building an extra hour or two into his schedule to spend with her instead of completing his run. After his eighth or ninth time meeting up with her — a Tuesday, he remembers — he’s about to head out to finish his run when she stops him with a touch on his arm.

“Henry?” she asks, plaintively.

“Hm?”

“Would you mind staying here just a bit more with me? Today’s… not a great day for me, and I’d love some company.”

He doesn't hesitate before saying yes, and ends up there with her for hours, blowing off his meetings at work, taking the time to simply talking to her about the small things, the cars that pass, the clouds in the sky, as she dodges the more substantial topics. The tourists and joggers that pass by take a glance or two at him and then move on, shrugging.

At the end of it, she hugs him, eyes sparkling, and whispers her thanks to him.

He makes it in to work to receive a long and extended dressing-down by his boss; his explanation doesn’t seem to help much.

“Well, even if she were your goddamn girlfriend, you don’t have an excuse to miss that much of work — we had a client issue pop up and you were on the other side of the city, for Chrissakes! It can’t happen again. Tell your girlfriend to hang around closer to the office and maybe I won’t fire you the next time it happens.”

His first thought is that it'll never happen, that she'd never hang out closer to the office  — though as soon as he has the thought, he wonders why he’s so sure.

-

But she preempts him there, too.

“Henry!” she says, smiling wider than he’s ever seen. “I have something to tell you.”

He takes this as his perfect chance.

“Oh — Rachel, actually, before you do, I was just thinking… you know, we’ve hung out a lot here, and I was just, well… did you want to possibly get coffee sometime? ...Together?”

Some distant part of his mind marvels at how quickly she goes from happy to despondent. Her entire face falls, and he immediately backtracks, drawing the obvious conclusion.

“Er, no, forget it, it was silly of me, and I just mean—”

“No, Henry,” she says, cutting him off instantly. “I can’t — even though I want to.”

He blinks.

“What do you mean, you can't? Is someone stopping you? We could go right after my run and—”

“Henry,” she says, stopping him again, her voice lowering to a whisper. “I’m not what you think I am."

He blinks again.

"I’m… not even sure I’m here at all. Or rather, I am, but I’ve been here for ten years, now. You see, Henry, I... I jumped off the bridge here, last Tuesday, ten years ago, and I’ve been here ever since.”

He blinks, one more time.

“I was right,” he says, mostly to himself. “I am going insane.”

She smiles, remembering their second meeting.

“No, Henry,” she says, echoing her words. “But I have to apologize to you, because I let you believe…”

“—that you hadn’t killed yourself,” he finishes, and she nods.

In retrospect, he wonders why he was so sure she was speaking the truth, how he understood what she was saying so quickly, despite the obvious impossibility.

They stand there for a long series of moments, an island in the sea of the joggers and tourists winding their way up and down the bridge, as the sun slowly climbs the sky.

“Why?” he asks, finally.

“Because through all the years, I never found someone who could just have a conversation with me. I never found someone who could see past the act and into the person. But I did, with you.”

She smiles, and he remembers thinking, right before the first time, what a smile.

“What I wanted to tell you is that you’ve… set me free. There are rules, I guess, though I couldn’t explain them to you if I tried. The only thing I know is that I am absolutely certain that when I jump this time, I won’t be back. I’m ready to go on, to whatever is after, and it’s because of you.”

He smiles, shaking his head. “It wasn’t a one way street,” he says. “I think, maybe, we helped each other across the finish line.” He says it at the time because it's the right thing to say, but it's only afterwards that he realizes how true it is.

"Thanks, Henry,” she whispers. “It was a pleasure to get to know you, to be your friend. And… I’ll see you one day, but not too soon, okay?”

With his nod, she takes a step back, climbs the railing, and smiles for just a moment more. And then she lets go, falls back into the fog, one last time.
talonkarrde: (color)

First Officer Reynolds of the Subdural Memetic Containment Organization was not always known only by his title, but there isn't a single page of history that lists him as anything else. No first name, no middle name: it turns out that 'First Officer' was all anyone knew him by.

