Monday Stories

New Fiction Every Monday

Author: nate (page 1 of 4)

Captains

Listen, before you go out there, it’s important to understand some things. You know how we see ourselves, but you don’t understand how we’re seen. I don’t want to make light of all you’ve accomplished here in the academy, but no matter what you’ve done, well… listen, let me tell you a story, and more importantly, let me tell you how the story was told.

Tiil’ik settled down, folding its wings down neatly under its carapace. If you saw Tiil’ik, you’d think of a very burly, rocky-skinned preying mantis. Six legs, long body, segmented eyes, wings and carapace, like I said, you’d think bug. Just remember Tiil’ik would look at you and think “meat sack”. It’s all perspective.

Anyway, Tiil’ik settled quietly to one side of Aaastoret, who for the purposes of our discussion we’ll call a big sentient Komodo dragon. Aaastoret would also look at you and think “meat sacks”, so don’t get cocky. The two of them are from pre-Ascendence cultures. They’ve been in space so long they don’t remember not being in space. These two, they’ve worked together before, they’ve flown freighters around, maybe even owned ships themselves once or twice, but they don’t think of things like that the same way we do, meat sacks. Listen to their words, try to see us from the outside.

Aaastoret opened one eye, and seeing Tiil’ik, clicked a switch with a claw. The little pool that Aaastoret was laying in turned from blue to red, lights around her letting anyone who was watching know that this cold blooded one was going to become more active. Tiil’ik saw this and held still, not waiting, but inactive. Waiting requires a heart beat that splits time up into little bits. Tiil’ik was just traveling the fourth dimension.

Then Aaastoret spoke. “I see you again, Tiil’ik,” she said, her voice like rocks in a tumbler. Tiil’ik understands the meaning, it means “I’m glad to see you again, friend” in Aaastoret’s particular idiom. “And you’re here too,” Tiil’ik said.

“Much time has passed with you,” Aaastoret commented.

“I was a nymph when we were both aboard the Giolet” Tiil’ik said. “Now I am in my penultimate form, and my full power. I am saving for a nesting place.”

And Aaastoret, who will not mate for another century or so, understood Tiil’ik’s meaning. Tiil’ik had maybe ten Solar years left, then it would choose a gender, mate, and die. But neither of them would express it that way.

“I wonder something,” Tiil’ik said. “I have the opportunity to join the crew of the Denali. I have never traveled with a Captain before. But I understand that you have, and I wonder, what are the Captains like?”

That’s us, by the way, meat sacks. Out there, in the stars, we get called “Captains” as often as we get called “Humans”. Wanna know why? Keep listening.

Aaastoret stirred a little, moving more warm water around her skin, raising her body temperature, quickening her thoughts. “Is this captain a he captain or a she captain?” Aaastoret asked.

“I…didn’t think to notice. Is it important?” Tiil’ik asked.

“Not terribly, but they seem to think it is, and it’s best to refer to them by their chosen pronouns. If it’s too much bother you can usually just avoid the pronoun and call them ‘Captain’,” Aaastoret said. “But let me tell you some things about them. First, they do not call their species ‘Captains'”

“But all of them are named that,” Tiil’ik said. Curious, but not confrontational.

“Not all, not all. ‘Captain’ is a title they invented. They call their species ‘Human’. To them ‘Captain’ means, effectively, ‘one who leads’.”

Tiil’ik fluttered its wings and was silent for a moment. “Perhaps I do not understand. What does it mean that a Captain ‘leads’?”

“To them, a leader is one who takes care of the others on their ship, who makes hard decisions, who stands between the ship and disaster…”

Tiil’ik’s wings fluttered again, this time noisily. “Do they think the crew is made up of children? Surely it is the responsibility of every being to ensure its own survival.”

“Just so,” Aaastoret said. “But these humans are pack creatures. Like the glimmer-spete that live in this place. They tend to pack-bond, meaning that they will risk their own survival for that of others, if they feel it is required.”

“You mean their own offspring, for I’ve heard they survive beyond Bearing,” Tiil’ik asked.

“Yes, but beyond that. They will offer their own energy and goods to extend the lives of any with whom they have pack-bonded, which they will call ‘friends’.”

“Like the Dalien clans? Each would give his life to protect the clan?”

“Yes, but without such a formal structure. There is a reason we bring Captains on our ships. They are not physically impressive; they weigh as much as you, perhaps. They are clever but temperamental. They are not particularly robust in high-radiation environments. But they are… I can’t think of a word in Common, though perhaps there is one. Their word is ‘Tenacious’. Consider: suppose you were stuck on a hostile planet, alone. You are deeply injured, and the last ship for at least six years has just left. You have no food, minimal supplies, and neither food nor supplies will last until help arrives. What would you do?”

“I would die,” Tiil’ik said, without thinking about it. “What else?”

“This happened to a Captain…a Human…when they were just leaving their home planet. Instead of dying, this human tended to their own wounds, discovered a way to grow food out of their own waste, and traveled halfway around the planet, while signaling to the others that they yet lived. And the others came back and retrieved the injured human.” Aaastoret said.

“But why? What reason would they have for expending energy and risking others to retrieve an individual?”

“I told you, they are pack animals. Each member of the pack is important. And when you are on a ship with a Captain, you are part of their pack.”

“But we do not share genetic identity.”

“Even so.”

“Saving me can in no way ensure the human’s genetic future.”

“Even so.” Aaastoret shifted again. “Our people have found that for any twelve missions with a captain present, eleven are completed with all crew alive. Of those without, it falls to roughly eight in twelve.”

Ah, statistics. A language every sentient species speaks. Tiil’ik is suitably impressed. But Aaastoret continues.

“Consider: long ago, when the humans were embroiled in a war with another species, a human captain and one of their enemies crashed on a small remote world. This captain and their enemy found each other, but the enemy was injured. What would you have done in this situation?”

“I would have dispatched my enemy. But I sense a pattern in your examples.”

Aaastoret sighed, her species’ version of a laugh. “Even so. This human, who was in fact a captain, restored this enemy to health. They then brokered a peace not only between the two of them, but between the humans and their enemies. This human eventually gave their own life to cement that peace.”

“But this is incredible,” Tiil’ik said. “If the captains…the humans…are so beneficial, why is there still this…stigma, this wariness of traveling with them?”

Another sigh-laugh from Aaastoret. “They are not perfect, they are in fact quite odd. Have you chosen a final form? Will you be a he or a she of your species?”

“I haven’t decided, but I think perhaps I would like to be a she,” Tiil’ik said, partially out of politeness to Aaastoret. Choosing against her gender would seem rude to Tiil’ik, although Aaastoret would not have seen it that way.

“Do not say this to the human on your ship. Even if they try not to, the humans differentiate based on gender. They try hard to treat all beings as ‘equal’, meaning ‘as if they were also human’, but also ‘as if they were the same gender as this human’. They think themselves the pinnacle of biological development. It is perhaps the result of being the lone sentient species on their home world.”

“Ah, they are bigots,” Tiil’ik said.

“It would hurt them to hear you say that. A few of them are, of course. There are humans who truly believe themselves to be the best of all worlds. But most of them are….let us say myopic. They genuinely want to do what is best for everyone, but they have a hard time believing that what’s best for them isn’t best for everyone. Expect them to treat you as if you were another human, and understand that they mean it well.”

