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.
talonkarrde: (color)
Our lives — mine and yours (and in a way, his) are delineated by two sharp lines, two lines which cut neatly across the line of memories that I have.

I think it's the same for you, isn't it?

At first, there's only the one line, and it segments our lives into Before and After.

In a clinical sense, an objective sense, the psychologist in me notes how neat it is in the way that everything falls neatly to one side or the other. Before, we were two normal yuppies, in love, with a small house and good careers and all of the other things that a newly married couple at the ripe old age of twenty-eight can lay claim to.

I remember those times, occasionally, and wonder at how different we are now. The nights out, the clubs, the diners, the drinks, the music, the madness, the moments of freedom and of exploration. We were young and we really were living life beautifully, wonderfully.

There was that period in between, where we knew, but it's all so different on this side, isn't it?

Because even though we knew, it wasn't the After.

After came with him, and it came with diapers and screaming and milk and oh my god he's still sleeping right why is he so silent. After was also about freedom and exploration — but it was about his freedom, about his exploration of this bright shining world, where we are only observers.

It's worse than that, actually, because we couldn't stop him from getting hurt — not really — but we feel that hurt as keenly as he does, feel the pain as much as he does with his screams and cries. Every nick and gash and scraped knee is something that tears at me, even though I know he'll — we'll — get better.

I'm sure you feel it too.

I think the main difference between then and now was that we lived for ourselves Before, and life was one where we were beholden to each other, but nothing else. There was no future to think of, no activity that was truly too dangerous to consider.

But After, we were beholden to him, and all of those decisions we made suddenly had a new input. A crying, wailing, sobbing, smiling, laughing, bundle of sadness and hurt and and joy and happiness that overrode everything else we did.

And it changed us, and so suddenly, didn't it? We went from being at least somewhat irresponsible (more than somewhat, in my case) to wondering why no one else could be on time, from being those people that were up for every meeting of the friends to those who made apologies that we only sort of meant, because, well, the baby.

It focused us on what was important, I think. Not that our friends weren't important, but they didn't have the same experience yet.

Some of them do now — Jerry and Michelle as of last month — but we've gone beyond that now, haven't we? We were always first — first to marriage, first to After, and now first to...

It would be funny, almost, if it weren't so sad.

No, no, you're right, it won't ever be funny. I don't ever want them to follow in these footsteps. No parent should ever have to...

Now there's Before, After, and...

I don't even know what to call it.

After-After?

It's such a shitty name. It fits, if only because it's so wrong. It's the After that should never happen. The After that comes with the lack of focus, that comes with silently going through the day, wondering why you go through the day. It's the motions, and the dullness, and the grey.

It's the tears, sometimes, in the middle of the night, and in the middle of the day at my desk.

You know, in my mind's eye, I still see the moment, so clear, too clear, when the bus pulls out and—

Maybe it will be less clear, one day. Maybe it'll get duller.

Maybe.
talonkarrde: (color)
The Mercedes waits outside, idling quietly as the man enters the apartment complex.

He heads for the stairs, taking them two at a time. The apartment he's looking for is three flights up, and by the time he gets to the top, his suit jacket is slightly dirty from an errant encounter with the dusty bannister, but he doesn't seem to care, singlemindedly focused on his goal.

When he gets to the doorway, though, he hesitates for the first time since leaving his car. Dull letters tell him that this is apartment 305. He looks around and takes a deep breath, remmebering when the paint wasn't faded and cracked, when there used to be a fisher-price trike in the corner over there, when the door was almost always open and visitors always welcome.

He closes his eyes for a moment and almost smells the scent of dinner cooking, almost hears loud voices calling the kids in, almost sees his mama poking her head out the doorway, beckoning towards him.

A dull clang comes from downstairs, breaking his reverie, and his eyes snap open, hand automatically going into his suit for the bulge that rests comfortably under his arm.

Nothing else sounds, though, and he dismisses it after a moment, stepping forward into the apartment itself.

It's seen better days, clearly, and the disrepair that was evident outside is also present here. The main difference is that there's more inside, furniture and pictures and evidence that people once lived here and called it their home — and then, of course, left.

His eyes sweep over the living room, looking over the overstuffed couch that is now missing several cushions and has a thick layer of dust on it. He sees the cut in the fabric on one of the arms, and remembers the argument it came from, the knife that was flicked out and slammed down.

There used to be a TV, too, but it's long gone, stolen by looters probably as soon as they moved out, he figures. The old VCR is still there, apparently worthless even to the thieves, and he squats down in front of the TV stand, hand reaching out past the VCR. Were there still the tapes, he wonders, and indeed finds them, shoved against the wall. He takes them out one at a time, flipping them over and reading the names again, half by memory and half by sight.

First Bike Ride

Twelfth Birthday

High School Graduation

His thumb rubs over the labels slowly, clearing the dust from them, and then he sets them back down, rising to his feet and hearing his knees crack. He steps through the living room, and glances into the kitchen where cabinets gape, most missing their doors, and a shattered glass pipe lies on the counter. Someone tried to piece it back together, it seems, and even managed to find most of the pieces.

He remembers the fight, the words and blows and most of all, momma throwing that pipe across the room, a clean arc as it spins and glitters in the light and then smashes against the kitchen wall.

He remembers the first puff he ever took from it, his girlfriend presenting it to him with a flourish and a smile. His fingers brush over the glass shards one more time before he shakes his head and moves on, towards the bedroom.

This is the reason that he's come, and his body tenses even though he knows that there's no one there. There can't be. But the memories are strong, and even before he rounds the corner, he already smells the smoke, hears the voices of his friends, feels the euphoria.

And then he steps through the doorway.

The spray of blood against the wall is still present, now a very dull brown, but unmistakably still a product of violence. The window has been broken and the floor in front of it is mouldy, but the room has been otherwise untouched, the blood acting as a ward against any vagrants or pickpockets.

He hears the floorboards creak as he takes a step into the room, as he flashes back to that night, Jackson backing up, the wild look in his eyes, the muzzle flare, the shock, the puppet with its strings cut.

And the spray of blood, a splash of crimson against a white canvas.

He takes another step, to the dresser, and slowly slides it open, finding the picture of the four of them at their graduation, jaunty caps and hi-tops and the poses that they imitated from the movies. Fake gang signs, like they owned the world. And they did, for a while, until it all crashed down around them.

Until he gave them up for the world.

He rubs the picture off with his sleeve, looking at the four of them and wondering what the fuck happened.

And then he hears a footstep, and his gun is out and pointed at the doorway, his finger on the trigger, ready to fire — only to falter as he sees who it is, as he sees another barrel pointed squarely at him.

"Hi, Christian," the other man calls out, without smiling. "Wond'rin when you were gonna come back and visit, now you're so high and mighty."

"John," he whispers, looking back down at the photo, and then back up. The resemblance is obvious, even with ten years of jail weathering the face in front of him.

"Come back to gloat? To celebrate stabbing us in the back, turning us in?" John asks, shifting slightly.

"No," he says. "I came back to find a picture of us, to see how it all went through. I'm through with it, everything, and I just wanted to come back to where it started."

"This aint where it started, Christian. This is where it ended. Where you ended it." John says angrily.

"I'm sorry," Christian says, and he means every word, though he knows it won't make a difference. "I'm sorry, but I had no choice, and I—"

Christian pauses, and then he lowers his gun, slowly. "I'm here to make it right."

"Only one way to do that." John smiles, finally, and slides the hammer back with a click.






---
A/N: Despite being a neutral word, Paraphernalia is in my experience almost always associated with drugs. Mix in some memories, and that's essentially the soul of this piece. I thought about doing it in first person, but it ended up feeling like third-person was more appropriate for this: it's meant to be a tv-series like finale episode of sorts, where the protagonist heads back to his roots and reflects on what has changed. I wanted to not expose his internal monologue/thoughts and instead only rely on what he does and what he sees to convey the atmosphere. Strongest influence is probably from the Wire (which I sadly haven't seen, yet, and so really it's more like what I know of the Wire), and L&O:SVU: the protagonist, in my mind, is in Ice-T's image.
talonkarrde: (color)
He sits back in the overstuffed armchair and raises the cloudy glass vial to his nose, uncorking it and taking a deep breath.

Her footsteps are soft, but he strains his ears, not wanting to miss a single moment, a single piece of stimuli. He smiles, easily, as she leans down to wrap her arms around his neck, planting a soft kiss on his cheek. "Hi," he breathes out, inhaling her scent, and he's rewarded with a giggle, the same giggle he remembers so well.

He opens his eyes as she comes around the chair to curl up on his lap, one arm supporting her neck, the other pulling her in close, and their eyes meet. He simply sees, smells, feels her, and the minutes blur together as he exists purely in this moment, a moment that goes on and on.

Outside of his mind, though, time passes. One minute, then two, and then ten minutes later, a song begins to play — their song — and as the sound of the grand piano drifts through the house, he closes his eyes, knowing sight will be the first to go.

She seems to know it too, and slowly gets up, her fingers running over his arms, reaching up to cup his face as she plants another soft kiss on his lips, one that has never, in the hundred times that he's done this, gotten easier to bear.

"I love you." A whisper, and then an echo.

The song ends, and he's alone again, with just a vial in his hands. He turns it over, reading the inscription one more time, though he knows it by memory.

It's the only one he ever orders.

A quiet kiss goodnight

-

She waits until her husband is gone; he wouldn't want her doing this. She knows he's right, too; one day, she'll get the strength to stop.

But not today. She peeks out the lace curtains, watching as his car pulls away, and then checks all the doors meticulously — front, back, side, garage — to make sure they're locked. She sets the alarm to active, even though she's staying in the house, and then retreats to the bedroom.

For a moment, she sits on the bed, wondering if it's right, until she realizes that it doesn't matter, really. She goes to the drawer, moving her clothes aside, taking out the small flat, nondescript wooden box, and opens it. She ignores the diamond earrings and necklace, lifting up the jewelry section and seeing the true prize underneath:

Five vials, each one differently labeled.

Her long, thin fingers caress the glass and she thumbs over the labels, reading each in her mind over and over, until she chooses one: today, the second one from the right. She nods to herself, setting the jewelry back over her most prized possessions, and then sits back down on the bed.

She uncorks; she inhales.

She hears the pitter-patter of feet on the tile of the bathroom today. Sometimes it comes from under the desk that they have in the bedroom, sometimes from the walk-in closet. But today, she turns to face the bathroom, and there her baby boy is, five years old and exuberant and just done with going potty by himself and his face seems to say isn't she just so proud of him?

And she is, her heart filled with bursting, and she tries so hard not to cry, because if she does she won't see him as clearly, and instead she opens her arms and folds her darling dearest cherub into her arms.

This week has been hard, harder than normal, and she can't help but rock and sob and feel his little arms around her neck and listen as he asks, "Why are you sad, mommy? Can I kiss it better?" which only drives her to more tears.

Ten minutes pass, and eventually she is only holding herself, still sobbing, her face a wreck, when she hears the garage door open. This spurs her to action, and the empty vial is hidden under the pillow, the box replaced, the bedroom door unlocked, and she retreats to the bathroom to hide the tears and wash away the snot, and in fact does pretty well, she thinks.

She pulls herself together, even gives her husband a smile when he comes back. "Forget something?" she asks, and he nods. "Just some papers. Oh, and this—"

And he hugs her tight.

They've been married long enough that he knows, knows why she's a bit unsteady this morning, knows her secret. But he doesn't tell her it's unhealthy, doesn't repeat what the doctor said, because he can't bring himself to do so.

What she doesn't know is that he has a stash of vials as well. What she doesn't know is how many days of the week he doesn't go to work until he stops at the playground first, for ten minutes.

What she doesn't know is that some days, it's too much for him, too, and he comes back home instead of going to work because he needs to see her and be with her.

But today, he decides, there should be no more secrets between them, and he takes the empty vial out of his pocket, showing it to her.

"The first time at the playground," he says, simply.

She turns away for a moment, reaching under the pillow, and pulls her empty vial out, rolling it between her fingers and showing it to him.

"Potty training," she replies.

And they smile at each other, through the tears.

-

They sit together, a gathering of old octogenarians, not much longer for this world despite all the best efforts of medicine and technology. Many of them are invalid and failing in their mental faculties, and the overwhelming thing that visitors notice is the smell: a slightly sweet, slightly sterile one that hints of decay barely held back, one present in all such hospice facilities.

And yet, despite all this, there is an almost tangible feeling of hope in the room, one that comes from the doctor and the more lucid residents but also seems to permeate the mostly catatonic. The doctor checks the time, nods, and the nurses come in, each with a handful of vials to distribute.

They proceed through the tables, stopping at each wheelchair and making sure the name on the vial matches the elderly man or woman they stop next to, and give them the dose before moving on to the next one. The doctor makes a round, watching the residents' expressions closely, knowing that it would take ten minutes before she would learn anything, but impatient all the same.

The initial results are good to see — smiles, of course, because of the nature of memories which were chosen. Tears, from some, including some of the orderlies and nurses who had worked closely with the residents. One of the men who had stopped responding suddenly looked all around him, his eyes alert and taking in every detail. Another, an Alzheimer's patient who had forgotten most of her life, suddenly started reciting the names of her children and grandchildren — but that, of course, was from a memory given to her of their visits.

A minute passes, and then two, and then a quiet descends on the hospice staff. They wipe away their tears, stand ready, and wait. The doctor among them most of all, still pacing back and forth, watching, hoping.

At the nine minute mark, an audible sigh comes from some of the lucid ones who have experienced this before. They know it's coming to an end, but don't fight it, simply accepting it for the gift it is. Even though it's only for a few minutes, it's more than they could've hoped for, even five years ago.