Not that there were many who claimed to know him, despite the part he played.

———


From: A. Reynolds
To: Director Charles Stanley
Date: March 19, 0012 AV
Subject: Time and tide

Charles, I think you know why you're getting this email now; you were probably waiting as soon as it hit the newsnets. I'd be willing to bet that one of the task forces — Kilo, with Captain Stanger, right? — raised the alarm, and you've quarantined the zone and set up a perimeter.

They made a good choice making you director.

I also know you're agonizing, wondering, wracking your brain and those of your senior staff trying to figure out what you can do and what you should do, given that there's, what, thirteen hundred people in the q-t zone? You're doing the numbers, trying to figure out the spread, the rate of virulence, the hope of recovery. Just like the drills, right?

Let me make it easy for you: you can't save them, Charles.

I know you're going to object — I know you, old friend — but I want to remind you of something you may have forgotten; you weren't serving at the time, though I'm sure it's crossed your desk once or twice since then.

Do you remember Day Fifteen, after the bastard died? The euphoria had finally died down, people were finally starting to realize what it meant to be in control of themselves again, what it meant to be able to have your own thoughts and feelings and wishes and impulses, and more than that, to be able to act on them, and 'lo and behold, what happened?

An idiot group of kids thought that it'd be great to see what else Vinter had in his files. He was dead, after all, so there wasn't any harm done, right? What's the worst that could happen, I'm sure they asked themselves... right before setting off the booby trap.

Let me guess: you just stood up, staring at the screen, and your secretary probably asked if you were okay. Yes, Charles, that was London. Check your files if you don't believe me — you have access to the full write-up, including all the agents, not just me.

Five hundred died, Charles. Five hundred — mostly children, teenagers — because a bunch of fucking kids couldn't keep their hands to themselves in digging through Vinter's stash. Fifteen days after we were all free again.

I thought it was over, honestly; I thought we had gotten them all in the last fifteen years. But we hadn't, or maybe it's just been enough time that the young ones don't remember what it was like anymore. But what this proves is that we need a group dedicated to stopping it — a group dedicated to fighting back, doing research, immunizing people, and responding to threats before they require quarantine and the morgue.

I need people and resources, Charles, to ensure that London — that Calcutta, in front of you right now — is not going to be New York, Shanghai, and the rest of the world. And I need it now.

If we don't defend ourselves, we'll be someone's puppets in a few years. It's been twelve years — I guess it was too much to hope that his research would die forever.

-R

Never Again

Authenticated as Reynolds, hash 4asyOk3mCi

———


From: Dir. C Stanley
To: F.O. Reynolds
Date: March 19, 0012 AV
Subject: Re: Time and tide

Eighteen hundred people, actually. Including the president's son. But he knows the cost; he was under Vinter's control just like us.

Permission granted. Pick your team.

———


From: F.O. Reynolds
To: white.brain@smco.org
Date: July 3, 0014 AV
Subject: Blood, toil, tears and sweat

Ladies and gentlemen,

I'm going to keep this short. I'm not one for long emails. The work that all of you have been selected to do isn't just of importance to one country or one group of people, but to humanity as a whole. Most of you understand first-hand why our work is so important, but even for those who weren't controlled by Vinter, everyone understands why it can't happen again. It may be funny to think of it as those silly trends and viral videos that 'memes' once described, but it will be much less funny when you see what happens when people listen to these ideas and then kill themselves.

See the video on the Jonestown event, over a century ago; that's an order to all of you.

We, the SMCO, are humanity's defense — the first, the last, and only. The SMCO was formed with one goal — to do whatever it takes so that memetic viruses will never again control us, that we will never again be enslaved.

Let me repeat myself: we will do whatever it takes. There is no price too high to pay, no research too wild to run, no technique we cannot be willing to perform.

