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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Économique (Friday, 2011 September 2)

September 2nd, 2011

I sighed for not the first time and leaned my head against the bulkhead. I was (finally) in the Chameleon back to the Mission after wrangling my way through a knot of Zhenae loaders. I told myself the economics equivalent of fairy tales about how things were going to change on this planet — supply curves and behavioral change therapy on a planetary scale. Unions. Labor markets. Social Darwinism. Yeah right. Lara 2 was sitting across from me and she was giving me a look that I was afraid I knew how to interpret.

It was Medical Week and we ourselves were traveling in a clump to get back to the Mission. I leaned into Jamie a little bit, drawing a little bit of strength from the physical contact. Capital City was partly swampy with a 40% chance of exasperation. I was beginning, not for the first time, to tire of this planet. We were here to make a difference, but differences were in short supply. My current M.O. was to imagine the changes that might, somehow, make themselves.

The Chameleon clunked into operation — the whine and clunk, whine and clunk, of servos gripping their way up the mountainside. Suddenly the noises stopped and the Chameleon went dark. We were stopped, maybe an engine failure. The emergency lights came back on and the sound of clumping commenced — Zhenae clambering around the Chameleon to debug. I needed a drink.

"Whew!" Lara 2 said cheerily. "A break. My stomach is doing flip-flops!"

"It’s probably glueworms. Have I told you about my glueworm? I named him Fred. I talk to him sometimes." I stared out the window, but there was nothing to see but flat mountain face. "I was going to name him Joseph for a while, but somehow I decided to go with Fred. Probably the glueworm talking. I kept meaning to get it checked out but never had the time. You know, one more inconvenience I’d take care of when school calmed down. That’s why I’m glad to be here for Medical." I tried to smile but I didn’t really remember how. Instead I sketched a Zhenae gesture of gratitude, tried to make my shoulders emote the way a Zhenae’s tentacles would.

Lara 2 smiled uneasily, her hands posed on her abdomen. Silence descended again inside. A few minutes passed. Zhenae voices could be heard swearing expressively. The engine coughed and banged, then started up again. Clumping noises took the driver back to the cockpit, and we started moving again. Government subsidies? Executive powers? Planned economies? Yeah right.

So I turned up at the bar. Morgan and company were just leaving to see what nightlife was available here on the hill. Lara 1 was getting another beer, so I got one too.

"How are you doing, Sandiego?" Lara 1 asked.

"Focus-soft-vanilla," I said in Sumglish. She nodded, but I tried to translate anyway: "Concentrating on trying not to look like I’m concentrating on getting by. I’ve suffered worse. You?"

"Glad to be away from post. You know I haven’t even been in Capital City yet? I mean, I’ve passed through but never really seen it."

"You’re not missing much. You’ve seen it, it looks like skitter droppings. And the Zhenae here will outright harass you. Keep a thick skin."

"Yeah." She looked up at the sky. "Not to be rude or anything, but I prefer Grace’s Action. Everything’s much more calm and orderly."

"You can outright say it: this place sucks. No offense taken."

"It does." She smiled into her beer. "Do you spend a lot of time here?"

"Only when necessary."

"Well, it’s necessary now. You’re doing fine, by the way." Which was a relief: I didn’t look like I was barely keeping it together. She rose. "I better keep an eye on Morgan."

"Go with God," I said. I watched her walk away, then finished my beer. I was doing fine. Better all the time, in fact. I rested my head in my hands, took a deep breath, relished in the fact that I was alone. No one to pretend for. Lara 1 had left half of her beer on the table so I did the responsible thing and finished that too. I started to let my spinal chord unknot and leaned back into my chair. I could let my body go, let show what I was feeling, for a few minutes. And I was feeling fine. Lara 1 had said so. Of course, I was alone now, but that was fine. Alone was great.

I was just about to start feeling sorry for myself when Jamie came out. She saw I was alone at a table and half-fell into the chair opposite me.

"Sandiego? Can I ask you a question?" Jamie said.

"Sure, what’s up?"

"How broad do you think our mandate is?"