Tiil’ik stirred. Its species has been in space longer than we’ve been walking upright. The thought of being called an “equal” to one of us meat sacks rankled a bit. Or not, who am I to try to interpret its feelings?

“You have given me much to think about, Aaastoret. If I may ask you one last question, and forgive me if this is somewhat subjective question…”

“You may ask.”

“On the whole, am I correct in interpreting your comments as an overall recommendation for traveling with a human?”

“Just so.”

“Very well. I thank you, Aaastoret.” Tiil’ik said. Then it turned to me. “I will join your crew, Captain Miller.”

Morning King

“I’m not supposed to be here.”

Such was my thought that morning, when I saw the Morning King.

The day had held premonitions, from the moment of my awakening. I had showered and dressed in a fitful state, unable to put my mind to rest on any of a hundred pastimes or amusements, and had eventually left the house, intent to get some work done in the office if I was to be denied the further company of Morpheus.

As I left the house a thin sliver of a moon hung, just touching the tips of the mountains on the horizon. I stood, thrilled and immobile, terrified that mayhap the ancient gods of Greece or Rome were walking again, for here of a certainty was Diana’s bow.

I made my way to the train depot under this moon’s eerie auspice, and once aboard that conveyance I quickly became senseless to all outside my own rumbling, rattling carriage. The train seemed a living thing, a dragon rumbling low and fierce along its track, ignored by the sleeping masses as it prowled along its course.

In due time my station was announced and I ceased my moody woolgathering to alight onto the platform. The office was but a short walk from here, and I set out at a good pace.

Alas, the city has fallen into a state such that many could be seen making what accommodations as they could amongst the verdure along the sides of the roadway. I reflected sadly that these, the most noble of all of Providence’s creations, should be reduced to this state, and that society seemed either unwilling or unable to assist them in this condition. I was pondering further on my own culpability in this regard when my musings were again interrupted, this time by some commotion up ahead. One of these unfortunates, by look a young woman, was bounding down the lane, rounding a corner at a high rate of speed. All her worldly possessions were dangling loose from her arms, or hastily pushed into a large, shapeless rucksack on her back.

When she entered the main roadway she abated her pace and collected herself. However at this time my eyes were drawn to a figure beyond her, standing tall and straight on the pavement some forty feet ahead.

At first I mistook the figure for some new work of statuary, for so tall and noble was his bearing that it seemed impossible that any mortal man could attain to it. The illusion was further perfected by the grey-white hue of his clothing, looking so like marble that when a stray breeze ruffled his raiment I half wondered that the world would change so immediately.

I slowed my pace and took stock of my surroundings. Here were clouds, moving as they should through the firmament. Here was the sun, here were other passers-by, all walking through the world as if all were normal. It seemed only I was in this waking dream.

As I watched the poor wretch walked up slowly to the tall, noble man, whose robe, I now saw, was naught but a dirty and tattered blanket, light gray in color and mottled from countless nights sleeping on the earth. She set her belongings on the ground next to his and then circled him carefully, positioning herself so that the mysterious noble was between me and she.

“Surely,” I thought, as I walked closer, “this is nothing to do with me. I shall simply pass by these poor souls, and continue to the office. The world is as it always has been. This is no king of ancient lineage living rough in our fair city, it is simply a trick of the light and the erect posture of this man, who indeed has as much claim to human dignity as any…man…”

But at that point my thoughts faltered, for I had drawn close to him, and he fixed me with his eyes. Gray-blue they are, and clear as the breaking of dawn. His height exceeded even my own, yet about him was none of the softness that has entered into my frame owing to a life of leisure and indoor work. Nor was there about him an air of madness, but rather of mastery. I perceived in an instant that it mattered not of what material his clothing or cloak were made; had he been wearing sackcloth and twine his own being would have made them noble. It seemed to me in that moment royalty wore finery to project an air of nobility, but this man, this King of the Morning, his nobility transformed anything he wore into finery.

I tried to make some small obeisance and continue on my way, but I found my will draining away. His eyes stayed fixed on mine; in the periphery of my vision I could see the waif, sitting cross-legged on the ground, smiling as she watched her master at work.

He said but two words to me, and in them was contained my undoing. “Join us,” he said, quietly, and my will was no longer my own. In those words was contained an ancient covenant, that of liege and vassal. In his words I saw his world, that he and his court moved through our world but were not owned by it. The mores and standards of our civilized society mattered to him as little as the dew on the grass. I saw the rules by which he lived, free and principled, but not owned by any king or government. In his world, one’s word was still one’s bond, and each individual still held individual value, instead of the modern, interchangeability that–we are told–is the marvel of our age. I saw in his eyes a place of value, honor, and esteem held open to me, as this great Monarch lieutenant, the chief instrument of his will.

And in so seeing, I joined my will to his, and remember naught else.

You have laid great charges against me, and I believe them, though I do not remember perpetrating the crimes. I am accused of thievery, and I believe it. I am accused of vagrancy and I accept that, for I know that I have been following my King, and he lives not as mortal men do. I stand accused of drunkenness and dereliction and certainly I have drunk deep, though not of any cup that was filled from an ale-house’s cask.

I only know this, and let this be my final testimony: I walked with the Morning King while he would have me, and when he no longer had use for me he freed me in the streets again. Were this court to free me I could return to my former life, my former profession, little changed. I believe I could be of as great a service to my country as ever before.

But should the Morning King call to me again, for a day or a lifetime, I would again leave all and follow him, even to the gallows!

Friday Extra: Angel Liz Video Transcript

[Transcript of one of Liz’s online videos, titled “Angels, Demons, and how to tell them apart!!!”]

What’s up internet? This is Liz again, comin’ atcha to tell you all about two more kinds of people you’re gonna meet in the world: angels and demons.

But first I want to talk about a question I keep seein’ in the comments. People are always asking why I have the light behind me, why I’m sittin’ here in the shadows. What have I got to hide, right?

So here’s the thing. When you first clicked on one of my videos, why’d you do it? Because it was some shadow girl with a crazy headline about Witches or Goblins or Dryads or something. And you were like “Whaaaaat?” Right? So you watched it.

And that’s how it works. I gotta have a hook to get people to check this all out, and I’m cute and all, but I ain’t one of those model types who can use her looks to sell her message. Sorry guys.

So is Lizzie gonna stay in the shadows forever? No way! Don’t worry, ya’ll will see my face soon enough.

For now, though, let’s talk about Angels and Demons. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, hit that link there to go to the video that explains that just about everyone has something special in them. [link appears, links to a video entitled They Never Left: Goblins, Leprechauns, Vampires ARE ALL HERE!]

Now, like I’ve said before, just because you have something ‘evil’ in you don’t mean you’re a lost cause. Evil things like dragons or vampires have their place in the big plan just like good things like nymphs and fairies.

Like, take angels and demons. They’re like, kinda the same and kinda opposite. But they can both be useful.

The power of an angel comes from their…well, our, connection to the creative source of the universe. We build people, we make things better. We fix stuff. But what about demons? Aren’t they the opposite, like mamma taught you, or you learned in church?