With all of your work, keep in mind our motto:

Never Again

-R

Authenticated as Reynolds, hash 21bm4FnpO

———


From: Malcolm Vinter
To: F.O. Reynolds
Date: August 13, 0014 AV
Subject: Joining

Hello. I think you know who I am. You'll see that my sig's been verified as proof, and I'm sending this from a domain that I ordinarily never would.

Look, I heard what you were doing from— well, I heard it, and I want to join you. Why?

I know what my dad did, and honestly, fuck him.

I may have had privileges that others didn't, sometimes; I could think for myself for limited periods. But I don't think he really trusted me, or he would've let me be myself all the time, instead of just a few hours a day. He still played me like a puppet.

Me. His own fucking son, and he wouldn't let free for more than a few hours a day, or a few hours a week, sometimes.

I want to burn his legacy to the ground, tear it apart so no one could ever piece it together again. If I can't do that, I want to help in any way I can.

-Malcolm V.

signature cryptographically verified as malcolm@vinter.com

———


From: F.O. Reynolds
To: Malcolm Vinter
Date: August 13, 0014 AV
Subject: Re: Joining

Your request to join has been received. You will be evaluated based on the same standard as everyone else. Further communication will be sent if there is need for your skills.

-R

Never Again

Authenticated as Reynolds, hash bGh4L3P0zn

———


From: Dir. C Stanley
To: F.O. Reynolds
Date: March 19, 0017 AV
Subject: Re: A Person Who Never Made A Mistake

Reynolds, I'm a bit worried that your last report presented the two options as equals, when they're certainly not. Off the record, you understand that 'bleaching' isn't really an option, right? I'll allow it for research purposes — there might be some lighter form of it that might be useful to counteract some of the exposure effects to the low-lethality memetic viruses that are spreading through the population these days — but there is no way that, in its current form, you could even get close to using it. Hell, just think of what would happen if it fell into the wrong hands.

In fact, I hate to do this, but I'm going to have to tell you to kill it by the end of next month, and work on the sandboxing option solely. I know it's a bit slower, but we can't turn people into zombies, Reynolds, and that's what your reports look like, even if you can't see it yourself.

People without most of their higher order brain functions just aren't people, Reynolds.

Regards,
Director Charles Stanley
CINC-USSOCOM

———


From: F.O. Reynolds
To: Dir. C Stanley
Date: March 25, 0017 AV
Subject: Re: A Person Who Never Made A Mistake

Never Again, Charles. Remember the motto? Remember the point of this? Remember the President's son? Remember the other eighteen-hundred in Calcutta? The five hundred children in London, who were affected by that fucking nursery rhyme?

Remember Howard Fucking Vinter, Charles? Do you?

Do you remember which group squashed the Category III in Berlin before it spread to your wife?

-R

Never Again

Authenticated as Reynolds, hash gQq45mvXr0

———


From: F.O. Reynolds
To: white.brain@smco.org
Date: April 30, 0017 AV
Subject: More things in heaven and earth

All lines of research will continue.

-R

Never Again

Authenticated as Reynolds, hash n34mZkem89

———


From: Malcolm Vinter
To: F.O. Reynolds
Date: August 6, 0019 AV
Subject: What the [removed] are you doing?

What the hell happened with this new researcher, Reynolds? The [removed] are you doing? There's no oversight on this, and the only reason that I learned about it was because apparently she had contacted you about something, and you were out and the backup went to me. This is going to be a court case? Why don't any of the rest of us know about this?

...shit, Reynolds, are you the reason she's dead?

-Malcolm V.

signature cryptographically verified as malcolm@vtr.com

———


From: F.O. Reynolds
To: Malcolm Vinter
Date: August 6, 0019 AV
Subject: Re: What the [removed] are you doing?

The situation is under control, Malcolm. It is a regret that the researcher succumbed to the memetic agent.