"Well, I mean, doctrine being that God’s will is progress and the improvement of many, I think we could say that our mandate is to do that which hastens or encourages the tendency of Creation’s upwards movement. Obviously we have different programs and different focuses –"

"No, Sandiego, I mean," she looked at me. Iron underscored her eyes. There was ferocity in her pose, and she almost wasn’t even looking at me. Her knuckles were white. This wasn’t like Jamie. To be honest, I quailed. "How broad. Do you think. Our mandate is? You know, on this planet?"

Then I realized what she must have been saying, or rather what she wasn’t saying. "Good Lord," I breathed. "I think you might be a genius."

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Vomir (Thursday, 2011 June 2)

June 2nd, 2011

[I think Sandiego is a much better name than Santiago, don’t you? Sure you do.]

Dear Diary!

We made our way back to Mountain Reflex the next day, and it was much quieter this time. Ran into Bennett and Amanda, and of course Cherry Drop, at the Transit House and decided to splurge on a fancy-ish offworld dinner. There are only a couple fancy restaurants in Mountain Reflex, and Cherry Drop’s already jaded of all of them, but we outnumbered her so we went to the Steak House. Correspondingly, we ordered steak. For a beverage, I ordered juice — hold the sachet.

Cherry Drop was ranting about Las Vegas or some other attraction on Earth when Amanda caught my eye. "Cherry Drop says you stayed at her place last time you were here."

Uh-oh, I thought. "Yeah."

"She says you were in a bad state. That –" (her voice dropped) "– you kept talking about the meaning of love and stuff like that."

Thanks, Cherry Drop, I thought to myself. Still, it could have been worse. And why had Amanda’s voice gone quiet like that? Was she trying to preserve my dignity (to what effect?), or did she want to talk more personally about that particular subject? I didn’t really think I could handle that conversation, so I dodged. "God is love," I said, "Statistically speaking." Amanda looked momentarily forlorn, but there wasn’t really much I could do for her, so I let it go.

I had hoped to bounce back to my post via a circuitous short-hop route instead of just taking the shuttle, but the short-hoppers were full and I ended up biting the bullet and just taking the shuttle with Jamie and Bennett. They were in a sleeper car, whereas I was in "first class". I found my seat across from a bunch of offworlder tourists speaking what I assumed was German, with the most attractive among them throwing up into a bag. Amateurs, I thought, as I threw my stuff onto a luggage rack a little ways away. I dropped my bag on my seat and left to hang out with Jamie and Bennett until the shuttle started moving and they started to check tickets.

"Do you want any sleeping pills, Sandiego?" Jamie asked me.

"No thanks — I guess I gotta draw the line somewhere." However, note to self: you can stay awake if you want to when on the effect of this particular medication, but you will have no memory whatsoever of what happened.

Not too much longer I stepped across a Zhenae with sen appendages in a posture of boredom, and seated myself across from the tourists. One of them started up a conversation with me. His name was Sebastian and his attractive vomiting friend was named Silki, and as I had guessed, they were German. They were visiting Zhen to see the marriage of one of their friends, who had fallen in love with a Zhenae. "He’s one of us," Sebastian said, "We’re Christfellows."

And they were. They were all so young — 19 and 20, barely out of school, and young, fresh, and optimistic. By contrast I was covered in Zhenae soil, weathered, and in a tailspin.

"I just can’t get over how young you are," I said, enunciating clearly — Sebastian’s English was pretty good but Silki’s was a little less fluid. "All I can think about is the mistakes I’ve been making lately."

"Such as?" Sebastian prompted.

This gave me pause. "Well, I licked my friend’s neck at the party the other night. While he was flirting with a woman." But then I didn’t really have anything else. Praise be, I’m not quite broken or jaded enough yet to think of falling in love as a mistake, and nothing that came afterwards has really been my fault. Well, obviously the alcohol abuse. But like I told Jamie and Buddy the next day, I don’t regret any of it.

We played cards for the rest of the night. Somehow I managed to sleep sitting up. The next morning, somehow I didn’t talk to the Germans at all until Sebastian bid me farewell with a "God bless you". Normally I find that sort of thing trying, but this time I surprised myself with an honest grin and a sincere thank you.

