26 June 2016

Conquest: 001: Discontent




001: Discontent



When Sophia was seven, she’d eaten a potato flower and almost died.

She didn’t remember much about it.  She didn’t know why she’d have eaten a wildflower at all, much less one that was famously poisonous.  They’d gotten lectures every year on the dangers of the linear purple, which was not only virulently invasive but was often discussed as evidence of the distant, disinterested malice of a machine god.

Her memories of that time were only vague smears of sensation: the gnawing of a black heat in her belly, the claw-grip of convulsions. She’d later learned that a classmate had found her by the north road, lying on the edge of a cornfield.  She’d been curled up in a patch of the purple blossoms, moaning.  By the time she’d reached the hospital, she was violently vomiting.  She’d barely survived.

Maybe it would have been better if she hadn’t.

There was a sharp knock on the door of the bathroom, and Sophia jerked in alarm.  The motion sucked the strength out of her legs, pouring nausea into its place, and she grabbed the sink in front of her with a spasmodic clench of her hands.

God, did she follow me here?

“Hello?” asked an irritated voice, one that she didn’t recognize.  “Is someone in there?”

“Yes!” she said, her voice a squawk.

There was no reply.  Just another customer of the Jerrie Jo.

What am I going to do?  She couldn’t go back to school, of course.  Not the way she looked.  Sophia stared into the mirror.  The shiny plastic had been scratched up by a curiously dedicated vandal, with dozens of thin lines cut into the surface.  But even though her reflection was cloudy with damage, she could see the broad red rasp of a scrape along the right side of her face.  If she went back to school, everyone would know something had happened.

Hell, who was she kidding?  The whole class had probably heard the story by now.  Or rather, the stories.  Mikki would have told everyone about how she’d seen “that skinny skank” Sophia trip over her own feet and fall down the stairs right onto her face.  Thomas would have told everyone about how he’d seen Mikki push Sophia and that Mikki should be expelled.  And the principal would get involved, but there were no cameras in the stairway and everyone knew that Thomas Blair and Michaela Blair hated each other.  Their vendetta had been in the news, it was so well-known: BLAIR FAMILY INFIGHTING AFTER SENATOR’S INDICTMENT.  If Sophia were very, very lucky, Mikki might get suspended for a day.  And nothing would change.

One of her molars felt loose.  She gingerly touched the tooth with a fingertip, and it shifted in place, crackling with pain.  She wondered if some part of it was broken.  She wondered if it would fall out.

Should she go home?

Experimentally, Sophia pulled her hair free of her scrunchie and fluffed it forward to try to cover the raw flesh. The concealment looked strange, smearily visible through the haze of scratches; wiry corkscrews bunched up over her ears and across her cheeks like enormous sideburns.  It didn’t really cover her injured cheek very well.  She pushed her hair back, moving carefully to avoid the nausea of movement, then leaned forward and spat into the sink again.  Red.

None of it hurt that much.  But she just felt… lost, like she was looking down at her own life from very high up.  Like if she looked away for a moment, she might lose track of it, and not be able to find it again.

She took a deep breath.  When she exhaled, her breath caught in the single shudder of a sob, but she kept it together.

If Thomas had never found her, sick and clenched and dying, then Mikki would never have started the bullying.  Everything would be cool and calm and quiet.

“Excuse me,” said the voice from other side of the door, startling her a second time.  “I’m sorry, but I really have to go.”

“Just a minute,” Sophia said.  “Sorry, just a minute!”

She’d just have to walk home.  She couldn’t wait around for the bus, and if she called her parents at work to ask them for an ikon home, they’d want to know what happened (if they even had the money in the first place).

Sophia picked up her backpack from the floor and slung it over her shoulder.  She took a deep breath, then opened the door and stepped out quickly.  An older woman, waiting to one side with an irritated look on her face, stepped in before the door could close.  Sophia walked towards the exit, past the rows of soda and snacks.  She paused at the front door of the Jerrie Jo for a moment, standing off to one side so that it wouldn’t open, and peered through.