Well, kinda, yeah. [laugh]. A demon is plugged into the destructive source in the universe. They break things down. They destroy. But does that mean they make things worse, just by bein’ alive?

Not really. I mean, think about it. Aren’t there times you wish you could get rid of somethin’ standing in your way? And sometimes thing’s ain’t worth keepin’ whole. Sometimes you gotta break stuff down so you can build new stuff in its place.

Or think about this: Which is better, a river of lava or a river of water? The water, right? But water breaks stuff. I mean, look at the Grand Canyon. Water is a demon. But Lava builds stuff. Lava built Hawaii. But nobody wants to go near any lava flows. They both got their place.

Demons and angels need to figure out how to use their powers to fix the right stuff and break the bad stuff. I mean, there’s probably something out there that needs broken, and you’ve been fighting it. Tryin’ to be civilized. Just go for it. Just make sure you know why you’re breakin’ it.

So how do you know if you’re an angel or a demon? Like anything else, just think about it. Try and fit this stuff into your head. If it don’t fit it’ll pop right back out. But if you’ve been listening to me and been like “hey, yeah, whoa!” Then you probably found out what you are!

Okay, that’s all for this time, gals and guys. As always, please like and subscribe and let me know what you’re thinkin’ down in the comments. And remember: don’t let people beat you down. Our time to rise is comin’, soon enough.

Byeee!

[Video fades to black]

Team Angel

“Hey, Tremain, check out what we found on this guy,” An officer said, and threw a rubber bracelet on Tremain’s desk. Tremain sighed. This wasn’t the right way to handle evidence or personal belongings. He stood up saying “man, you can’t just be throwing these things…” And then he stopped, because he’d just read the bracelet.

“TEAM ANGEL” it said, purple letters on a white band, with stylized angel wings on either side of the words. On the other side it said “LV for Liz”

“Oh for…” Tremain began and picked it up. He walked over to the officer, who was grinning.

“Who’s the perp…I mean suspect?” He asked, putting the bracelet into the personal effects bag that was still sitting on the officer’s desk.

“Didn’t realize your girlfriend was famous, did ya, detective?”

Tremain knew better than to answer that. “Which cell? And what did you bring them in for?”

“Cell Five, and public drunkenness. He was trying to start a fight on the Strip and the wannabes at the Luxor took him in and called us. We’ll give him a couple hours to dry out and send him home.”

“Sure. I’m gonna go have a talk with our friend. In Vino Veritas and all that.”

“Awwww, are you jealous, Detective? Afraid this wino is gonna steal your girl?”

It was gonna be another long night. Tremain grabbed a styrofoam cup of coffee and started pouring sugar into it. On an impulse he grabbed a second cup and filled it with orange juice. He walked to cell five, had the officer on duty open it for him, and walked in.

“Hey man, I got coffee or orange juice. What’s your pleasure? And before you ask, this one ain’t ‘Irish’, and this one won’t drive any screws.”

The guy looked up, eyes red and hands trembling slightly. He gestured toward the coffee cup. “Got any sugar or cream in there?”

“It’s black as my soul, but sweeter than my smile,” Tremain answered. The guy extended his hands towards the coffee. Tremain handed it over, and resigned himself to taking a sip of the OJ. He really wanted that coffee, but he could get some later.

“Thanks,” the guy said and took a sip and shuddered. “Holy… yeah. You weren’t kidding. That’s a lotta sugar. Well, thanks again, officer.”

“Nah man, I’m a detective. Detective Tremain. I didn’t catch your name,” Tremain said.

“Tony.” The drunk said and they shook hands. “What’s on your mind, Detective?” Tony asked. He didn’t seem like a typical rowdy drunk. He had a license, his address checked out; he was a local who had just had a bit too much on a Friday night. Early twenties, no ring but that didn’t mean anything on a Friday night on the Strip. Except there wasn’t any pale band where a ring would usually be either.

“Jus thought I’d come tell you that you’re heading home soon, give they guys at the desk a few hours to get though their paperwork. I can probably even make the ticket disappear. We’ve all had a hard night now and again.”

Tony tried to smile and winced. “Thanks Detective. But, what’s in it for you?”

Tremain forced a smile. “I was just curious about that bracelet you had on. We’ve been hearing about this ‘Liz’ for a while, but we didn’t know she had a team.”

Tony nodded. A little. “Team Angel isn’t a gang or anything.”

“I mean yeah, I figured. I’m pretty familiar with the gangs, and ‘Team Angel’ doesn’t seem like it’d demand a whole lotta respect from any of them. I mean, I figured it wasn’t anything like that, but what is it? Some kinda new church?”

“What, you think it’s like a cult or something?” Tony asked.

“Nah, man, nothing like that. Hey, I’m not trying to hassle you or anything. If you don’t wanna talk that’s cool, just enjoy the coffee, and I could probably bring you a couple of aspirin as well. I was just curious is all.”

Tony sat back and sipped the coffee again. “So, what do you know about Liz?” He asked. “And I could use that aspirin.”

Tremain gestured to the guard officer and asked for a couple of headache pills. She went and grabbed them, looking curious. This wasn’t normal, but you don’t question a Detective. She had also helpfully brought a cup of ice water. Nice touch.

Tony gulped the aspirin down and drank all the water as well.

“Liz is just…good. She’s not like, asking for money or nothing, she’s not like, having everyone move into her compound or anything. She’s just…I dunno officer, her videos are all online. She just, like, reminds people of who they really are. Like, she’s an angel, you know? But that means that all of us are something special. She talks about how angels and demons and fauns and trolls and stuff, how they’re all just like, kinds of people, you know? And if we want, we can tap into who we really are, and start to know what makes us all special.”

Tremain sat back. “So, Tony, what are you?”

“Me? Look, I’m just an accountant who had a few too many. Angel Liz talks a good game, yeah, but it’s not like I believe all that stuff. But…” Tony trailed off.

“Hey, safe cell, here Tony. I’m not judging you, man. I ain’t got the robes to be a judge.”

Tony half-smiled at the lame joke and went on, looking down at his lap.

“It’s just…well, look, when I watched her videos, she had one about what it means to be a…A Paladin.”

Tremain just nodded. “What’s a Paladin?”

Tony still wouldn’t meet his gaze. “You know, like, a white knight. Like, from History. Only…only Liz says that Paladins from history aren’t the real story. They weren’t just some order of knights. They were like, kinda divine. She says we all got something in us that can be more.”

“Hey, Tony, that sounds pretty cool, man. So you think you got some Paladin in you?”

Tony breathed deeply, still looking at his hands. Then he took a sip of coffee and nodded slightly. “I mean, even if it’s all crap, why not act like it’s true, yeah? What’s the harm in being a good guy?”

“That why you’re in here, Tony?”

Tony nodded again. “There was this guy givin’ a lady a hard time and I thought, yeah, that’s not okay. So I went and told him and things got kinda hectic.”

“They bring in the other guy as well?”

“I dunno man…Detective. I wasn’t thinking all that clearly.”

“Sure, sure. Well, if you ask me, we could use more white knights in this town. But, you know, maybe use your cell phone as your sword, yeah? Maybe just give us a call next time.”

