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Day Eighty-six: Poolside [MAKE-UP]

November 3, 2011 10 comments

The BlueSky Resort and Entertainment Complex promised clear skies, crystal blue water, and the most relaxing vacation a person could possibly have. Clean, modern vacation villas dotted the miles-long beach, each one furnished with all the vacation luxury anyone could want. The beaches themselves were white and smooth, and sunlight was practically guaranteed in the brochure. Beautiful people with beautiful bodies lay on the sand, enjoying the brilliant sunlight and splashing in the pristine waters.

If the beach wasn’t for you, the interior of the resort promised shopping and restaurants, cuisine from all over the world, entertainers of every stripe, and countless swimming pools for guests to lounge by. Families played in the water, splashing and dunking each other. Young women chatted over brightly colored drinks, young men tried to out-dive each other, and everyone did their best to make every minute of their vacation count.

Ross Toomey sat on a lawn chair and tried to balance his laptop on one knee and an iPad on the other. His phone was in the pocket of his pastel Hawaiian shirt, and he cursed quietly to himself as he answered emails that came in from the office. Every now and then he would reach to the table next to him, pop an antacid tablet out of its paper wrapper and crunch it between teeth that were already starting to show signs of wear.

After a mandatory company health check-up, the doctor told Ross in no uncertain terms that if he continued to work the way he was working, then we was looking at an early grave.

“Look, mister Toomey,” the young doctor had said. Ross sat in the man’s office with his arms crossed, utterly unconvinced that this kid had actually graduated from medical school. No one that young should be telling me what to do, he thought. “You’re living an unsustainable lifestyle here.” The doctor flipped through the notes he’d made during the preliminary interview. “You work 90 hours a week, you sleep most nights in your office, and you don’t have any actual social life outside work.”

“Don’t see what the problem is with that,” Ross grumbled. “Life isn’t supposed to be about parties and fun. I have responsibilities to the company.”

“Yes, you do,” the doctor said. “But you also have a responsibility to yourself to stay alive and healthy, and right now you’re blowing it.” He let out a deep breath and glanced at the file again. “Mister Toomey, your blood pressure is ridiculous. You’ve got ulcers on top of ulcers, and your bloodwork seems to show that your immune system is having a hard time keeping up with you.” He dropped the file on his desk. “If you don’t learn to relax, mister Toomey, you are going to die.”

Ross crossed his arms a little more tightly. “Everyone dies,” he said, not looking at the young doctor. “Are we finished? I have work to do.”

The doctor sighed, reached over to his phone and hit two buttons. The speaker popped to life, and they both listened to the phone ring. In a few moments, a woman answered. “Albeth and Halding, how may I direct your call?”

“Andre Kubik, please,” the doctor said. “This is doctor Valant.” Ross’ eyes went wide and he sat up.

“You’re not –” He stopped short when the doctor held up a finger just as Andre spoke up on the phone.

“Kubik here. How’s it going, Taylor?”

“I’m doing well, mister Kubik,” the doctor said. “But I’d like to talk about mister Toomey. I have him here with me.”

Ross stood up and leaned towards the phone. “Andre, I don’t know what this quack is telling you, but I’m fine! Okay? Fine! Now can you let me get back to work, please!”

“No can do, Ross,” Andre said from the speaker. “Look – we need you healthy. You’re one of our best brokers, but if your heart explodes and you keel over, then what’re we going to do?” He put on that affected chumminess that he was so good at, and Ross tasted bile. “A&H cares about its people, Ross, you know that.”

And that was true. Albeth and Halding had an employee health and wellness plan that was the envy of all the other Wall Street banks, and they seemed to be one of the few in their sector who actually spent money on their employees rather than preposterous bonuses for executives. Everyone was given two weeks’ vacation, and they were pressured to use it. There was a counselor on staff, and “Zen Rooms” where people could go to relax during the day.

“Sure,” Ross said. “I get that. But Andre, I’m fine, really! I just…” He waved his hands a bit, searching for words. “I just don’t want to let everyone down. Not again.”