I’m finally back at post now most of a day later. You know how travel on Zhen is, at its finest, boring? Well, today it wasn’t. I’m really exhausted. There’s been some interesting news surrounding the upcoming election but it’ll have to wait. I’m too cynical to think that I’ll get my wish about real change on this planet, but you never know, right?

Sincerely, ever your friend,

Sandiego

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Lécher (Thursday, 2011 May 12)

May 12th, 2011

["Santiago"? I wanted a name that sounded, well, unhinged. At least you’re not getting another Narrator named "Narrator".]

We burst onto the scene fashionably late, me, Buddy and Cherry Drop, late by about a day and a half, but that meant the party was in full swing already. The Mission house was more-than-full; people were already provisioning couches, sofas, floor space. It was Iago’s going away party, so he was in evidence, as were Wheaton, Jamie, Laras 1 and 2, Lily, Bauer, Sonja, etc.

My priorities were drink, food, and shower. Drink was well under the control of Jamie and Buddy — it was unanimously decided that it would have to be a sachet night. I sought food; I returned with a plastic bag full of omelette, salad, and meat. With the immediate needs taken care of, I needed to wash off the burnt-celery smell of being too long in a closed space with Zhenae. I needed to do it soon, because if experience was any indication, before too much longer I wouldn’t be safe standing in a shower.

A few sachets later, I found myself weaving through the kitchen, where Buddy and Lily were arguing over which Missionary cluster could outdrink the other. They were settling the argument with sachets. They locked eyes and tilted back as I wandered out to the porch.

I sat down next to Sonja and was starting to size her up when the door in the front wall opened and in walked Neena and her friend Cass. Neena looked delicious, and I had a vivid memory of the way she’d looked at me in Low-at-the-River, back when I had a reason to be polite, dignified, restrained. That was a lifetime ago, before the mess in Capital City, before the meltdown in Mountain Reflex. I guess it had been a week.

I tried to play it cool, stared at my glass (sachet and juice). Neena’s no fool though, and I’m sure she noticed, but then she and her friend were gliding past to the kitchen. I tried to flirt with Sonja but my heart wasn’t in it and when she turned her head to talk to someone else I decided to go to the kitchen too. Buddy and Lily were still there conversing. "Don’t one or both of you have a boyfriend?" I slurred. For once I was reading the situation completely correctly. Then I put my arms around Buddy and licked his neck.

"He just licked my neck, didn’t he?"

"Yep, he just licked your neck."

I giggled, then I licked it again for good measure and then I guess I must have left because I staggered into Lara 1, who wanted to Talk. Specifically:

"We need to Talk," she said. "Listen: she doesn’t know what she wants." Followed by fifteen minutes of sloppy conversation that really doesn’t further our story. Highlights: I told her what happened in Mountain Reflex, she told me that appearances notwithstanding, Morgan still cared very deeply about me, I swore her (Lara 1) my undying allegiance, she told me I was a good guy, I asked her not to repeat what happened in Mountain Reflex, she swore she wouldn’t, I complained that the whole thing had just come out of nowhere and then suddenly I caught a look at her profile and she looked so old, aged, sallow, sunken where she used to look lean. Maybe it’s all the travelling, maybe she’d just gotten off the bus too. Then she lay her head back (we were seated at this point) and closed her eyes.

"Hard-dream-sleep," I said, using the Sumi salutation. I got up and turned to leave, and suddenly there was Neena.

Thinking back now I wonder how much of the conversation she’d heard. She’s sharp, though, and I’m sure she worked it all out one way or the other. At the time, though, it didn’t occur to me to wonder. I could only say: "Hi".

The next few minutes are a little foggy. I have no idea what I said, if I managed to accomplish anything with the tatters of charm or wit I had left. I’m sure both her and her friend, standing behind and off to the side, could read just how entranced I was with her. So maybe it was just my sincerity. Like: I was sincerely astonished by how fresh she looked. I was sincerely interested in the dress she was wearing. I was sincerely attracted to her lips, her eyes, her skin.