At ten minutes, it ends, and some lift their arms, grasping for receding memories that they can not catch.

The doctor goes to work, kneeling besides each individual and asking them their names, what they just felt, and most of all, what they remember.

The first few remember nothing, not even what they just went through. Another remembers what had happened, but when asked for details, can offer none. And so it goes, through the group, and the doctor slowly confirms that the vial only gives a temporary, ephemeral activation of the hippocampus; nothing permanent. Never anything permanent.

The doctor tries not to react, but with each negative response, she slumps a little bit more, her questions a bit more rote.

Then she reaches the woman with Alzheimer's, and dully asks the resident her name, ready to move on.

"My name...is Angela," the woman says, slowly. "And I remember... I remember my grandchildren."

Within three months, vials are being given for the memory related disorders with FDA approval and there are multiple papers on the topic, peer-reviewed, in Nature, in Science, in Psychology.

At the end of it, though, what the doctor remembers most isn't the Nobel prize announcement, or the NHS funding call. It's after she makes a phone call to Angela's children, and after they gather in the foyer.

It's when Angela sees her grandchildren again — and for the first time, it's not the first time.

---

Prompt explanation here.
talonkarrde: (color)
Log Entry, Stardate Unrecognized [Raw input: "who the fuck cares"]

It was Andrews.

Fucking Andrews.

He was the most stable out of all of us, I thought, the one we would have voted as the one least likely to implode. He was as nostalgic about leaving as any of us, cracked all the right jokes as we went past the Kuiper belt, and was super meticulous in his log entries, always. If anything, I would've thought it'd be Louis, buckling under the pressure as the ship's shrink, or me, who in all of the sci-fi books I read when I was young should've been broken by the weight of command.

Instead, it was Andrews. Thirty-six year old aerospace engineer Thomas Andrews, with NASA for twelve years, five spacewalks under his belt, and selected to join a long, long trip to a world far, far away. Perfectly normal astronaut Andrews, except for his forty-third watch, where he got up, overrode the autopilot, and burned just about all the fuel we had to 'get to Alpha Centauri faster', according to the message he left on the console in his chickenscratch.

Nevermind that we obviously wouldn't get there any faster, which he had to have known as the flight engineer. Nevermind that there was no reason to change from the autopilot, which hadn't erred at all. Nevermind that he should've woken the rest of us if he thought anything needed to be modified.

Nevermind that we needed the damned fuel to LAND WHEN WE GOT THERE, so that we could harvest native minerals for the journey back.

And then having fucked us completely, he decided his best bet would be to dance out an airlock, merrily as anyone could be. He literally danced out, can you believe that?

I fucking can't.

Oh, and the icing on the cake: of course, I was the one to discover this. I woke up out of cryo to relieve him, saw that we were down to six percent fuel, overrode the overriding, and caught Åndrew's wave on the monitors, his punching the airlock cycle sequence, his being incinerated by the port side engine.

Fucking Andrews.

-

Log Entry, Stardate Unrecognized [Raw input: "shit, just record"]

I...calmed down some, and then woke the others and broke the news. Louis took it stoically, Danielle less so, though to her credit she kept it together in front of the two of us, probably because she thought it'd set us off. We sat there for a while (it wasn't like we had anything better to do), running the numbers (including once by hand, even though it took hours), and we confirmed what we knew from the moment I saw the tank readings.

Six percent thruster capacity means about four seconds of burn.

There's this old game called lunar lander, right, where you're tasted with this goal of landing an sort of Apollo LEM on a couple of platforms or something. It was developed a long time ago, ancient history of ancient history, but it was sort of an unofficial competition among us NASA pilots who were training to get the high score.

This was like that, except that the computer started you with enough fuel to tap the thrusters once. Oh, and there was also an atmosphere that you burned up in, if you came in too shallow. Oh, and the gravity was seven times what it was on the moon.

Five hours of figuring, and we tried every single approach. Head on means we land with a nice thunk at about three hundred fifty miles an hour, at which point we impact with about the force of a medium sized bomb. If we slowly decrease orbit and try to use the atmosphere to slow us down, we roast as the heat plating immolates in a tenth of the time we'd need to spend in the atmosphere.

All of the options in between are worse. Some end with us burning up and /then/ smashing into the planet, which as far as things go, sounds really shitty.

[long pause]

I know now how the earliest explorers must have felt, trying to circumnavigate the globe and running out of food, or having a mast destroyed by a storm. It's simply a sense of... waiting.

Waiting for the end.

-

Log Entry, Stardate 27991.133 [Sixty-two weeks since launch]

Louis has been walking us through this - thank God for him. He's still as stable as a rock, and can calm Dani and I down with a few words, though I don't know how he does it. Part of it is that he simply stays calm and doesn't try and glorify our deaths or gloss over it; he just... tells us everything, straight. He's talked to both of us about what is going to happen, let us know what we would probably feel, and gave us a few ways to deal with it. Even when he's not in his official role, though, he's warm and kind and... well, without him, I'm not sure any of us would still be alive, to tell you the truth.

...though sometimes I wonder if it makes a difference.

We still stand watch. Habit, I guess. A lifetime of training means that we go through the motions as if our mission will be successful. There's actually a checklist for just about anything to go wrong, except for this. I guess no one thought that this would be a possible failure state. If someone did, maybe we'd have some sort of checklist to go through.

Shut down the engines. Turn off the power, sector by sector. Turn off life support. Gather on the bridge. Say goodbye. Wait for the oxygen readings to fall. Pass out. Drift forever.

But there isn't, so instead, we obey the first law of motion.

-

Log Entry, Stardate 27998.494 [Sixty-six weeks since launch]

We're getting close to arriving - only two more weeks, and we'll be in range to get a visual lock. We haven't picked up too much so far on the E & M spectrum, though I don't know how careful we've been in sifting through the information that our scanners have been providing. The reports are still being sent out, at least. There's a moon, slightly smaller than ours, for what it's worth. Still a presence in their night sky and on their tides.

Regardless of whether anyone's doing it out of scientific interest or simple inertia, our impending arrival has caused us to be more active; Danielle's back to a version of her former self, instead of the shade the she has been for the last two weeks. Louis is as steady as ever. We'll see what this world holds, even if its secrets die with us.

-

Log Entry, Stardate 28000.000 [Sixty-eight weeks since launch]

Oh, my god — there's life down there, living, carbon-based life forms.

We're not alone in the universe.

-

Log Entry, Stardate 28000.010

I'm reminded of an old adage - if a tree falls in the forest but no one hears it, does it make a sound? A Earth-changing, ground-shattering scientific discovery is made, but no one, in this most bittersweet of moments, will ever know about it.

Discovered, only to be forgotten.

Nevertheless, there is life down there, on Alpha Centauri's sole planet, and the life not only exists but is flourishing. We are not the lonely stewards of this universe, my friends, and finding this planet means that we may very well live in a galaxy with many, many other intelligent species.

This particular species (we haven't named them yet) is advanced enough to use tools. They're in the late bronze age, it looks like, though the metal they are using may have little in common with what we had in our own Bronze Age. The differences, though, are minor in light of the indisputable fact that they are intelligent. They have formed societies, formed cities, and one day - by the time the next ship arrives, perhaps - they will have joined us in the stars.

And on that — it may fall upon us, Danielle noted to us earlier, to establish first contact.

First Contact.

Those words mean a lot to me, and, I suspect, to any who has ever thought about what it means. It is impossible to disconnect our thoughts as astronauts and as representatives of humanity from the science — and science fiction pieces — that inform us. The Prime Directive, primarily, has passed through my head perhaps hundreds of times since the first moment that we knew that there was life outside of our own.

And why should it not? These men and women have thought about the situations that we find ourselves in and have reasoned through these moments with no less information than we three envoys of the human race have today.

That said, though, I suspect that those showwriters and philosophers from centuries ago did not have the burden of knowing that their interactions could set the tone for a civilization's future, spanning an indeterminate amount of years.

This is momentous, and we must consider what we do very carefully.

-

Log Entry, Stardate 28010.132

God, I'm an idiot.

I started talking about the responsibilities that we had and the concerns that there were and everyone was nodding and then Louis raised a hand and then asked me a very simple question.

"How are we going to contact them if we don't survive the trip down to the surface?"

I'm an idiot, and this is all pointless.

-

Log Entry, Stardate 28015.188

We're currently holding orbit around the planet - We've called it Chiron, following the lead of a few authors of the past; it seems fitting as he was the first among centaurs.

We have been discussing a way to contact them, but time and time again we conclude that they are not yet ready for such contact, which would, in any way that it were accomplished, irrevocably change them. If only we could delay it until they are ready to receive such contact, but we will certainly not live so long, and even in the best of cases, there is not enough energy to keep the electronics going for so long, even if the regular asteroid showers did not knock us out of the sky.

And yet, in the blackest pit of despair, there is yet hope. This evening, I realized that there may be a way to complete this mission. Our fates — Louis, Danielle, and I — will be no different than they were before, but perhaps there is a chance that will not simply be a footnote in the annals of history.

But I can not make this decision alone; we will put it to a vote.

-

Log Entry, Stardate 28015.910

The vote succeeded. Once I explained what I intended, I saw that they would accept it, despite what it represents. We make our preparations now, and have started boosting already. It will take a few days for the orbit to become elliptical and to allow us to escape this world's pull.

We'll impact the moon in three days.

-

Log Entry, Stardate 28015.910

This will be my last entry.

I told Louis I loved him; he smiled at me and told me the same. We hold hands as I engage the thrusters, one last time.

Danielle had retreated to her room, but as our retrorockets fire and the collision warnings blare, she joins us in the command module.

I hold her hand, too, and together we watch as the moon grows larger and larger in the viewscreen.

-

Handwritten Laser Etched Entry on Metal Plates.

Preceding this entry are translations to the natively observed language. Following are plates of microscopic etches containing subsets of human history and knowledge.

Stardate 28018.750

To those that will read this, whether they are from Chiron, Earth, or the Infinite Worlds:

We come in peace from all mankind, and here we lay down our lives. We were a deep space exploration vehicle, the first of our kind, on a mission to gather information about another world. We suffered a mishap on our way and knew that we would not be able to complete our mission as originally intended. We chose, instead, to leave this record on the moon to be found by those who will come after.

If you are from Chiron, you will be reading this after you have achieved spaceflight. Congratulations on joining us in the stars — we hope only that your path to the heavens was easier than ours. As a gift from our civilization to yours, our history and knowledge is written on the plates that follow. We welcome you again, brothers and sisters, and we hope to soon meet you in person; our only regret was that it is cold metal that teaches you of us for the first time.

If you are from Earth, we hope that you will see that we had few choices, and we chose the one that we thought was right. The black box recording will tell you what happened; our only suggestion is that you make use of this knowledge for future exploratory missions. Beyond that, if you are discovering this before the Chirons do, you have the power to erase our choices. We hope you will not.

And if you are from the Infinite Worlds - we are humanity, and we will be taking our place among you shortly. Look forward to our arrival.
talonkarrde: (Default)
Imagine, for a moment, being eight years old and watching your parents — your wise, loving, beautiful parents — defy death again and again and show you what the words skill and courage mean. This is at an age when they're still gods instead of men and women, where they can do no wrong and their word is absolute.

Imagine that this is just another night, mostly. The crowds are there, no more or less than usual, and everyone else does their act and manages to make it by without doing anything spectacularly terrible, though the lion tamer does get a bit testy with his whip and the performers (but not the audience) know that the lion's roar isn't completely for show. But the tamer makes it out of the ring to a smattering of applause, and everything's alright.

Now imagine being eight years old on this night, and sitting in a front row seat, watching your parents do a trick they had done a million times before, and watching as your mother goes up into the jump, flips and twists perfectly, and then comes down into your father's waiting arms.

And then the cable snaps.

-

What would you feel? Grief, sorrow, the world ending; you would cry and scream and jump over the barrier to your parents, beating the announcer, the owner, the paramedics to their bodies. You would freeze, then, not knowing what to do, not knowing how to fix this broken arrangement of body parts, these shattered pieces of your idols that you know, instinctively, that you can not — never — put back together.

So you simply scream, loud, piercing screams, on your knees in front of them, silent in the middle of the big tent, where hundreds of people watch, horrified, for what they came here to see. Not exactly, of course — they expected that the tricks would be pulled off more or less — but the main draw of the circus, of the juggling of flames and swallowing of swords and balancing of people, is in the chance of an accident. No one will admit to hoping for one, but everyone slows down at the scene of an accident and rubbernecks their way across, thanking God that they weren't the people involved.

Now they freeze; now they know they've drawn too close, and they find out that they didn't ever want to see what broken bodies look like, didn't want to know the intense queasiness that's caused by seeing arms which bend in the wrong direction and bones that stick out where they shouldn't.

But they can't look away, and all you feel are their eyes, their eyes all on you as your parents hold the audience spellbound for the last time ever.

-

But that's only half the story; it's the part that involves pain and tears and blacking out and being catatonic for the next few days.

There's another half, and it starts a few days before, when you're playing around the outskirts of the tents that are set up and you hear voices coming from near the back gate. Looters sometimes come through here, and you want to make sure that everything's fine, so you head that way, with the righteous knowledge that you are helping the circus speeding you along.

That is, until you come around a corner and see the owner of the circus, Uncle Zeppa you call him, cowering before two well-dressed men towering over him. One of them lashes out with a kick and drops Uncle Zeppa to the ground, clutching his stomach, and you almost, almost call out.

Almost.

But you don't, because you've learned, in your time at the circus, that saying things isn't always the best thing to do, so you say nothing. You just listen to the men, as they say that they want the Boss's money or something bad will happen, and the way they say Boss, you know that he is someone powerful.