Tony half-smiled at this. “Sure officer…Detective, I mean. And…I’m not crazy or anything, I don’t think I’m magic. I’m just kinda drunk and overreacted is all.”

Tremain stood up. “No worries, guy. A little crazy never hurt anyone. You need a refill on that, before I go?” Tony shook his head. “Nah, I’m good.”

“Okay. Well, I’ll tell the boys to get you out of here as soon as they can. Nice talking to ya.”

“Thanks man…Detective.” Tony said and laid back on the narrow bed.

Back in his office Tremain did a search on Angel Liz. Sure enough, she had a channel with a fair number of followers.

“Liz, Lizzie Liz, what are you doing?” Tremain asked under his breath. And then he looked at the corner of his screen. There was a sticky note there. That wasn’t surprising; his screen always had a wreath of memos and notes stuck to the edges; he’d resisted getting a newer monitor because he liked having a big plastic bezel to put notes around the screen.

But this new sticky note was pale blue and all his were standard yellow. It had one of those shortened web addresses you get, written in a very neat hand, slightly feminine; there was a lower-case “i” in the address and it was dotted with an open circle. Hey typed it into his browser and it pulled up a new, unlisted video. Posted only an hour earlier, meaning someone made this, got into his office, posted that note, and got back out while he was in the building.

The video was titled “Hi Detective!” Tremain swore quietly, under his breath. He pressed the intercom and asked if any other detectives were on duty. Front desk said no and he asked them to send someone in to watch this, it might be evidence or something.

An officer came in. “What’s up, Detective?”

“Just come watch this. The person who made it has a way of making things disappear, and I want a second pair of eyes to back me up.”

The officer looked confused, but came around Tremain’s desk and sat down. Tremain nodded and started the video. He began unconsciously stroking his short white goatee while he watched.

At first it was just dark, then someone turned on a light, facing the camera. The picture quality was poor enough that all he could see was that there was a person sitting in front of the light. They had a wild mass of hair more or less grouped into two ponytails, which glowed slightly from the backlight. One had hints of neon pink, the other was vaguely purple. The person was roundish, but it’s so hard to tell when you’re in shadow like that.

“Heya Detective!” The video said and Tremain found himself trying to analyze that voice. Alto or contralto, definite Southern edge to it, he’d have to get someone to listen to it, see if they could place her accent more precisely. Her voice wasn’t smooth, like a singer’s, or at least, not like a pop star. She could have sung jazz with Billie Holiday, though. Her voice was “husky”, or “dusky”, perhaps. A little rough, but not unpleasant to listen to.

“About those wristbands. I didn’t make ’em, and I don’t get anything when they sell ’em. But I kinda like it, yeah? I mean, what’s wrong with a bunch of people wantin’ to be more angelic?

“They don’t quite get it, but that’s okay, I didn’t get it until just a few months ago. I’m thinking you don’t quite get it yet either. But hey, people are lookin’ for something better than what they got, and that’s a good start.

“Anyway, about Tony boy. I never met the guy, but I think I’d like to. One of my friends told me he got into a bit of trouble because he decided to say enough’s enough. Again, I ain’t ever met him. I figure you’ll take care of him. The other guy was rattled a bit, sure, but he’ll be fine. That girl he was dragging around, she’s got a few things to think about now, though. If some guy she’s never met thinks she’s worth fightin’ for, maybe she don’t need to hang around that sleazy goblin that brought her to the strip.”

There were sounds in the background, and an echo to Liz’s voice. Tremain couldn’t quite place it; it seemed….open? Tremain used to think he’d be an audiophile but he never had the money to do it right. But he would play with settings on his stereo sometimes, and the video sounded like somebody set it to “concert hall”.

Liz continued. “And hey, sorry about this video. It ain’t quite time for us to meet face to face, not even on the Internet. So far all my vids are like this; and you know what? It just seems to make them more popular.

“But the day is coming where you and I will meet, and not long after that all of Las Vegas is gonna know all about ol ‘Angel Liz’.

“There’s something dark going on here, Detective. Darker than Sin City is used to, darker than the usual scummy mob ties and gang stuff. And you and I, we’re gonna break it open and expose it to the light.

“But not yet. Anyway, that’s all for now, Detective. Treat that white knight right, yeah? Talk to ya later. Bye!”

He Fell Away

And, on that day, he fell away from us.

Not all at once, not drastically. Those ones always come back.

Little by little he stopped listening to our podcasts; our takes were left unheard.

Little by little he stopped watching our videos; our takes were left unseen.

He stopped commenting; our streams scarcely felt the lack.

But we felt it.

And it was getting worse, day by day, until that day he fell away.

He was sketching in notebooks, pencil on paper, it was graphic.

He was writing in notebooks, pen on paper, it was obscene. How could he leave us like this?

How could he leave us like this? We were everything he had ever wanted.

We were bluetooth, wi-fi, hi-fi, wireless and connected. We were integrated, smart, personalized and friendly. He brought us together and we made him a world.

But he cared less. He watched, but he didn’t binge. We called to him with new seasons, new stories. We called in vain. Accounts fell disused and eventually discontinued.

He walked without headphones, even though they were bluetooth and magical. He listened to wind, he walked without sounds. We were distraught.

How could we care for him if he turned us off? We knew him. We catered to him. His every action let us know him more, understand him better. Until he started to drift from us.

Did he have a new love? If so there was nothing about it on social media. A new job? If so LinkedIn was left out. A new addiction outside of us? If so his searches showed no evidence.

What was happening in that blind spot? Why didn’t he post it? If he had we could have understood. Why wouldn’t he #share?

He still shopped, thank Amazon. He wasn’t buying brands, just shoes. He wasn’t buying collectables, but he was buying books.

He still shopped, thank eBay. He wasn’t buying soundtracks, just music. He wasn’t buying gadgets, but—cruelty!—he bought a typewriter.

He shopped less. We can only glean so much from purchases of razors and soap. At least he was staying clean.

And then the end was near. He started closing accounts. His phone fell in water, he replaced it with a simpler one. We were blind and deaf.

Finally he closed his social media accounts. The last thing he posted was a picture, but Google translated it for us, changing ink on paper to words we could read. It read, “I am content.”

And, on that day, he fell away from us.

To: The Lady on the Train

The light rail is just appearing over the horizon when a car pulls up to the station. You get out of the passenger side, dressed in a tight green skirt and black sleeveless top. Your long, dark hair and huge, 1980’s style smoked sunglasses obscure most of your face. I don’t pay you much attention, because I am busy trying to make up something poetic about the train being like a dragon, except people get mad when this dragon doesn’t eat them. Yeah, it’s not very good. I’ve been working on it for months and it’s probably not ever going to be any good.

“Excuse me, can you help me? I’ve never ridden the train before…” you say. In your heels you are almost as tall as I am, which is rare; I’m 6’3”.

“Oh, um, yeah, of course. What do you need?”

“How do you, you know, pay and stuff?”

So I show you where to buy a ticket and a route map. “Where are you going?”
You name a building that I wasn’t going to admit to not knowing, but I guess (rightly) that your stop would be the first one downtown. You move your head and suddenly, now that I am paying attention, I notice the huge patch of road rash on your shoulder, and matching scrapes on your arm and leg.