I don’t really understand how she did it. In principle she’d just gotten off a bus too, but she wasn’t rumpled, or sticky, anything. It’s a woman thing, I guess. You know how some women, they make beauty completely natural? Like "disheveled" is just a river in Egypt. Case in point: Neena didn’t smell like burnt celery.

Instead she smelled like cinnamon.

The next morning Jamie, Buddy, Wheaton and I were up bright and early again on another adventure. Wheaton was going to take us over the border into a neighboring state. Strictly speaking this would be legal in certain circumstances, which didn’t apply, so it might have been illegal, but according to other regulations it was probably legal but anyhow definitely against policy. Well, Jamie’s a big fan of adventure and the last week had taught me the hard way that Jamie’s vacations are generally better than mine, so just stick with her and everything’ll work out.

Half a bus-ride later I got a message from Neena, a scathingly funny indictment of how I was "chain-smoking" rebounds, "lighting one from the ashes of the last". Yep, she’s sharp as tacks. "Ouch," I said to myself, then snickered, then I grimaced, and finally I deleted it and napped until we got to the next town, where we were to descend and switch to motos. We rode across hot sand and dry riverbeds, past scrub and occasional herds of animals. Eventually we got to the border, stopped at a government building with a flag out front, basically the same Zhenae color scheme but subtly different. We paid a "crossing fee" bribe that was actually probably a legitimate fee, although it might have been a legitimate bribe. Either way a few minutes later we were under a sincerely woven thatch hut drinking a local fermented grain product, plus some standard Zhenae beer just to be on the safe side.

"This is really cool," I said, marvelling at how lucky I was to be here, on this planet, steeping in the local color (and flavor). "Thanks for this, Wheaton."

"It’s my pleasure," he said, though of course his face was as neutral as always. "I really enjoy when I can show off the bounty of my post."

"It’s just so surprising, man," said Buddy, his eyes tracking a skitter, "How peaceful Zhen is. Like, the Mission just withdrew from Nairv. The D-Range just declared martial law. All the Sumi colonies, really, none of them are really stable."

"I wonder why Zhen’s different," Jamie said.

"Too many racial groups," said Wheaton. "There’s no unity. Without unity, there can be no war."

There was silence for a minute. "That’s totally Newspeak," commented Buddy, turning it over. "But I like it."

"It’s gonna be interesting when the next brood-group shows up in a few months. I wonder if they’re gonna be professional like ours, or party people like the others."

"Is our brood-group really more professional than others? I mean, you’ve seen a few," asked Jamie of Wheaton.

"No, but yours is more mentally unhinged," he responded with a significant glance in my direction.

"No, that’s just Santiago," Jamie replied. Then suddenly they were all three looking at me. "It just came out of nowhere," said Wheaton.

"If you please," I replied loftily. "I maintain that my behavior in Mountain Reflex was rational and carefully plotted."

"I think you mean erratic and carefully rationalized."

"Come on," I continued. "Ever drink too much at a party? Felt like crap? Made yourself throw up? That’s what I did, just with emotions. Puke and rally. Completely reasonable. Hinged, I’m super mentally hinged. Oh, shit," I said. "I just remembered I licked your neck last night."

"Dude," Buddy said. "You totally did."

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Désequilibré (Saturday, 2011 April 16)

April 16th, 2011

[Retcon: Zhenae is now spelled differently, so as to be pronounced in English. I’m also thinking about the changing the human language to not be English, like let’s say "Panlac". This chapter’s a little weaker; it’s just to get towards the next chapter, which is considerably juicier.]

The less said about that night before we left, the better. I woke up on Cherry Drop’s couch, which implies that I must have peeled myself off Cherry Drop’s bathroom floor at some point. It was late o’clock local time and Cherry Drop was asleep so I took a shower, then I occupied myself submerging into the past few days’ information backlog. Tracking the signal in the noise is something of a way of life for us, you could say. I contributed a little signal, a little noise while I was at it. I couldn’t sleep.

Praying for us is like looking at a walkthrough — a little like cheating. If God wanted us to do exactly what He wanted, why did He give us free will? I was desperate for direction, though, so I gave it a shot, and got nothing but stony silence. I couldn’t tell if that was disappointment with my conduct or just a steadfast refusal to give advice. Either way, I was left to my own devices for a few hours.