But you don't say anything, you simply hide, and you think that you'll tell your parents about it. But by the time you get back to your trailer, you don't; they're practicing one of their acts, and it just isn't a big deal, and you'd create problems.

No one likes those who create problems, Uncle Zeppa says.

-

This is the other side of the story, the crushing, soul-destroying weight of guilt, the knowledge that you could've saved your parents, that you, you killed them, in a way. You could've done something, anything, and told someone, anyone, of what you had heard and seen. But now — now it's too late, now there's nothing you can do, and all you have left of your parents are the pictures and the memories and the dreams, and only the pictures aren't broken.

You change that, pretty quickly.

Now they're all broken.

Too bad it doesn't make anything better.

-

But there's one thing that saves you from despair and self-destruction, one path out of the twin chasms of grief and guilt that threaten to swallow you whole. You see, there's one other person in the world that knows what happened, one person that was there in the audience with you, one person who comes to you a week after and says that he knows.

He knows.

He's been following the gangsters' activities for some time, and he didn't catch that meeting and couldn't stop what happened but he has a plan for how to stop them and bring them down. He has a path out of the darkness, a single, winding, twisting path that you see as a single line, but you're pretty good at keeping your balance by now, aren't you?

What do you do? You join him, of course. You accept his offer to take you in — though not as a father, just as a legal guardian, and you accept that he has a plan for everything. Literally everything, you realize one day to your fascination, and as you keep poking around, you find out who he really is.

You know you've made it when you start going to sleep later and waking up later to keep track of him on his nightly journeys, when Alfred wakes you up in the morning with your usual breakfast, and when he finally, one day, calls on you to join him in his fight against crime.

"Robin," he says, "I need you with me."

And slowly, day by day, you keep your balance and don't fall into despair or self-hatred, and you make it out, until you're on solid ground again, or what feels like it. Day by day, you put on your mask and your costume and you roam the nights, fighting by his side, to avenge your parents, to avenge all the children in the world who have had their parents taken away from them. To prevent that from ever happening again.
talonkarrde: (Default)
For Liz — [livejournal.com profile] _asherah_

(I figured I'd do the Christmas ones first, and as usual, this is a bit late. It's still Christmas in...uh...Tonga?)

---

It's been the little moments that hit me the hardest. The big pieces — the awful emptiness of the house, the passenger seat in the car, the empty side of the bed — can be neatly compartmentalized, explained to the therapist, and dealt with, generally with distractions and work and staying busy and doing a relentless job of making sure the kids are where they should be, when they need to be there, and have what they want. Staying busy makes it so that there isn't enough time to carefully study the large, gaping hole that's been in our lives; it's hanging a blanket in front of it and as long as no one studies it too closely, we all get by — more or less.

But every once in a while the blanket slips, and hole only seems to have grown larger since the last time we looked at it. Like the way that our — my — seven year old, Jessica, tilts her head at me some mornings after examining her lunchbox and says that her lunch isn't packed quite right; that one line destroys me every time, though I can usually keep it to myself until after the bus comes and I see her up the steps. I'm fighting the tears as it pulls up to the street corner, so much so that I can't make out the doorknob when I turn around.

Or how after cleaning the house relentlessly every weekend (even though I hated cleaning before), after vacumning and sweeping and dusting, there's still Shadow's fur, somehow, even though everything's been cleaned a thousand times before and it should've been picked up last week, or the week before, or somewhere in the five months since it's been since the accident. Every time I see the telltale black hair, I can't help but listen for the scratching at the door that never comes, can't help but feel the wet slobber on my toes that means it's really — and Shadow means really — time to get up, on the weekends.

Sunday mornings are the worst, when Rose and I used to wake up around nine or ten and simply lie there and talk, hold each other close, and wait for one of the children or Shadow to scratch at our bedroom door. Sometimes, one of the kids would let him out, and so we would lie in blissful peace until eleven or twelve, called downstairs only by the growling in our bellies. 

Nowadays, I set an alarm for 7:00 a.m., before the sun gets a chance to cast its rays on the bed, before the tentative knock on the door by one of my daughters looking for breakfast — or, sometimes, when they're not fully awake, for their mother.

When I brought it up, the therapist said that it will get better with time, as the memories fade. The first time I heard it, I was struck by the unimaginable cruelty of the statement — these memories were all I had left of them, and the only thing that would make it better was forgetting? Bullshit, I said angrily, I want a better answer. But she only shook her head, looking apologetic, and said the words I wanted to hear the least.

"You have to learn to move on, John, and you need to face it to do so."

As if I could just move on from someone who had been a part of my life for so long. But she said — using my metaphor, of all things — that instead of hiding the hole, I needed to accept it, that I needed to spend a few minutes each day thinking of the accident, of what we had and lost, and make my peace with it. And more importantly, she said that I had to move on because it was the only way that my daughters would grow up at peace with it as well, and that struck a chord in me, I guess.

I had always tried to be a good father and do right by them, and now I was the only one left.

It was hard at first. No, it was worse than that, it was fucking terrible — purposely calling up memories of the two of them, of trips to the park and playing with other pet owners and wrestling with the adorable dog for a frisbee — all it did was paralyze me, until I was breaking down at work, in the car, my body wracked with sobs as I pictured their last moments, the small Mini turning sideways as the SUV came barrelling towards them.

That didn't last very long. Instead, I simply... slowed down a bit. I moved a bit less quickly to busy myself with the next chore and the next, and simply let some things remind me of them, sometimes. In time, it did get easier; I never forgot about any of the memories we shared, but they became... softer. I could still tell you what Shadow smelled like when we adopted him from the animal shelter, or what Rose wore on our first date together, but it wasn't as present; it was more like seeing a vision faraway, a bit hazy from the distance, and that made it a bit easier to deal with.

When I told the therapist this — seven months after the day — she nodded, telling me that it was a normal part of the process. I would never lose them, she said to me, but it would be easier because I didn't remember it as distinctly, and there were different, other ways to remember and cherish them, ones that wouldn't hurt like that. 

And then, just when I thought things were going well, she asked me what I had planned for Christmas. The holiday season was always tough on people, she said, especially the first one after a death in the family.

Christmas had always been 'an event' in our household. We wouldn't say it was any more special than what anyone else did, but there was a certain order to the season and to Christmas Eve and the day of in particular — we always got a tree from our local tree farm two weeks before Christmas itself, and decorated the tree not just with the usual baubles and lights, but also small pictures from our scrapbooks — it was a way to remember moments that we had all forgotten through the year. Christmas morning, Rose and I always stayed awake until 2 a.m. to put the presents under the tree; we were very careful not to let either of the kids catch us, though of course they tried, but we always engineered an active and exciting Christmas Eve of family time, and they always nodded off before one in the morning, despite their best efforts.

But this year...I hadn't given thought to what I would be doing, partially because I was busy, and mostly because I had managed to block it out fairly successfully, living a day, or sometimes two, at a time. It was just about two weeks before Christmas, and I made the trip right on time to get the douglas fir. After planting it in the middle of the living room, I went to the attic to get the decorations, and then froze solid when I came to the box and remembered what was inside. I simply couldn't open it, no matter how much I wanted to; I had only gone a few weeks with only the dull ache inside me, and wasn't particularly wanting to stab myself in the heart again.

I don't know how long I stayed there, sweating, standing a few feet from the box and trying to levitate the baubles out without disturbing the pictures; it was only after my older daughter Rachel called for me was I able to move. I must have been a sight — sweating buckets, shivering, standing there frozen like a deer with invisible headlights shining on me. In a fit of desperation — or maybe determination — I grabbed the box as I answered her call and headed back upstairs, ignoring what I was holding and focusing very hard on my daughter's request and her voice.

The box then laid next to the tree, for a day, two, and then a week, as Christmas crept closer and closer. I just couldn't touch it. Instead, I went out and bought gifts for the kids (in the spirit of equal opportunity, both a 'girly' gift — a doll, and some makeup set thing for Rachel — and a less girly one — a science set and a remote-controlled car) and managed to buy myself some socks and a belt that I probably needed.

Wrapping them was another quest that I hadn't really had the chance to master, but it was important to get it right, and I ended up going through pretty much a whole roll of it in my relentless pursuit of perfection. The presents ended up without any noticable creases, though, with the folds correct and neat, and in the quiet moments after doing so, I reflected that Rose would have probably approved, and felt something besides sadness for the first time since the accident while thinking about her. But I still didn't touch the box.

And then it was Christmas Eve, and we watched TV and went out for some shopping, and as the day wound down, I put the kids to bed. They never commented on the bare tree, for which I was very thankful. And around 3 a.m. — a bit later this year, because 2 a.m. didn't feel right — I snuck out to place the presents by the tree. It was still green, and still alive, and still missing all of the ornaments. But no matter how much I wanted to, no matter how much I told myself that I had to, I couldn't open the box. I must've sat there for half an hour, looking at the tree, but in the end, shamefully, I went to bed, slamming the door behind me, and fell into a sleep that was mercifully dreamless.

But when the alarm woke me up at 7:00a.m., when I walked into the living room, the tree wasn't empty and green, but bright and shining, with red and green and white balls hung, the star affixed to the top, and — and — the pictures as well, hung neatly on the tree, each 2x3 inch photo extruding happiness from Disneyland, and the park, and our wedding, and everywhere else we had ever taken pictures.

I sat down, not entirely intentionally, and heard Jessica behind me, still clutching her blanket. "Morning, daddy. Rachel says Santa put up the ornaments on the tree!"

And before I even turned to meet Rachel's eyes, I knew; it was enough that my immediate instinct was to flee and lock my door and take a forty minute shower where the tears wouldn't be discernable. But I couldn't move, my eyes still flicking over each picture, remembering where each was taken, cherishing the moments, and the world blurred as I felt a pair of arms wrap around me from behind.

"Merry Christmas, dad," my elder daughter said quietly, and I could only close my eyes and nod, bringing her around and hugging her back fiercely, sobbing only a bit. Jessica came over for the hug as well, and we all took a bit of time to cry, and smile, and remember those we had lost. But we didn't hide from it for once, and the hole seemed a bit smaller because we were here together, on Christmas.

And after a bit of skillful extraction of arms and bodies, the girls opened their presents, and I faked looking surprised at my belt and socks. But there was one present under the tree that I hadn't seen, wrapped in last year's 'Santa and sleigh' wrapping paper, a small, flat object, with small neat handwriting on it that said, simply: 'To Dad'.

Taking more care on it than anything else I recall in my life, I slowly slid my fingernail under the tape, gently lifting the fold and removing the object from the wrapping paper. It was a frame, a picture, one of the ones that must have been in the box with the others.

I flipped it over, and saw the four of us, and Shadow, smiling together from the dining room table, with a cake in front of us. It was from my last birthday, and someone must have set the timer on the camera at the other end of the table, as we were clustered at the far end, smiling, Shadow with his tongue lolling out of his mouth and looking goofy as always.

"I think, maybe, mom would've wanted you to have this," Rachel said quietly, and all I could do is gather the two of them up for another hug, thanking anyone listening for being the luckiest father in the world. And from under my arm, Jessica chimed in.

"And I think maybe mom would've wanted us to get another dog from the shelter, daddy."

And somehow, I knew that my daughters were both right — that somewhere, my wife just paused in her ball-tossing with Shadow to send a smile our way.
talonkarrde: (Default)
My first memory of my grandfather is when I was six or seven, perhaps, and we lived in Colorado. I remember wanting to snuggle up to him and my grandma at night in their king sized bed, right in the middle, and I would frequently leave 'my' bed and escape to theirs. It wasn't because it was more fluffy (which it was) but rather that there was something incredibly safe about being between them.

After Colorado, I think, they were getting to the age where a twelve-hour-plus cross-continent flight to the other side of the world was getting to be a bit much, but I still saw them when I traveled back — in 2000, 2003, and then 2009 for my cousin's wedding, where the pictures of the entire wedding party (I was the best man, being uniquely qualified as the only person aside from the bride that could speak the language the groom understood) are very prominent in my grandparents' home.

I don't remember anything earlier than Colorado, though — not the years that they came to visit in California, nor, in the formative years of my life, when they raised me after my parents went off to cross the Pacific without their little baby boy. My grandparents raised me for more than two years, and according to my mom, I was the one child that my grandpa was really able to raise as a baby, to bounce on his lap and coddle and spoil to all hell.

And now, twenty years from when I first left my grandfather's embrace, I am back, to see him once more. This time, though, he is in a hospital bed, and he is unlikely to ever leave it again.

-

I can't say I know my grandfather all that well — there was always something of a language barrier that got in the way of being able to have completely fluid conversations, and even if there wasn't, from what I do know, our worldviews aren't quite the same. Where I have lived in the suburbia of middle class all my life, my grandfather had fought in the war against the Japanese devils, as he calls them, and did well enough to be recognized by the Chinese government. 

There was a distinct conversation that I remember when I was ten or so, I think, back when I still had the summers to go back to China yearly; I asked my grandfather what he thought of America. 'Bullies!' he said to me, wagging his finger, "All they do is they bully around the weaker countries!" I protested, in my ten year old way, that America was great and grand and glorious, and he shook his head, and said that, yes, the average person was very nice (having been directed home by them variously when they used to go on walks in Colorado by themselves) but the government, they were no good at all. 

I didn't accept it at the time, but it sounds rather right, doesn't it?