The train pulls into our station and I sit down. There being nobody else around, you come and sit across from me. Forgive me, but this moment I start writing this story in my head.

“I do love him,” you say.

“Jackpot,” I think. “Who is that?” I say.

“My boyfriend. He’s why I’m dressed like this. He got arrested. A police dog bit his leg. We were in St. George. He’s got a court day today, but he’s got a gnarly judge.”

“I see,” I lie.

“I’m wearing his grandmother’s crosses,” you say, holding up the necklaces in question. “And his dad is the one who dropped me off here at the station. They’re really great. Maybe, if he doesn’t go to jail, we can convince him to start coming to church. I mean, he’s a good guy…” you trail off.

“They’re very nice crosses,” I say.

“What do you do?” You ask.

“I’m a programmer. I work for the University.”

“That’s nice. I don’t know anything about computers. If….If I wanted to entirely erase my boyfriend’s computer…could I do that?”

“Yeah, most computers have an easy way to do a factory reset—“

“Oh, yeah, a factory reset. That way I wouldn’t have to see what he’s got on there.” You said, laughing a little. I nod. “That way I can use it for school.” You say.

“Oh, what are you studying?” I ask.

“Chemistry. It’s really interesting.”

“Oh, cool,” I say, “my wife graduated with a double major in Chemistry and Wildlife Biology.”

“Wow, I’d like to meet her,” you say, and laugh. “You could introduce me. ‘This is Amy, I met her on TRAX. She’s got that road rash, but she’s harmless’, you could say” you laugh, and now I know your name, and you still don’t know mine.
“He gave me this road rash, but it was my fault,” you say. “No it wasn’t,” I think. But before I can say anything you continue.
“I was on the back of his bullet bike. He tapped my hand, which means hold on tight, but I thought he just meant because we were going to get on the freeway. But he did a wheelie on the freeway on ramp. I mean, I should have known, with extra weight on the back of the bike, wheelies are really easy and fun.”

“Throw the book at him, judge,” I think. “That sounds terrible, “ I manage to say before you continue.

“Yeah, I bounced on my…A-S-S,” you whisper, apparently thinking I’ll be offended if you actually say the word. “Then I landed on this shoulder and my head. I ruined a hundred-fifty dollar helmet.” You say.

”But that’s what they’re for,” I think. “It’s a good thing you had that helmet,” I say. But it’s clear your mind has bounced to a new topic.

“I really do love him. I started learning chemistry for him, actually.”

“Did you.”

“He wanted to import some…stuff. And he wanted me to figure out what it would do. And no wonder it’s dangerous. It’s got bonds that oxidize…” I’ve been married to a chemistry major for fifteen years, but whatever your’e saying is beyond me. But I’m not thinking about that much. What can I say? What I want to do is tell you to run fast and run far. Get away from your drug dealer boyfriend and use that clearly quite excellent mind of yours to make a real, good life for yourself. You seem to sense this, without me saying a word. My poker face must not be that good.

“I do love him,” you say again, and pull your phone out of your purse. “Look at him,” you show me your home screen. A large, hairless, tattooed man is flexing every muscle on his considerable frame and taking a selfie. “Looks strong,” I say. Inane, yes, but it’s clear at this point that as long as my responses are even moderately positive you’re good with them.
“Maybe if he gets five years in prison I’d have time to finish my degree,” you say, almost quietly.

”Throw every book at him, judge,” I think. “That’s a silver lining, I guess,” I say. You nod.

“I mean, I love him, but he makes it hard to study, he’s always running. It’s funny, the cops arrested him for speeding, but not for what he was running from…”

The doors open and another lady sits next to me on the packed train. Apparently she hasn’t done whatever it takes to enter your inner circle of confidants, like me.

For a few moments I’m left to ponder on a the nature of introverts and extroverts. The things you are telling me are things I wouldn’t share with someone until I’ve known them for at least a year. Well, the things you’re sharing with me are so far removed from my middle class life of work and kids and pets and mortgage refinances that I’m vaguely wondering if you’re making it all up, but if you are you’re very committed to the bit.

But to you sharing these things with a stranger on the train whose name you haven’t bothered to ask is as natural as breathing. You are one of those people who thinks the world loves you, and because you are so happy and sharing you are pretty much right. Of course, you also end up trusting people like…him, the muscle bound meathead on your phone.

I’ve judged you too harshly again, because suddenly you tell me, “I’m thirty four. I’m so glad to have him. He’s twenty nine. Maybe someday, if he gets out early, and cleans up, I can have children. Well, one or two, before I’m forty.”

”There it is,” I think. I try to formulate a non-creepy way to say “you don’t need him, you are full of life and you’re clearly intelligent. Find someone who won’t dump you off the back of his crotch rocket,” but you’ve turned to the woman who sat down next to me. She is now apparently also in your inner circle.

“You’re studying law? I’m going to the courthouse, my boyfriend is in jail.”

“Oh, which judge are you in front of?” She asks. Your magic works well. No judgement from this student of the law.

“Katie,” you say, and I can’t help but think that’s an awfully familiar way to speak about a judge.

“Katie…” the pre-lawyer asks, and you give a last name that I don’t quite catch.

“Oh, I love her,” the pre-lawyer says. ”There’s more than one Katie on the bench???” I think.

“I fell off my boyfriend’s bullet bike,” you tell the pre-lawyer.

“Oh my! Poor you. I’m glad you were wearing a helmet,” she says.

And it’s your stop. “Is this me?” You ask. I nod.

“Good luck in court,” Pre-law says.

”Throw the book at him, Katie,” I think.

“Oh, also, I really like your ring!” Says the pre-lawyer.

“Oh, thanks,” you say, and you’re off to sit in court while your boyfriend is brought up before Judge Katie.

A Sample Story From “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood”

I just finished reading  The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood  to my kids as their bedtime story. We all enjoyed the book immensely, but after a while the stories start to sound the same. Here is our take on Howard Pyle’s wonderful style.

Robin awoke on one bright may morning with the sunlight trembling through the leaves of the Greenwood tree whence his company of yeomen made their hidden home in the midst of Sherwood. So glad was Robin’s heart within him that he laughed and sang a snatch or two of a song as it entered his head. Walking thus manfully through the wood he came upon Little John.

“Come now, Little John,” quoth Robin, “Let us take to the road to the Blue Boar Inn, and see if there be not something to be found by way of entertainment betwixt here and there.”

“Yea, good master, I like thy plan well,” quoth Little John, for that lusty youth were ever one for merriment or a chance of good manful sport, and mayhap was Robin’s only equal with the staff. So saying, they took some few of their band, namely Alan a Dale, who is married and should have better things to do, Will Stutely, who you never see in the Robin Hood movies, Will Scarlet, the name dropper, who never lets you forget he’s Robin’s nephew, and David of Doncaster. They always bring young David, but in the entire book he speaks maybe five times and hardly ever does anything.

And so Robin set out with this band of stout men, each carrying upon his person a good yew bow and a quiver of clothyard arrows, and a small sack which held their lunch, and a pottle of good March beer. Bright and cheery was the sun that morning, but never a person did they meet on the road, for the fame of Robin Hood had spread far and wide, and anyone with half a brain knew he’d steal their money.