“Ross, that wasn’t your fault,” Andre said. “A divorce takes its toll on everyone, and nobody expected that you’d pretend like nothing was happening, okay?”

“Okay,” Ross said, and he was ashamed at how small his voice sounded.

“We’re sending you on a trip, Ross,” Andre said, and Ross’ head snapped up to stare at the phone. “A&H has a place down in Florida – a nice little resort where you can relax and maybe work on your life balance skills, okay?”

And that was how Ross ended up in the BlueSky Resort and Entertainment Complex. The memo he’d gotten from Andre about the trip had expressly told him not to bring any electronics with him – no laptop, no cell phone, no mp3 players, no tablets, no nothing. But when Ross tried to leave his house, he found that he couldn’t even get out the. Panic had taken him over, and before he knew what he was doing, his suitcase was filled with all the electronics he would need to work from poolside.

He tabbed between a spreadsheet and a memo that he was drafting when his computer chimed, telling him that he had a new email. He flipped over to it and cursed again.

Ross,

Your express instructions were to NOT bring your laptop. I’m having IT redirect all your work email to support staff until you get back. Count yourself lucky they don’t shut down your computer from here. For now. ;)

Now go swim or suntan or learn to dance or something. Just stop working.

– Andre

Ross typed out a quick response to Andre and hit SEND. A moment later, the mail bounced back with a form response that simply said, See you in two weeks, Ross.

He stared at the screen for a minute and then slammed the laptop cover down. The iPad on his knee teetered, and he grabbed it before it could drop to the concrete poolside. He put them both on the table, careful to keep them in the shade, and gripped the arms of his chair.

Everyone else was having fun. There was a family in the shallow end, teaching their littlest how to swim and laughing as she splashed around. There were a young couple sitting across the pool from him, and they were holding hands as they sunbathed. A group of elderly ladies were doing slow and graceful exercises in the water while their husbands sat off to the sides and played cards.

Ross had his To Do list running through his head like a litany. It was everything that he knew he was missing right now, that he knew he would never get a chance to catch up on. Meeting planning, PowerPoint slides, financial spreadsheets and a database of client information that he’d wanted to finish for ages. He needed to reorganize his accounts by activity level, add pictures to the investment-acquisitions flowchart that he needed during the next department meeting, and go over the accounts for a subsidiary of a subsidiary of one of the companies that A&H was thinking of snapping up in the near-to-mid future.

There were a thousand things, and they all needed to be done. By him. Now.

“Well, don’t you look like ten pounds of misery in a five point bag?” A shadow fell over Ross and he looked up. The woman who was standing above him looked to be about his age, with the soft, formless figure of someone who’d worked behind a desk all her life. But she was in a simple, floral bathing suit, with a sarong around her waist and a broad straw hat perched on the back of her head.

“You shouldn’t be looking so miserable out here,” she said. “You’ll ruin the mood for the rest of us.” He couldn’t tell if she was smiling, with the sun in his eyes, but her voice sounded like she was.

“I’m fine,” he said. “Just a little stressed out, is all.”

The woman put a hand to her chest in mock alarm. “Stressed out? Here?” He clucked her tongue and pulled over another chair to sit next to him. Now the he was able to see her more clearly, she was really rather pretty. She had curly hair, going gray, and bright blue eyes that were shining even in the shadow of her hat. She smiled, and Ross had the urge to smile back.

She sat down, arranging her sarong as she did, and then reached out a hand. “I’m Elaine,” she said.

Ross looked at her hand for a moment before taking it. “I’m Ross,” he said. “Look, Elaine, I’m really very busy right now, and –”

“No you’re not,” she said. She glanced down at the stack of electronics by his side.

“Yes, well, when I figure out how to get my email working again, I assure you that I’ll be very busy.”

She shook her head. “No, you won’t,” she said. They looked at each other for a long moment before she stood up and lifted the hem of her sarong up to expose her ankle. “Take a look,” she said.

There was a tattoo there, small and delicate in deep black ink, and Ross’ heart sank. It was like the one he had, only his was on his shoulder. And in a different design. But the tiny, calligraphic “A&H” in her tattoo was all he needed to see to know what it was.