Beyond that, though, I never asked, that I can remember, about his youth, or about how he met my grandma, or what his hopes and dreams and wishes were — though there's still time to do so, now that I'm here. But in the last few days, just by watching, I've still learned an incredible amount — all of the important things, maybe?
I've seen all of his children and grandchildren — my four aunts and two uncles, and their families, and my various cousins — come through and visit him. There's a steady rotation of his children who will stay the night with him, and care for him, help him to the bathroom and make sure he takes his pills, and every face that comes in is someone who has loved him and been loved by him and comes to do what they can to ease his pain.

And my grandmother, of course, who is always, always there, who, as my dad says, my grandpa can't be without. He's always been a proud man, I think, more than anything, but I've seen a bit of what's under the surface these last few days. When he goes for a CT scan, and we wheel him out of the room, he asks if she's coming, even if he'll only be away for a few minutes. And this afternoon, when my dad and I are taking over the night shift to watch him, as she leaves, he presses his palm to his mouth and sends her a kiss, and she returns the gesture, and for a moment, they simply stand there, looking at each other.

-

It's an odd feeling to sit here, perched on the edge of the bed, ready to spring into action at the slightest sign of discomfort and yet be comforted by the fact that my grandpa snores and speaks in his sleep. Every time he makes a noise, it's a sign that he's breathing well, and deeply, and it's... soothing, for lack of a better word, whereas normally I can't stand any noise when I'm sleeping. When he doesn't make any noise for a few seconds is when I start to worry, even if it's irrational (because he's still lucid and fine), and I hold my breath until he releases his, and only then do I start typing again.

I should be sleeping as well, actually, so that when something does happen, I can jump up and assist; he wakes every few hours, fairly regularly, and so there's little reason to simply sit, and watch, and wait, but I couldn't go to sleep even if I wanted to.

I've had experience with hospice care as part of my clinical fieldwork class for psychology, and as an EMT, I'm no stranger to working in a hospital, even with long-term patients. But this is different, of course. It's different for a multitude of reasons, mostly collapsing onto the fact that this is someone I know and love and care about not dying on a very personal level, instead of on a more clinical or even professional level. It's also different because I'm not in a professional capacity here; instead of having to give medical care, I'm simply... here. There's no protocol to follow, no one else to contact, no medicine to push.

Instead, I'm simply here to... be here, really. I'm here to lend a hand, but more than that, I'm here so my grandpa can see me, so he can comment on how, erm, 'solidly' I am built, and so he can know that he — and by extension family — is the most important thing in my, and  all of his children's lives, and adherence to that principle is why we're all here.

And we're here, of course, because it makes him happy, and the look on his face as my uncles and aunts enter, as I come in, is something that I could come back a thousand times to see.

-

It's 3 a.m. now, and I think for a moment of the parallelism, that here we are, three generations of us in one room (and my dad and grandpa are now competing in the snoring Olympics, and I think my dad might win this one). My grandpa looked over at me a few hours ago and said, "This is our tradition — the elderly take care of the young, at first, and then, when it is their time, they count on their children to take care of them", and I promise to myself that this will be my tradition as well.

I wonder when it will be the time for me to take care of my mother and father, or my children to take care of me. And then I realize that it's not, really, just my parents I should be worrying about, but also my uncles and aunts, my teachers and professors, and everyone I know of that generation, and I wonder, for a moment, how we deal with all of this, a loss of this magnitude, one by one, as each generation passes on. 

But it's the natural order of things, isn't it? That's the best I can come up with.

I hope that I can pass on what I have learned to the next generation, so that whenever anyone in our family is to pass on, they will do so with their family and friends around them, reminding them that they are loved and cherished. I don't know if the secret is having a large family so that the burden may be spread and thus lightened, or if it really is a cultural issue where the bonds between families, especially extended ones, are looser in America than they are over here, but I'll find out.

There's no reason that the ones you love and love you shouldn't be at your side when you start needing help to do the things you can no longer do by yourself, and no reason that your loved ones should shy away and push that burden onto another, who will care less than you will that it's done right. And even if there are those who do care who are not family, no matter how much they care, their caring will never replace a family's bonds.

-

I've learned something, I think, though it shames me that it took so long to learn and that I hadn't learned it beforehand. Before I came, I was worried that I wasn't going to be able to communicate well with my grandpa, that I wasn't going to say the right things or be able to reassure him in the right way, or that I would be powerless and helpless to, well, do anything. I was afraid of messing up in a million different ways, and so I asked a friend of mine what you do for those in pain, who are near the end of their lives.

And he told me a great many things, and I thanked him, and then I promptly, I think, forgot most of what he told me. I think perhaps there was a bit of difficulty in communicating, and a bit of difficulty in saying the right things, and maybe I did mess up.

But it doesn't matter — none of it matters, because I'm not here for me, and this isn't some sort of a choreographed dance. I'm here for him, for him to look at me and hug me and understand that a part of him lives on in me, and in that, I think, I have not disappointed him.

I was lucky to have such a chance, and I may be visiting again soon, if things turn worse, because even though I'll still be afraid of not being able to say what I want to say, even if I'll be afraid that my last memory of him will be him even more gaunt than he is now, if there's anything I can do to make him even a little bit happy, it's what I should do.

Thanks, grandpa, for teaching me that, for raising me, and for everything.
talonkarrde: (Default)
A one-time engagement, Darius said: one performance, a huge audience, recorded for posterity. Thirty thousand dollars for a hour long show, half right now and half after. It was of utmost importance, he assured me, and my participation would make all the difference.

It had all the hallmarks of an offer too good to be true. What sort of a person — dressed like he owns half of Chicago — waltzes into a dingy bar, offers a person a drink, and then turns it into a job offer, all in the span of thirty minutes? There were too many strings, and I couldn’t tell where any of them led.

But the check was sitting there, burning a hole in the bartop, and I was between engagements at the moment, professionally. I had been for the last three months, and money was... well, it had been tight a month ago; now it was nonexistent.

My father always told me that fast money made a fool of people. Look at all the lottery winners, he said. Look at all the children who inherited millions and blew it all. Look at all the people who sniped and backstabbed each other to get a promotion for another thousand dollars a month.

I picked up the check.

#

They showed the face of the man i was supposed to impersonate on the screen, and a sudden, the strings became clear.

It was the President. The most powerful man in the world. The most recognizable.

I was sitting in an empty classroom with a projector, watching him making a speech about civility and peace, and all of a sudden I understood the secrecy, the money, the trap. Darius came in after a few seconds, and I spent a good couple of seconds trying to figure out if I should hit him or just run for it.

“Why me?” I asked. What I really meant to say, though, was some combination of how did you find me, how do I get out of this, and why did I pick up the goddamned check?

“Because you can do it,” Darius responded, and blinked. I turned back to the face on the screen and watched for a second, observing his mannerisms and his tics and his diction, and I thought... yes, I could probably pull it off. There would need to be some precise makeup work so it would be perfect, but I could apply that myself. Some of my hair roots would need to be inhibited, some prosthetics applied on my chin, but with the right equipment, we would be indistinguishable from one another.

And the way that he angled his face, the way that he rubbed at his ear between statements, the time between looking at the prompters and the camera, the way he scanned the audience, all of those were easily picked up. The exact delivery would be harder, but he was an orator; he knew where to pause for effect and when to hammer the words home. It could be done. I could play this part.

“Okay,” I granted grudgingly. I could do it. “Why can’t he do it himself?”

Darius’ face fell. “The president has been — and this knowledge is only known by six people right now — poisoned. He's not in any shape to do anything, though the doctor says he'll recover. We've canceled all other non-essential everything and bought ourselves about two weeks, but even then, he won't be able to make it to the opposition rally himself. But since he’s been promising he’d attend, if we cancel his attendance, then the opposition will jump on it, and the coalition bill will fall, and...”

“Why is this bill so important?” I asked.

He almost smiled then, and beckoned for me to follow.

“Let me show you a video.”

#

There is a line familiar to actors that goes something like this: ‘It is impossible to play someone well without loving them, or killing yourself.’ Those of us who act, who do more than mouth lines and make motions, understand the truth of the statement. It is a frighteningly true statement sometimes — when we play those who are murderers and lunatics, for us to truly play the part, we must fall into their psyches, and sometimes, we can’t pull ourselves out.

I had always been apolitical. But as I studied his work, I realized that even if I did not agree with everything the President said, I agreed with what he wanted — a world that would be better for our children than the ones our parents handed to us. Everyone made that statement, of course, but for most, it was a matter of doing things their way. To him, it was about letting everyone have a say in things that affected them. To him, it was about having locals making choices for themselves on local matters, and federal policies being giving people choices instead of taking them away.

Politics, I had always thought, was a dirty game. But in studying him, in trying to become him, my mind was changed. There were dirty players, and there always would be. But there were also those who were not third-rate stooges to special interests, and whether they succeeded or failed, they existed, and that was important.

By the end of the two straight weeks of study, I realized that even if I did not hew to the party line, I respected and admired the President and what he stood for. If nothing else, I was a very good student of his body of work, and I believed in it.

#

I do the dress rehearsal of the speech in front of Darius, Penelope, and the four others that are in on the impersonation, and they are speechless for a few moments before they start applauding. Penelope, I suspect, is in tears, and simply sniffles as she claps with the others.

It’s the only applause I’ll ever get for the role. It’s enough.

“Mister President,” Bill, the Chief of Staff, says, “that was incredible.”

“Let’s change the world then, shall we?” I respond, smiling the easy, characteristic smile, and we head for the limo.

Darius lingers and stops me just before I get in.

“We’ve gotten some threats — there are those who don’t like what you’re proposing, who are talking about exercising ‘second amendment remedies’. We could cancel now and save face.”

Once, I think, I would’ve bowed out, citing that no performance was worth a danger to my life. But there was more at stake here, and the audience had already taken their seats. “He wouldn’t stop for it, Darius, simply because some crackpot made threats. This speech has to be made. We have to press on.”

#

It is a sunny day, and the people out there are hanging on to my every word. There were some hecklers as I first took the stage, but as the words flow over them, as they listen, as they recognize that they want the same thing I do, that we are one people on one side, they fall silent, and nod, and stop seeing their fellow countrymen as the enemy. I have changed them, today, by being here.

“We must look to one another as friends and family, not as enemies and those who wish destruction upon this country. We all want a better future, even if we think it will come about in different ways. In the end, though, we are all—”

And then the bullet hits me.

I see the flash of the scope a second before he takes the shot, I feel the impact, and then my strings are cut and I feel myself start to fall. It hurts.

Oh god, does it hurt.

The sniper’s aim is off; it passes through me almost dead center, a shade to the right of my spine, instead of where my heart is. Not a bad shot, though; he’s earned his pay - and jail time. But his error gives me a few seconds, and I still have a line to deliver, a performance to finish.

I stagger and clutch for the podium, trusting that my arms still work for a few seconds, even if my legs don’t. I cough and taste blood, but I need to continue.

“—all...one people.” I finish, in a harsh whisper, spitting blood against the microphone. Only then do I let myself collapse.

We strut and fret our hour upon the stage and then are heard no more.

The Secret Service is bundling me away, as people try very, very hard to stem the flow of blood. I might make it, I think, but perhaps it’d be better if I didn’t — my performance is done, and I have played my part as well as anyone could have expected. The bill will pass, and perhaps this time will be the last time a public official is shot.

Smile for the cameras, I think to myself. Look up at the night sky one more time.

Remember what it was like to command the attention of thousands, of millions across the globe, and be the the most powerful person in the world for an hour. Feel the satisfaction in giving a master performance, of playing the audience and bringing them to laughter and tears, in giving them hope for tomorrow. And take warmth in being given a chance to weave the future, to create a better world for our children than the one our parents handed to us.

And finally, close your eyes as the curtain falls.

Brouhaha

Dec. 18th, 2010 05:00 pm
talonkarrde: (Default)
It’s studied in school nowadays, you know. They make the psych students sign a release, informing them that they know the images will be highly disturbing, and then they show them everything.

The projector flashes through a timeline, showing the students the cell phone and DSLR pictures from shortly before it happened, the three videos that recorded everything and weren’t destroyed, and then a composite sequence with a death toll in the corner rising as each minute ticks by, based on what the investigators were able to reconstruct.

Many of the students vomit.
 
-
 
It starts at 7:22 p.m., and the Knights have just scored a touchdown. Out of the fifty thousand spectators, some thirty-eight thousand of them are local and rise out of their seats, a human wave; the noise is immense and can be heard across the river, downtown. The ESPN cameras pan and follow the wide receiver that caught the pass, number 37, and follow his joyful victory dance and salute to the crowd. The band starts to play their touchdown theme, and the camera zooms back out, to encompass the entire section of the stadium.

There’s a hundred foot screen up there, in clear view of just about everyone, and it displays the score, showing the home team up by 3 now; and below the score, there are occasional twitter messages that give congrats and shoutouts.

At 7:24, there’s a message that says the following: @vendetta: the bombs are set. goodnight, fuckers.

On the two spectator feeds, you can hear a couple people wonder how that made it in there, but someone comments that idea that someone was just smart enough to get a stupid message past the censors, or maybe they selected the wrong message to post. Most of the crowd doesn’t even pay attention to it, as the QB’s setting up to start the next play.

At 7:25, the power flickers in the entire stadium; and when they come back on, the floodlights that illuminate the field start going out — except for the sign, the only brightness left, the only thing the eye’s drawn to. And now it starts flashing between two messages, the first one and this one:

@vendetta: and in the light you will behold the glory - not of the lord, no. but look for the poison gas.

There’s confusion at this point, wondering what’s going on; the crowd is a bit more tense but not panicky yet, and you can hear people urging calm and peace, that the lights will be back on soon. In one of the cameras, the one recovered from the right side, about thirty rows up, you hear a male voice crack a joke and then ask the concessions employee for a hot dog as he waits.