-R

Never Again

Authenticated as Reynolds, hash mo3490mVxo

———


From: Malcolm Vinter
To: white.brain@smco.org
Date: June 6, 0020 AV
Subject: FO Reynolds is Unfit to Lead

Fellow researchers, scientists, friends:

FO Reynolds does not have the organization — or humanity's — best interests in mind. Attached, you'll find evidence of foul play on the part of FO Reynolds for the past five years. He has been committing multiple ethical violations through the course of his time with the SMCO and is linked to researcher White's death a year ago.

Again, please see the attachments, and judge for yourself. The senior staff will convene a meeting in half an hour to decide how to proceed.

-Malcolm V.

Attachment: emails.exe

———


And with that email, the mailing list that had been their shared pool of knowledge became their battleground, as the insurrection started and memetic weapons flew back and forth. Phone lines with the right agents became backdoors into consciousnesses, phished emails were deployed as trojan horses, and ostensible 'protection upgrades' by double-agents disabled personal defenses, allowing loose memetic viruses to incapacitate and destroy them.

The project was annihilated and most of its members dead or insane; the world's most brilliant minds reduced to catatonic states or worse. And those that remained would never come together again, would never trust anyone else but themselves. Who would, after what happened — especially when they saw what happened to Malcolm Vinter and F.O. Reynolds?

———


From: Malcolm Vinter
To: Malcolm Vinter
Date: August 4, 0020 AV
Subject: ad astra per aspera

I don't understand what — why I sent that email. Reynolds was wrong but I sent an email with, with—

I started a war. Between us. I doomed White Brain. Why did I? What was it?

Why do I hear my father's voice in my head?

.

What — what could he have — what did my dad do to me?

———


From: staff@smco.org
To: Dir. C Stanley
Date: August 25, 0020 AV
Subject: Incapacitation of F.O. Reynolds

Director Stanley,

F.O. Reynolds has been hit with a memetic agent. Universal lethality of four weeks. It has also overridden the First Officer's consciousness to that of a lower life form. He's being constrained for his own safety, currently, and does not comprehend language.

Null vector on rehabilitation — the only procedure we possibly perform is the 'bleach' research the White Brain project was conducting, Director.

It may save his life... but at an obvious cost.

Regards,
Dr. Krishna





A/N: This week's idol entry is also a writer's duel (or, perhaps, an intersection) between [livejournal.com profile] icaruslived and myself. This is a shared world that we both inhabited, briefly, a long time ago, and it was quite a pleasure to return to it. I hope you enjoy.

Yes, and

May. 8th, 2014 04:57 pm
talonkarrde: (color)
He just turned eight — a week ago — and he's playing at a soccer game. The team isn't quite competitive enough to have starters and bench warmers, but if it was, he'd probably be a bench warmer.

Still, he gets his chance to play, close to half-time, and swaps out for one of the forwards. Running on the field, he looks to the stands and waves excitedly to his parents, who cheerfully wave back.

The whistle blows, the ball is set out, and he plays his little heart out. He's not going to be the world's next Ronaldo or join FC Barcelona or Real Madrid, but he's been practicing, knows how to dribble the ball, and almost manages to score a goal after a few minutes on the field. After a few more, he even sets one of the other forwards up for a goal, and their team wins.

On the way home, he babbles excitedly to his parents, who seem pleased with the team's victory. His mom turns to him and gives him a high five.

"Good job out there, Timmy! You definitely helped your team win. But next time, try to score by yourself, okay?"

"Okay, mom," he says, promising that he will, in fact, try harder next time.

-

It’s his senior year and the party season is kicking in, along with a sweeping epidemic of senioritis. There's definitely been more than a few cases where he's looked at all the prep books his parents bought for his six AP classes and then said 'fuck it' and went to the party-du-jour. Besides, there's this really cute girl in his biology class that he'd like to get to know better, especially if they both end up going to Yale.

He does end up getting to know her better, asks her out, and even ends up taking her to prom. As the year wraps up, it turns out he's done pretty well in school, too — full fives on all of his AP exams except for a four in European History (where the teacher was honestly pretty awful), and good enough grades that he's the salutatorian — the second highest graduate by GPA — in his class of three hundred. The valedictorian, Susan, is a close friend of his that sailed through all of her classes without barely cracking open any of the books, as far as he can tell.