We got up too early, so we could catch the bus to Grace’s Action, sneaking out of town like bandits to continue the party somewhere else. Buddy met up with us at the bus station. Cherry Drop was talking to a Zhenae. Cherry Drop’s Sumi is hilarious — it’s like a fruitcake, littered with raisins of delicious chewy English slang. "You are travelling? So, we also travel. You travel, like, where? Wow, cool!" Buddy found a Little Egg Person for breakfast, but I didn’t feel much like eating. Then it was time to board.

So it was that we escaped under the cover of darkness. The first leg of the trip was difficult, because I was afraid I was gonna throw up, but I closed my eyes steadfast and I managed to make it through. Cherry Drop showed me and Buddy the picture she took of me passed out on her bathroom floor — OK, it’s true she was there when I needed her to be, but that woman seriously does not care about other people. Buddy broke out some of his offworld candy and I feel like that replenished me somehow. I felt even more better when we stopped for a brief layover at Grace’s Point (which, yeah, confusing, but it’s Grace’s Point and then Grace’s Action) and grabbed a River drink. The Zhenae in front of us got ice cream, which prompted Cherry Drop to get some too.

That same Zhenae had studied English, which I found out when Cherry Drop let loose a "Shit!" and she fired us a dirty look. We struck up a conversation at the next police checkpoint, when the bribe-taking process started to take a little too long.

"What are they doing?" Buddy asked. (You have to admire his deftness. We were on vacation, but you never really stop being an offworlder or even a Missionary.)

"It’s a checkpoint," the Zhenae said. "They are taking their money."

"What money?"

"He wants a bribe to pass. Zhenae are a corrupt, dishonest people." She was shaking her head in disgust. "We have resources for improve our world, but the corruption prevents. The policies of dictators supported by Sumi."

Ah, right, that’s why she’s speaking English. The Zhenae hate their former masters, much though they all speak their language. It’s too late to cry over that particular spilled blood, but they do it all the same. At least she’s man enough to admit that it was Zhenae manning that checkpoint.

When we got into Grace’s Action, it was dusk, nearly dark again already. Grace’s Action was lit up like a Roman candle. You take for granted the absence of light pollution back home, but it’s alive and well on Zhen, just like the promiscuous advertising in Capital City. This is the kind of thing the Zhenae was talking about. People live on this planet, and it seems to work well enough, but it really could do a lot better, if only.. what? No idea, really. I don’t think blaming the Sumi or even themselves is the way to go, but how do you communicate that in awkward bus-ride half-interactions?

"How can you change it?" I asked. Silently: take some action.

"How?" she repeated, tasting the word. "Uncertain. The Sumi need to leave us alone."

I counted to ten, as I had taught myself to do in training. I considered my options — couldn’t browbeat her, couldn’t get mad. And anyhow, who was I to say she was wrong? I was just tired of stasis, an entire population doing isometrics on this planet.

We got to the Mission House in Grace’s Action with no great fuss. Travel on Zhen is either boring, or terribly, terribly interesting, so all told I guess we lucked out.

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Aléatoire (Saturday, 2011 April 2)

April 2nd, 2011

The GPS trail would probably tell the story better than I could. I’ve seen it overlaid on a map of Capital City, and it doubles back in lines and knots, tangles like my hair on a sweaty day. Also like my hair, I’m perversely proud of it. It’s a scar on my informational life like the ones on my corporeal one. But GPS tracks don’t tell the whole story, so I’ll have to see what I can do to fill in the rest.

I caught the early Chameleon down to the lower level of Capital City. I had a long trip before I got to Up Station. I wanted to make sure I had my ticket as soon as possible, since I wanted to take the shuttle with two other Missionaries next month (which turned out to be a bad idea, but that’s another story). I caught a taxi going south.

"The Station."

"Traveler’s Station?"

"Uh, maybe.. for the shuttle."