She could see the school across the street, but no one was out front.  She nudged her io with her thumb to check the time: two hours until dismissal.  She had plenty of time to get out of here and get home before any kids would be around to see her.  Even if Mikki cut her last class, Sophia would probably still be able to get home and out of sight before the sneering Blair girl could go on the prowl, cruising around in the ikon that she kept booked around the clock.

Quickly, Sophia stepped out of the warm Jerrie Jo and into the cool February air.  She started down the sidewalk, pulling her coat tight around her.

“Sophia!” called someone from behind her, and she felt her shoulders stiffen up and her stomach tighten, like an ice cube had touched her back.  But then they called again, “Sophia, wait a second!”, and she recognized Thomas’ voice.  She relaxed a little, and looked over her shoulder at him.

Thomas Blair crossed the street at a trot, catching up to her and falling alongside her as she walked.  He was a handsome boy, with sharp cheekbones that fell away from an expressively planar brow and framed a pair of cornflower-blue eyes.  His hair was in a tight crew-cut, and he had the grace of an athlete.  It was funny how she sometimes forgot that he really was good-looking, only to remember at times like this when his face was creased with concern.

“Hey,” Sophia greeted him.  She glanced over at him with a smile that sent tight pain through the right side of her face, but didn’t stop walking.  He hissed a breath when he saw her cheek.

“Shit.  The whole side of your face is mashed up.”

“I’ll bet,” she said.

“I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault.”

“She’s my sister.”

“Not your fault.”

“I should have been able to --”

“Thomas,” Sophia said, turning to snap at him, “it’s not your fault, okay?”

“Yeah,” he said, turning away, his mouth sour.  They walked side-by-side for a moment, silently.

“Sorry,” she said, after enough time had passed that she was starting to feel guilty.

“No problem,” he said, easily.  And it wasn’t a problem, she knew.  He was that kind of boy.


They walked quietly for several minutes.  Sophia tried not to think about the whole thing and to pretend that he was just walking her home, as he’d done so often on nicer days than this one.  To try to distract herself, she counted the smooth puckers in the asphalt down the center of the street, tallying up the ponders as they passed them.  Galgen Street was one of the busier streets of Kleinmorg, and so there was an ikon ponder every few feet.

She’d counted forty-three before he spoke again, quietly.  “I’m skipping trig, but Mikki didn’t.  We don’t need to rush.”

“I’m not worried about her chasing me down,” lied Sophia.  “I just want to get home and curl up in bed, that’s all.”

Last spring, Mikki had found her alone near the park and had shot her with a paintball gun.  Mikki probably wouldn’t do that today -- not because she’d felt bad about the three blistered bruises she’d left on Sophia’s back, of course, but because she wouldn’t want to be caught in a repeat performance.

Thomas probably thought his presence would protect her.  Wise up, Thomas.  She shoved me down those stairs from behind an hour ago, and you were right next to me.  Mikki didn’t care what her brother said or thought, not anymore.  She only cared about staying in the good graces of their father and her powerful uncle.  As long as they continued to dote on her, Mikki knew she didn’t have to worry about petty things like the consequences of her actions or basic human decency.

“You should put a steak on that when you get home… or some hamburger.  Raw beef, anyway,” Thomas said.

Yeah, I’ll just grab a steak out of the big pile in the fridge, she thought.  Right next to the filet of hippo and all my gold-plated unicorn horns.  But she only said, “Why?”

“It’ll make it feel better.  Draw out the toxins or something, I think.  They do it all the time in old movies.”

“I don’t think the stairs are toxic,” she said.  “Well, maybe if I’d taken a bite out of them while I was down there.”  Smiling hurt.

“No, just the toxins that build up.”  He waved a hand dismissively.  “You know… toxins.”

“You tell me what toxins and how raw meat is going to suck them out, and then maybe we’ll talk about slathering my face in chunks of cow,” Sophia said, skeptically.

“Don’t be that way,” said Thomas.  “Listen, let me just get an ikon and drive you home.”