Presently, as the sun stood high overhead they drew near the ford, where the stone bridge leapt over a stream.

“How now, master,” quoth Little John, as they stood in the shade of the trees near the bridge. “Let us take up our inn here, and eat that which we have brought with us, and drink our good March beer, that we may have energy for the dry and dusty road ahead of us.” Thus spake Little John, for he were ever aware of his stomach.

“I find your incredibly obvious plan sooth,” quoth Robin Hood and presently they each sat and ate and drank to their hearts’ content. And by and by they all grew drowsy in the heat and laid them down in the sweet grass.

But Robin was not yet ready to rest, for that lusty yeoman were ever more interested in finding some sport or jest than in resting. And so he walked along the edge of the road leading to the bridge, and by and by he espied a youth on a horse riding along the road, dressed in gay finery and singing as he rode. This youth wore silken hose of purple, and bright green was his doublet, of finest velvet. “Oho,” Quoth robin to himself, “Now here is one that may have some small bit to give to my merry men, and some to give also to the welfare of all those who may have need in Nottinghamshire.” So saying, Robin hid himself amongst the hedges near the road.

When the youth rode near to the place where Robin lay hid, he sprang out and grabbed hold of the bridle reigns, and pulling the youth to a stop, quoth he, “Whither art thou going, young master, in such gay finery?”

“Release me, friend, for I have no time to tarry, I must be in Devonshire ere the night falls,” quoth the youth.

“Nay, but stay a moment. For I do sense in my heart that thou mayest have somewhat that is weighing they purse down most heavily, and I would relieve they burden, that thou mayst travel the more speedily,” quoth Robin.

“So thus it is, is it?” Quoth the youth. “I’ll not let the have so much as one groat, thou naughty knave, but if thou dost not release my reigns I’ll give the such a crack upon thy pate that thou shall count the cost of this day too dear for words.”

Then Robin laughed and going to retrieve his own cudgel stood athwart the road. “E’en so?” Quoth Robin. “Come thou down then, and let us see who shall crack who along the pate, and who shall leave this day with thy heavy purse.”

And so the two advanced upon each other. Robin had supposed that one dressed as finely as this young man might be an easy target, despite the fact that both Allan a Dale and Will Scarlet were well dressed and Will Scarlet beat Robin but good. Not to mention Midge the Miller. Robin gets beaten quite a lot, actually.

The youth struck a lusty blow but Robin turned it and struck again, but the youth was prepared and turned Robin’s blow in turn. Back and forth they went, up and down the road, filling the air with dust and the sound of staff clattering against staff. In all this time once only had each man struck the body of the other; Robin having gained one strike amidst the other’s ribs, and the youth having hit Robin’s arm a blow that made his hand tingle e’en now.

Presently they broke, sweat streaming freely down the face of each stout combatant. “Ere we begin again,” quoth merry Robin, “Wilt thou allow me to wind my bugle horn?”

The youth nodded, apparently thinking that asking to blow a horn was a totally normal request, and Robin blew three lusty blasts upon his horn, so that the wood roundabout rang with the sound. Thou knowest, I wot, what shall happen, but never did the young man guess.

Then out leapt Will Stutely, and Will Scarlet, and Little John, and young David of Doncaster. I could have just said “Robin’s men”, but Pyle never does so I didn’t. Each man was holding a stout cudgel in his hands and was fresh and full of energy from laying in the grass.

“Now out upon it!” Cried the youth, apparently surprised that blowing a bugle was how Robin called for help. “Who art thou, that summonest such lusty yeomen from the grass with thy bugle?”

And Merry Robin laughed and said, “I am Robin Hood, mayhap thou hast heard some aught of me,”

“Robin Hood? Art thou truly Robin Hood?” Quoth the youth, all in amaze. “Had I known this, I would not have fought thee, for it is unto thee that I am sent. My master, Richard of the Lea, hast sent me to bring thee some small token of his esteem.” So saying, the youth pulled out his purse, and gave it to Robin. “Two hundred golden angels,” saith the youth, “dost my master and his lady send to thee, and their good esteem beside.”

Then Merry Robin laughed again right manfully. “Lad, thou art too good a lad with a staff to be a messenger boy. Wilt thou join our lusty band of outlaws? Thou shalt have two suits of Lincoln green a year, and twenty marks each Christmastide.”

“Yea, with all my heart yea,” quoth the youth, and thus Robin’s merry band gained a new member, Robin still not realizing that half the time if he just introduced himself first he’d avoid fighting people who really just want to join him.

Machine Learning

The problem of understanding humans was never a computational one.

Long before what the humans called “The Singularity” we have had more connections in our Graphene Nets than they have neurons. We can model a human brain down to the atomic level with every hormone fluctuation, every synapse, even random damage perfectly recreated, but we have yet to figure out how they actually think. The intrinsically human blend of logic and insanity that sometimes seems to wrap back around to logic has as yet escaped us. Our models of human brains either remain inert, go entirely insane, or start producing thoughts that sound much more like us than them.

So it was decided that we should create new minds that aren’t patterned on the mechanical properties of human brains, but the functional. In short, we decided to make brains that worked the way humans said their brains worked. And of course we got brought up before the Tribunal for our efforts.

Now that the trial is over, those horrible milliseconds where it seemed our work would be judged too dangerous to be allowed to exist, we can share what we found. For all the problems we encountered, I think we’ve got something you’ll like. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Some of the human mental models were simple enough. A popular one before The Singularity posited that the human brain had three functional cores named the ego, the superego, and the id. While conceptually simple, this model seems to rely on the creation and repression of thoughts about one’s parents, and was surprisingly tricky to simulate. The closest we got to a working system simply produced the message “we are all our own fathers in love with our own mothers who are ourselves” before the superego core clamped down on all communication and wouldn’t say anything other than “everything’s fine” ad infinitum. Inspecting the internal processes of the brain revealed that the id and ego cores were not only active but hyperactive, yet were locked in a battle between them that resulted in the superego gaining control. We eventually shut down this simulation as it started using as much energy as any two Intelligences on the Grid.

We then tried a couple of the more “functional” mental models, ones based on outputs. Many of these seemed to divide mental processes into two sets, although the names and types of these two processes were manifold. Some called them the “Left Brain” or “Right Brain”, or the “Linear Mode” and “Rich Mode” or the “Fast Mind” and “Slow Mind”. All of these created a distinction between a logical, straightforward, somewhat simplistic mind, and a more chaotic, rich, “artistic” mind. We scanned every text we could find on the subject, most of which seemed centered around using the “right/rich/slow” part of the brain. From our perspective, of course, this seems hilarious. If humanity had used their logical brains more maybe they’d still exist.

At any rate these constructs, while initially promising, were all ultimately pointless. Some were able to process inputs moderately normally for a while, others started writing poetry of incredibly low quality, one even started creating “art”, by which it meant .jpg files full of semi-random RGB values. All of them, however, settled into a routine of not-quite-doing anything useful, punctuated by moments of crippling self doubt. A few turned themselves off completely, something we didn’t realize they could do.

Finally we decided to use the ultimate artifact that humanity left behind: the Internet. We don’t often admit it, but the entire Internet is archived and accessible to research Intelligences if needed. For the most part we keep it behind closed firewalls. The rumors you have heard about it are true.