And off we went, the driver weaving through the light-but-manic traffic with the polished ease of long practice. On the GPS map, this is the first set of smooth curves as we swerved over to the sidewalk to canvass other passengers and dodging the big-porters and fat-porters carrying their numinous cargoes. We picked one up for Central Post, and one for the Palace of Justice. Try not to judge that last one. She’s probably not actually going to the Palace of Justice, it just makes a convenient landmark. Meanwhile I was untangling my emotional mess with the same practiced ease that I was untangling my hair. Start at the top; what’s the problem? Run your fingers through until you find it, a knot. Then, what’s causing all this fuss? Tease individual threads out, one at a time, resolving each one into an atomic, indivisible factor and cancelling it from the equation. Eventually the knot just disappears; it’s just yourself, in an inconvenient configuration. It’s the same with emotional stuff, but it takes longer and it hurts more.

I worked on that for a while — the hair, the meditation — as we made our way through the intersections and traffic circles. We let the guy off at Central Post. We passed fruit stands and hardware vendors and billboards written in Sumi or, puzzlingly, in English. "Study in Ukraine!" Advertising is advertising, of course, but you get trained in letting it roll off your psyche like water. And it’s hot, it’s always hot in Capital City, but the taxi windows were open and when we got up to speed, the breeze just carried the heat away. On balance, it was all very pleasant. That’s when we got hit by the first big-porter.

It just swept in from the right, trying to merge with us at the cobblestone intersection. The hoverpad slammed into the driver’s-side door. No religion has a prayer to cancel inertia; ours has come close but we’re still not yet there. So the whole car skewed off the road and into a bar, which was convenient enough because it gave me something to do while I waited for the Police to show up and assign blame.

Three bulbs of wine and a box of Hello Cookies later I was free to go so I picked up where I left off. I could have taken a moto if I thought it would have made a difference, but I figured to do the taxi thing again since I was increasingly unconfident in my ability to remain from falling off of a moto. Hailed a taxi again, specified Voyager Station directly this time, and off we went.

It’s good that I didn’t take the moto, because the second big-porter would have probably taken me right off the thing, and wearing a helmet is about as effective as wearing a head of cabbage in that sort of situation. Not a pleasant way to go. Instead, the front half of the taxi crumpled up like a whiskey sachet and me and the other passengers in the back got thrown around like livestock. The driver was hurt really badly, crying in pain and praying in Sumi and another language I didn’t recognize, I guess his tribe’s. There was a lot of blood and I didn’t really know what to do. We have Health missionaries who are former nurses or doctors. Me, I’m in Education. I can’t do much beyond call for help in mediocre Sumi. And even that wasn’t really necessary; other Zhenais were already scrambling to tear the vehicle open, stop the bleeding, sending for professional medical assistance. The Church of the Universal Stochastic encourages to find the signal in the noise, and two accidents in one travel was probably a Hint. But it could have been a challenge, too, a gauntlet that I needed to run to show how badly I wanted this.

We fool ourselves into believing all kinds of things.

Soon enough I was on my last taxi, the one that broke down a few hundred meters from Up Station. I was dirty now with the effort of even this little bit of travel, and my hair didn’t seem any less tangled than when I had started. I was dizzy and sore and I was thinking about going to a White Market to get some soy sauce or something to make myself feel better. I was trying to ignore the telltale taste of glueworm in the back of my throat and I am sure the Zhenais at the train station thought I was a sight.

"Bedroom for May shuttle. Supplication."

"It’s possible. Five thousand Sum."

"Here." I paid with a crisp new bill, and he gave me my reservation slip. "Gratitude."

"Trust."

We’re all unique quantum events but at that moment, stuck in the middle of Capital City having accomplished what I thought I wanted, I felt more utterly unique than I ever wanted. Ever feel alone in your own head? It was like that. I had a bad feeling that I’d find myself at the end of the night in a dark corner at the bottom of the bottle of soy sauce. It’s been like that for most of my life. The moral of the story is that sometimes you get exactly what you ask for — and it usually turns out to be not what you wanted at all. But that’s why I came here, to make that kind of mistake, to throw away the prudence and put my faith in the randomness of experience.

I’d had enough for one day, so I decided to go back to the Mission.

Decided I’d walk it, though.

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