At 7:29, the lights come back on. Exactly twelve seconds after that, as the announcer is saying that the game will continue despite unfortunate ‘technical interruptions’, there is a greenish gas that is spraying out of every single section, spaced out to be every ten rows down.

The death toll counter increments almost immediately - a John Doe, never identified, has a 9mm glock handgun on him, and though he is three seats from the exit he begins firing immediately, shooting six and climbing over their bodies to get to the exit; it is later found that he runs to the bathroom and proceeds to commit suicide.

Across the stadium, there are more people trying to fit through the exits that can possibly fit, and injuries and fatalities rise as any sense of humanity is lost. Even without the video feed, as tears slip pass closed eyes, the sounds persist, an unnatural, horrifying racket.

At 7:32, on the ESPN video, you hear a voice saying ‘cut the feed, cut the fucking feed’, and someone in the studio does so; there’s no one manning the camera anymore.
 
-

At 8:09, two thousand, four hundred forty-five people are dead. One of the cameras has been dropped and stepped on but you can still see the horror of an exit through the broken lens; the other one is rolling, pointed at the field, where people jumped to escape.

Broken glasses. A bloody trumpet. A phone showing a failed call to 911.

At 8:14, the unmanned ESPN camera shows a team of EMTs and paramedics come into the declared hazmat zone, ignoring the prohibition, and start triaging and treating. By the end of the triage, they run out of tags, and start marking with markers on foreheads. One of the dead is player #37.

At 8:25, the hazmat team comes in and finds out the bitter, terrible truth.
 
 
-

The congressional investigation ended with this line: “This attack took the lives of more than two thousand civilians and was accomplished with the use of a twitter account and thirty cans of colored, compressed air. There were no bombs, no weapons of mass destruction, and no motive. We have no recommendations at this time.”
talonkarrde: (Default)
We used to know exactly the right thing to say to each other when something was wrong. We still do, I think, but we just don't say it anymore.

Maybe that's what losing her did to us.

It always starts with something small, something inconsequential. An ambiguous statement, a throwaway comment that could be dismissed but isn't. Picking at a scab, not quite healed over — "honey, where did you put the checkbook, again?" — with just a shade too much emphasis on the 'again'. As if I meant to hide it from her.

Both of us are proud, and perhaps too quick to take offense. It never used to be a problem, but now, we read into statements that should be casual, innocuous, and we find in them the glimmer of cruelty that is a slap in the face, a punch in the gut, an invitation to battle.

Neither of us could ever resist the temptation to win an argument. We were known for it, known for our skill in seeing the flaws in our opponents, for the clever way we dissected what they said. But in this case, winning means making comments that we always regret in the morning. Winning means hurting the person you love the most.

And yet, we still can't resist.

It turns into something bigger, as a comment demands a retort and the return salvo must always be harsher, stronger, more pointed. "Not yet, but did you pay the cable bill yet? Or—" And every time I wish I could hold back, bite my tongue, just let it blow by for once, and then it comes out anyway— "Or did you spend what we made this month on those cute dresses, again?"

Even as I say it, I know that this isn't what I mean, but I can't stop. Not this time, not the last time. Not ever, perhaps. And even before I finish, I know she's just waiting to plunge her daggers where she knows they'll do the most damage, and I know that she doesn't mean it. Or at least, she won't in the morning.

But it still hurts, and for now, our anger is the only way we can respond to the pain.

It escalates still, and we put fists into walls and shatter dishes and trot out the list of wrongs each has committed. Never do we hurt each other physically; no, we learned long ago that our words do more damage, and leave less of a mark.

We yell at each other from different rooms, destroy things we bought together and loved, and never, ever, ever mention the girl that we lost, before she ever got a chance to say mama and daddy.

Parents should never have to bury their children.

Finally, we run out of words; we stand, two weary souls on the battlefield that is our home, we think of her, the only person we've ever loved more than each other, and we are silent.

And then we start the rebuilding.

I mumble about buying the spackle, she mutters about seeing what she can do about replacing the dishes, and even though we don't say much as we clean up our mess, as we recover on the outside and on the inside, I know we're thinking the same thing.

When we sleep, she curls up into me and we sob silently together, still never saying a word about her, about how much it hurts to be without her, but we grieve together now, instead of apart.

-

Tomorrow comes soon enough, and perhaps we'll fight again, but for tonight, at the end of the day, we are still together, grateful for each other’s presence. Perhaps with enough tomorrows, we'll learn to hold back, we'll stop destroying what we rebuild, and we'll be able to talk about the past.

And many tomorrows after that, perhaps we’ll be able to once again look to the future.
talonkarrde: (Default)
It was my first time reporting in a wartime environment.

I was staring down at the orderly rows of protesters slowly winding their way up the street, waving signs that said “Let Us Be Free!” and “Our Voices Will Be Heard!”, from a balcony of the hotel, one that I thought would be deserted, given the demonstration going out on the streets. But then, a voice from my left.

“Disgusting, aren’t they?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, turning to face the man. Average height, average build, black, curly hair, dark brown eyes, a red power tie. An unpleasant face is what caught me the most, with a mouth that looked like it hadn’t smiled in the thirty or so years he had been born.

“They are sheep to slaughter,” he answers. “And too stupid to realize it. Do you know what the difference between a riot and a demonstration is?”

I shrugged, not really interested in continuing the conversation; besides, the leaders of the protest were almost in contact with the police line.

“It isn’t, as commonly held, when someone throws a bottle, or a rock, or when the guns start firing. That’s just the illustration of the turning point, the start of the death toll. But it’s a riot before then. You can spot it by the attitudes that the two sides have. The rocks that protesters carry, the guns that the soldiers finger, even when they’re told to stand down. A riot happens the two sides hate each other, intensely, and want the other side to fail and to die.”

“There are plenty of Western sources of history where the people peacefully demonstrate an unpopular government, though,” I countered, watching as the shopkeepers started closing down their shops. It seemed unnecessary to me, as the march was still heading peacefully past these shops.

“And plenty more where a flower planted into the barrel of a gun was shot back, with lead, into the protesters’ faces,” he responds darkly, and I frown. “It’s the truth, and you’d best believe it. There, see — it begins.”

And I see a guy reach out, and throw a rock at a policeman. He is hit, and once the others see blood, they take it as an automatic order to stand ready, their guns — rubber bullets, the government said — pointed at the opposing line.

And for a moment, everyone pauses. The protesters, the soldiers, the bystanders. Everyone freezes, and watches, and waits.

“See? They’ll stand down now,” I say, hesitantly, hopefully.

And then he sneers, and the sound of firing — with live bullets — starts, and the screams of the dying, and I stare, transfixed, as the crowd begins to panic, some fighting back, some running away. I lean over the edge, and only as I feel his hand on my back do I realize that I shouldn’t have trusted him.

“Go, then,” he said, “join your sheep,” and I was falling.

#
 
There are only flashes of the riot, short clips I remember intensely, bright splashes of colour in the darkness. There is my landing, when I hit three, four people, and they all go down in a pile, and others start stepping over — stepping on — us, in their haste to get away, to run from the bullets, the advancing figures. I roll; I feel someone kick my back, harshly, and I do not know if it is someone under me or someone running away. I feel scrabbing on my face and I close my eyes to the gouging, feeling the nails, the claw of a hand trying to find something to grab on to, and finding nothing but my mouth. I almost bite down, almost, choking on his, her, someone’s fingers, but I wrench myself away, instead.

I remember being hauled up by two bystanders, a man and a woman, who make sure I’m on my feet before moving away, helping others, helping those fallen, even though they were in danger of being trampled themselves. And as I watch, one of them does go down, bowled over by a man running away, and then they are lost, swept away—

I cling to a pole in the crush and see a soldier firing into a man crawling away, hitting him in the back; I watch as the blood comes out of the neat hole in his back, and then, as he turns over, I see the gaping maw that was his stomach, and I vomit, down, into the crowd, into the street that is becoming slick with sweat and blood and urine and vomit.

And then I look up, and see as the man cries out for mercy, and I see the soldier raise his gun again, pointing at the man’s head, and another soldier knock the gun out of the way, calling for a medic, kneeling beside the man. The first soldier stands there for a second, and then takes off his helmet... and then falls, a bright mist coming out of the side of his head, as a pistol finds him, blowing his brains against the side of the street. And yet, the medic still keeps working, doing the best he can for the protester, even as gunfire continues around them, even as he starts bleeding from the ear, a direct hit from a rock that dazes but does not stop him—

I remember having a rock on my hand, and seeing a soldier on the ground, and seeing it bloody. He is knocked out, and there is a girl standing over him, a girl who has a rock in her hand as well, and she is hitting him with it, hitting him in the helmet. And then she kneels, and takes the helmet off, and raises the rock, and her saying, this is for my brother, you bastards

I remember hauling the soldier upright, and dragging him towards his own lines, my hands empty, my face bloody. I remember snarling, snarling, as if I were an animal, at the protesters that came near. I remember the captain snapping his fingers, his uniform clean and pressed and as if he had just come from a parade, telling me to get out of his sight, that he could have me shot but he wouldn’t, because I had sided with the right people. I remember saying, sir, yes, sir—

And then going back into the fray, because what else could I have done? I had seen enough, perhaps, for a million stories, but there were still children bleeding out, fathers and sons and daughters and sisters that needed help.

The story could wait.

#

It’s hours later before I stumble back to my hotel, but I do manage to get there, battered, bloody. I stumble into my chair, curl up into a ball, and start shaking, trembling as the sobs come and don’t stop, as the images start replaying themselves across the inside of my eyelids.

And it’s there, an hour after I get back, that I open my laptop, that I start typing, knowing what my job was, knowing that I had to refute him, knowing that I had to tell the world. I remember the bystanders, the medic, the soldiers that would not take innocent lives, the protesters that just wanted to peacefully call for change.

And I write. I write my fucking heart out, take all the pain that I’ve just witnessed and try and put in all the hope that I’ve seen and I write to change the world.

Even in the darkest corners of the world, there is hope...
talonkarrde: (Default)
Case Number 74 lands on my desk on Thursday morning; Bartlett drops it on my desk personally, watching me with none of his bravado, just tired, sunken eyes.

I flip it open and see the little girl with strawberry blond curls, freckles sprinkled across her cheeks.

"Huh," I say. "Isn't this what you assigned to —"

"Kidnapping of a little girl, Fell." He says shortly, cutting me off. "Catch the fucker."

#
 
I smooth the corners of the file as I wait for someone to answer my knock. Jim and Veronica Baker — a typical suburban family, newly married, both previously divorced and had recently found happiness once again.

Until Katie's disappearance, at least.

She answers the door.

Veronica Baker, née Darling. Thirty-three, in good shape, no previous kids, but good with her sister's daughters, according to my team's background investigation.

"Hi, Mrs. Baker," I say, showing her my badge. "I'm Detective Fell, and I'd like to ask you some questions, if it's okay? I know that a couple of the other officers have already gotten a deposition from you, but we don't like to leave any stone unturned, you understand."

There are numerous books out there that say you can tell a liar by the way their eyes react. It's true — for kids, at least, and adults who haven't learned to lie. For the rest of us, who spend years telling people we love them when we don't and praising worthless actions to survive, our eyes show nothing.

Hers show pain; she's been crying recently. She nods hesitantly to my request, stepping back to let me in, and offers me some tea.

Each of us has a part to play: I pretend that I'm not trying to catch her in a lie, that I'm not questioning her as a 'person of interest', and she pretends that she doesn't know what I'm doing, that I'm just here to look for more information and that I know she's innocent.

I put on a pleasant smile before I start the questions.

#

"Well, Fell?" Bartlett asks, pushing a small pile of chips to the middle. It's our weekly poker game, and it's a hell of a cliché, our quartet — the captain, the donut-loving, friendly 'good cop' Brian, the lean, by the numbers 'bad cop' Jack, and me.

We're all set for a movie shoot, I think, where four cops take on the world and end up dying heroically to save millions. Or, what would probably make more money, a police drama where one of us is Judas and betrays the others to the mob, the gangs, the cop-killers.

I wonder who the traitor would be.

"On the Baker case, I mean," he clarifies unnecessarily, watching me as Brian calls and Jack folds. They've all read the file, and we've progressed to the 'speculate on each other's cases' section of the night.

"Nothing yet, captain," I respond, folding my queen of hearts and two of diamonds in response, looking back across the table at him.

"It's been a week," he says quietly, as Brian lays out the flop. The unsaid comment is obvious — why haven't you caught him yet? What if he strikes again?

"I interviewed the stepmother, who was actually there," I say in response. The others look at me, curious, and I continue. "I asked her, about halfway through, to describe the kidnapping for me ."

Bartlett picks up his winnings after Jack folds and motions to hold off on dealing the next hand. "And?"

"And she checks out," I said. "Gave me the details, everything squares with Davis' investigations. Described the perp again — same details. Didn't remember anything new. She hasn't been sleeping lately, obviously. Her husband says she's been having nightmares. Drowning."

"What a surprise," Jack comments sarcastically. "She was, after all, floating on her air mattress in the lake when the guy came; she probably lost it for a second and almost drowned trying to get to the kid."

I shrug, and Bartlett gives another look.

"Figure it out," he says.

#

I meet Anna by the river where Katie disappeared. I ask her all the usual questions, about her marriage and her ex-husband and his new wife, and she answers them dully, by rote. Of course — she's been asked them a couple times now.

The new Bakers have been together for three years. She divorced Jim the year before that. She doesn't sound too jealous of their new relationship, but I press her anyway. She's a person of interest, too, of course, with a possible angle on wrecking the Bakers' marriage.