As salutatorian, he gets to give a short speech to the graduating class, and spends a couple of weeks crafting it, wanting to make everyone — but especially his parents — proud. The material is solid, the moral meaningful, and the humor well delivered in all the right places, and he gets a standing ovation for his speech.

As he gets his diploma, he turns to the audience and sees that his parents are beaming. After it's all over, and his cap is thrown to the winds, his mom reaches out to hug him tightly.

"Well done," his dad says, "though, you know, maybe you could've been valedictorian, and even got all fives, if you had spent a bit less time out with friends, and with Megan."

"Yeah," he accepts, smiling ruefully, "But Susan really deserved valedictorian. Besides, I wouldn't trade the time with Megan for anything — and I got into Yale in the end, didn't I?"

"Oh, yes, and we're very proud, but still, it's important to do as well as possible, " His mom responds. "And yes, it's good you got in — it's a shame Megan didn't."

-

Halfway through his first semester at Yale, he breaks up with Megan, after over a year together. She wasn't that far — she ended up going to Cornell — but in the end, seeing each other only once a month, at best, is something that they can't overcome.

He has a conversation with his mom about it shortly after, which ends in, "Well, she didn't get into Yale, so maybe it's all for the best," and he's struck speechless for a moment.

"Mom, that's not fair," he responds, at which point she apologizes.

"You're right; I know you really liked her. But keep in mind what you're trying to do, okay? You could really be amazing." And the conversation goes on to other topics.

He ends up dating others that he meets, but can't help but wonder from time to time what would've happened if he had gone to Cornell instead — he had gotten in there, too. But his parents pointed to all of the information that said that Yale was the better school, better for his future, better for whatever he wanted to do.

-

He’s in New York, working on pitches for various brands at a creative agency. They're doing pretty well and have a great selection of partners, and he selects a rather difficult pitch for a fairly abstract company — a tech company, a search company, in fact. How do you make an advertisement for a search company compelling?

To him, it's a great challenge, and he dives into it. Six months later, just after his twenty-fourth birthday, he comes up with an answer: it turns out that you can tell quite a compelling story, very minimally, with just a search bar. A few animations, a few clicks, and he knows it's a success when his prototype leaves his boss — and then his friend — and then his favorite bartender — in tears.

It hits the internet six weeks later and gets three million views in an hour. His mom, in fact, calls him — he had mentioned something about working with the company to her a few conversations ago — and asks about it.

"Yeah, mom, that was our team. I did some work on it, but it was definitely a team effort."

"Well it's really sweet, Tim. Good job on that. It seems like you're doing well for yourself. Have you thought of what you're going to do next?"

"Well, I think I might get promoted for this—"

"Oh, that's wonderful. Well done, Tim, just remember that you could also get an MBA, or maybe a JD if you're interested, if you've thought about that?"

He allows himself a brief moment of irritation, watching his video view count tick higher and higher, thousands every minute, before he quashes it.

"No, mom, I haven't. I'll think about it, I promise."

-

She’s not a doctor, a lawyer, a Ph.D., or any of the other things that his parents have consistently dropped hints of wanting to see in a future daughter-in-law. Instead, she's an comparative literature major from a liberal arts college in the pacific northwest, working in customer service at a startup that's trying to make shopping more efficient; they meet because of a mutual friend.

He falls for her quickly, but hesitates for months before telling his parents, knowing, in his heart of hearts, what they're going to say. When he finally picks up the phone, he's not disappointed — or rather, he is, but he's not surprised.

"You know, Tim, you've accomplished a lot, and maybe it's just not the right time to get into a serious relationship — there's so much more you could do," his father says, to his credit quite diplomatically.

Tim pauses for a second, and then two, waiting for his dad to say something else. But instead, the silence simply stretches on.

