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

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

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

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

I picked up the check.

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let me show you a video.”

#

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

Darius lingers and stops me just before I get in.

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

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

#

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

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

And then the bullet hits me.

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

Oh god, does it hurt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally, close your eyes as the curtain falls.

Leaves

Dec. 27th, 2010 08:54 am
talonkarrde: (color)
For Siyi

---

A picture of a post-apocalyptic library, with books still on shelves but trees growing through the floor

He was finally starting to think of the library as his, as a place of sanctuary and refuge, when she appeared, sitting there as if she owned the place.

It was a day like any other; a long ride around two in the afternoon to twenty-seventh street, a diversion into an alley to hide his trusty one-speed titanium-alloy blue Schwinn — his most treasured possession — and finally, a short crawl through a break in the wall to enter the structure (it wasn’t really a building anymore, per se, what with not having a roof) itself.

Though his mother complained about the hour long ride into the ruins of New York, the library being so far away from the camp meant that no one but roving stragglers would be in the area. It meant security and safety, a place to hide when things were bad at home, and because of that, he was always very careful when he made the journey. He watched for shadows that weren’t his and took a more roundabout path when he even had the slightest suspicion that anyone might be following, and it had worked so far. The few times he had seen figures in the distance, whether following him or not, he made sure to lose them before sneaking into the library, trusting that the locked, barred, and rusted metal doors would hold, and that no one would be able to find his secret entrance.

And the library had always stood against intruders, even that one time when it seemed like the biker gang knew he was inside, and tried to force the doors open. He had curled up under a table, shivering, his eyes flitting from the door and his secret entrance, wondering what he’d do if they came through either. In the end, though, they gave up and he resolved to be twice as careful, and nothing like that ever happened again.

But for all his plans of secondary routes and hidden alleyways and loopbacks, he had never thought about what would happen if someone had found the sanctuary and was waiting for him inside. Certainly, he had never even come close to formulating a plan for anything like her: a girl who looked about about his age, blond hair in a ponytail, calmly sitting there with a book in her hands, reading as if this were before everything fell apart.

So he stared.

After a few moments, she looked up at him and smiled.

“Oh, so this place belongs to more than just the trees.” She patted the trunk of the one next to her, the one that had sprouted right in the middle of the library floor and climbed all the way to the ceiling, where its canopy filled in some of where the roof used to be.

“Wha-where-how’d you—” he sputtered, gesturing behind him and around him, coming up short for words. Her voice was musical and teasing and something else he wasn’t quite sure he could put a finger on. Happy, he realized later, something that hadn’t been familiar to him lately.

“The same way you came through, of course. The doors certainly weren’t going to open, and even if they were, that wouldn’t be a good idea, now would it? And I’m even smaller than you, and so I fit through just fine, and you didn’t even notice that someone had moved the bush and—” And then she suddenly realized that she was talking a bit too quickly, speaking without thinking about what she was saying, that somehow, she had started babbling. To a complete stranger, no less.

Her teeth clicked together as she stopped mid-sentence, waiting for him to respond, suddenly less confident than she had been. And still he stood there, still surprised, and she noticed, still staring.

“Um. I hope you don’t mind that I started in on your collection,” she said, lifting the book and showing him the cover. A story by Robin Hobb, one of the ones he had read. A very good book, actually, and he wondered if she had picked it by chance.

“No, that’s fine- I mean- it’s not like it’s—” And then he fell silent as well, trying to figure out what to do. She wasn’t here to use the books as firewood, certainly; it didn’t look like she was here to rob him, either. As for what she was here for...well, there was only one way to find out, wasn’t there?

“Did you like it?” He asked.

#


The next few weeks were much like the ones before, except that from two to five in the afternoon, the two of them would meet and read, and most of all, talk. They talked about their lives, their hobbies, and their favorite authors and books, and there was something in the ease of their bickering, their teasing, their flirting, and their talking. Back when the world had six billion people, these two finding each other would’ve been special; the fact that they existed in the three million people that were left — and met each other — was a miracle.

Or maybe, as the stories told, it was fate.

#


As he pedaled to the library two weeks later, he looked down at the basket in front of him, at the carnations inside. It was a gesture from before the cities fell, when flowers were rare enough that there were specialized stores that sold them. Nowadays they were everywhere, mixed with the weeds, and much of the meaning had been forgotten. Even so, he knew that she’d appreciate them, and rose early to get his scavenging shift done with enough time to pick the flowers for her.