Being a detective crushes any optimism a person starts out with. It's rational — optimistic people that aren't cynical about everyone's intentions miss leads, are led astray, and lose perps. So we lose the optimism, with the understanding that it makes us better at our jobs.

Even so, this will be a short conversation, I can tell; her answers give nothing but pain for the loss of her daughter. I feel for her loss, of course, but she has nothing substantial to offer, and our resources should be spent on the leads that we still have on the perp, before he escapes the net and it becomes a cold case.

And at the end of it, I mention that she should get some sleep, even though I know she won't. She mumbles that she's been having nightmares — nightmares of someone drowning her baby, and I wonder for a moment.

Hunches are a detective's way of his intuition connecting gaps in facts he doesn't know yet.

I ask her if Veronica was that good of a swimmer, and Anna shook her head. Apparently Veronica was never a fan of the water; Katie had been taught how to swim entirely by Anna herself.

#

Jim calls us, saying that his wife still hadn't been sleeping, that the nightmares were getting worse. He's worried about her, he says, worried that she was still having terrors of drowning. If we could drop by with any new information on the case, it could perhaps ease her mind.

Sometimes, it's like the movies: you're heading to a place where you suspect the truth is lurking, and perhaps the bad guys, and along the way, forensics will call you: there's been a breakthrough, they say — this is how it was done, go get them and bring them in.

Mostly, though, you go places with a sinking suspicion and nothing to back it up; the fact that you might be wrong is always on your mind, as there are many more false trails than good leads.

There is no call on the way to the Baker residence.

Instead, Anna's car is sitting in the driveway, a shiny BMW with the door still open. I'm out of the car without thinking about it, and lunge towards the door, putting my shoulder against it, hearing the bolt tear through the wood, feeling the door slam open as I roll through.

#

Veronica is kneeling beside a puddle of vomit, one arm stretched towards the pistol pointed at her face. Anna stands there, arm steady, though she turns to watch me stand up, my sidearm in my hand, though I don't point it at anything.

"Don't," Anna warns, as I slowly limp towards the two of them. "She killed my daughter."

I nod, closing the distance slowly. "You think..." I start, "that she should be punished."

"She should die," she whispers harshly, turning back to look at Veronica. "It would be an easier death than the one my daughter had."

Veronica simply starts sobbing, the horrible sound filling the air as we stand there. A second passes, and then five, and then I see Anna draw herself up. She's going to do it, I see.

And I'm caught — the grieving mother had figured it out on her own, and she had the woman who let her daughter die in front of her. A life for a life. But if she killed Veronica, there would be no confession. There would be no legal punishment, no trial, no demonstration for others. The case would be dropped, but not properly closed.

No detective that's been around for more than a few years retains their optimism. But this wasn't about optimism or pessimism, it was about not letting individual vengeance get in the way of justice. Even if it felt shitty.

'Figure it out', Bartlett said, and I had. Now it was time to bet everything I had to protect it. I took a step and jumped for the gun, watching as it went off, feeling as it hit.



//

A/N: In case you missed the link at the top, the other side of the story, courtesy of the talented [info]gratefuladdictShe is an excellent writer, and a very interesting person, and I have to say that I've been pretty lucky and enjoyed every single intersection week we've had.

Windage

Jul. 3rd, 2010 08:56 pm
talonkarrde: (Default)
He walks alone on the ocean of sand, one foot shuffling before the other, the long trail snaking behind him, disappearing over the top of one dune only to reappear at the top of another, and another, until the eye can no longer see. But he does not look back: his path has only one element, forward, as the suns rise behind him and fall in front.

For him, there is only this: the grains of sand, a thousand beneath each foot, a billion in each dune, an infinite number before and an infinite more behind. There is no life in this truest of deserts, no movement but for his march, no sound but for the grains of sand shifting as he moves.

Each step is torturous, not for the heat that beats down upon his back, nor for the chafing of sand between his toes and his fingers, wedged there and in every other crevice in his body, but for the stars that he sees in front of him, and the wind that blows to stop his movement.

During the day, he sees a new vision with each step: the suns create shimmering mirages of galaxies and universes in the sand, each step a new sight. The stars themselves are beautiful, in their raging, burning light – but his punishment is to see more than just their fiery splendor. With each step, he sees the celebration of creation and life on their planets, from the tiniest cell to the most advanced civilization and every aspect in between. Organisms that start from one cell and become many, species that discover the use of tools, he sees the greatest of unifications and the most bitter of wars…and his tears create a second set of prints beside him.

Closing his eyes makes things worse; with his imagination, his mind creates more possibilities than he could ever see with his eyes open. So he continues his journey across the planet, his eyes never closed, seeing a multitude of worlds and crying for the loss of each one, and so many more.

The daytime, however, is his respite.

At night, when the moon is high, the starscapes are no longer of galaxies and universes, his visions no longer of grandiose achievements that epic legends are based upon. Instead, every step takes him to a scene on a world where he sees personal stories. A step, and he watches as a man tenderly makes love to his wife before going off to fight for their daughter’s future. A step, and he sees a son storm out of a house after an argument with his parents. A step, and he sees three friends in old age rest against one another, sharing comfort after the passing of a fourth. He sees emotions and actions which are universal, which do not matter whether the actors in them have claws or hands, two eyes or none at all.

He stopped for a moment, once, a million years ago.

He saw with his eyes, his heart, his soul, a million lifetimes of a million species that his carelessness destroyed, a million beings that could have been but were not. And then he ran - he sped, he broke the sound barrier, he covered a thousand miles in a single stride, and then he reached a point where he could not run any further. His force was not enough to break the laws of physics themselves.


It took him eons to slow his pace, but he has. Now he walks, one foot shuffling before the other, the long trail snaking behind him. Each century, his walk slows just a bit more. Perhaps one day, he will be able to stop and bear the visions without being destroyed by them.

That day, he hopes, he will be freed.
talonkarrde: (Default)
In the august days of China past, when carp passed through a gate to become dragons and mischievous fox spirits roamed the land, there was a young man called Zai Kan.

Kan was an obedient boy who respected his elders and paid tribute to his ancestors. The ghosts of the Zai family watched in delight as he burned money for them to have in the next life and applauded the way he obeyed his parents' every command — even when they told him that he had to scrub the floor until it was as bright as the sun, as the floors of the Forbidden City itself did. He did not question how floors could produce their light; he simply set about scrubbing until it did indeed shine with even the tiniest slivers of the moon shining upon it.

As a young man, he was quiet and did not ask for much. He finished every grain of rice in his bowl and was not greedy enough to ask for more; he seemed perfectly content with the hand-me-downs from his cousins, telling his parents it was a good thing to save money. He bowed to them and he called them by their titles and he never disrespected his elders.

"This is a good boy," his grandmother's ghost said to his grandfather's ghost, looking over the boy's respectful actions. "Perhaps we should reward him, somehow."

His grandfather's younger brothers and older sisters and his grandmother's older brothers and younger sisters (which all, by the way, have different titles) all approved — as they should, for they were also profiting from the money being sacrificed — and went to the head of the family — The Old Zai, or 'Lao' Zai.

No one really knew what relation Lao Zai was to the rest of the ancestors, but they all knew that he was old — very old — and stayed around even when the other ghosts moved on, their vengeances or guardianships complete. And so they had a family council and asked him: "What, Most August of us all, Ancestor of Ancestors, can we do to reward this especially considerate young man, who brings honor to our family name?"

And the old man, standing tall and proud, stroked his long white beard around his fingers and nodded.

"Yes," he said. "I will pay a visit to Shen Long and see what gift he may grant our cherished son."

In the august days of China past, even revered ancestors are not able to travel without encountering yao guais — evil spirits — and other spirits of chaos and trickery. But the story of his journey to the west is another one, for another night. Suffice to say that he made it there, and he pled his family's case to the Dragon of Dragons, who was translucent and opaque at the same time, whose displeased rolls in the air created tremendous storms and whose gentle breath brought forth the rain.

Shen Long listened to Lao Zai's words and a whirling storm suddenly disappeared as the dragon stopped focusing on it to consider this request, one that it had never gotten before. The dragon understood humans, he thought — but then again, perhaps not.

With an simple, opening gesture of the Dragon's claw, Lao Zai found himself back in his ancestral graveyard, unsure if his request was granted and his journey eased... or his request denied and his banishment just that.

Such is the way of dragons.

#

Zai Kan first understood that something was different when he was taking his civil service exam, the one single test that would determine his future. Like a good son and a good student, he had studied for the majority of his academic career for this, and had remembered to give thanks to every ancestor and pray to all the benevolent spirits that might be listening to give him luck.

That day, though, it seemed that only evil spirits were listening, for he knew he had failed the exam. Question after question was on a topic of civil service that he had forgotten, even though he knew he studied everything there was. At first, he had hope that he would still secure a job as a clerk in a less central province; in the end, he knew that he would never be accepted into the government at all.

And in his disappointment — not at his parents, or the exam, of course, but at himself — he thought, if only I could do it again.

And in an instant, he was staring at the blank, unopened first page of the test booklet, with his ink brush neatly by his side, as the rows and rows of other students opened their booklets and started reading the test questions.

Zai Kan was a bright boy — he quickly realized that he still didn't know the answers to the questions in that booklet. And then he thought, if only I could go back—

And in an instant, he was kneeling in his family's ancestral temple, giving them thanks and asking them for blessing for tomorrow. He took twice as long as he had before, asking for guidance and praying for protection from the evil spirits that would distort men's perceptions, and then took himself back to redo the last week.

When the it became time to take the test again, he graduated second in his province, and was very quickly taken to the Forbidden City for training as an official. One of the best they had ever seen, his instructors commented, someone that was prepared for everything.

It was there that he fell in love with a beautiful maiden from the Li family, who was becoming a powerful woman in imperial politics. She was not an official, of course, but she didn't need to be. Word had spread — in whispers, always — that she was a force to be respected; she had removed in power, apparently, two officials who had been known to abuse their power, simply by whispering the right things in the right ears.

It was a perfect courtship.

They were married a year later, in a grand and excellent celebration that was held in the Forbidden City, in front of the Emperor himself. Everything was perfect, people said, and every detail accounted for — except, perhaps, a small storm in his home province, though it really only lasted only a few minutes.

If he could control the weather, people joked, Zai Kan would be able to do everything.

Dragons have long memories, and long lifespans. They are patient, and they are curious.

#

It was only in his elder years that people noticed that Kan was not always cheerful, goodhearted, and prepared for any eventuality. Perhaps it was the death of his loving wife, the one person who he had never, ever disappointed. Perhaps it was watching his eldest child disgrace his family by being caught with a terrible gambling habit, one that cost his family much money, but much more honor.

But only one voice heard Kan mutter to himself about the pointlessness of his achievements compared to others', who only had one chance; only one eye saw the time he had devoted to studying his personal past, every day, searching for every possibility he could improve and knowing, with despair, he had truly achieved his potential. Only one being heard his last thought, as he passed into the spirit world — if only I could go — back to the beginning of it all, and reject this.


And thus, Shen Long learned something about humanity, and he did not interfere again.

Such is the way of dragons.
talonkarrde: (Default)
Three friends — a CIA officer, a Green Beret, and a army psychiatrist — are sitting by a campfire (or maybe they walk into a bar). They've been drinking a bit, and have reached the stage where they compare feats of bravado, and someone asks which of them is the best.

The CIA spook says, "I gather vital intelligence and do covert operations in some of the most oppressive nations on this planet. We have overturned governments, changed viewpoints, and given vital analysis on foreign abilities."

The Green Beret scoffs and says, "Yeah, well, we search for and eliminate terrorist leaders in hostile territory, behind enemy lines. We routinely get dropped into the most dangerous places on Earth, fight our way out, and make those sons-of-bitches quake in their boots."

The two look to the shrink, who looks perfectly placid. "Come now, doc, you have to have something to say."

He pauses for a moment, puts his fingertips together, and then looks at the others over the top of his glasses.

"I repair broken souls and find lost minds."

-

When I was younger, I was enrolled in a psychology fieldwork class; they gave us a choice of either working with abused/neglected children or hospice patients. We were undergraduates, and so there was no 'real' work to be done; both experiences were there to give us a taste of what the field would be like.

Working with the children would be an experience where we could really make a difference, I thought. We would be placed as Big Brothers/Big Sisters and take our charges a few times a week away from their home (often, a halfway home or a local youth shelter) to, say, a McDonalds or the park or a library, and simply spend some time with them and talk about anything they wanted to talk about. I had dreams — delusions, perhaps — of leading someone out of a nest of substance abuse issues or helping them climb from a pit of neglect by showing them that someone loved them, and hopefully help them grow into happy, amazing adults.

There was a boy in the program who originally wasn't going to go to college; he ended up studying clinical psychology, what his Big Brother did, because he wanted to pass on, to pay forward the gift that he had gotten. There was a girl who, six or so years after being in the program, named her first daughter after her Big Sister. Those were the changes we could accomplish.


Working with hospice patients and their families, on the other hand, was the other end of the spectrum; instead of the young, it was the old; instead of teaching and leading, we would be learning and following. We would meet with those who had lived three, four, five times as long as we had, once a week, and spend a few hours with them. It gave us a unique opportunity to ask them what mattered and what they regretted after half a century; it gave them a chance to reminisce about their younger years and pass on what they learned to those who would face similar issues, even if they weren't the exact same ones.

I saw a chance to ask questions about life and death, love and regrets; I believed we would be told grand stories of history as it happened instead of as it was written, and smaller, quieter stories of their own lives and choices. I thought that we would share, and in sharing, make both our lives better.


I, in my naivety, asked to do both.