“Then your parents will know you skipped class,” she reminded him.  “Your mother will notice the time on the bill.”

“That’s okay.  I’ll make up an excuse.  Or I could just tell them what happened…  they’ll probably hear about it from the school, anyway, so I might as well.”

“No,” she said, sharply.  “Please don’t.  It’ll turn into a big fight with your father and you’ll be in a snit for days.”

“Then I’ll just make up an excuse… I had a headache or something.  Easy, and then we won’t have to walk thirty minutes in this freezing weather.”

“It’s a little chilly, that’s all.”

“Just let me help you, Soph,” said Thomas.  “Don’t be... I don’t know, proud.  Let me do this.”

She sighed.  This was a strange sort of comfort, ignoring what she actually wanted in favor of what he wanted to provide.  He could buy anything he wanted, and so he wanted to help her by buying things.  Rather than just walking with her.  Or just listening.

It wasn’t fair... he was just one more thing she had to deal with.  The prospect of spending the afternoon with Thomas was starting to look like more than she could handle.

“If you want to help me, maybe you could try to keep an eye on your sister this afternoon?” she said.  “Just make sure she doesn’t… I don’t know, egg my house or something.”

He was silent for another short while, and she counted off more ponders as they walked along.  eventually, he said, “Fine.  I can do that.”  He said it in a way that made it clear that it wasn’t what he wanted to do, and that it wasn’t the smart thing to do, but that he would do it for her as a favor.

Sophia paused and turned to him.  She put a smile on her face, trying to remember his good qualities and overlook his occasional petulance, and put a hand on his shoulder.  He looked back, a sheepish smile overcoming his sulk.

“Thank you,” she said.  She leaned forward, and he bent down low enough so that she could kiss his cheek.  He wasn’t excessively tall, but even six feet put him a full foot higher than her own diminutive frame.

He nodded, squared his shoulders, and turned back the way they had come.  He walked with purpose, and she could almost hear the determination in his step.

She smiled again, genuine this time, and walked on towards home.

Sophia walked without incident through the south side, past the busy streets where most of the town shops were located, and on up into the neighborhoods in the north.  Old colonial homes gave way to ranch houses.  Soon those turned into the fancy remed homes from the past couple of decades, all fitted stone and mullions, before finally becoming the prefab houses near the old mills.  Her neighborhood.

She went on counting ponders all the way, as they became less and less frequent, and the sight was starting to give her the glimmer of an idea.  Almost despite herself, she was thinking of a way to get back at Mikki.  Usually she tried to fight the other girl in small or symbolic ways.  Even at her boldest -- the week after Wendigo went missing, when she’d been sure Mikki had something to do with it, the girl had worn a sweater with a cat on it all week -- Sophia had only dared stoop to the childish level of hiding a container of milk in one pocket, surreptitiously emptying it into Mikki’s locker through the louvers.

Seeing the ponders, though, gave her a notion.  Each one designated a certain very specific location to the computers that drove the ikons.  And Mikki kept the same one booked almost all the time --

“Hey, slut!” called out a voice.  An ikon door slammed.  And now Sophia’s spine really was ice and prickles, and her stomach sank.  She knew that voice.

“I saw my brother walking back to the school.  He was with you?  Every time you give him a greasy little hug, he comes home all oily.  It’s gross,” said Mikki, standing next to her ikon and glaring at Sophia with a sneer on her face.  As Sophia turned to face the other girl, Mikki saw the scrapes and bruises.  Her expression lightened into a smile, and she added,  “Leave him alone.  I told you.”

“Yeah, I get it,” said Sophia.  “You leave me alone, too.”

Her heart felt like it was twice too large, like it was suffocating her with its pounding.  Mikki took a step towards her.  She closely resembled her brother, with the same sharp features and blue eyes, but a meager forehead gave her face a raptor fierceness that was lacking in Thomas’ thoughtful gaze.