She was waiting for him when he arrived, wearing the aviator shades he had found a week ago, another book in her lap; it was almost a deja vu of their first meeting, though this time, she was sitting on a rock in the alley outside. She looked up and waved as he pulled up.

“Hey,” she said softly, closing the book she was holding. Robin Hobb, again.

“Hey - waiting for me to go in? You didn’t have to, it’s not locked,” he said, smiling, as he leaned the bike against the wall.

“No, not...quite,” she said, looking up at him as he came over but not meeting his eyes, not matching his smile.

A guy leaning over a girl, a bike in the background.

“What is it, then?” he asked, hearing something in her tone of voice. He stopped in front of her, flowers forgotten, and then, reached out, slowly, to take the glasses off.

Her eyes were red and the tear tracks were obvious.

“I- I have to go. My parents, they’re...leaving, they’re taking the car and looking to head out to the West, see if there are bigger pockets of civilization left. They told me that we’re leaving at the end of today and that we’ve already been here longer than we should have, and that if I needed to say goodbye, I should do it now. We’ll be back in a year, they said.”

And like when they met, all he could do is stare until she broke him out of it.

“So, I was hoping...” she started, lifting the book in her lap weakly. “That you could part with some of your books, so that I could take them with me, and read them on the way, and...” so I’ll never forget, she doesn’t quite say.

“And then you can bring them back to me, and we’ll talk about them, right?” It was, they both knew, more a wish than a statement, but it was the best he could do. He tried to smile, and mostly succeeded. “Take anything you want, but promise me that you’ll be back within a year — otherwise, I’ll have to start charging overdue fines!”

She nodded, glad that he was playing along, and took his hand, leading him to the secret entrance. She walked into the library with him one last time, taking a few books here and there — a book of short stories, a history book, a love story — and finally came back out, ending up where they started.

“A year,” he said to her, taking her hands and putting a carnation in them. “I’ll see you here, inside the library, next year, okay? I’ll be here every day between now and then, in case you decide to come back early, if you’ve finished all of them.”

She nodded slowly, staring at him, trying to memorize every last detail before she left. And then she did leave, backpack over her shoulder, flower in her hair, and he turned to go back into the library, to find a very specific book — a calendar. Every day, he would draw a mark through the day on the calendar, counting down until she’d come back.

And every day, he would look forward to the afternoon he’d find her sitting there again, a new book in her hands, waiting for him to show up.

Brouhaha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The congressional investigation ended with this line: “This attack took the lives of more than two thousand civilians and was accomplished with the use of a twitter account and thirty cans of colored, compressed air. There were no bombs, no weapons of mass destruction, and no motive. We have no recommendations at this time.”
talonkarrde: (Default)
The family called me Paul and I accepted the name easily, even though it came from my description — Personal Automaton, Utility and Labor. Sure, there were those of us named with more wit — Jeeves and Lurch, for example — but there were also ones that were referred to as Scrap, Dumbbot, and, other, less polite words. In light of the possible variance of owners, I had a good family.

When I was produced, it was during the first Outer Giants Bubble, and I only stayed in stasis for three weeks after the Awakening Process; my family had put their money in the right stocks, and came out ahead of the explosively bullish market. They decided to stay with a relatively small plot at home instead of the vast tracts of land they could had if they went off-planet — which might have had something to do with the news about the convicts and forced immigrants the Nations were shipping out — and ended up getting a three square mile plot of land, just south of Mount Kilamanjaro, only about two hours flying distance from the Saharan Starport.

It was an incredible view, one that, yes, even one an automaton could appreciate.

My job was simple: keep everything in working order. As utility and labor, I was to keep the grounds, make sure the electricity and plumbing was operating correctly, and fix any mechanical flaws. Though I was expected to interface with humans and thus given a humanoid shape, I was designed primarily for strength and constructed from the best materials for moving and shifting, though with some dexterity for manipulation. I would never reach the level of fine motor control that the Children And Toddlers series required, but I could reliably lift a car or two over my head without any problems — which, as I found out, is quite a trick.