-

In terms of complexity, there are few things that can even be compared to the human mind. The sheer number of independent parts, the interconnected nature of disparate processes, the precise chemical balances that are held to ensure everything goes right; it is a machine where the whole is tremendously greater than the sum of its parts, a machine that our best technologists have yet to approach the ability to create. Even with nanometer manufacturing processes and the exponential advance of science and technology, our only imitations are to create robots that look alive, without being alive. Perhaps we understand the problem better than our predecessors, but we are no closer to a solution, to being able to instill consciousness where God chose not to.

-
 
I will always regret leaving him there. I stood up after our first meeting, in the office the size of a bathroom, shook his hand, and told him it was nice to meet him.

When the coordinator came in and asked when I'd be back next week, I said that Wednesday afternoons at 1pm would be just fine, thanks, even as I knew I would never be back. And I wasn't; I pushed the date off the first week claiming work, called out sick the second, and then stopped answering the calls.

I didn't have the courage to tell them I couldn't do it; I was young, you see, and full of cocksure arrogance, certain that I could change anything.

And when I saw that it was not so easy, I ran.

I'm sorry.

-

The mind is a marvel that the best of our neuroscientists and biologists and psychologists have yet to to understand. We comprehend cells, we predict the effect neurotransmitters, and we can elicit happiness or combat mood swings with application of electricity and pharmaceuticals. The most capable of us do amazing things with the same limited knowledge we all have, taking cases others think hopeless and coaxing the person back out of the shell; the clumsy fumble around making bad conditions worse, pushing those that could be saved over the edge. But for all that we have learned, the mind is as much of a black box to us today as it was to Freud or Skinner; our tools to decipher its secrets are shouts and explosives when we need whispers and scalpels. We grope around provoking 'stimuli' and measure 'responses', and all we know is that there is so much about ourselves we don't know.

-

Today John and I talk about our fears, everything from the small, irrational one that are implanted through small childhood experiences to the larger ones that guide how we act in life. He tells me that he's afraid of spiders, and we talk a bit about stingers and poison and movies and how many people die each year from spiders. We talk about adrenaline junkies and how they search out those things that are dangerous, and how that behavior can be good, in some forms, but it can also be dangerous if they live only for the rush of possibly dying.

It's been three months since I started working on him, and we're making progress, I think. He's opened up some, especially in these last two weeks, talking about events in his past that he's never raised before, and more than anything else, the way that he's been talking makes me wonder if there will be a breakthrough. He stops less often, bringing up topics himself; he trusts me now, perhaps — I haven't been pushing him at all this last month.

Even if there is a breakthrough, though, it's not like the movies, where all the problems are magically solved. The breakthrough is simply recognizing where deep seated issues, or habits, or destructive ideas rise from; it is only the first step on the long road to actually addressing them.

He's talking about the fear of being alone on holidays and then says about his childhood holidays, where his father wanted everything to be just right. It's an opening, a chance, and I take it — I ask him if it was all of the holidays or just some, in a sideways attempt at eliciting information without asking him bluntly and scaring him away.

He stops talking, though, and looks down. And this is what kills me — I know he's on the edge, teetering, wondering whether he should tell me, instinctively wanting not do, and I have no idea what to do. There's no book, no manual, no operating guide that says, in case of A, do B. There's no overall proclamation that all people will respond in a certain way to a certain gesture, and we are all, goddamnit, fumbling in the dark here.

He shakes his head, finally, after ten seconds, and I have known him long enough to read the expression on his face; I start in my experiences of being along on holidays, about being stuck at airports. I talk so there is no emptiness, so there's no pressure, but with enough of a lead that that if he wants, he can pick up on the topic.

He doesn't; today is not the day that he will talk about it, and in the coming weeks I will never be able to coax him to this using this topic again. It is the story of our relationship; with each bit of information I learn, I get a bit closer to understanding, but often at the cost of burning the bridge that gave me that insight on him.

I can only hope that I reach him before there are no bridges left.

-

Humans are capable of the most incredibly altruistic actions — and, of course, the absolutely depraved. In every generation, there are those  that, if given the opportunity, wouldn't hesitate to give everything to save the world, and those that wouldn't think twice before destroying it.

But what of the fact that there is no real predictor for events or occurrences that will cause people to be good — or go bad? There are certain 'orchid genes' which may cause certain children to be more fragile to certain stimuli that may negatively affect them, and there are many studies which state that children who grow up in broken families or in low income populations may effect destructive behavior when they grow up. But neither of these is a certainty; sadists have come from perfectly 'respectable', 'normal' childhoods, while some of the greatest humanists and saints were inspired by the incredibly cruel conditions of their youth.

And then there is this: not only can we as individuals be singularly inspiring or destructive, but we can be both, sometimes in the span of minutes. When a philanthropist kicks aside a beggar, even after he donates millions to starving children in Africa, when a war criminal goes out of his way to ensure that a certain horse farm is not bombed even as he calls for the destruction of cities; these are the complexities of humans that we do not understand, that we may never understand.

-
 
I met Geraldine's husband first, a spry-looking not-yet-bald old man with all his teeth, wheeling himself away from the hospital room with his walker collapsed between his knees, acting for all the world like a five year old. I met her daughter second, chasing after her father with an exasperated smile, asking him where he thought he was going, exactly, and scolding him to slow down before he hurt himself.

Her daughter paused to tell me this was the room, that her mother was inside, and then smiled apologetically and went to chase down her eighty-year old dad, who was now doing spins in front of the nursing station.

"Hello, Geraldine, how are you feeling today?" I asked, taking a chair next to the hospital bed as I looked over at her. She turned in my direction but didn't smile back; that was my first hint.

"I'm going blind," she said, and the smile died from my face.

"I can't see anymore. I have kidney and stomach issues, and I can no longer walk. They've been wheeling me in and out, all day, doing tests, drawing blood. And all this, I wouldn't care about, if I weren't going blind."

"So how do you think my day was?"

I was silent for a moment, and then I said, honestly, "I've heard better."

But I couldn't stand the way the way she nodded, the silent, I thought so, and I added, "But I've also heard worse."

"Have you?" She asked, and it wasn't bitter, just a question. Was I lying?

"Yes, I have," I said, and that was the beginning of our talks.

She was seventy eight years old, born in February of 1932. Six months ago, her body started breaking down, and she had been admitted to the hospital multiple times since then.

Her hospital packet was thirty pages long, full of all the medications she took and ways that her body was shutting down on her. For me, it only had two pieces of useful information: first, that she been admitted with visual hallucinations,  and second, that she was getting cataract surgery.

"Do you think the cataract surgery will help?" I asked, starting somewhere I thought she would care.

For a second, I thought I had blew it; she was absolutely quiet, and I wondered if I had destroyed any chances of generating a rapport before it had even begun.

Then, quietly, she said, "They did a test on my eyes - there's a pigment or something they look for, and it's supposed to show up red. And it showed up red in one eye, but not the other. So, if I do the surgery, I should be able to get one eye back. That's worth it, wouldn't you say?"

"Yes," I replied quietly. "After all, even if it's only one eye, you'll be able to see."

"I thought so," she replied, and I wondered why she had asked in the first place. Only later did I understand.

"How long has it been?" I asked her.

"About six months. Six months ago, I could see, I could feed myself, I could do almost everything by myself. I could move around, make food, everything. And now..." She held up a hand, gnarled like the bark of an old tree, veins clear, skin sunken, and moved her fingers. She had good movement, I said, surprised.

"But the physical therapy is so hard to get into, you know?" she asked, and it was impossible not to hear the note of defeat in her voice. The physical therapy for what, she probably wondered, the ability to have better fine motor control for how many more months, before she couldn't lift her arm anymore?

"That's why I'm going back to the nursing home; I never could bring myself to do it at home. I just slept at home, every day. I slept more than I ever had," she said, and I understood.

The first time we talked, we didn't speak of her hallucinations, or of the disease that was eating away at her mind; we simply talked about her and what being able to see again would meant. We spoke a bit about her daughter and her husband, and when I stood to leave, she asked me when I'd be back.

"Next week, this time," I said, and this time, I meant it.
talonkarrde: (Default)
"Excuse me," he said politely to the person in front of him. "I'm not sure where I should be going; this is my first time here, I think."

A look of surprise came over her face. "Oh? I didn't know we still had newcomers; I haven't met any in a long time. You're in the wrong line — this one is for those that have already decided where they're going. But it's quite alright - just head over to that counter, and they'll take you through the entire process."

He went as he was directed, looking up at the tall, tall man behind the counter. It didn't look at him.

"Hello, sir. I'm here for...something." He paused, searching his awareness. "A process to be started."

"Everyone is here for something. This happens to be the sorting department. Why do you require sorting? Haven't your experiences taught you enough?" The response was curt, and the giant — a nametag said Gabe — still didn't look at him, though he did shift slightly behind the counter.

"Because," the smaller one said, "I've never done it before."

The reaction was immediate: the giant abruptly bent down, inspecting him carefully, with a look that was more omniscient than piercing. "Well," Gabe said after a bit, and then again, "Well."

"You are new. Come, please, follow me." Without another word, Gabe strode away, leading him through a veritable maze of hallways and intersections, with doors spaced every so often; each door bore a different name. Every once in a while, someone would pass by the pair — an old man missing an eye; a cheerful young woman with an ankh around her neck; a man, brown of skin, with a falcon's head; and a tall, slim man with eyes of madness and a shadow that writhed — and never once was he paid any mind by them.

Finally, the giant stopped in front of another doorway, one bearing a short, four letter word on it, and gestured for the newcomer to head on in.

"End of the line, beginning of the process. You'll have to make a choice and then, well, all of those that we passed in the Crossings will start taking an interest in you, that's for sure. Now, I don't usually give advice...but it's been couple eons since we've had a newcomer, and, well, maybe it will make a difference. So, here: take risks. You'll be back."

With that, Gabe rose to his full height, clapped the young man on the shoulder, and then spread his wings and flew away.

Miles — that's what he decided his name was — watched as the angel flew away, and then stepped through the archway.

-

The room was dark and close and pulsed faintly; it enveloped him and never seemed to extend more than a few feet to any side, though he kept walking and the walls kept retreating. Eventually, he stopped, and found that two others were there with him. One, he saw, was the light, and the other darkness, and they were in balance, neither overriding the other.

The light spoke first, and it knew his name.

"You are new to this existence, Miles, and so you have a decision to make. You may choose what form you take, what responsibilities you will be given, what burdens you will bear."

The dark continued, "And you will choose what pains you will suffer, how your nights will be spent, what calamities will pass you by."

"What-" he started to ask, and then found his question answered.

"Anything at all," the light said, sinking roots into the ground, stretching above Miles and communicating in patterns of dropped leaves and sunlight peeking through branches. "You could be an oak tree, starting from a seed in the ground, forever growing towards the light, casting a canopy thirty-meters wide and providing a home for tens or hundreds of other species."

"Until the bulldozer comes," the dark continued, twisting into a whirring, mechanical maelstorm, "and sawblades cut your body apart, destroying the shelter that you provide and leaving an ugly scar where you were. But you will feel nothing; you will simply, one day, stop living."

"Or you could be a cat," the light said, stretching out a paw and batting at the air, "and play with humans, and be fed and nourished by them, and enrich their lives when they are feeling down, and be a cherished part of their lives from the time that you are born to the time that you die."

"But you will suffer," the dark responded, and gave Miles the feeling of hunger from not being fed, of pain from being mistreated by owners that saw him as nothing more than a plaything, of terror at being chased by creatures bigger than him and having no one to defend him.

They were feelings that Miles did not envy, and he asked what else he could be, and the light and the dark told him of the millions of shapes that life had taken.

-

And then, finally, they show him what being human was like.

The light smiles at Miles and lets him see visions of a father cradling his newborn daughter for the first time, the love between two octogenarians that have been married for more than half a century, the thrill of a winning goal on a team of underdogs. He shows him the wonder of thousands of people working together to make peace in a war-torn region, and the effects that one good person can have on his community, on history.

And the dark shows him the pain from losing a child to a miscarriage, a misunderstanding between a child and his parents leading to something that tears the family apart. He inflicts upon Miles the pain of losing family members to war, of innocent civilians dying for no reason, and shows him the emptiness that their deaths leave behind. The dark tells him that pain is unavoidable though happiness is far from certain, and that many will live meaningless lives and die in pain, alone, for no reason.

And when they are done, they ask him what his choice will be, and he does not hesitate. There is no amount of pain, he says, that would not make life — and self-awareness — worthwhile. The light and the darkness disappear, and where they were, Miles observes that in the middle of this dark, pulsing, enveloping room, a cell is dividing.

Soon, he knows, it will be him.
talonkarrde: (Default)
In my years tending bar, I've found that there are a few reasons people will drink out, and they fall into some pretty distinct categories.

When people go to a lounge, they're there to dance, make friends, maybe get lucky for the night. The guy with way too much gel in his hair will buy something fruity for the girl and she'll giggle and flirt and maybe go home with him, if he's smooth and she's lookin'.

When a guy heads to a seedy bar and slaps a twenty down, ordering the strongest thing you have, he's there to drown his sorrows away, and most likely doesn't want any attention or company aside from the liquor. Those ones need to be watched, now - you never know if they're gonna drink themselves to death, start a fight, or otherwise turn a perfectly fine night upside-down.

Then there's this third group of people, the interesting ones. They'll pick a respectable, decent pub (as I'd like to think mine is, the Rotor n' Prop — we get a lot of pilots, being right by the airfield), order a few strong drinks for courage, and keep looking around at the others, occasionally trying to break into their conversations. I figure the 'friendly bartender' tradition started because of people like this — there's a lot of downtime and you want your patrons to keep coming back, so you might as well jaw a bit. And, sometimes you can even help out.