“It was funny when it started,” said Mikki, ignoring her.  “You were like a stray dog that he’d saved, and he’d sometimes give you treats when he saw you in an alley around town, licking yourself or nosing around in the trash to eat a dirty diaper.”  The Blair girl’s vicious words were spoken softly, almost luxuriously.  “But it’s old now.  I don’t want him getting your fleas.  I don’t want your crusty ass on my carpet.”

She really did track me down, Sophia thought.  The stairs weren't enough.  Involuntarily, she found she’d taken a step backwards.

“Your poor face,” cooed Mikki, tilting her head to the side.  She lifted her own hand to her right cheek, touching it where Sophia’s own face had its broad red scrape, and approached Sophia, who felt like screaming or fainting or running.  She felt like she was trapped.  “Be careful, little bitch.”  She was within a few feet now, and Sophia wondered if Mikki had a weapon.  The Blairs all went hunting sometimes… did they have handguns or poppers, too?

“Just…” she began, but Mikki spoke over her as though she hadn’t said anything.

“Be careful,” she repeated, and smiled brightly, blue eyes glittering with something hot, “It’s dangerous around here for stray animals.”

Sophia felt her breath catch, and then she choked in a strange half-cough as Mikki reached out.  The Blair girl delicately traced a finger over Sophia’s wide nose, then flicked gently at a wiry twist of hair.

“Sometimes they just disappear,” whispered Mikki.  The world became very small and very dark.  And Sophia understood, for the first time, that Michaela Blair was irrepressibly insane.

After some time, during which Sophia stood in place and tried to breathe without gasping, Mikki laughed ringingly and got back into her ikon.  Even after it started up and began to roll away, connecting to the ponder network and routing its way to wherever Mikki was going -- not her house, apparently, since it rolled off in the opposite direction -- Sophia was still just trying to slow down her breathing.  Mikki was gone, and she still felt trapped.  Still saw the girl’s cruel smile.

It was a long time before Sophia was able to resume walking.  She didn’t cry.  She wouldn’t let herself cry.  She moved quickly, with purpose -- she had a goal.  She had a plan.

Home was close, but when she got there, she didn’t go right inside the house, with its comforting yellow shutters and patchwork lawn.  Sophia slung her backpack on the front step, instead, and headed around the side of the house.

She wasn’t going to take this anymore.  She wasn’t going to live like this for another day or another hour or another minute.  She’d thought she could tough it out -- just hold on through to the end of the year and graduation, then get a job in another town.  Avoid Mikki.  Maybe even stop hanging out with Thomas for a while, although that would have hurt him, too.

But Mikki wasn’t going to let that happen.  Sophia didn’t know what the other girl wanted, but the dark hunger in her eyes wasn’t going to just fade away.

So Sophia would show that she wouldn't just take it.  Not anymore.

It’s kind of crazy how simple it is, really, she thought as she pushed open the little hutch molded onto the prefab back wall of the house.  There was a motley assortment of tools inside -- a rake with no handle, a bright and unused hammer, and so on.  Sophia grabbed the hammer and a shovel, sticking the former through her belt.

Ikons found their way with their sensors and by connecting to the ponders.  The Blair house had only one ponder in their drive, just like most places.  If she broke the concrete with the hammer, she could get the ponder out, and move it.  She could put it anywhere around their house… like right behind a big brick wall, for instance.  Then she would just need to figure out how to mess up the sensors on the ikon Mikki always had idling outside of the school.  She wasn’t sure how, but she could figure that out later.

Sophia hefted the shovel and tried to look like casual as she walked over to the ponder in her own drive.  It was only half-covered, since they had gravel and it tended to hollow out in places.  Sophia could see a sliver of the device, which resembled nothing so much as a metal grapefruit with a single glowing blue LED on top.  She leaned over, studying it.

If she did this right, Mikki’s stupid favorite ikon would be wrecked.  She’d probably be hurt, too.  Maybe worse.

Whatever.  Something needed to change.  Something.  Anything.

Sophia touched the handle of the hammer, and her fingers curled around it.  She’d make things change.