Every employee at Albeth and Halding, from the CEO to the new guy in the mailroom, had one of these tattoos. The location didn’t matter, the design didn’t matter, but what did matter were the tiny nanoparticles embedded in the ink. Properly encoded, they were your ID badge on A&H property. They let you into the rooms you were authorized to get into, they proved where you were at any given moment, and were the most secure method they had for proving that you were who you said you were. Some labor groups decried the tattoos as part of a Big Brother system, but the benefits of working there far outweighed any privacy concerns that anyone had.

“Who are you?” he asked.

She sat down again. “I’m Elaine,” she said again. “And I’m your counselor while you’re here.”

Ross stared at her for a long while, and then fell back into his chair, groaned, and shut his eyes.

Day Eighty-Five: The Biggest Day [MAKE-UP]

September 14, 2011 Leave a comment

This was written for the Worth1000.com contest – “Unmet Expectations.” The instructions were: “Write a story where a key point is something/someone/somewhere that has not lived up to its expectations.”

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Secretary of State Ernest LaFayette turned off the TV in the conference room and excused himself from the meeting. He walked calmly back to his office, removing his jacket and tie as he did so, then ran to his toilet and spent the next five minutes throwing up.

The President had called him two hours ago, utterly frantic, but LaFayette’s staff had already found out from Twitter and Facebook – an alien spacecraft had landed on the National Mall, right in the middle of the Ellipse in front of the White House. There were thousands of people there, all trying to get past the cordon that had been set up. The ground was littered with correspondents, bloggers, and photographers hoping to make names for themselves.

So far, no one knew anything. The ship looked more like a piece of modern art than anything else – it was mostly white, with colored stripes down the side, and was blocky and cubic. There didn’t seem to be any windows or doors. There were nothing that looked like guns, no shimmering shields or giant robots determined to protect the ship at any cost. It just sat there.

And it was going to be LaFayette’s job to find out what it wanted.

Someone knocked gently on the door. “Mister Secretary?” It was Amy, his assistant. “Are you okay? Do you… need anything?”

LaFayette stood up on shaky legs and flushed the toilet. “No,” he called. “No, I’m fine. I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Okay,” she said. “The President is on line two.”

Quietly cursing, LaFayette washed out his mouth and spat in the sink. He inspected himself in the mirror, and for the first time in a very long time, felt as old as he looked. He smoothed back his hair, took a deep breath, and left the bathroom.

Amy was standing by the door, looking professionally concerned. He nodded to her, and she closed the door. LaFayette counted to ten, picked up the phone and pushed the line two button. “Mr. President,” he said.

“Ernie!” He flinched. “Ernie, we’re sending a motorcade to pick you up. Should be there in about five minutes, so get yourself together and get ready to make history!”

“Yes, Mister President.”

“There’ll be sharpshooters set up, just in case, and we’ve got some helicopters watching the skies, in case there are any more of ’em. You’ll be perfectly safe out there.” The President laughed, a short bark. “Unless they’ve got some kind of death ray we don’t know about. Then you’re screwed.”

“Thank you, Mister President.”

“Don’t thank me,” he said. “This is the ultimate diplomacy, Ernie. This is what you were meant to do!”

“Thank you, Mister President.”

“I’d do it myself, but for some reason the Secret Service doesn’t like the idea of me walking up to a bunch of Martians and saying Howdy. Go figure.”

LaFayette gritted his teeth at the insinuation. “Of course, Mister President.” A new Secretary of State would require, what – a confirmation hearing? Far less valuable than a President. “I should probably go, sir,” he said. “I think the motorcade has arrived.”

He hung up. Amy handed him his jacket and tie and offered him water as he walked out the door. The motorcade was huge – he had a limo, with at least five other limousines lined up behind it. Surrounding everything were dozens of police motorcycles and military vehicles. Inside his car, Amy handed him a new shirt and a young man started working on his hair. “The world is watching, sir,” Amy said. “You should look good.”

The police had cleared the streets as best they could between the State Department building and the Ellipse, but it was still slow going. During the drive, the President called three more times, trying to remind LaFayette of the importance of this event, as if it weren’t so obvious. LaFayette’s stomach burned, and his throat hurt from trying to keep everything down while he sat in the car. Amy was busy going through paperwork, but every now and then she would glance up to see if he was okay.

They were met at The Ellipse by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who also did their best to impress upon him how important this event was. A young man from the Secret Service interrupted them. “Sir,” he said, breathless. “It’s opening up!”

Everyone looked at everyone else, and they all walked together towards the crowd. LaFayette wanted to run. Run far and fast and away. He bit his lip and put his hands in his pockets as they reached the edge of the cordon and stopped.

The crowd was vast and silent as the ramp dropped down from the ship, revealing a shadowy interior. Cameras were clicking in rapid-fire, and reporters were speaking in hushed tones to the rest of the world.

A dim shape appeared inside, and a murmur went up from those who could see it. The shape soon resolved itself as it stepped into the bright autumn sunlight. It was some kind of walker, eight-legged and metallic, topped with a tinted dome. In the silence, LaFayette could hear the mechanical, electric sounds of its movements and the faintest ring of its sharp footfalls on the metal ramp. The crowd was utterly silent as they watched – even the national guardsmen around the perimeter were gaping. A moment later, a second walker joined it.

When the walkers reached the end of the ramp, they stopped, their feet digging into the sod. There was a pause that lasted just slightly too long, and people in the crowd jumped when the domes atop the walkers let out pressurized gas in a bright, loud hiss and started to open. LaFayette was surprised to realize that he was praying under his breath, something he hadn’t done in a very long time. Whatever happened next would be the defining moment for humanity. He closed his eyes tightly to clear his thoughts.

The domes released a pale blue gas when they opened. From this distance, he could make them out easily. The beings sitting inside were vaguely reptilian. Their skin was scaly – one red, the other gold – and they had large, shining eyes that squinted against the sun. They were wearing what looked like pressure suits and breathing masks, but their skin was exposed to the air. Someone nearby whispered, “My god. Lizard men.”

The aliens looked around at the crowd, and then at each other. LaFayette took another deep breath. This was it. He thought about the times he had met dictators and madmen, sat down with them to negotiate peace – or at least some kind of armed stability. They had been the worst of humanity, the kind of people that would bring shame to the world. And he had been better than they. He would still be better than they.

Ernest LaFayette straightened his jacket, brushed off the cuffs, and stepped forward to meet the aliens.

He stopped in front of them and craned his neck to look up. He didn’t flinch when the insectile walkers hissed and slowly lowered themselves to meet him. There was a moment, where human first met alien, when everyone held their breath.

“My name,” he said, in a level, clear voice, “is Ernest LaFayette.” He spoke slowly and clearly, with his arms at his sides. “I would like to welcome you in peace to the planet Earth.”

The red alien’s eyes widened, and it turned to the gold one. It spoke to the other, and their voices sounded musical, like deep flutes. The red alien turned back to LaFayette and, in a clear voice, trilled, “Earth?”

A murmur ran through the crowd. LaFayette kept his expression neutral, but everyone could hear the excitement in his voice when he replied. “Yes, he said. “Welcome to Earth.”

There was a moment of utter stillness.

The red alien looked around at the crowd and the monuments and the city. It looked LaFayette up and down, and then trilled something to its partner. The gold alien responded, and they conversed in their melodic tongue. Then the red alien looked down at LaFayette and said, “Thought it would be bigger.”

Its walker lifted quickly, turned around, and walked back up the ramp with quick, sharp steps. The gold alien watched it, and then turned to the bewildered LaFayatte. “Apologies,” it said, in the same deep, flutelike voice. “It has been a very long trip.” A small patch of scales on its forehead fluttered and changed hue for a moment, and then it, too, stood up in its walker and returned to the ship.

The ramp was pulled back up, and within a few minutes, the ship lifted silently off the ground. With the world’s eyes upon him, Ernest LaFayette watched the aliens turn around and leave.

Day Eighty-four: The End [MAKE-UP]

September 6, 2011 1 comment

The main thing that everyone realized by the end was this: even if they had known sooner, there was no way they could have stopped what was about to happen.

Astronomers in the southern hemisphere were, simply by virtue of economics and land mass, less common than those in the north. Even so, if the great vessels of the Galactic Overlord P’thn’aar had approached the planet from the north rather than the south, all that humanity would have achieved would have been a few more weeks to come to grips with their impending annihilation. As it was, researchers at the South African Astronomical Observatory were the first to notice something new in the southern skies. It confounded the astronomers at first. Its brightness far exceeded any asteroid they had cataloged thus far, and it appeared to be stationary in the sky. Telescopes across the hemisphere were trained on it, and most were better able to figure out what it wasn’t, rather than what it was.

It wasn’t a star, that much was certain. Its spectral profile suggested that it was reflecting sunlight, rather than emitting light of its own, but opinions differed on what kind of material could throw back that much light. Blogs erupted with the news, opinions raging from UFOs to rogue stars to comets of doom that would most certainly smash into the fragile Earth, rendering it unfit for life of any kind. It was not until simultaneous observations were made from every possible observation point that the true scope of the incoming object was revealed.

The primary ship of the Galactic Overlord P’thn’aar was massive, possibly three to four times the size of Earth itself. Frantic recalculations made the scenario even worse. Given its size, and the increase in its brightness over the weeks, its speed could be determined. The ships would reach the Earth in less than three weeks.

Panic gripped some nations tightly. New York, London, Berlin, Sydney – they were all in flames within days of the announcement. There was a surge in suicides across the planet, and bank collapses as loans stopped being repaid while credit lines were maxed out. Families were broken up, entire economies collapsed as people stopped going to work, and the death of humanity seemed more and more certain as astronomers gathered data on the incoming object. The world faced an event unprecedented in human history, and humans were not handling it well.

When the news was released, two weeks after the discovery of the object, that it appeared to be slowing down, there was a brief period of celebration. It appeared that the hand of God had been outstretched to protect His fragile world and deliver His beloved creation from almost certain death. The celebration lasted until the first good pictures from Hubble were released, and the reason for the object’s slowdown became clear.

The ship was made of metal. Its leading face was caked in accumulated space dust and debris, but the rest of it was gleaming and clean. The surface was smooth, marred only by long, straight lines that were spread out evenly from pole to pole. It had no lights, no windows, it was sending no signals. As it approached Earth, it slowed, and the planet came to the realization that their doom was even more terrible than they had thought.

By the time it stopped, the great ship was close enough that the moon’s orbit was being affected – it was pulled into a long ellipse, destroying the night sky that had been familiar to mankind for centuries. But other than that, the ship did nothing. It filled the sky, bright and gleaming, but it sent no signals, it destroyed no cities. Governments from around the world attempted communication, guaranteeing peace if only their new guests would also do so. An attempt was made in the United States to revive its shuttle program for one last mission, but the Senate voted against the funding, and any chance of sending humans to visit the ship were lost.

Exactly three days after the ship arrived, the broadcast was made. It would be the last signal broadcast on Earth, and it was humanity’s final confirmation of its fate.

There was no video to the broadcast, simply a static picture of an alien sigil, white against a black background. The voice that spoke was flat and cold and businesslike.

“Earth is to be commended for producing intelligences in quantity. Intelligences will be harvested for analysis and computational upgrade. Earth will be exploited for all resources. Hail Galactic Overlord P’thn’aar.”

Those who had not panicked before took the opportunity to do so now. There was no news, because the radio and television stations broadcast only static. Cell phone service was gone, and land lines had been disabled. The internet, for all intents and purposes, had ceased to exist. With no place to turn for opinions and information, many people descended into the madness of not knowing.

Their only respite from their own thoughts came when the probes descended from the ship.

They were small silver disks, about the size of a truck tire and trailing thin, metallic tentacles behind them. To everyone’s horror, they spared no time completing their duties.

A probe would seize a person by the head and hold them close. One of their tentacles would slice through the skull, tearing it off and throwing it to the ground. The brain would then be scooped out and the lifeless corpse dropped unceremoniously to the ground. The brain itself hovered in a force field, dragged behind the probe. It was swift and brutal. Moments after one brain was harvested, another would be found. Tens of millions of these probes launched from the main ship towards the Earth, and each of them wanted only one thing: brains.

The vast majority of probes hunted humans, and they were unstoppable. They were shot at by weapons large and small. They were hit with rocks and beaten with sticks, and none of it mattered. They harvested a brain, dropped the body and then went on to the next, and none were spared their attention. When a probe reached its limit, it streaked back up to the main ship to unload its precious cargo.

Some probes, however, went after animals. People saw them taking the brains from elephants and chimpanzees, dolphins and whales, even cats and dogs. Animal harvesting was the minority of operations, however. Humans were their primary target.

Within days, the planet was empty of thinking beings. Cities were empty. The seas were quiet. On the great ship, the harvest was networked together, brain by brain, until the intelligences of Earth, tightly packed and networked, were allowed to see what the ship could see: the ravaging of their home.

Great machines had been unleashed from the main ship to disassemble the Earth. Some came back with ore and rock, others soaked up the oceans into great, continent-sized bags. Specialized ships bored all the way into the mantle and began to harvest the glowing minerals that had lain under the planet’s crust for billions of years. Smaller ships scoured the planet, spraying a solvent that reduced all life forms to a homogeneous organic slurry. Like the water, that was bagged up and transported to the ship.

In the end, all that was left was a hot, spinning iron core. Specialized craft descended upon it, landed gently, and fired great rockets to counteract its spin. When the core stopped, the craft latched onto it and towed it into the main ship as well, leaving no trace of the planet Earth but a smattering of debris.

An order was sent through the great processor that was the last true remnant of Earth. The billions of brains screamed and convulsed, but they complied. Overlord P’thn’aar’s mining ship had to move to the next world, far, far away.

Day Eighty-three: The Heresy of the Smallest Room [MAKE-UP]

September 5, 2011 2 comments

The man in filthy priest’s robes was dragged into the room and thrown onto the cold stone floor. When the hood was torn from his head, he cried out at the sunlight streaming in through the great stained glass window that framed Archdeacon Tongryn’s tall, thin silhouette. The colored glass shattered the sun into brilliant color, except for the center, which gleamed in purest white the shape of the Church’s most treasured orthodoxy. Brother Deskel groaned and averted his eyes in shame. One of the burly guards who had brought him in gave him a kick to the ribs, rolling him over.

“Enough,” the Archdeacon said, holding up a shadowy hand. The guard looked up and nodded, taking a step away.

“Brother Deskel,” the Archdeacon said. His voice was warm, a voice known by all who attended services in the great Cathedral. When he spoke of God’s love for man, about the order inherent in the Universe, that voice was a source of peace and reassurance. In this room, however, it was stripped of such kindness. “You have been brought here on most grievous charges.” The Archdeacon clucked his tongue. “Most grievous indeed.”

“The truth,” Deskel found himself whispering. “I only spoke the truth.” He cried out as the guard kicked him again.

“Now, now,” the Archdeacon said. “No need to resort to that.” He walked around his desk, his hands clasped behind his back, and the light from the window illuminated his features. There were many who said he looked like a generous grandfather or a kindly uncle, and indeed his expression out among the faithful was affable and merciful. There was no kindness in his eyes today.

“Heresy, Brother Deskel,” he whispered. “Heresy is a poison to the church. An infection that must be stopped.” He stood next to the prone man, and Deskel could smell the incense that the priests burned during their services. It burned his nose. “There are those who say that you should cut infections out. Slice off the limb before it rots and destroys the rest of the body.” He looked up into the light. “I would prefer to prevent the disease, of course. To keep it from spreading at all.” He looked down again. “That would be the best for all of us.” He paused. “Will you recant?”

Brother Deskel’s ribs throbbed. His head felt like it was splitting in two. He had barely eaten in days, barely slept, and his limbs felt like great bags of sand that he was forced to carry with him wherever he went. He longed for rest, and even that cold stone floor would feel like paradise if he knew he wouldn’t be hurt anymore.

But he also knew the truth. He knew that the Church had strayed. He had read the manuscripts that they had tried to suppress. He had listened to the teachings of Tequalor Saf, the renegade who spoke out in defiance. Feros Deskel knew the truth in his heart, and his tongue would not let the lie catch air.

Archdeacon Tongryn knelt down, carefully arranging his robes. He grabbed Deskel’s chin and pointed the man’s face to the great window. Deskel tried to look away, but he was too weak to overcome the older man’s grip. “Look at it,” the Archdeacon growled. “Look at what a thousand years of Church thought and tradition have upheld.” Against his own will, Deskel opened his eyes and looked at the great stained glass window. “The paper,” the Archdeacon hissed, “goes over the roll.” He shook Deskel’s head. “Look at it! Over!” He gave Deskel’s head another shake and then let it drop. “As Our Lord intended,” he said, standing up.

The room was silent except for Brother Deskel’s quiet sobbing. The guards looked down in him with contempt.

The Archdeacon turned to face the window. “You are found guilty of heresy in the eyes of the Church, the punishment for which is death.” He ignored the cry that came from the floor. “Be assured that we will root out the rest of your confederates – especially Tequalor Saf.” His lip curled as he said the name. “They will all be given the chance you were. Recant or face the judgment of the Church.” He looked down at the man, who had curled up into a ball. “I hope they choose more wisely than you did.” He gestured to the guards, who picked Deskel up off the floor. He hung limply in their arms as they dragged him away.

Archdeacon Tongryn gazed at the window and thought on the heretics. They would be destroyed in the end. Destroyed or made to see the truth. He clasped his hands together and offered up a silent prayer that the Lord might guide him and the Church to a victory for the truth. At the prayer’s end, he passed his right hand over his left and made a short bow.

The interesting part of his day finished, the Archdeacon sat down and went back to the more mundane business of the Church.

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This was inspired by a writing contest over on Worth1000.com, where the topic was to invent a new religion based on something unlikely. The first thing to come to mind was the old story about Ann Landers’ column, how the most mail she ever received on a single topic was about the proper orientation of toilet paper. [1] The limit on the entry was 150 words, which was harder than I thought it would be. Here, of course, I’m allowed to use as many words as I like, even though it leads to the devastation of the virgin electron fields of South Hackensack….

[1] The correct orientation, of course, is over. Anything else is clearly wrong, wrong, wrong.

Day Eighty-two: The Value of Information [MAKE-UP]

August 28, 2011 1 comment

As my cast list grows, every now and then I’ll randomly choose two or three characters and see what happens when I put them together. Insofar as there is a canon to any of these stories, these are not canon. Or maybe they are. We’ll see.

This story features Elli Acton, the lead in one of the early stories on day 4, Daddy’s Little Firecracker, and Michael Collington, the off-screen character in day 28’s Fiat Scientia whose suicide got the whole story rolling. Considering that they’re from two different eras in (probably) different universes – and one of them is dead – this should be interesting. Let’s see what happens….

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The first thing Michael Collington said to Elli Acton was, “I’m a great admirer of your father.”

This was immediately followed by Elli knocking him at least three places down the bar with a right hook to the jaw. She emptied her drink over his head and said, “Go to hell, fucker.” Then she picked up her purse and strode out of the bar.

He didn’t see her again for six months.

He ran into her again in a small Los Angeles coffee shop, reading a book. He had to pass by her a few times to make sure it was her, but as soon as he was certain, he introduced himself. “Hi,” he said. “Can I buy you another cup of whatever it is you’re drinking?”

Elli turned a page in her book and held out the cup. “Caramel latte,” she said, not looking at him. “Make it quick.”

Mercifully, the line was short and he was back with her drink in under five minutes. She took it from him while she read and muttered “Thanks.” Michael lowered himself into the seat next to hers and sipped his own drink, a black coffee. He waited, watching people move past, coming in, ordering drinks and going out, and occasionally glancing over to see if Elli was doing anything other than reading her book.

She wasn’t.

After about ten minutes, he took a chance. “I’m terribly sorry to interrupt,” he said. He’d found during his time in the United States that his native British accent was considered charming, so he tried to play it up a little whenever he could. “I’ve noticed you’re reading the new Nicholas Calviani book. Is it any good?”

She continued to read. After a few seconds, she turned a page, coming to the end of the chapter. Then she said, “Yes,” and continued to the next.

“Ah,” he said. “I see.” He took a drink from his cup, emptying it. “It’s just that I find his theories on the causes of inner-city poverty to be rather simplistic and he never really offers a solution to any of the problems he brings up in the book. I mean, if all it took to ‘fix’ poverty was a rousing sing-along and an outpouring of community feelings, we would have solved it by now, don’t you-”

Ellie snapped the book closed and put it into her bag. She drained the last of her latte, stood up and walked out of the coffee shop without a word.

Michael sat at the table and watched her leave. “Damn,” he said.

They way he had come to know her – or at least know of her – was through a magazine interview he’d read with her father, Wilford Acton. He was the founder of Acton Informatics, which began as a maker and supplier of customer listings back in the late 70s. As technology improved, Acton and his company became the premier designers of databases in the nation, and were now supplying programs and programmers to nearly every major government and corporation on the planet. Acton’s systems were elegant and simple, and the moment Michael read about them, he knew he wanted to be a part of the bigger picture.

He had ideas. He’d always had ideas, ever since he was a kid, but they never seemed to work out. Either someone else would get there first, or he would realize that the brilliant plan he’d put together would be impossible to actually work out. He might lose interest in one in order to pursue another, which he would usually drop when another, grander idea came into his head. The result of this was that he had a general working knowledge of many topics, from science and technology to art and music to sociology, psychology and astrophysics. But he was an expert in none, and didn’t have the connections to the people who were experts, so he feared he would be forever lost to progress.

The interview he’d read, however, seemed to be the chance he was looking for. He had thought of ways that companies could use interconnected databases to analyze their customers’ buying habits and then extrapolate their needs. So by looking at their credit card purchases, for example, a company might know when to target them for certain products. If someone suddenly started buying more health foods, for example, instead of their usual purchases, it might be time to make sure they see an ad for a local gym or an at-home exercise machine. Someone whose statements showed more social activities – restaurants and bars, for example – might be dating again. The perfect time to send coupons to local eateries. By keeping a constant watch on people’s purchases, companies could better tailor advertising and product research.

Michael had mentioned this to a few friends, most of whom thought it was a massive ethical violation, akin to spying on people, and he conceded that they had a point. But he knew it would work, and that it would change the world forever. So he studied up on Acton Informatics and learned about Acton’s daughter, Elli. She was young, smart and once again single, so Michael did a bit of research online and managed to find out a bit more about where she liked to spend her time.

What he’d somehow managed to miss, it seemed, was how she felt about her father.

He was determined to try again, though. He’d found her on Facebook and Twitter and followed her on both. He kept notes on where she went and who she seemed to talk to a lot, and produced what he believed to be a good dossier of her likes and dislikes, the latter list being topped, in large red letters with “HER FATHER.” He studied his notes constantly, taking time to make predictions about her behavior and see how well they bore out.

Part of Michael was aware, to some degree, that what he was doing might be considered stalking. That if she ever found out about it, he could be arrested, or at the very least forced to keep as far away from her as the law would allow. And that he would lose his only possibly means of getting to Wilford Acton.

But he didn’t care. The ends justify the means, he told himself, and knew that one day, if necessary, she would forgive him.

He stood in front of a small Italian restaurant where Elli’s birthday party was being held. He’d managed to get on the invitation list through a friend of hers, and he’d brought a bottle of her favorite scotch. He’d wisely left his dossier at home, but he didn’t need it. He knew her likes and dislikes and what would probably get her talking. The first time, he’d gone in blind. The second, he’d been a complete amateur.

This time, he would win over Elli Acton.

After that, the world.