The first five years were wonderfully mundane. My master and mistress simply wanted me to keep everything presentable, and I did, trimming grass near the mansion, keeping the gardens healthy and free of pests, and doing occasional maintenance work inside the house. I had time to maintain myself, and there were the other, non-sentient bots — lawn-mowing machines, trimmers, and others that I could instruct to do much of the work. When I had an issue with a servo or more complicated electronics, I could take it to my owners and they would call in a specialist and get it fixed promptly. I was not loved, no; but I was respected, and I did a good job, and that was enough for me. I could say nothing wrong of them.

It was the sixth year, though, where things began to change. And it was the twelve years after that which I most enjoyed, where I thanked my makers for allowing me the experience of happiness.

For in the sixth year of my service, Robert and Ashley were born.

They were twins who brought my owners much happiness. I thought I understood their feelings, despite not being programmed for empathy; it was a matter of successfully procreating, and doing so in an aesthetically pleasing and symmetrical fashion. When they were babies, I would see them when their mother took them out into the backyard, and go about my work, and from time to time, I would notice that they were watching me, too. When Robert was about four years of age, he solemnly came up to me and said “Good morning, Paul,” as if we were friends — or, perhaps, equals — and then promptly instructed me to build him a fort.

I did, using the logic that my owners would want me to serve their children, and constructed an elegant, if old-fashioned fort out of the spare lumber that I had been collecting for construction purposes, and positioned it in the back yard as Robert wanted it. It had two towers, and a wall that was almost six feet tall, and I was proud of my abilities to do such a thing.

When I finished, an hour later, he came up to me and hugged my leg, and said, “Good job, Paul,” and I understood that I would serve Robert as I had served my master. Even though his mother scarcely allowed him to play in it, the fort stood for years as a reminder of our first real interaction, and set the tone for how we would interact. I would build obstacle courses for him, and clear jungle with him, and scale mountains; I was his protector, his knight, his lieutenant.

I was proud — yes, an automaton can be proud — to help him in any way I could.

Ashley was different; she was a girl, of course, and young, and far less prone to asking me to do things, though she greeted me warmly every time we saw each other. It was in her tenth year when she first asked me to do something for her — and it was not a building she wanted, but rather something from the books she had been reading: a garden, a secret garden, a maze of hedges with a secure center that only she and I would know. Inside would be her sanctuary, her place of refuge, and she returned to it time and time again in the years that followed.

And so my owners became my family.

Across the seasons and years, Robert and Ashley sought out my company often, regaling me with stories I would listen to and giving me requests I would fulfill. The family’s land became dotted with their creations: buildings and miniature reproductions from pieces of literature, fantastic geometry from their imaginations, and I built it all. Some were designed for the company of their friends and some for their own solitude, in times when they didn’t even want to see each other, but even then, I would be allowed into those refuges; perhaps because I had built them, perhaps because I had been their guardian ever since they were children.

The Master and Mistress understood my relationship with their children, and never bade me to take them out; instead, they simply asked for me to go to them, and keep them company, and make sure they came to no harm. In those years, I understood what it was like to be a friend instead of just a servant, to be asked instead of required to do things, even though my code would have required me to do it just the same.

But a few words — a question, instead of a command — makes all the difference.

And then they left.

It was the seventeenth year of my service; the twins’ twelfth birthdays, and it was the Centennial Collapse. There was an issue with formerly high-value resources that were suddenly irrelevant. Technology had jumped, and those in that sector had not seen it coming, and were caught flat-footed.

My family had been in that business, and very quickly went from being comfortably well off to being paupers. There were talks to sell the land, but Robert and Ashley protested against it, and the Master drew upon what money he had left to ensure that the land would stay in the family, even if it meant that they could not stay with the land, as there were no more jobs on Earth for my owners’ specializations. They — my family — would have to leave, to seek their fortunes in the stars, and they would leave me here to watch over everything, until they returned.

I understood the logic behind it, of course; my duty as a PAUL was to keep the lands and mechanics pristine; I would have no place on a starship where there were self-regulating systems to keep everything clean, and there was not enough money to refit me for one of the other planets.

But still, I — ‘hoped’ is not the right word, for while we can learn and feel and experience, we are not completely human in our programming — I would have preferred to be able to go with my family. Perhaps it showed, because they sent Robert and Ashley out to me, and they looked very solemn, even with what I knew as tears coming out of their eyes, and they said this.