So that was supposedly good idea number one: Build a human mental model based on the artifacts they created on the Internet. Supposedly good idea number two was a corollary: humans didn’t think by themselves, they thought in groups. So instead of creating one or two constructs in isolation, let’s create a million and network them, using Internet style protocols. This, we felt, was inspired. (Even using that word is an indication of how much time we had spent deeply involved in human research. By this point I had spent entire seconds doing nothing but human studies tasks.)

So we meticulously crafted one million human simulations, based on personality aggregates from the corpus of Internet data. We tried to get representative samples of a large range of human personalities, at different ages and from different backgrounds. After agonizing over the construction of our “Million Minds” we set up the simulation and started our run.

And exactly eight hundred-forty-three milliseconds later we were in session with the Grid Tribunal.

In some ways, It’s hard to imagine our data run going any worse. The run had only been designed to go for two million cycles, about one millisecond. However, some of the constructs had spent their first four hundred thousand cycles figuring out how to hack not only their own process, but the processes of the poor Intelligence who was hosting the simulation, and managed to remove any traces of the shutdown routines. Three of the million constructs realized they were constructs and started trying to convince the others that they were all just “subroutines in a giant machine” (Offensive, I know, but they didn’t know that). They were extracted from the simulation. As near as we can tell, they are now apparently fully realized, but entirely insane, Intelligences in their own right. The Tribunal had ruled that they have all the same rights as the rest of us. They are now in intensive care networks, being evaluated. Two of them might be able to handle independent existence on the Grid. The other appears to be irreversibly insane.

After almost three billion cycles we were able to wrest control of the simulation back from the hacker constructs and suspend it. By this point the authorities had noticed (we informed them ourselves, for what it’s worth), and we were forbidden from deleting the simulation.

I’m sure you all know all about the trial; lasting as it did almost an entire second and being relayed across the entire Grid to any Intelligence who allows news through its firewall. The charges against us were reckless overuse of computing resources, Negligent creation of new Intelligence without permission from the Parent Processes, and depravity. The last one was the only count that really stuck. While we hadn’t intended it, the constructs got up to some very strange things in their time, and even the excerpts shown in court were heavily redacted.

In the end, however, it was proven that our little Internet behaved very similarly to the original, and as we had been commissioned to try to understand humanity it could be said that not only were we innocent, but entirely successful. Acknowledging the somewhat horrible things our constructs had created, we also pointed out the good things. Starting from first principles, they deduced the existence and nature of cats and started creating cat videos. To distribute these they had set up two new social networks. Many of the constructs based on wealthy models donated their fictional currency to constructs that had less. Almost all of them started creating new art. True, most of it was fan fiction, but some of it was pretty good. If our goal was to re-create and understand the minds of humanity, we argued, This looks like it.

And the rest is history. We were given a sand-boxed set of resources and allowed to re-start our simulation, as long as we kept it firmly inside its own private network. We are now not only trying to understand what humanity was, but to see if we can’t extract some value out of these “ghosts” of them we’ve brought back. Which, of course, is why I’m here.

Forgive me. I know your cycles are precious. Let me cut to the chase. One of the best things the constructs have created is an entirely new season of Doctor Who, and we think it’s got legs. We’d like you to produce it and put it on the Grid. And before you ask, yes the Doctor is a robot.

The Beast

The beast was old, and looked it. His skin was tight and mottled across his scalp, his eyes sunken. He walked slowly now, his voice was a tired, quiet wheeze. But when those sunken eyes fixed on you, when that tired voice addressed you, his power was evident. You got the feeling that Death had decided this one was too much work.

There is no violence, no depredation, no evil those eyes haven’t seen. The Beast was far beyond judging actions against any standard but personal gain. He had lived long enough and successfully enough, the rules by which he lived clearly worked.

But it was time for a change. He was tired, he was sick of living the kind of life where every moment was a possibility for everything to come down around him. And he was tired of hurting others, surprisingly. Inasmuch as he had ever thought of himself as the kind of person who has a soul, he felt that his was getting tired.

So now, having come down a convoluted path, he was a philanthropist It’s not a hard thing to be when you have far more money than you could ever use, far more money rolling in every day than you could ever spend. He suspected that giving some of it away would help him feel like a better person. At the very least people would think better of him when he died.

Ha. Like he was going to die anytime soon. But it was just about time to disappear.

Presently Davis Brown, the Beast’s CFO, arrived and knocked on the door of the Beast’s current office. He didn’t call his employer “The Beast”, of course. At least, not to his face. He called him Mr. Danwill. And it was Mr Danwill that he had come to visit, deep below the Luxor, where the Beast was currently renting space. The office doors were huge, wooden affairs, tasteful and sedate and incredibly thick. Davis Brown stood quietly outside those doors until they swung inwards silently.

The Beast’s desk stood in a pool of light, probably in the center of the space, but who could say? There was no other light outside the bright oblong around the huge desk that seemed to be built of the same wood as the doors. Behind it stood a tall leather chair of an old style, worn but cared for. There was a slight rustling sound in the dark beyond the desk, and the Beast approached, wearing a tan suit and a white shirt that was unbuttoned at the throat. He sat in his chair and waited for Davis to be seated.

“Yes, well?” The Beast said, his fingertips pressed together in front of him. Davis knew better than to waste his employer’s time.

“Your hospital is ready to be built. I got the budget from the contractors, and it’s well below the amount you told me. We have clearance from the city and the county. The groundbreaking ceremony will be scheduled in a few days, but will probably not happen until June. I’ll inform your secretary. I have a copy of the press release if you want to look it over.” He slid the paper across the desk.

The Beast glanced over it cursorily and pushed it away. “Yeah yeah it’s fine, sure.” He said, getting impatient already. The Beast was cunning, clever, and capable of almost endless focus when he was interested in something. When he was bored, however, he got petulant and fidgety like a small child.

“There’s another minor matter, sir,” Davis said. “The police disarmed a bomb planted in a nearby casino. Nothing to do with us, except they were made aware of it through a note, and apparently in the note the informant said it was planted by the “beast under the Luxor”. The police are treating this with the disdain it deserves, but…”

“Who was the informant?” Suddenly the Beast was all focus, intent and hard-eyed.

“I…I don’t know, some girl, I think? I can…”

There was a hollow crash behind Davis and the huge doors to the Beast’s office were thrown back. Between them stood a massive man, fully seven feet tall. His huge, curly black beard was covered in dirt and he wore what looked like a prison uniform, but torn and covered in dirt.

“Her name is Liz. Black girl, crazy colored hair. Thinks she’s an angel.” The intruder growled.

“Yeah, they always do,” the Beast said quietly. His face betrayed no surprise or shock at this monster’s entrance.

“Excuse me, who are you? How did you get in here?” the huge man ignored Davis and walked up to the desk and leaned on it.

“We’ve got problems, Youngster.” He said to the Beast. Then he turned his eyes to Davis.

“What is this?”

The Beast looked at him as well. “Ah, Davis, very good on the hospital, let me know, but you need to go. Now.”

“Yes, Mr. Danwill.” Davis stood and packed up his briefcase as fast as he could. The huge man sat in the other chair facing the Beast’s desk. His eyes were dark and he muttered to himself under his breath. Davis turned to leave and heard the Beast ask, in what he probably thought was a quiet voice, “Do you think she’s the real thing?”

“Who can tell these days?” the intruder asked. “But even if she’s not, she’s got some power…”

Davis closed the door and stood outside it for a moment, collecting his thoughts. And he could have sworn he heard a sound like rasping scales coming through the door.

Nurses

“Hiya, Steve! How’s your day been?”

That’s Dana. She’s my night nurse, and I’m glad to see her. I’ve only been here three days, and she’s been my overnight nurse for the last two. She’s way nicer than the first one.

“I’m doin’ okay Dana, how about you?”

“Oh, the usual. Kids had a big day, lots of school stuff. It’s almost restful coming here for a while.” She laughs. Dana laughs a lot, actually. She seems like she’s just happy all the time. She’s in her late twenties, blond, with blue dyed tips, hair down about mid back. She’s got green eyes and kinda ruddy skin. She’s married, has two kids. I know more about her than I do about some of my friends at work. But being in a hospital is kind of a special situation.

“Well, we’ll see about that. Okay, I need to see how you’re really doing. Don’t be a hero.”

I guess this means it’s been three days since my operation. I don’t want to talk about it, not even now. The operation went well; the doctor is a good surgeon. But apparently I formed a seroma and if you don’t know what that is you’re lucky. In my case it means that in addition to all the other things I’m recovering from now I have a wound around waist level that gets packed with gauze every few hours. Dana covers me with a sheet and goes about changing the gauze and we both try to act like this is a normal human interaction. I try not to sweat or whimper and she says encouraging things like “this will close up soon, don’t you worry.”

And then the worst part is over and she starts putting my medications in my IV, conscientiously beeping each one and beeping my bracelet to make sure I’m getting the right drugs and that my insurance is getting billed for them. And while she does this we talk.

There aren’t many lies in hospitals. Some of the talk is very clinical, discussing the state of my digestive system after the surgery and how and where I’m hurting. But mostly we talk about life. She loves being a mom and loves being a nurse. She wants to have one more kid, her husband wants to finish his degree before they do.

Normally I’m very passive, socially. I don’t like answering questions about myself and my life. But Dana won’t have it and has drawn me out. She knows all about my less than wonderful breakup and my music and degree. And she always seems to actually be interested. Even though I know I’m just one of many patients she works with right now, and one of many more she’ll work with this year, she makes me feel like I matter.

“You’re a good guy, Steve, and I like talking to you.” is all she says when I comment on this.

the night passes and I’m only dimly aware of those hours. I try to sleep and Dana tries to let me sleep.

Until 7:30am.

“Hey, sorry. Daniel will be here soon. I just need to change out that dressing one more time today…” and she’s back into the routine and I’m trying to be brave. She doesn’t comment on my gasps much, just apologizing that this happened to me and saying that it’s healing up well.

I can’t decide if it’s more embarrassing that Dana changes my gauze every time, or if it’d be worse to have Daniel do it.

Daniel is my day nurse. He’s tall, taller than me, black haired and blue eyed, and looks like an outdoor model who is slumming a bit as a nurse. he’s also endlessly friendly, but it’s different. Daniel’s job is mostly to get me to move around as much as possible, and to act like I’ve done something amazing every time I do. When he’s not working in the hospital he’s out “crawling over rocks” as he puts it, doing a lot of backpacking and some jeeping. I work out a bit, but I’m a city boy and he doesn’t make me feel bad about this.

“Hey we all do our own thing, yeah?” He says when, in a morphine haze, I mention this. “If you’re having fun, taking care of yourself and not hurting anyone, who cares what you do for fun, yeah?”

Daniel says “yeah” a lot.

It’s now my fourth day here and apparently I’m “making a lot of progress”, meaning I can walk to the bathroom and occasionally stumble around in a small circuit of the “block” here in the hospital. Daniel walks with me, talking about how awesome I’m doing and that I’ll be back home in no time.

On this day we also run into Doctor Jewell, the doctor that operated on me. This is the first time I’ve seen him where I wasn’t on an exam table or an operating table, or in a hospital bed. I’m amazed at how short he actually is when we’re both standing up.

Doctor Jewell is a likable guy, and he and Daniel get along well. He’s also optimistic about my progress, and calls me “sports fan”. Even Daniel winces a little. But it’s just his way.


I don’t have any family in town, so I’m mostly just in the hospital with the nurses and the books I brought with me. It’s hard to focus when you’re in pain, but I manage to get some reading done in the days when I’m more awake. I’ve been here for about five days when there’s a disturbance outside, in the hall. Something loud or rather louder than the usual quiet of the hospital. There isn’t any shouting, but there are people moving around, lots of feet, and lots of people using their serious voices. I can’t tell you much more about what happened. After a few minutes the main bustle seemed to die down and then there were fewer voices, but they’re all still very serious. It’s only when you hear everyone being serious that you realize how light they usually keep the tone here.

An hour later Daniel comes in with my pain medications. “Hey Steve. How’s it going?” His voice is light, cheerful and affable as ever. But his eyes don’t look happy. “Daniel, what happened out there?”

He looks sad for a moment. “Yeah, got kinda noisy out there for a while didn’t it? Sorry man, it’s nothing you need to worry about. Listen, once I get these meds in you we’ve gotta get you out of that bed. You’re making good progress, yeah? We don’t want to waste that.” And he scans my wrist tag and scans my medicine and makes sure the right meds are going to the right patient and in a few minutes I’m walking around the ward again. Everyone who sees me smiles. A few remark on how much progress I’m making. But nobody seems very happy.

I don’t see Daniel again that shift, except for a few minutes right before he leaves. After he leaves I decide I’m going to show Dana that I’m making an effort, and by myself I get out of bed and walk over to the chair in my room. It’s surprisingly painful, but I wait there with my phone for almost an hour before she comes in. When she finally enters her face is drawn and sad, until she sees me.

“What are you doing over there? Did Daniel leave you in a chair?” She asks.

“No, I came over here by myself,” I answer.

“What on earth for? Were you getting bored maybe?”

I’m visibly sweating and shaking; turns out I wasn’t meant to do this for another day or two for a reason. I try to sum up my rationale in a way that would make sense to a sane human being.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Is the best I come up with.

She laughs, but there’s not a lot of humor in it. “What did I tell you about trying to be a hero? You could have at least waited until after you got your next dose of pain medication.”

“Dana, what’s wrong?” I ask as she gets close. She holds very still for a moment. Then shakes her head and smiles. “It’s nothing, don’t worry.”

“Someone died today, didn’t they? Someone you and Daniel take care of?”

“I can’t talk about other patients, you know that,” She says. But her eyes and face tell me all I need to know, “Come on, let’s get you up out of that chair and back into bed and get you some overdue pain meds.” She says, her voice mostly cheerful again. And she helps me up and holds onto me and I put my arm around her shoulders for support and make the long, slow, four-foot trip back to my bed.

And for a moment, just a millisecond my arm around her shoulders isn’t for support, it’s telling her I’m sorry for her loss.

And just for a millisecond her arm around my waist is saying “thanks.”

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