"Dad, I really do love her," he says. His dad waits just a bit too long before responding.

"Which is important!" His dad says, and then adds, "But think about what else you could do with your life. We really just want the best for you, son. You have so much potential."

Then there's some more smalltalk before they finally hang up.

The thing is, at the end of the day, she makes him laugh, spending time with her makes him happy, and he's starting to realize that maybe it's not about what he could do.

-

A few years later, his company has done so well that it's been acquired by another, his boss has quit and been replaced by someone a bit less good, and things just weren't quite the way he thought they were going to be.

The new boss, Monty, drops something on his desk without even looking at him, and Tim stares at the folder, hoping it'll just grow legs and shove off.

It doesn't.

He'd been thinking of leaving, but something always kept him from doing so, something that whispered to him about what he could accomplish if he could keep trying, something that told him that he should stay the course.

His phone rings, and he answers it absentmindedly.

"Hey, Tim, just checking to see how you're doing," his mom's voice comes over, and right as he's about to answer, he realizes: that something that had kept him from quitting sounds very, very much like his mother's voice.

"I- I'm doing fine," he says, weakly, looking at his desk, at the work that's piling up and the projects that no longer interested him, at the culmination of years of effort, of 'success'.

It's a nice desk, at least, he thinks.

"Fine? You don't sound fine. Did you and Sam have a fight?" And finally, now that he's listening for it, he feels like he almost hears the faintest note of eagerness in her voice.

"No, mom, just the opposite," he says, frowning.

"Oh, well. That's good. How's work? Are you gearing up for that next promotion? It's crunch time, isn't it—" and she goes on, and on, and Tim stops listening, really, until his phone beeps — a text message.

Tim takes his phone away from his ear for a second, looks at the notification: I love you is all it says, and Tim blinks.

And then he blinks again, and puts the phone back to his ear. His mom was still going, about doing better, doing more, about working longer hours.

"Mom, I'm quitting my job," he says, cutting straight through her endless stream of advice. Her response is quick, and surprisingly vehement.

"But Tim! You can't! How will you support yourself? This is a terrible idea, you just need to put some more—"

But he's no longer listening to that voice; there's a better voice to listen to now, a better message emanating from his phone's screen instead of his phone's speaker. A better person to listen to.

“No, mom. This is what I’m going to do with my life,” he says, and hangs up.
talonkarrde: (color)
The vision has never wavered for me, not for an instant; it is as perfect in my mind as it was ten years ago when I first saw those terribly carved wooden blocks dancing for the Queen. How ugly they were, how dull and how crude — but even then, there was an essence underneath that poor display, a vision that spoke to me.

I knew then what could be — what should be — and devoted my life to it. For years I studied, balancing and placating the twin dragons of engineering and art — never, I learned, must one outstrip the other, lest a designer be left with functional parts no person would desire to look at, or present a beautiful form that does nothing but stand mute.

It was the union of those disciplines where I poured my life, seeking to create something no one had before.

In time, I graduated from making small animatronics and those selfsame crude wooden clacking blocks to grander visions. A finch, one that could cock its head and sing; a cocker spaniel, sophisticated enough to roll over on command. It was enough to delight the court and have them grant me the position of an Architect, with the resources I wanted — no, needed — to do what I truly desired. What only I could do.

Oh, if only it were as easy as making small animals that could please the fops at court.

My first attempts at automatons — from the Greek work αὐτόματον — were hardly worth the name — they barely looked human, could do no more than stumble, and I cast them aside almost as quickly as I cast their molds and cut their gears. Each one was as much of a failure as the last.

But it is a truth that the practice of art drives art itself forward, and through time and innumerable prototypes, smashed gears and fits of rage, something began to take shape, and rise from the failures.

The fingers were my first breakthrough — using lenses, I was able to create smaller gears and smaller levers that allowed for finer movements, and created hands that were more akin to our own than the literal blocks the automata previously had for hands. Then the creation of scripts, borrowed from the Swiss work on their charming music boxes, allowed our automata to expand so that they could perform a myriad of tasks, as long as they were fed the correct script.