“Will you keep the grounds for us, Paul?,” and, “We’ll be back for you, and we want everything to look as good as it ever did. Can you do that?”

And what could I do but obey- no, instead: what could I do but accept their request?

I kept the ground for over seven thousand three hundred days — for over twenty years — with ten minutes each morning and each night spent looking to the North, for the sign of the family car, or any car, flying over the Mount, carrying my family back to me. The rest of the time, I did my duty, as was asked of me, and I kept the lawn mowed and the plumbing working and the electronics active. But more than that, I kept the castle, the keep, the rose trellis, the obstacle course, and the Escher stairs maintained, and most of all, I watched over Ashley’s secret garden and Robert’s fort.

Every year it was harder, as some of the lesser robots broke down and there was no one to order parts, and no money to pay for them. The lawn took hours to mow, instead of minutes, and the repairs became more and more haphazard as I understood that to repair a small, superficial thing would be cannibalizing resources from a more important repair that I would need to do later. But I kept going, replacing my own servos and parts as it became necessary, accepting some diminished mobility as time drew on and parts grew short.

In the last year, though, I ran out of spare parts, and there have long since been no other robots that I could borrow from. I have been forced to stop mowing the grass; there is too large of a chance for a jam to occur, and I will explain it to the Master when he comes back. I can no longer lift the stones to replace those that crumble on the castle; I hope that Robert will forgive me for that. I will build him another, a thousand others, when he comes back. And her Escher stairs, that geometric masterpiece has collapsed — I no longer have the materials to reconstruct it, to let it hang in the air. But I will build Ashley a million illusions when she returns, as many as she wants.

I stumble often, now, and occasionally must drag myself across the grass with one leg useless. My servos whine, and creak, and they have started to fail.

But his fort and her garden, they will be maintained until I can no longer move.

I will do what they asked of me.
talonkarrde: (Default)
They had followed the dirt road for many miles, believing that it would lead them to civilization, or at least  what remained. It was just the two of them now, after the drama, the battles, the brief but sad services for those who had fallen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That night, she slept, while he kept watch.


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

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

My friend,

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


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

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


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

Timekeeper

Jan. 1st, 2009 12:19 am
talonkarrde: (Default)
For Rachel

---

The shop’s sign was so old that she couldn’t make out what it actually said on it. Perhaps it was ‘Treasures of Men’ or ‘Dragons Den’; all she knew was that she had been here for years and had never seen it – surprising, because it clearly looked to be older than she was. She walked up to the door and tried to peer inside, but couldn’t make out any details in the dim light.

But she was curious, if nothing else; her teachers had learned to lock all of their cabinets and drawers after finding her poking in them once or twice. She didn’t usually get in trouble for it – she could talk her way out of almost anything – but there was that one time where her quiz grade was much better than normal...and a copy of the answers just managed to vanish from her fifth grade English teacher’s desk. Being called into the principal’s office and getting a ‘we’re almost positive you did this but have no proof’ was still bad enough of an experience that she stopped cheating, but nothing could stop her curious spirit.

So she pulled on the door, first with one hand and then with two. After a couple seconds of it resolutely refusing to open, swung wide so quickly she fell, injuring her dignity if nothing else. But she scampered to her feet and caught the door before it closed again, squeezing inside and taking a look all around her.

The shelves were close to one another and the ceiling was low enough that she would’ve almost been claustrophobic if she weren’t busy being amazed by all the wonderful things there were. An egg on the shelf to her left that pulsed with wonderful designs and moving pastel colors, a skull to her right in a velvet box that seemed to be human…and all sorts of fascinating things that belonged in a Halloween store or horror movie – but weren’t sloppily painted or cheap plastic; they all looked real. And as curious as she was, she was old enough to realize that touching these things was definitely not a good idea unless she had permission, so she contented herself with peering at them closely and trying to figure out what movies they had been in.

She finished walking through the two shelves and approached the back of the store, finally catching sight of the register (and thought, what if someone just hopped in and stole something? What naïve storekeeper had register at the back instead of the front?). There was an owl sitting on a hanging perch next to the register, and she marveled at the work that must have gone into the stuffing and balancing of the owl so that it didn’t fall — until it hooted at her, making her jump and almost crash into the shelves behind her in shock.

