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

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

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

She runs.

But it catches her anyway.


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

A meeting is called.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I must—"

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

She pauses.

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

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

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

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

She pauses.

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

The villages look at her for a long time.

They look at Macce's body.

And then they vote.


A/N: It's been a long time! The first part of a 30 in 30 challenge that I'm doing with some friends (so, uh, if you don't like fiction, you might want to defriend me, because you'll see a lot of it this month). With thanks to [livejournal.com profile] kickthehobbit for the prompt. A touch of nanotechnology, a dash of a post-apocalyptic world, and a nod to 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'.


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Decades later, you will also remember these words:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's a relief, certainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

"Jeffrey..." she starts.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He freezes, for a moment, and understands.

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

It’s his skin, specifically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

And then a thought strikes her:

Is something wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

He thoughtfully arcs an eyebrow.

"Have you seen Ratatouille?" he asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A doctor stares at the test results, frowning.

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

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

"No longer?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eventually, he calls his daughter, again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Marin County Police Blotter

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stares at the bag.

American Medical Association Statement on the Rise of 'masti'

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

"Honestly, I should get home..."

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

"Just an hour? I guess, yeah."

The Marin County Independent Journal

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

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

I shrug, and feel her irritation without turning around.

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

Futility, perhaps.

She catches the expression on my face.

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

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

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

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

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


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

* Sleep
* Stay awake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

I don't.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, I say this:

"The pier?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Top wants to know if you checked the dump.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Dear Artsada,

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

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

They respond, just as immediately.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Would you like to get dinner?" he asks, and her smile makes it all worthwhile.
talonkarrde: (color)
In 1687, Isaac Newton published his law of universal gravitation: everything, he posited, is affected by gravity in the same way, regardless of how heavy it is. A bowling ball and a feather, if you remove air resistance, should fall to the ground at the same rate.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

"I— I got Amsterdam."

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

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


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

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


Amsterdam, May, 1990.

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

But I didn't.

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

It's never been important.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jana died today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Topic

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Did you hide the card, Winston?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel prods him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jay?” she asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A/N:I don't usually do author's notes, but I wanted to add a short one here, given the heavy card-trick-action at some stages. This is an ode to magic as something that I've always enjoyed as an amateur: I am the older brother of this story, someone who briefly experimented with it whereas my younger brother is the magician in the family. The tricks described are all real tricks, most notably the this'n'that trick; which is one of my favorites. Others described are mainly from the incredible work of Ricky Jay, particularly this show that he did. Thanks for reading!
talonkarrde: (color)
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)
"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)
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 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.


“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.


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


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.


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.

Director Charles Stanley


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?


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.


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.


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.

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.
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.
talonkarrde: (color)
He steps through the moonlight and shadows, ducking through the underbrush, moving by memory. He passes the nettles he knows are there and straightens up as he comes through the bushes, an opening that's grown smaller every time he's been through it.

There’s a tree to his left, marking the start of the path, and he puts his hand on it as he always does, as he always has.

He remembers learning of the secret path in the park for the first time, behind two hedges and a ‘no entry’ sign, one he gleefully ignores at fifteen. He remembers how single-minded he was then, with only one thing on his mind, and danced through the glade every time, only ever stepping on the patches of light, leaping and posing, every time a performance for the royal court. Later on, he discovered other joys: a fountain pen on thick stationery, sent and received from far away; letters typed in neat lines in Trebuchet, no, Georgia, no, Garamond, watching as a story poured itself out of his soul and onto the papers. For that part of his life, his journeys through the path are muted, his feet quiet but his mind loud, as each shadow on the path became a friend, a character, a companion, whispering to him the secrets only they knew.

But even after diving into dancing, into writing, he still felt incomplete — wasn’t there more? Wasn’t there something else to conquer, to master, to embrace? He remembers the feeling of being an actor who hadn’t had a title role, only understudies and chorus performances; he never stopped feeling like there was something missing.

So he explored and experienced, tried odd jobs and took on odder hobbies, time passed, and he learned: even the careful will make mistakes; even the best actors forget their lines.

He slows his walk, frowning, recalling the days spent answering to a manager that only ever made comments about his appearance, never his work, remembering the dead-end jobs, the scramble just to make enough money to buy cereal for dinner, the casual insults to his character, appearance, and ability, all from those he considered friends. He remembers the night he sat down in the middle of the path, in the middle of the darkness and simply cried for hours, the moon a waning gibbous, the leaves rustling and sounding like all they said was I told you so. He remembers thinking, wondering if it would all just end, please, he just didn’t have the strength to fight it all anymore, to fight anything.

Absentmindedly, he reaches out to touch an old beech tree; he runs his fingers over the initials carved into it. He brought his friends here, once: led them past the now overgrown barriers, showed them the best spots to watch the moonlight glide across the cobblestones. They hugged the trunks as they left and the branches seemed a bit lower that night, ready to hug them back; the wind seemed to whisper through the leaves, telling him it would all be okay.

Here, once more in the dusky night, with only the soft moon hanging over him, he reflects on how far he’s come, how long it’s taken for him to realize what he was looking for. And he looks at the path in front of him, the light and the darkness, the wind and the willows, and the many roles that he has now in the world diverge, run free, each claiming a moment independent of the others.

He walks through the latter half of his secret path and sees these waking visions, ghosts of him that move and linger in the light. In one beam, he’s a father, caring and concerned and looking for dangers to protect his little girl from. In another, he’s a writer, brow furrowed as he paces, thinking of what to do with his characters. Another step and he sees himself as a child again, leaping into the air, holding a moment, a pose for an impossible second at the peak of the jump, and then lands, sweeping a bow to the phantom audience. Somewhere up ahead, manager-him is muttering quietly, concerned about metrics and goals and quarterly performance indicators.

He slowly makes his way up the path, reflecting on his roles and goals, his successes and failures, and all too soon, comes to the end. There, he turns back, watching as the visions step back into the darkness, nodding to them in thanks, and smiles, having finally found what he was looking for.


talonkarrde: (Default)

March 2017

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