The achievements came faster and faster — articulating joints and ‘eyes’ that could process, in something of an elementary fashion, the presence of light — and when the Queen called for a show, I thought that perhaps I would finally be able to deliver on the vision that I had seen so long ago.

I answered her call and told her that I had something worth showing, something that would change the world.

And upon the stage that I watched blocks dance and realized what my life’s work would be, I sat as a grown man and I saw the culmination of my work writ large. My models performed well — they were more graceful than anyone expected, executing movements and poses perfectly through the routine, indeed even putting the Royal Corps de Ballet to shame — and as they finished, the applause was thunderous.

But I was not done — after my bow, I pointed back to the stage, and flashed a light at the lead automata, setting a secret script, one I had told no one about, into effect.

And he spoke. Just a few words, a thank you to the Queen, and then a bow, which the others followed. The audience went wild — the papers the day after said that there had never been such an ovation, such a reaction — and I spent hours that night simply trying to get away from all of those who wanted to express their admiration.

And yet, here is the difference between the creator and the audience: all I could think of is of the failure that the automata expressed. When it came time to speak, he might have been a child, slow in the head. His words were not clear, and he was so far away from conversing that it might be years, or decades. The vision that I knew of so many years ago was still as steady as ever, but I was no closer to accomplishing it — and though all the court congratulates me on creating something that can move, that can dance, that can speak, none of them know the true boundaries of what could be.

Of what I could make it.

Perhaps the secret is this: that even with all of our breakthroughs, with all of our borrowing of other technologies, of reaching for the cutting edge of what humanity can do, there still, always, something missing. Perfection feels like it is always just hovering over the horizon, over the next breakthrough, but with each advance, there are other areas to correct, other progress that must be made. Art is never as beautiful in real life as it is in our minds.

But I will never rest until I reach it.
talonkarrde: (color)
We dance through our first date, our living room, our world — together, hand in hand.

Sometimes it’s cheek to cheek, sometimes back to back, but the world is our oyster, our dance floor, glittery and glittering, adorned with anniversaries and life events, triumphs and milestones on which we cut a rug.

We waltz through the problems, twirl through the trials, slide through the arguments, and through it all, never lose our sense of momentum, of inertia. We never stop moving.

For months — for years, even — we simply shed our problems, leaving them behind like all the old, worn out shoes, left and forgotten. We leave them with the old memories, constantly replaced by new ones, better ones. We get better, too; our turns are tighter, our figures sharper, our angles precise and beautiful, and it is easier to think of our problems as ones that only affected us when we were not as good — so that's the history we choose to remember.

Even as the cracks appear — on our dance floors, in our lives — we just keep moving around them. Of course we take care not to step onto jagged edges, but we are masters of our craft, and fear nothing. We had weathered worse, and so we simply keep on keeping on, continuing from site to site, dance to dance, city to city, waiting for steadier ground, feeling ever more confident with each performance, believing ourselves invincible.

And even as the cracks multiply, we cling to that faith: that we could just watch each other, listen to the beat, and make it through anything. We trust in each other, in the dance — even as our careers, our lives, our worlds fall apart. Even as the spiderwebs extend and expand around us, until it is a phantom presence everywhere, even on a new arena, on a new stage.

We held solace in each other, in the movement, in the motions, in the fact that as long as we kept moving, it would all be okay. We would avoid the darkness, avoid being ensnared, and just dance faster, harder, fiercer, and repel the shadows. They only struck those who were too slow to avoid them, and we — we were no such thing.

We danced the dance for years, and every step made us believe in our invincibility; every moment was one where our friends were struggling but we could say ‘but we’re doing just fine’.

So when we stumbled, when we fell, when there was nowhere left to move to and I caught an edge and she stepped back a touch too far and her heel snapped, we had no firm ground to fall onto, just a web to fall through.

There was the dance, and then the fall, and then there was nothing at all.

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