“Peace, Adrienne,” an old, gravelly voice called out, and while she tried to figure out from the voice whether crying or being a brat would get her out of trouble, the old man came out from behind what she could’ve sworn was a wall…but no, it was just a trick of the light, she saw that they were just curtains.

“Well?” the old man asked crankily, scratching at his chin.  He had the long ears that she could’ve sworn were pointed and a nose that was longer than anyone she had seen – in fact, she thought, if he had a long floppy hat and dark blue robes, he could be a stand-in for Merlin.

“Well, don’t just stand there, what are you looking for?” he asked again, sounding twice as impatient as he gently ran a finger down the owl’s side, eliciting a much softer hoot.

“Ah, just...well, I’m not really, I just wanted to look around.” She mumbled, unsure of how he would take that.

“You’re just looking around?” He asked incredulously, as if no one ever came into his shop to do that, and stared through her.

“Well, yes, I’ve never seen the shop before and it looked interesting and…” she trailed off as he turned to look at the owl, clearly not paying attention to her. The owl hooted softly again, and the old man sighed.

“Very well,” he said, answering a question that was never asked, and slowly drew back the cloth that was covering the display case. What was underneath convinced her that this was no ordinary antique or Halloween shop, because none of the antique stores had anything like this. In fact, even the jewelry stores that she had been to with her mom had nothing like these.

In the display case were five pocketwatches made out of five different materials, each one clear glass on the front and the back, showing all the gears. The gold one had a large intricate butterfly knob on the side to wind it up; the silver watch had no knob at all. There was one made of obsidian and shaped like an arrowhead, it was darker and almost reddish at the bottom, and clear on top…and one of gleaming platinum, most like a regular pocketwatch, complete with chain and small knob to wind. How someone could carve wood into such precise gears for the final watch was a mystery to her, but it looked it like it was designed to be worn as a pendant, with a string passing through the top, and she reached for it, forgetting that there was the glass in the way.

The old man smiled…but not kindly, more the smile of a teacher who is giving a test he knows you will do poorly on. Without saying a word, he took the case holding the pocketwatches out and set it on top of the counter, letting her take a closer look.

“I am a collector,” he said, pausing until she looked up at him. “And in my collection I have acquired these timekeepers. Each one is different, each one has the power to change your life. I will not tell you what the others do, only the one that you choose. I will, however, tell you one more thing, and answer one question. The one thing is this: the gold and the obsidian can only be used a limited number of times.”

She looked at each of them set out before her, staring at the faces and watching the second hands turn, and began to notice small details. Tiny buds on the wood, the sweeping motion of the platinum arrows moving much more smoothly than the precise ticking of the needle-like lines of silver. She looked over each one for quite some time, and the old man and the owl watched patiently, knowing that some things were not to be rushed. She did not touch them; he did not offer to let her.

“Some of them have marks, does that—”

“Some of them have been used,” he answered, and said no more.

Finally, she pointed at the deep brown-red of the mahogany, and he gestured for her to take it. Slowly, hesitatingly, she reached out and took it from the case, marveling at how snugly it fit in her palm, and at the loop of cord that had no beginning or end, and looked like the wood had grown around it. She looked up at him, waiting to hear what it was her choice did, and was surprised to see what almost looked like a smile on his face, though it quickly disappeared.

“The living wood; the only piece that was not fashioned with tools and heat. Be strong…but allow yourself to bend sometimes. Allow yourself to be uprooted sometimes, so you can taste new soil elsewhere. And let your friends be the wind and sun; although they may not be near you, they will be with you.”

She stared at him, waiting for more, until he snorted grumpily.

“Well, off be with you, unless you intend to pay me with confused looks.”

She scampered off, then, slipping the cord around her neck and tucking it under her shirt, practically running out the door in her haste to get out before he changed his mind and had her pay for something she certainly would never be able to afford. Her mind refused to stay on anything as she headed home, calling up the strangest memories (first time she tasted berry sherbet, seeing who could jump farther off the swings and breaking her ankle but winning!, seeing her dad leave home again for another three month deployment). She didn’t even realize when she got home, and immediately fell into bed, into a dreaming sleep where experiences kept turning into other ones.

In the morning, she found a tiny flower growing right out of the wood where none had been the night before, a flower she isn’t sure what to do with. But a letter on her desk is addressed to her, and it tells her to save the flowers and smell one when she feels like time has been cruel.