So I talk with them. Or rather, most of the time, they just want an ear and can't find one elsewhere, and drying glasses means that I have plenty of attention to spare. So they'll talk their bit, I'll nod sympathetically, and they figure things out on their own, and everyone's happy. Their stories run the gamut of problems at work, problems in their relationships, bad sex, homicidal relatives, everything you can think of. I've noticed one thing, in these years — the details may be different (hell, there was a story last week that was just insane), but the human story is to find meaning in some shape or form. Always a quest for the meaning of life, you know?

Every once in a while I'll get some whiner, and there's little to do but tell the boy to man up and take some goddamn responsibility. Sometimes, they even come back after growing some cojones, and become pretty regular patrons — I like those guys. The ones that come back will have pretty decent lives, I figure, because they can take advice when they need to. Not saying that nothing bad's ever gonna happen to them, but they can at least roll with the punches.

And then there are those on the other end of the spectrum. Cocky-ass flyboys that think they're invincible because they've just gotten their wings. Don't matter much what they're flying; Cessna or Beechcraft, or even the Learjet pilots or Navy jocks, hubris is hubris. They think they could land anything with wings after a minute in the cockpit; they think they could fly through a tornado and come out unscathed.

Sometimes, there's a senior airman that will lay it on them, tell them what flat-footed incompetent pants-on-head SOBs that they are, give them the sound verbal ass-kicking that they need. And sometimes, there isn't anyone around to bring the strutting rooster down, and I figure it falls on me.

So I tell them the story:

-

About twenty-five years ago, there was a twenty-two year old rookie pilot named Sean who had just earned his pilot's license. Sean had wanted to fly since he was five or six and saw his first air-show, and pretty much ate, breathed, and dreamed planes. When he got his pilot's license, he thought he was some hot shit. Granted, his pride wasn't entirely unjustified; the instructors had praised him often for his quick learning and fast reactions, and agreed that he'd probably make a hell of a pilot in ten years, if he kept learning. But Sean took it as meaning that he was a hell of a pilot already, and strutted around with aviator glasses, a pilot's cap, and a bomber jacket, despite the fact that he had never flown a military plane.

There was one thing that Sean cared about other than flying, and that was his fiancée, Amber. They'd been childhood friends and after getting over the usual awkwardness of youth, they started dating their junior year of high school. They loved each other, and rarely for a young couple, recognized what they had. Amber had reconciled with the fact that Sean would be in the skies for most of his life and didn't hold his dreams against him; in turn, Sean made sure that if he wasn't flying, he was with her as much as she wanted.

It was to no one's surprise when they got engaged at the end of college, a few months before their five-year anniversary. Sean wanted the day to be something special and called the small airfield, pulling a few strings, and given that he had more or less grown up there, they let him have what he wanted. A Cessna 152 would be waiting for him that Saturday for a two hour flight.

Saturday was bright and sunny and the couple headed to the airfield at about ten in the morning, ready to spend a few hours flying. Sean wanted to get them into the air as soon as possible — and yes, you guessed it — skipped the visual walk around and most of the preflight check. That was his first mistake, though when he taxiied out and took off, the plane responded just fine. For the better part of half an hour, they cruised around, the 'captain' keeping it steady at first, and then trying to impress Amber with his skills. No loops or spins - he wasn't that stupid. But he rolled side to side, took a few dives that were completely unnecessary, and generally behaved like a young idiot with a toy that he didn't fully understand the limits off. Luckily for him, the plane held together...

...until he started the descent for landing. The engine stalled and shut off as he was parallel to the runway, about to make the two final right angle turns to land. "Shit," the tower heard, but that was it. The official report commented that the Cessna acted like it could still make the runway, cutting in and taking the turns early — too early, according to what should have been done — and was going too fast when it approached the runway.

The report stated that with radio silence, it was impossible to tell, but it was likely that the pilot was panicking, especially with someone else in the cockpit with him, and due to that, forgot about the crosswind. A strong gust came in, one that could've been compensated for under normal conditions. The left wing hit the ground, dragged the Cessna to nosedive into the ground, and the plane lost the other wing and ended up rolling about a hundred feet from the point of impact, shedding debris along the way.

Sean woke up from a coma two weeks later; two days after Amber's funeral had happened, and never flew again.

-

It's not a happy story, and I watch their faces as they slowly lose the confident smirk. When I get to the ending, they're somber and reflective, a staggering reversal from the loud and obnoxious 'captains' that came in. They see, I think, a bit of where they could have been and what it means, and take off their pilot's caps, put away their aviator glasses, shrug uncomfortably in their bomber jackets.

And then they shuffle off, their attitudes changed for the afternoon, at least, hopefully longer. Every once in a blue moon, before he goes, the hotshot will ask me a question.

"What did Sean do with his life? Was he ever happy again?"

And I pause for a second, wondering myself, before I respond.

"Well, life goes on. He stumbled around for a while, lost in his guilt, and almost drank himself to death before a friendly bartender set him straight and told him to take responsibility and live his life in a way that Amber would've wanted him to."

And then I pause again, making sure I meet their eyes as I continue.

"Eventually, though, he found something that he could be content with, and became the bartender of a small pub on the edge of an airfield."
talonkarrde: (Default)
This was a world of microphones and pinhole cameras, dead drops and double intelligence. It was a world and a time where a single person behind enemy lines could be worth more than five battalions in front of it, where one intercepted dispatch could save thousands of lives.  It was the world of Sidney Reilly and William Stephenson — the world that James Bond would have thrived in.

But it was also a world where both sides were more than eager to get information from the other and would pay handsomely for it; it was also the world of moles and double-agents, where even the most trusted agents could be working for the enemy, where betrayal was significantly more common than loyalty to one's nation.

Jack Abbott was a thirty-one year old British scholar of German literature that had been a friend of the Viscountess Astor; he had gone to Germany in 1933 on her recommendation, to 'see how the Germans were rebuilding', as she put it. It was only later that he learned that the Viscountess and her friends — the Cliveden set, as they become later known — wanted to keep friendly relations with Nazi Germany, and intended to use him to communicate to the leadership — Hitler, Hess, Goering, and the others.

It was an experience that he cooperated with, at first; it filled him with a sense of importance when he met these powerful leaders at state dinners. It perhaps helped that he fit the Aryan ideal, with his wavy blonde hair and sky blue eyes, his non-threatening manner but close ties to British leadership, they spoke to him of their designs to bring a new age about, one where the two great nations of Britain and Germany could together exert influence over — not 'rule', of course — their neighbors.

One day, he met a William de Ropp, another British national, at a private dinner with the Führer. It was a short dinner, and few words passed between them, but there were few enough British in Berlin that Abbott invited him over the next day for tea. As they chatted, he felt that de Ropp was appraising him — and indeed, at the end of the afternoon, de Ropp mentioned something about serving the British Empire, and that someone would be in contact. Abbott was pleased — it was a chance to serve his country, but more importantly, to earn honor and fame.

Someone did contact him the next day, a man who called by phone and identified himself as codename 'Intrepid'. That was the beginning of Abbott's training. The next weeks were a whirlwind of activity as various MI6 agents stepped in to teach Abbott the basics of spycraft — the art of covert exchanges, of where the points in Berlin were that he could drop information to make sure it got back to the Home Office, of the bugs that he could use. Above all, though, they taught him one lesson — make sure he stayed connected with those that he needed to, and when in doubt, risk nothing. Risk nothing, they said, because it could be his life on the line. But all he remembered were the ways to hide cameras in regular objects, the ways to use the exciting secret code to transmit information he found.

His objectives came in, two months later — stay close to Hess and Goering, and Hitler if he could, and continually promise that  the British were interested in peace, and that they were just waiting for a sign from the Germans. As he was doing that, use the system of dead drops to alert the Allies of any significant military movement. It seemed fairly simple, as the leadership still hosted soirées and public gatherings, which Abbott was invited to and always attended.. but the intelligence was slim.

Two months of training didn't make a regular civilian a spy, and Abbott didn't realize that much of a mole's job was simply to wait until an opportunity fell into his lap. As the weeks passed and he heard of German victory after victory, he fought to contain his impatience, his dreams of being a hero slipping away, and started asking about how the military was doing — subtlety, of course. At least, it was subtle to him.

He opened his mail several days later and found a letter which said that the Germans would be moving towards the Maginot Line with fifty tanks, and that they would be striking from Alsace. It was signed 'a supporter of the allies', and Abbott believed his break had finally come, that his time to shine was then. That afternoon, he set off directly towards his closest dead drop location, and passed the message on — except that he felt it would be better if he embellished a bit, to make sure that the Germans would be crushed and that he would get credit for it. So he put that there would be 100 tanks, imagining the honors he would be given for his services as the Allies swiftly crushed the German incursion into France and Germany surrendered the next day. Abbott would be made a Lord — or perhaps even given some land in Germany to watch over. It would be perfect.

-

A week later, the Germans overran Belgium and crossed into France, and the tanks never materialized at the Alsace section of the Maginot Line. Abbott didn't have too much time to ponder this, though, because he was met by Hitler at his door, who had taken time out of his schedule for a personal house call.

His last words to Jack Abbott were, "We almost missed the fact that you were the mole because you had exaggerated so much, my friend."
talonkarrde: (Default)
They had followed the dirt road for many miles, believing that it would lead them to civilization, or at least  what remained. It was just the two of them now, after the drama, the battles, the brief but sad services for those who had fallen.

The two of them had forged an uneasy alliance in the weeks after meeting, and even started to trust each other, though their survival instincts argued against it. Both of them had been in the wild enough to know that the more people there were, the more supplies they would need to find — and the more likely it was that there would be trouble. But as they found and then lost others, both grudgingly accepted that having someone to watch their back was going to heighten their chances of survival.

When their seven-person group started arguing about the latest kill and who got credit and who should lead, they simply asked for a share that no one would argue with and left. They recognized the signs of a dying group and knew that it wouldn't be long before it got bloody, and the most important thing was to put distance between them and the others.

That night, he woke to the sound of gunfire in the distance and saw distant muzzle flashes from where they had split with the others. A brighter glare — a fire, perhaps — illuminated her features for a moment before she turned, giving a shrug to his silent question. He nodded back, unsurprised, and went back to sleep.

The next day, they broke camp quietly, giving a moment of silence for the uncertain fates of their previous companions, and then set off in the opposite direction from the gunfire. It was risky, because it would be entering the dry salt flats, but there was an unspoken agreement that the most dangerous threat came from behind them. While nature was heartless, it wasn't intelligently malicious.

It had been three days since then and the supplies were dwindling rapidly. Hunger and thirst were no longer occasional visitors, but rather constant companions that dogged their footsteps, slowing them down. They were disciplined and pressed on, taking longer breaks in what shade they could find, eating and drinking less, but it was starting to take its toll.

She crested the hill and saw the gas station, an oddity because it still had all four walls and a roof that still stood. It had been the only real structure that they had seen in days, and she was betting that no one else had been this far into the desert for a long time — from possibly before the Culling. It was almost certain, in fact, and she was only saved from weeping because her self control told her that her body couldn't afford the reckless water loss. Licking cracked lips, she beckoned him to her but stayed quiet, not wanting to give them away just in case someone unfriendly was already calling it home.

He was less reserved and let out a whoop of joy — and then looked chastised as he realized that he had just given them away. But no doors slammed shut, no hostile voices called out across the desert, and after a moment of looking at each other, they both sprinted towards the building, trying their best to dampen their hopes and failing miserably.

She passed him halfway across the hundred meters to the door and almost skipped into the open doorway, scavenger eyes instinctively scanning the room for danger and opportunity.

And then she fell to her knees, tears coming to her eyes as she surveyed the empty, barren, pristine shelves, looking for the supplies she needed to be there, trying to will them into existence, trying desperately not to fall apart.

He walked in behind her then, gasping heavily, holding his side, and simply looked in with empty eyes as they shared a vision of a refuge that could have sustained them for weeks or months. For minutes, they stood there, letting their minds supply what their eyes could not.

And then, having nothing else to do, they set up camp in the middle of the store. They spread their sleeping rolls out, started a fire, and set the single, quarter-full canteen and two strips of jerky between them. Neither said a word as they each took a strip and took a mouthful of water.

That night, she slept, while he kept watch.


The next morning, she was surprised to find that he wasn't there. She whistled an alert, something that should've brought him from wherever he was, and then scrambled to her feet, knife out and ready, when she didn't get an answer. The shelves that crushed her dreams yesterday now stood and shielded possible enemies, as she turned in every direction, trying to find the threats.

And then she looked down and saw the note, written with dirt on the linoleum.

My friend,

We will not both leave here. Have a moment of silence for me.


She saw the line of dirt, carefully poured with the funnel of a fist, that led around the shelf. It was to spare her the sight when she first woke up, she realized, and then slumped to the floor, tears coming once more, alone and hopeless, even as her survival instinct saw a new way out.

To take his sacrifice would be to break a rule that was incontrovertible, one that had stood since the beginning of civilization. The sheer thought of it turned what was left of her stomach, and she told herself she shouldn't even consider it. And yet she did, with increasing regularity, as she sat there with just the shelf separating the two of them, feeling as the hunger and thirst bore down on her. And she knew, too, that if she waited too long, his gift would simply be squandered, fit only for the flies.


That night, she had a moment of silence before starting the fire again, grabbing her sharpest knife, and walking around the shelf to him.

Profile

talonkarrde: (Default)
talonkarrde

March 2017

S M T W T F S
   1234
5 67891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
262728293031 

Syndicate

RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Sep. 21st, 2017 07:39 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios