Appropriate Timing

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of my father’s death, a man who taught me more about love, community, and accepting responsibility than just about anyone.
James Murtagh
Coincidentally, today I received confirmation by the American Humanist Association of their endorsement of me as a Humanist Celebrant. For those not familiar with the term, it is legally equivalent to becoming a clergyperson. I will be conducting weddings, child namings, and memorial services in the same way but without reference to the supernatural.

My father was a religious man, a Catholic, and had plans before meeting my mother to become a priest. Although we didn’t agree on metaphysics we did on the need for human connection, for celebrating life’s passages in community.

I miss my father and love his memory still. I think he would have been proud of me today.

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Friday Fiblet: It Is Accomplished

His feet were lost to numbness, but he still felt the cutting grasp of the thongs, the sharper bite of the nails, the thorns at his head, the rough wood at his back.

The sun baked his naked body. They’d all left now, even rock-hard Peter, poor shamed Mother.

All but those fixed to left and right. One a mere criminal, but the other… by his loincloth he shared in the Mystery. “Truly,” he gasped, “you will be with me now, in Paradise.” He squirmed, thrusting his hips outward.

As he’d prophesied, they came to Paradise together.

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Friday fiblet: Eve

It was time. All the delaying tactics had been played through. Just a few years more might have made the difference, but the belief wasn’t there, the funding wasn’t there, the mercy wasn’t there. It was time for the last desperate gamble.

Gabrel touched the child gently on top of her small, misshapen head. Turning and casting a chubby arm over her face, she protested with a whining mumble. Gabrel considered simply ending her while she slept, but that seemed… wrong. A sapient being – and the child *was* sapient, primitive or no – deserved to face the end of life with awareness.

“Eve,” Gabrel sang, “Eve, awake. Awake, Eve. Awake.”

The child opened her eyes and smiled then, her teeth startlingly large in her small mouth. Singing spoke to deep areas in the brain; it had been a part of the genome since long before the generation which had supplied Eve’s DNA. It predated spoken language, in fact, and looked set to survive it too. The earliest and most primitive genome recovered, a decidedly nonverbal and nonsapient tree dweller, had shown that even at that stage melody (though not words) had been an important social functionality.

“He’oh, Gabble.” Eve was a much later model, with high verbal capabilities. Growing her had been a calculated risk, as the ever slow, ever plodding bureaucracy had not pre-approved the resurrection of such a late intermediate. There were plain ethical issues to be argued with regard to bringing creatures from the dawn of human civilization into the modern era; Gabrel and his fellows had hoped that the presentment of a fait accompli would force the issue, that the powers that be would quail at the prospect of actually ending a sapient life already begun.

The Arbiters had not chosen to see Eve as such, though. Sentient, certainly, but the consensus had been that such a primitive brain could not be considered truly sapient. Eve and her kin would not be joining the Conclave of Terran Sapiency, at least not yet. They were a borderline case at best.

Still, Gabrel thought as he gathered up the sleepy youngling, feeling the small head with its huge jaw nestle into his shoulder, at least her species has the possibility of living again. Extinct was extinct, and as long as Eve’s kind was extant, Gabrel and his crew could continue lobbying to have them upgraded in status. Mental projection was only one criterion, and surely the more primitive verbal communications could be made to suffice.

Assuming that Eve’s mental capabilities were not fully developed already, of course; it had to be admitted that her first year hadn’t been impressive. She was affectionate and docile, but not very loquacious, Gabrel reflected as he carried the child down the corridor. It was a pity Eve herself would not be given the opportunity to show whether she had any further capabilities, but the Arbiters hadn’t seen fit to wait. Gabrel pressed his lips to the top of Eve’s head, smelling the sweet scent of her copious head hair. Poor little singleton, never to know another individual of her own species…

Still, thought Gabrel, still there was a chance her species might live. They would become extinct a second time today, and that was a shame, but might yet arise a third time.

Depending, of course, he admitted to himself, cuddling Eve closer as they entered the bright, clean kitchen, on just how they tasted. As he had in other roles, he would do his best for her as a chef.

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Friday fiblet: Life Choices

“I never ashked to be here!!” she screamed, poking a ringed and spiked middle finger up at each of them.

The lisp was new, arising from her latest fashion statement, a split forked tongue, Emily had had each half pierced with little dumbbells, and they made a slight metallic clicking, not quite a ring, as she let loose a flood of incoherent abuse at her parents, She raged like a demon from some designer Hell, split nostrils flaring, purple dreadlocks twisting about chaotically from the smart elastic woven into them, facial tattoos running through color changes as her face heated up. Cyber-modded spittle flew wildly from her lips, trailing dramatic skeins of faux smoke.

This could go on for an hour, Adam knew. His daughter had had her endocrine system cranked for extra rage capability, or something – he couldn’t keep up with the routines of teen fashion. He’d never needed any enhancements in the rage and anger department himself, quite the opposite. What he felt now, though, was more like the ghost of anger: a dull throb beneath his eyes, a tense numbness to his tongue, a greasy cladding of despair chilling his muscles. His hands didn’t even know whether or how to clench any more, they twitched at the ends of his arms like futile spastic cuttlefish.

He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them in mild surprise at the noise against the window. For lack of anything else to throw in the carefully stripped room, Emily had ripped her huge caltrop earrings loose, heavy chains and all, and flung them at the glass. That had taken some doing, her earlobes had been specially reinforced to carry those fist sized lumps of cast iron. He watched Emily frothing spastically back and forth between the walls, blood flinging out from the remains of her ears, working herself into a higher frenzy. He probed within himself for anger, for love, for anything besides weariness… and he came up empty.

He turned to Beatrice, managed to catch her downcast eyes. With her limply frizzled blonde hair and pale lips in a paler face, she looked even wearier than he felt. That was as normal for her as it was unusual for him, of course. Even for her, though, the dull hopelessness in her eyes was forlorn. She didn’t even flinch as he rasped hoarsely, “I think we have to admit it. You… we’ve failed again.” He didn’t even see a spark when he almost blamed her alone for the debacle. Her face held less life than a mildewed dishcloth as she simply nodded in resignation, in surrender.

He began to feel a flicker of resentful rage glow in him again, at Beatrice rather than Emily, for being so… so passive, bloodless. With a peculiar, forced kind of relief he fed the ember. “No, let’s be honest about it. YOU failed again! How the fuck is any kid going to grow up right with a goddamn mannequin for a mother?”

Yes, he was beginning to feel like he could breathe again. “You don’t give them any boundaries, nothing to, to get a grip on. You’re like a, a damned sponge!” His thick hairy fingers, seeming more suited to a butcher than a software designer, curled up into his palms. Over his shoulder he could hear Emily pounding her fists on the floor and hissing like a giant cat. It helped in a way, like background music.

Beatrice just dropped her eyes again and shook her head loosely. “No,” she whispered. “You were always too harsh. All they ever felt from you was anger, all they got was control. I tried to balance it out for them.” Was that a tear trickling into the lines under her eyes? Fuck her if it was, Adam decided. He was building up a good head of steam now, feeling the beginnings of creative flow. Fuck her, the useless porridge.

“Really worked out well, then, didn’t it? Carol drank cleaning fluid, Daniel shot up half his class before they got him. You think your passive bullshit didn’t…” Suddenly he was distracted by a thump, or rather the first of a series; Emily had tired of being ignored and was slamming her head against the glass wall between them. Bloody smears were starting to be left behind there. Fuck this, Adam thought, this has gone on way too long. I should have ended this years ago now. Time to start over.

“Control point!” he snapped. “Delete Emily. Execute!” Letters of fire appeared across the wall: YOU ARE ABOUT TO PERMANENTLY DELETE EMILY. ARE YOU SURE? “Yes! Execute.” he said firmly. He heard Beatrice gasp in pain, and shot her a look of hot annoyance as Emily vanished, along with all the blood she’d flung about so profligately. Beatrice had covered her face with her hands and her shoulders were shaking. On the spur of the moment he made the decision. It had to be Beatrice’s passivity that was fucking things up. If they were going to try for a fourth child…

“Control point, adjust Beatrice, assertiveness plus… fifteen percent. Execute.” ADJUSTMENT OF RUNNING PROGRAM REQUIRES REBOOT. REBOOT NOW? “Yes. Execute.” As Beatrice flickered out temporarily Adam, in spite of the fine flood of creative fury he was experiencing, found space in a quiet corner of his mind to wonder if he were really doing the right thing. Was it possible he was making the wrong decisions? Could the failures possibly have been in some small measure his own fault?

Maybe. He supposed anything was possible, but he decided once again to leave his own parameters untouched. There was no sense in making radical life choices too quickly.

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Friday fiblet: Simultaneity


“But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you.” – Khalil Gibran


It was at the part where he trailed his right set of fingertips from just below her left clavicle, beside the two little moles, in a curving spiral down the slope of her breast to loop around (but not yet touch) the nipple, his body straight and supported on his left elbow, left hand entwined in the chaotic silky tangle of the hair at her nape. Her head was thrown back, a light patina of sweat just beginning on her throat, her hands on his hips, left leg fully up, right still rising to delicately cage his groin with her own, when the signal glitched and for a painful moment he was alone, bodiless in the static void.

The event itself would have lasted less than a tenth of a millisecond, probably, just a slightly more energetic than usual bit of random cosmic radiation, but it hit in a place that was simply unfortunate for his little human life and hers. It disrupted the tracking of the datastream, just for an unnoticeable blink of time, but the beam was so narrow, so long, and it took a slightly longer blip of time for the system to re-acquire. Even with the finest and fastest correction algorithms in the known universe, that one was long enough for even his poor, slow, human nervous system, barely even tweaked beyond the slapdash lash-up of a few billion years of unintelligent trial and error, to notice and react to… and it did.

He jerked in surprise. Jailene continued to move beneath him in the slow, careful dance they’d grown together. Her right leg was reaching its zenith, her hands cupped and moved inward to grasp his buttocks and pull him in to the sweet cage, her breasts were rising in that deep breath that should have pressed her against him, sealing them together like a single being… but he had flinched at the burst of cosmic chaos into his senses, had bucked up out of the way. Her hands pressed against the front of his pelvis instead, her ankles kicked against his misplaced calves, a space was open between them where cool air rushed, a space with a slight chill on his sweating torso. It was not unpleasant, but it was unexpected.

He tried to recover, moving back in, forcing their bodies together again past the mismatch to regain the accustomed configuration. It was absurd to feel awkward, but he did, and he felt an odd panic; an irreparable rift begin to grow in his timing. Jailene continued to move as she always did – she turned her head to kiss his wrist that grasped her tresses, almost missing, now her long, strong thighs gently squeezed, her left hand slid in a smooth caress up toward the small of his back, her right clenched… he’d overcompensated, it grasped at nothing. He tried to twist his buttock back into her grasp, he’d always loved the gentle digging of her nails at that moment, but his movement made hers fail awkwardly. He was becoming self-conscious. A clock was beginning to run in his head, or a timer rather, counting down to the moment when it would all be lost.

Four hundred thirty million kilometres… closer to four hundred thirty two million now, round trip. Two narrow hurtling cataracts of intimate data, two streams of sensory love cast tightly across that cold deep void, screaming past one another at just shy of eighteen million kilometres per second. That was the speed of love, now, between Jailene and Harold. It had mattered so little in the days of their hot bright youth, when they’d never been even so much as forty thousand kilometres apart… and in these circumstances, no separation at all.

He was getting back in the rhythm now, did not miss his cue when her head made that delightful slow roll, planted the gentle kiss on the crow’s feet at the corner of her eye that she hated so badly but which had a strange intimate grip on his heart, reminding him that this woman, this complex unfathomable amazing being, had chosen to stay with him… he felt her other hand slide up to press along with the first on his shoulders, her ankles cross behind him. Had it already been ten minutes? He drank in the sight of her face, eyes fluttering behind closed lids, luminous in pleasure. Her lips began to open, and obediently he lowered his to hers, carefully, gently. Eleven minutes. He kissed her lips, her cheeks, her eyes… peppered her wide brow and high forehead.

The mathematical clarity he normally experienced constantly was fuzzed for once. Did it depend upon whether only one stream had been interrupted? He might have as much as twenty four minutes, he thought hopefully through a haze. He might feel the blessing of her lips tasting his another three, then her head would turn to the right. A pulse of squeezing would run down from her shoulders to her hands, then leap to the long muscles of her thighs, her heels as she gasped and he strained to merge in her…

At twelve minutes her head jerked, and he felt a jolt as his teeth smashed into his own lips in her startle. She’d done that once when they were sharing the same physical bed, he recalled, making him cut his lip on his own teeth. It had hurt so badly, so surprisingly badly, bringing shocked tears to his eyes! Then they had laughed at their awkwardness, and she had blinked through tears of sympathy, and bit her own lip, hard, and kissed him again with such soft care, and they had feasted on one another’s blood and tears for a long, endlessly bright afternoon beneath a Sun that was large and shone equally for them both.

Of course, there was no real injury now, and the safeties would not allow that much pain to be simulated. “Oh!” she (had, twelve minutes ago) exclaimed, and her own patterns (had) started to diverge, across the gulf of space and time, and he knew that they would have to start over again, that the rhythm had been lost for now… but he also saw her smile, and bite her lip, hard, and he knew that he’d been wrong about at least one thing.

The speed of love was infinite, physics be damned.

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Friday fiblet: One Day On The Streets In The City Of God

One Day On The Streets Of The City Of God

Maria woke at dawn, when the blaze of God’s Countenance refracted from
the great diamonds atop the towers, that great light splitting out in
beams that lanced into the bejeweled walls below, where they redounded
from diverse jewels in their purer hues without diminishment,
invigorating viridian emeralds and joyful incarnadine rubies and restful
purple amethysts, and finally flooded with luminous abandon within the
little space where she and Angela had come to rest, the glorious light
sweetly resonant between the golden streets and the silver walls, and
seemed to soak into the smooth opalescence of the pearled platform on
which they lay. Love and awe welled in her heart and she gently shook
Angela, saying “Oh, child, wake and see it! See the day God has given us!”

Angela mumbled a sleepy protest, turning her head against Maria’s
breast, the wispy black silk of her hair falling as a curtain over her
eyes. Maria laughed and flipped the ebon tresses back. Her daughter was
as beautiful as the City of God itself, it seemed to her, but she
couldn’t show her that; the silver walls that gleamed everywhere
mirrored only the eternal, and would not reflect a human face. “But
see, little heart,” she crooned. “It is all so very, very lovely, better
than the inside of your eyelids!” She turned her daughter’s face out,
into the flood of bright colors.

Black lashes tightened, fluttered, and finally opened to the glorious
new day. Angela looked out at the display as God’s Countenance rose
higher. His Crown was fully visible, and part of His Forehead. “It’s
really pretty, Mama,” Angela acknowledged. “but I liked the inside of my
eyelids too. Do we have any breakfast?” Maria laughed again. She
rummaged in her wayfarer’s bag, but there was no bread there, only a
comb, a few napkins, and a single silver coin a Personage had pressed
upon her a few days ago for no apparent reason.

“We shall have to walk to a place of manna, dear one. Hup!” She swung
the little girl up over her body, setting her onto her feet beside the
platform, then followed suit herself. With a few practiced flips she
folded the quilt, keeping the soft fleece inside and the gold and silver
damask silk outside, and stuffed it into her bag. Sometimes she would
wrap it as a shawl about the two of them, but she could already feel the
warmth of God’s love building and knew it would be a fine morning.
Angela was shivering a little though, so Maria did not make her walk yet
but swung her up off the gold street, which looked warm but was still
actually rather chilly. The girl smiled her radiant smile – such perfect
teeth she had! – and put her arms around Maria’s shoulders. “I love you
Mama!”

“I love you, my heart,” Maria replied, and kissed her soft hair. It was
very little burden, after all, the child weighed nothing. “Let’s find
ourselves some food.” She moved out of the enclosed area into the main
thoroughfare. It was even brighter there, and she soon warmed, walking
through the growing radiance. It was still early, the lanterns of the
night only now snuffing their lambences before the greater Light, but
there was already a stream of bright jeweled chariots going about the
City’s arcane businesses, Personages were walking quickly in each
direction, with glowing robes and gems but also stern miens and rapid
strides, and Maria tried to keep out of their way while she made her way
to the place of manna, holding Angela up high on her hip, where the
little girl could see the marvelous beauty of it all. Mostly the girl
drank it in silently, but every once in a while she would whisper,
“Mama! Look!!” and point at a particularly shiny vehicle, or a Personage
with especially fine accouterments. The sound of her child’s delight
made Maria’s feet feel winged, and she strode with wide steps and a glad
heart.

So it was that they came to the place of manna just as the gates were
being opened, and were among the first wayfarers to enter therein. Maria
let Angela down and accepted a mother-of-pearl plate with slices of fine
white bread, toasted with a golden heap of eggs atop it, and a goblet of
rich broth, “Thank you,” she told the kindly Personage who gave it to
her, “God’s love and blessings upon you.” Angela echoed her word for
word, simultaneously, which made Maria even happier than the gift.
“You’re welcome, dear. God bless you, take a seat over there.” The
Personage turned to the next wayfarer, and Maria and Angela did as they
were bid and took their seats at a long table of gleaming mahogany. She
was quite hungry after her brisk walk, and was tempted to simply wolf
the meal down, but that would be an insult to the generosity of the
City, so she made herself take time to savour the meal. She paused every
few bites and sips to make Angela take some as well; the girl was
perfect in every way, of course, but Maria couldn’t help wishing she
were a little more substantial! She was an obedient child and didn’t
refuse to eat, exactly, but the child barely nibbled at the food and
would take only tiny sips of the broth.

“Mama, I’m just not hungry!” she finally said, sounding a little
irritable, and Maria shrugged in defeat and finished the rest herself.
If the child got hungry later on it would serve as a lesson to her, that
was all. The thought of lessons having come to mind, Maria pondered
where they should go for the day. The City provided many places of
education to its denizens, great marbled halls filled with strange
wonders… but one was always a favorite for both Angela and Maria
herself.

She grinned as she put it to the girl in the same way she did almost
every day: “Not even for… books?” Angela’s face lost its hint of
annoyance instantly. She smiled her radiant smile and shook her head no,
vigorously, causing her hair to form a dark cloud about her head. “Then
what are we waiting for? To the Library! That’s where the books are!”
Angela giggled.

“To the Library!” she repeated. “That’s where the books are!” She jumped
down off the bench and skipped toward the exit. Maria followed, bringing
the shining empty plate and goblet and depositing them in the alcove set
aside for that purpose. As she followed her excited daughter out into
the bright day, the glorious effulgence of God’s fully risen Countenance
redounding from the uncounted beauties of His City, His Bounty still
warm in her stomach, she felt she had never been happier, could never be
happier.

That was when the Angel appeared.

It had skin like burnished copper, flowing hair of purest silver, and
its four wings were as pearl. It had four eyes that blazed like stars, its
tongue flickered as lightning, and its voice was as sounding brass. It
said unto her in a voice that held no doubt, “You are Maria Delcanto,
formerly a congregant of Sangre Christo Mission,” It waited several
seconds. “It will speed this along if you acknowledge that fact. You are
Maria Delcanto, formerly a congregant of Sangre Christo Mission,” Maria
nodded shakily.

The Angel held aloft a scroll and declaimed, “Be it noted that Maria
Delcanto has acknowledge the correct addressing of this Notice.” It
inclined Its head toward Maria. “I regret to inform you that your
service contract with Synaptic Angel, Incorporated, is being terminated
due to failure to meet the terms of your contract. Your presence in
the City of God will end forthwith.”

Maria gasped in shock, feeling like she’d had ice water poured all over
her. “But – but – but I have been faithful! I have remained true in my
devotion to God and His works! This can’t be true!!”

The Angel sniffed, a sound like air dragged back through a brass
harmonica. “That is true, as far as it goes, but you are not being
terminated for apostasy as such. You have run up an absolutely enormous
debt, having availed yourself of our top-tier service for…” The Angel
looked over Its shoulder, where a bewildering construct of wheels within
wheels within wheels, all covered in eyes, briefly appeared then winked
away again. “Seven years with no payment whatever in that time. Your
contract stipulated a ten percent tithe of all income, whatever the
amount. Until recently you have had no income whatever, but for the past
week you have retained a dime in your purse. Had you remitted a single
penny you could remain, but as it is you are weighed in the balance, and
found wanting. You are hereby expelled from the City of God.” The Angel
flashed teeth of brass. “If you’ll pardon the expression… Good-bye.”

It disappeared, with a sound like a rushing of wind and rolling thunder,
and the entire world grew dark in its wake. Maria sank back onto her
calves – when had she fallen to her knees? – and gaped in shock. A dime?
Suddenly she remembered. She tore open her bag, scrabbled and found the
coin. She pulled it out and waved it in the air, screaming, “Here, take
it!!!” But above her, she saw, the Countenance of God no longer blazed,
only an undifferentiated ball of light in a pale sky… below that, the
great jewels were tawdry signs, the silver walls were become sheets of
glass, and she was kneeling on a dirty grey surface that shared only
hardness and chill with the gold that had been. Around her passed… not
Personages, merely people, mostly ignoring her save for the few whose
path she obstructed, who spared her the briefest of contemptuous sneers
as they stepped around her.

“Where…?” she sobbed. “Where, where am I? What is this place?” She
looked around in fear and confusion, and then it struck her, and she
began screaming in earnest. “ANGELA!!! ANGELA!!!”

Then she remembered, and she knew where she was, all right, knew it to
the depths of her soul, and she kept screaming until the awful dark Debt
Collectors, horns and claws glinting, dragged her away.

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Friday fiblet: “She Came Back.”

 

“She came back.”

It was young Tone who saw her again, one bleak day just over three weeks after she’d gone away; away forever, according to the older and putatively wiser heads in the family. Tone had an inborn wisdom of his own, of course, despite his few years, but it was a wisdom better suited to the times he would inherit than the one they lived in. His eyes drank in the world as clearly and directly and precisely as optical fiber swallowing a laser pulse, data lit up his mind and was rigorously transformed by the pellucid mind within. He was a bright child, clever in an honest and straightforward way, and his grandfather sometimes despaired of his growing to adulthood in a world still so full of crooked angles and shadows it wouldn’t pay to illuminate.

‘She came back,” he repeated. “I saw…” His grandfather’s hand whipped out like lightning and placed two twisted and gnarled fingers on the boy’s lips, stilling them. Tone blinked but didn’t flinch; he had never been struck and lacked defensive reflexes. Lane’s own grandfather would have questioned the wisdom of that, but the lumps and angles in his fingers were a constant reminder that paradigms could outlive their usefulness. Not that he needed the reminder; he had been at the forefront of his generation’s slaying of the outdated, and an architect of the new.

Internally he flinched at what he had to do now. “No,” he said to those limpidly clear eyes, running the old techniques of double-thought in his mind as he did so. “No, she did not, you did not. Shhh… it’s a mistake. Bad data.” He imagined he saw an infinitesimal reduction in clarity, a clouding of doubt forming as he spoke. (Who you gonna believe, kid, me or your lying eyes?) He tried again. “It’s a trick of the mind. A cognitive echo. Neural illusion.”

The penumbra of doubt lightened, the light of trust restored between them. “Good boy, go research those more deeply now.” They were real phenomena, after all… and he didn’t know the boy hadn’t imagined her. Maybe this would form a new facet in the crystal of the boy’s mind, a new refractive angle to steer the light without blocking it, safely past the danger.

 

He gave his back the straightening un-twist that activated his assist, and got out of the chair, for once relatively smoothly. That was probably because he hadn’t thought too much about it, he reflected. He always imagined a whirring, hissing delay, on a subconscious level expected pain and braced for it, no matter that it had been so very many years since that had been the case. Scars and injuries of the body could be fixed, but those of the mind were self-reinforcing without deep therapy. Fixing the acquired reflexes from the inside alone was slow and imperfect, but in small matters like this a senior veteran like himself could get his trust issues indulged, if not overlooked. Signs of real impairment could put an end to that, though, so he settled his thoughts and concentrated on walking steadily to the kitchen.

He was on the second bake of his third batch of biscuits, first of the fourth, and preparing the dough for the fifth, when Track came home. He stopped short in the doorway, flat grey eyes flickering over the sidelined mixing bowls and utensils, the antiquated and rarely used electric blender, and most of all the gleaming cooling racks. The biscuits on them were in carefully varied shades of brown… perhaps too carefully. Track’s generation were not as steeped in duplicity as Lane’s, of course – that had been the whole point of what they’d done – but they were not innocents by any means, and averaged out far faster in analysis. The vagaries of non-optimized genetic chance had given his son a brain with less inherent capability than his own, perhaps, regression to the norm being what it was, but he’d had better neurological training and medication almost from birth. He could pattern-match with the best of them, and see breaks in those patterns… and when Track spoke, Lane knew his son had spotted such a break.

“Getting creative, Dad?” Lane felt both chagrin at the stupidity of his mistake, and pride that Track had both spotted it and pointed it out in such a deniable way. Kitchen cooking was of course an approved creative outlet, so Track’s Phone wouldn’t flag the phrase; indeed, it would have been a perfectly usual, normal thing to say had he genuinely been trying out variations on a recipe. Both of them, however, were well aware of how different the steady variations in hue of the biscuits cooling on the racks were from the barely contained chaos of Lane’s actual culinary experimentation. When he was genuinely being creative, perhaps one in ten would have palatable. Half or less would even be edible.

Mistakes are only changes in the situation, Lane reminded himself. He let his eyes flicker toward his own Phone, sitting on a countertop with a container of flour between it and the main work area, then down at Track’s, belt-worn below the level where the evidence would be visible. It was a good thing neither of them cared for eyewear. “Yes,” he said casually, “Not going too well though. Have to toss most of them.” He started up the old blender as he said it; the motor was loud, torrenting out noise in both audible and electromagnetic senses.

He watched with suspended breath for a long, tense moment as Track’s eyelids narrowed, his pupils flared, and a brick-red flush crept up his neck in conditioned response… but after all, what made a biscuit worthy of tossing was a subjective call. It could be true, if you looked at it the right way…

Lane breathed out as Track recovered, nodded curtly, and turned to leave the kitchen. “Okay, Dad, just… clean up after yourself. I’m going to take Tone to the Museum.” He marched stiffly away. Lane felt his eyes tear up a little – that was another message, he knew. Track had left it in the silences of what he didn’t say, just as the real truths of the Museum were left in the facts it omitted… and even more so, in the lies. The lies that would be finally lost to the world, when Tone’s generation inherited it.

A moment’s doubt gusted through his mind, as he wondered if she’d been right, if the cost was too high… but he remembered the horrors of that old world too clearly. He flexed his fingers, preparing to work the last batch of dough, feeling every unnatural angle that remained, that he’d kept for exactly that reason. He would finish this last batch, then pack all the perfectly edible biscuits except one in a tin with a parchment paper lining, along with all the the jars of fruit preserves (full but for a token taste from each), and leave them out by the trash for her.

She came back, he thought, she came back for me, like the romantic fool she is. I can’t go with her, I have to look after Track and Tone, but I can give her supplies for her escape, that’s the least I can do… but he knew that wasn’t true even as he thought it, he couldn’t give her that little, after all the years and the world-changing battles. He owed her one more thing, the thing she’d been exiled for trying to bring back to the world. He owed her one more crime.

Spreading out the parchment paper, picking up the marking pencil, he thought a moment, then began to write, the long lack of practice making his letters shaky and childish.

Once upon a time…

 

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Brain-dead Mothers?

An interesting (if infuriating) case has been in the news lately, of a Texas woman who died while pregnant, and whose body is being kept alive to maintain the viability of the fetus, against her pre-mortem wishes and against the wishes of both her husband and her mother.

Now this ought to be a very straightforward case. The woman is dead; she has no brain function at all. Her body is being kept breathing, its heart pumping, but she as a person has died. It’s recognized in our society that people have a say in how their body is disposed of (within legal limits) after they die, if they think to express it beforehand, and this woman did; she reportedly said she didn’t want her body kept alive after she died. If there is no record of the person’s wishes, then the next of kin gets to decide what is done with the body, and both her widower and her bereaved mother want her body taken off the ventilator and disposed of normally (buried or cremated).

So why is that not being done? Her body is being used in a way neither she nor her survivors (a deceased person and two living persons) want in order to keep a fetus (a non-person) viable. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that her wishes are being disregarded, and her survivors are being put through considerable anguish and potential expense (the result if this goes on is likely to be a handicapped child) in order to apply the status of personhood to the fetus, or at least some of the aspects of that status, as a tactic to oppose reproductive rights for women in general.

Sadly it’s rather typical of the forced-birth movement that they are willing to wreak any amount of damage on real people’s lives to achieve their aims; they are typically not much interested in the quality of lives, only in their quantity. That to me is the reason to be angry over this travesty; primarily that real people are being hurt by it. and secondarily that the wishes of the recently deceased are being disrespected.

I see a lot of people decrying it because it’s “disgusting” or “creepy” or “unnatural” – those are very bad reasons to change the law. Some people believe homosexual love to be all those things; some even feel an equal relationship between opposite sexes is all of that. Do not base your laws on your personal ick factors if you want a just society.

I also see a lot of people decrying it because it “reduces women to the status of an incubator” or words to that effect; that’s much closer to a valid reason in this case, since the woman involved had expressed a wish before she died that this not be done with her body. However, had both she and her husband said “Keep the (potential) baby alive at all costs” it’s hard to argue that it would be wrong to do exactly what’s being done now. If she had even simply failed to consider the possibility and not expressed a preference, and her husband wanted to keep her body going in the hope of an eventual birth by C-section, it wouldn’t be disrespectful of women or treating women as incubators because that thing wrapped around that fetus? That’s not a woman. That’s just a subset of a dead woman’s organs, a warm corpse. Brain dead is dead.

If it were a woman – if her brain was still alive – then normal rules should apply. She should be kept alive unless she expresses a wish to be allowed to die. If she wanted to die, then she should be able to refuse food, at a minimum, and there should be no consideration of forcing her to stay alive until delivery. She should also be allowed to refuse the use of her body to the fetus if she so desired, just as she could refuse the use of her body to anyone else including an already born child of hers.

Had the woman expressed a preference to keep her body alive until the baby might be born, and her husband and mother not wanted it… well, that’s a trickier question. Should the wishes of the deceased be that binding on the living? Would the husband or mother be obligated to care for the child born of her artificially maintained corpse? If not, would it become a responsibility of the State to care for the child (who, remember, is very likely to have lifelong health issues)?

I tend to think that the answer is no, that once she is dead her wishes are secondary to those of the survivors, but I feel a little softness in my position there. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I suspect there are angles I haven’t considered.

If anyone reads this, I’d love to hear some feedback!

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Friday fiblet: Passed

There is a moment, and all those who know it know it. The details vary. The moment in its essence does not.

Ice rimes over shadows, interlocking lines of darkness sealing frost pictures abstract at first, then ineluctably more concrete, inescapable, and solidly terrible. The sun above no longer floods the world with soft golden waves of light, flowing like warm syrup of knowingness; instead the light is planar, laminar, a cutting cascade of separate sheets. Movement chops, breaks, stutters, strobes.

Those who know it, know the moment when it comes, and their time tears into strips that cannot be rewoven.

It is the moment when the illusion stops. All of life is moments, flow only a precious conceit. There is a moment before, and a moment after. Between them lies the Gulf, uncrossable, impassible, ineluctable, final and dead.

Life is lost in the darkness of the Gulf. No warm thing can survive its bottomless depth, no light fill that aching gap. It cannot be looked upon.

The mind scurries away, the mind finds refuge in moments. The night your father died, and your heart screamed, and a warm hand touched yours in the midst of desolation. The dawn that you woke in a veil of soft hair across your face, sweat-damped arms about you like a ring of impossible hope. A day of surpassingly ordinary sunshine, of content in a garden you imagined you’d sown, redolent with herbs and flowers. A child, your child, in your arms, a glance between eyes that became a bar of life, more solid than flesh or bone. A life.

No more than moments, any of them. Isolated. Lost. Islands you may never return to, for now the door is closing, the instants cut like razors, the light falls in unforgiving sheets, and the door closes, closes in stop-motion, and your doom sits upon you, breathless you, lost in the moment, in the eternal suffocating clarity of the moment.

You wish you’d said goodbye, goodbye I love you.

But you didn’t.

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Friday Fiblet: Cover-Up

“He published it! I can’t believe the stupid cowboy published it. Does he not care about the goddamn American public’s faith in its goddamn government?”

The CIA man spat viciously. A little saliva somehow failed to clear his full lips and trickled into a scrofulous brown and gray three-day beard. He wiped at it ineffectively with one meaty hand, the other still clutching and shaking the Warren report (less appendices, which reposed comfortably in and around the wastepaper basket) as if it were a kitten whose neck needed breaking. Had it actually been a kitten it would probably have suffered no injury, though; everything about the CIA man was large but soft, except his eyes which were small and hard.

“Yes, well, he had to publish something,” NSA replied thinly. There was nothing, from his thin black shoes up through his thin waist past his thin tie to his thin blond hair, to suggest his thin lips could speak any other way.

His own copy sat before him on the cheap Formica-topped table between a half drunk glass of water on a square napkin to the right and a blank steno pad (cover emblazoned with “National Security Agency EYES ONLY”) surmounted by a Waterman pen on the left, in a neat four-by-four array: the top two showing the contents page left and the index right, the nearer left being some eighteen or so pages turned down on the left and eight hundred face up on the right. The top open page carried a block title saying SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS, above which was neatly handwritten in elegantly serifed capital letters the single word BULLSHIT.

FBI chimed in, or rather rasped in (any bell-like qualities in his voice having been long since lost to cigarettes, whiskey and according to legend a morning gargling of babies’ blood). “I don’t see why. What are the words ‘National Security’ good for if you don’t use them?” He grimaced, an expression his weathered granite face was well suited to, at least by comparison to any other expression. “Not that anyone’s going to trust us much after this fiasco. Especially…”

He jerked his head in the direction of USSS, slumped silently in the corner like a suicidal Secret Service Superman who’d forgotten the glasses for his Clark Kent disguise, clutching a mug from which came a strong scent of… really, really bad coffee, the kind of coffee that could only be made by a lifelong Mormon falling badly off the wagon for the first time.

“None of us escape responsibility for this.” The Defence Intelligence Agency was less well known to the public than the others, and there was a reason for that. DIA’s voice was much like him: small, quiet, calm, authoritative, and capable of conveying with serene implicit certainty the knowledge that here was a man who could definitely kill you with his pinky finger, probably maim you with his little toe, and quite likely temporarily cripple you with an eyelash. “The whole world now knows that a single man, acting alone, can kill the President of the most powerful country on Earth, and all the highly trained cohorts at his command couldn’t stop him.”

The Secret Service man took a choking gulp of his coffee, glared defiantly around the table, poured a thick stream of white sugar into it and, neglecting to stir it, took another. “You sh… stinkers don’t have to worry. It was our da… division’s job, and we fu… failed, G… g… g…” He closed his eyes so hard his eyebrows touched his cheekbones, took a third gulp, and mouthed silently what looked like gosh darn it.

DIA looked around the table, piercingly enough to badly wound any ghosts in the room. “Well, we did train Oswald, and failed to keep track of him. That’s my bailiwick.” His black gaze fell on FBI expectantly.

“Um, well… I suppose it was a domestic situation. American ex-soldier citizen plotting an assassination… we probably could have worked with ATF to track the gun sale. That much they could handle.” (FBI had nothing but disdain for Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, three items he felt required no governmental oversight whatsoever.) He sat back and folded his arms in a defiant all-you’re-getting-from-me attitude, with unfortunate effects on his official FBI-approved suit jacket.

“Damn straight it was domestic!” blustered CIA. “No international aspect, I’m not even allowed to mix in!”

NSA’s thin face reddened. “That turns out not to be the case.” From his inside suit jacket pocket he pulled a yellow slip of paper and smoothed it out just beyond (and perfectly aligned with) his neatly laid out copy of the report. Everyone looked at it, even USSS. It said:

==TO: OSWALD FROM: NOSENKO

==FOR LAST TIME NOT INTERESTED EXCLAMATION POINT

==IS YOUR PRESIDENT COMRADE DO WHAT YOU WANT STOP

==YOU ARE COMPLETE AND UTTER NUTCAKE ISNT IT QUERY

==ENDS

“But he WASN’T working with the Ruskies! Hell, it says right there they weren’t in it!” CIA tried to fold his arms like FBI had, but while his jacket was (being of a more modern and comfortable cut) better suited to the gesture, his physique was not, and after a couple of abortive attempts he settled instead for folding his hands atop his ample belly in as truculent a manner as he could manage. “Not our arena!”

USSS slammed his coffee mug down on the table and, after a few rattling moments, managed to release it and shake his finger at CIA and NSA (or possibly he was just pointing at them, it was hard to tell). “You had correspondence about a Presidential assassination threat?” His teeth bared in something that wasn’t a smile, and also probably wasn’t very good for the structural integrity of his tooth enamel. His eyes were red, white, and blue, and barely contained within their sockets.

There was a tense moment, broken unexpectedly by FBI’s rasping voice. “Hey, we need to get past this, learn lessons. Maybe it’s a sign we need to share information more. Too bad it took such a devastating attack to get all of us to work together more, but my analysts would be happy to help with any data any of you don’t have time or resources for.” He reached out casually.

Somewhat less casually, NSA snatched the slip back up and tucked it away. Ignoring FBI’s glower he said “I suggest we deal with the immediate problem first. How do we survive the loss of public confidence this lone gunman has cost us, preferably with our budgets more or less intact?”

CIA looked ready to speak again but was cut off by DIA’s perfectly whetted monotone. “That, gentlemen, is why I brought my colleague here. He has a certain expertise in what he calls psychological operations.”

The other three letter agencies (and USSS) looked at each other, puzzled. The four letter agency finally asked, “What colleague?”

When a dusty gray voice said “I believe he means me,” all the professional spooks spooked. (Even DIA twitched an eyelash, but luckily no one was in its way). They all whirled in various directions, except DIA who pointed a forefinger into one corner. (He did not raise his thumb straight up, and so his hand resembled an automatic rather than a revolver.) After a few seconds everyone cottoned on and looked where he was pointing.

It might have been partly the cheap fluorescent lighting in the room, and perhaps partly the shadows cast by the revolving ceiling fan, but mostly… what? Perhaps he was the most boring looking man in the entire world. The eye simply slid off him in self-defense, and tried to point itself in a way that would keep him in the blind spot. Every agent in the room had had intensive training in describing persons of interest with sufficient detail that a third party could identify them across a crowded airport during an evacuation under enemy fire, but this was as far from a person of interest as it was possible to get; he was almost supernaturally lacking in interest.

Every usable descriptor would end up being described as “kind of average” – height, weight, complexion, hair color, eye color, race, gender, number of limbs, you name it.

He (had to be, right? The room averaged 100% male) went on in gray flannel tones, “The problem has a solution, which none of you have thought of because you are too used to hiding secrets. It is a technique which has been successfully used before, and with each iteration becomes more effective, albeit at a certain cost.”

Everyone except DIA and NSA asked together, “WHAT SOLUTION? WHAT COST?” DIA said nothing; NSA asked “To how many iterations?” but was drowned out by the others, which made him glad because he’d regretted it the moment he said it. If any of them had heard him, his childhood conditioning from many high school locker room incidents might have forced him to resort to unpleasant (possibly lethal) actions to ensure they never spoke of it again.

“The cost is that there will be a loss of trust in the government, and in the good intentions of at least some of your agencies.” USSS jerked at this sentence, but relaxed to a medium quiver at the next. “However, you will not be perceived as incompetent, and your budgets will at least maintain and probably increase, perhaps dramatically.”

They were all very interested now, proving that the messenger is not the message. “I repeat, this technique has worked before. May I?” This last was plainly directed at DIA, though it was not plain why it was plain, since everyone was still having trouble focusing their eyes on the said messenger. Even the institutional paint on the walls was easier and more interesting to look at.

“You may,” said DIA. “Gentlemen, it goes without saying that you are not to repea… Oh, right, never mind. Carry on, sir.”

The dusty voice did. “Do any of you remember a very embarrassing incident when the US Air Force accidentally shot down one of its own experimental weather balloons costing several million dollars?” Heads shook deliberately. (Even USSS’s, which was finally ceasing to shake involuntarily.) “Perhaps it will help if I mention that it happened in Roswell, New Mexico.”

“Where the Russian spaceplane landed?” “Russians my ass, they don’t have that kind of tech…” “It was Martians!” “Mars is not inhabited, had to be transdimensional…”

DIA’s voice cut through the babble like a polite switchblade. “I believe you see how it worked, gentlemen. It’s disinformation, but applied to the public rather than to enemy agencies.”

He coughed, glanced apologetically at the corner… at his colleague, and added, “I admit we got a bit carried away with the creative aspects, thinking we needed to… how did you put it? Gain mindshare, yes.” He turned back to the others. “Let me remind you that the US Air Force’s budget is now 47% of the total defense budget.”

He had them there. He and the gray man led a spirited discussion with them for several more hours, doing what the gray man called “brainstorming” – coming up with alternative scenarios involving the Russians, the Cubans, the Mafia, rogue CIA agents (CIA came up with that notion himself), Illuminati (NSA’s contribution, after DIA nixed any discussion of extradimensional travelers – “Learn from my mistakes!”), hit men hired by jilted movie starlets. USSS described other places where gunmen might have hidden had there been any, buildings and vehicles and fences and grassy knolls. FBI suggested replacing the collected bullets with others to muddy the ballistics report. CIA offered to encourage some double agents to throw out conflicting testimony. NSA meticulously wrote all the ideas down in his steno pad (or so he claimed; he was enciphering them as he went).

Finally the gray man said, “I think we are almost done here. One last thing: can we get hold of the photographic evidence, just temporarily, and preferably without the owners knowing about it? I am thinking particularly of the third copy of the Zapruder film. I would only need it for a day.”

“Sure,” said CIA expansively. (There wasn’t much room for him to expand any further; he’d discovered a stash of doughnuts in a cabinet beneath the coffee pot USSS had basically destroyed.) “We can do that over the weekend…” He paused, noting FBI’s glare. “By we, I mean our FBI contingent of course. My guys can assist.”

“Good. Tell our colleague from DIA when you have it, and we can arrange pickup and return. Good night, gentlemen.”

After everyone else had filed out and the two of them were alone, DIA asked the gray man, in a voice which after the long meeting was only about as deadly as a rubber truncheon, “What exactly are you going to do with those films? You know they’ve been seen by many people, we can’t just cut things out.”

The gray man chuckled. (A dusty gray chuckle, naturally.) “Oh, more subtle than that. A slight angle change here, a subtle distortion there, shadows and reflections added… You’d be surprised. Trust me, with my help this coverup will be much more confusing than our first one together has been. Just get all the copies to Area 51, to my ship, and I’ll take care of everything.”

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