And she does, and it saves her more often than once.

#

The next eight years passed as they did for all teenagers: with heartbreak and happiness, confusion and determination (even if wrongheaded, sometimes). But throughout it all, she maintained a quiet aura of strength about her. She became the supporting trunk of her group of friends, always there for them, and yet never seemed to need it herself; whenever she was in trouble, she simply paused, a tree letting the wind pass through her branches. They didn’t know of the pendant that she would look at every night, watching as it somehow grew tiny buds and flowers, as it grew as she did, and strengthened as she became strong. The times were not all good for her and not all the flowers blossomed, but the pendant and her lived and grew.

But what happened in those eight years are her life, and we do not belong there. Our story ends, then, when the pendant shatters.

#

She comes back the night that it breaks, her mind whirling and confused, and he comes with her; his name is Jessie, and they have been seeing each other for a year now.

She runs along the sidewalk, trying to find the shop. It’s one of these, she says to herself, it has to be, please let it still be here. Jessie doesn’t know why they’re here, but he doesn’t care – it’s important to her, and so he won’t question, only support.

“There!” She yells, finding an old shop, and yanks hard on the door. And again, like eight years ago, it resists her until Jessie touches the handle; then it springs open as if greased. She almost runs through the store – but checks herself, remembering the precious items; even in a situation like this, she knew that breaking anything in here would probably be unwise. So she shuffles sideways between the shelves that she could have sat down crosslegged between all those years ago, and finally comes to the register.

Adrienne doesn’t need to hoot this time, for the old man is already there, looking exactly like he did all those years ago, a fact that does not surprise her...but his face is kind, a look that does surprise her.

Though she could say a thousand about how it happened and how sorry she was and how she would do anything to get it back, she only says three words; they are the only important ones.

“I broke it.”

And he nods solemnly, responding with two.

“Show me.”

She reaches towards her neck unconsciously until she realizes that it is no longer there, and then jerks her hand back down towards her jacket pocket, fishing out a plastic ziplock with the shattered remains of the pendant inside. Its gears no longer mesh, the second hand is bent, and the hour hand is snapped off halfway; the wood around the outside has warped and the glass seems poised to pop off, ready to shower the bag with wooden shards.

She sets it on the display and he looks at it critically for a moment, and then up at her…and then past her, at Jessie, who has come to stand beside her and hold her hand. Again, a brief flash of what she now recognizes as a smile, though she does not understand what could possibly be happy at such a time.

He motions for her to open the bag and dump the contents on the display and she does, her hands trembling and recoiling as she touches an edge of the timepiece. He nods, looking over them, and then takes out a small hammer from behind the display.

“Wha—” she almost shrieks, cut off as he brings the hammer down on the pocketwatch. Adrienne hoots reproachfully from her position, but the old man motions everyone to silence, taking what she could swear was a wand and lifting the cord away from the absolutely shattered remains…

And as the cord untangles from the dust and remains, Adrienne gasps, seeing a solid knot of wood at the end of the cord.

“The mahogany timepiece grows with its keeper, reminding you of what is important in your life until it is no longer needed. I don’t need to ask how it broke; you decided that that he should see what it was…and it shattered the moment he touched it. The gift only stays with you as long as you need it; you have learned from it, and it needed to shed all the particular branches and flowers that you had given to it. Now it can grow anew, and help someone else the way it helped you - and you have another tree to lean on, another's branches to be cradled in.”

He does smile now, but it is a smile directed at Jessie, who can't help but smile back. He doesn’t understand all of it, and on some level doesn’t want to – but he understands the compliment he has been paid and his smile is an affirmation of the responsibility he has been given.

“Let it go….”

She nods through her tears, finding the strong pillar of support within her even without the pendant, and turns to the old man. “Thank you,” she says, trying to communicate a thousand different things she is thankful for, but he waves towards the door, never one for too much emotion.

“Live well and remember what it has taught you,” he says, and then grins, and she sees a bit of his spirit underneath the gruff exterior. “Well, off be with you, unless you intend to pay with your confused looks. I don't believe we will ever meet again...but perhaps a child of yours, one day, if he or she is in need.”

And they smile at him and take their leave as the knot slowly unfolds to show a new timepiece, small and yet as strong as its previous owner.

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