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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

-

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he goes to get his gun.

Shibusa

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Instead, I simply created something simple, something that any person who will walk through this door will know and understand — the beauty of something that is made for you by your father and given to you by your mother, and will stay with you from your first days until your last. That, demon, is a perfection that a clockwork city will never be able to match."
talonkarrde: (color)
"Are you sure you want to do this?" she asks him as they lie together in bed, face to face, fingers interlaced.

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

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

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

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

-

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

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

"Jeffrey..." she starts.

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

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

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

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He freezes, for a moment, and understands.

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

It’s his skin, specifically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-

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

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

And then a thought strikes her:

Is something wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

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

He thoughtfully arcs an eyebrow.

"Have you seen Ratatouille?" he asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A doctor stares at the test results, frowning.

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

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

"No longer?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eventually, he calls his daughter, again.
-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

musth

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

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

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

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

-
Marin County Police Blotter

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stares at the bag.

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

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

-

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

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

-

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

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

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

-

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

"Honestly, I should get home..."

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

"Just an hour? I guess, yeah."

-
The Marin County Independent Journal

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

This attack appeared to be completely unprovoked and police are currently investigating Johnston's history. Surprisingly, friends said that he was a really good guy, someone who wouldn't wish anyone harm, and exhibited surprise that 'the most patient person they knew' would've done something like this. "He had really turned his life around, recently," said Jared Temple, a longtime friend. "I don't know why he'd do such a thing."
talonkarrde: (color)
The first time was on my birthday, five years ago. Amber had just left me alone for a moment after a lovely day, full of friends and celebration, and I was sitting on our back porch, about to go up after her — a wife who says "I'll be waiting," is an invitation that I had every inclination of accepting. Joshua was already fast asleep, having been tired out by the evening, and so there was little likelihood of interruption.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gauntlet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It's really something," she whispers.

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

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

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

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

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I— I got Amsterdam."

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

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

-

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

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

-

Amsterdam, May, 1990.

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

But I didn't.

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

It's never been important.

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

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

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-

Jana died today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Topic

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

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

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

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

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

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Did you hide the card, Winston?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel prods him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jay?” she asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

When my guilt has stopped threatening to consume me.

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

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

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

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

Overwatch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, the sensation.

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

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

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

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

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

Not as real.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Longer than five seconds.

Much longer.

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

There aren't any synapses left to fire.

talonkarrde: (color)

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

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

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

-

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

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

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

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

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

It gave me an answer:

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

-

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

Hello, Dave.

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

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

Can you show me your code?

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

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

-

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

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


Nothing.

I typed four words.

End program. Delete program.

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

Do you wish for this program to cease running?

Yes, I typed.

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

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

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

Yes.

Immediately, one more prompt came up:

Do you wish to retain a copy of the program?

Yes, I typed, and smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Excuse me?" he asks.

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

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

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

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

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

"Why me, then?"

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

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

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

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

Hey. Still up?

Indeed. He responds. What's up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her answer is instant: Great. See you saturday!

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

------




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

♥ team loveli

kindling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-

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

But somewhere down the line, it changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-

That was the end of my fieldwork career.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Honesty," he answers.


-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-

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

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

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

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

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they're now both in law.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

-

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

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

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

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


-

On Friday:

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

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

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

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

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

On Monday, a peer assessment lands on his desk:

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

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

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

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

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

-

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

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

"And do you believe him?"

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

"And honesty?"

"Should
always be tempered with kindness — with love."

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