“And just what,” called an angry-sounding voice, making Sophia start violently in place, jerking upright with fear and guilt, “do you think you’re doing, little miss?  Not thinking too hard, at least, that's clear!”



-----------Ø------------



The Mohsin Al-Adhal show at the Modern is a marvelous landscape of the domestic-made-alien.  His digitally altered photographs strain the limits of the space almost to the breaking point, daringly hung on walls that can barely accommodate them.  The immersive effect enhances the artwork, which is visually sparse but unsettling.  Al-Adhal’s Nazif series presents images of rooms, vehicles, or objects, all modified to remove the controls or features that make them usable.  Everything recognizably retains its function, but that function is divorced from human purpose.  The question is driven into us, clearly as a reaction to our modern times, asking, “Does this reduce the world?  Or not?”
  • Vera Grange, “The Tate Modern in April,” Times Literary Supplement

---Ø---

Eddie: Does not match slug I assigned.  Fix another draft, then see me.
As soon as you meet her, it’s apparent that Gretchen Muir is no ordinary engineer.  Slight and slender, Muir has a cheerful smile and quick giggle.  At conferences, she says that people will often assume she is a reporter, even after she introduces herself by name.  Lede of engineer profile is descrip of appearance?  If needed for color, bury further in.  This is particularly amusing since “G. Muir” is one of the controversial engineers who are currently pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence.  While it wouldn’t be fair to say that she and her team are ignoring the myriad issues surrounding the previous disastrous advance in that field -- Muir has had to hire a public relations firm to deal with the almost daily protests and accusations What, is this the main problem they’ve had?  Sounds absurd. -- they’re singularly focused on advancing the technology.  And that means they’re one of the few groups of researchers actively studying “live” versions of the code included in the August Thesis.  No explanation?  Get our standard explainer blurb of R and Thesis if you’re shy.
“Whatever you might think of the Ramanujan program,” Muir says, “and it’s important to remember that it is just a program and that it’s not magical, the Mussoorie potatoes show that there’s no curse on using the intelligible parts of the August Thesis in our research, so long as we apply old-fashioned human sense and discrimination to the process.” Clean this up and run it by Muir.  Barely makes sense.
A look at Muir’s lab might show why she’s optimistic. Her lab has one of the most densely-packed clusters of servers in private hands, with computing power equivalent to some of the most ambitious corporations in the world. …
  • H.J. Muscowitz, copy for Muir profile, The New York Times Magazine

---Ø---

Listen, let me tell you about Charlemagne’s court.  You probably have heard of this guy because he was so badass that they put the “the Great” part of his name right into the word: Charlemagne.  And this was in a time when you couldn’t just be great at one thing.  You know the word “Renaissance man?”  Well, it’s just about exactly wrong.  In the medieval world, there wasn’t as much specialization.  At that time, you needed ten farmers for every one person that wasn’t farming, and there was almost no money in circulation.  So even though you had your brewers and your merchants and all that, pretty much everyone had to learn how to do a little of pretty much everything.  And that went right from the bottom of the ladder right on to the top rung -- people like Charlemagne and his noble court.  Even if you were on the top, everyone, from the lowliest peasant to the king of everything, had to know something about every little thing.  That’s our problem today: people only know how to do one thing, or maybe even nothing at all.  We’re hyperspecialized or hyperdespecialized!  Back then, it was different, so when a visitor came to Charlemagne’s court and one of his sons was really rude to Charlemagne, Charlemagne’s warrior nephew challenged the guy to… a game of chess!  They didn’t just have one skill, they had many, so they were able to find all different ways to solve their problems.
That’s what remedievalism is about: returning to that medieval mind.  You want a remed life, you need to expand it from your penny-ante bullshit life making left-handed widgets, and open it up.  You need to make yourself into a society.
  • Bad Biddie Bambam, Remedievalicious.com

1 comment:

  1. Yay! The first chapter's up! Really psyched to see your own original work!

    ReplyDelete