Sparing a life in WW1

After the first mortar explosion, we didn’t bother with the slow crawl across the muddy ground any longer.

As the mortar shells kept on dropping around us, the nearer hits throwing huge explosions of dirt up into the air to rain down on us like stinging hail, we all rose up to our feet and ran, a ragged charge across the battlefield.  There was no time to think of strategy, of keeping a low profile, of anything.  All we knew was that there was danger, that we were on the brink of death-

-and our only shot at safety was in the trenches that lay ahead of us.

We were lucky.  One of our own shells had hit the nearest machine gun nest, and one of the German mortars had misfired and taken out another.  Ahead of us, we could hear cries of surprise and fear, but only our bullets whizzed through the air.

But that didn’t last long.

With a loud staccato roar, like a car rolling over a pile of sticks, a nearby machine gun opened up on us.  Ahead of me and half a dozen paces to my left, I saw Johnny, my bunk mate, stagger and convulse as half a dozen lead hornets ripped through his body.  Tears stung at my eyes, but I couldn’t stop.  I had to keep going forward.

The enemy trench was just ahead of us.  I could see it.  But I didn’t think I was going to make it.

A head popped up over the trench, the face going slack with surprise as it saw us.  I managed to pull my rifle around as I ran and pulled the trigger, the metal slippery beneath my fingers.  The expression of surprise on the head in front of me froze as its forehead exploded.

Behind me, I could hear more cries, but I was so close.  I threw myself forward, feeling my feet lose purchase below me in the slippery mud.  I tumbled – and kept on tumbling, dropping down into the trench.

I rolled up, scrambling to my feet, covered from head to toe in the mud – and found myself face to face with two more Krauts.

I dropped the useless rifle.  I wouldn’t be able to get it up in time.  I instead grabbed for my Webley at my waist.  For once, the holster didn’t catch, and I pulled the trigger feverishly.

Both of the men dropped to the ground, only one of them even managing to make a gurgle.  I straightened up into a crouch, holding the revolver in front of me, my heart pounding like a jackrabbit’s in my chest.

Which way?  I was totally lost and disoriented.  But I couldn’t stand still.   I had to move.  I picked a direction – but paused as I heard a sound behind me.

Slowly, I turned, back to the two fallen German soldiers.  I looked down at them, the gun held out in front of me at arm’s length like a wand.

The man who had fallen on top was definitely dead.  The .455 had blown out most of his chest cavity, scattering gore in a circle around him.

But the man beneath was still alive.  I could see his face sticking out from beneath his fallen companion, eyes wide with shock and fear.

I forced my eyes to not stare back at his, instead looking at the rest of him.  My shot had grazed his arm, I saw, but he looked to be otherwise unharmed.  The bullet had cut a tendon or something, forcing his right arm to go straight, like he was reaching out for something.

I lowered the gun, pointing it at the scared, bloodless face sticking out from beneath his companion.  I could feel my hand trembling, making the Webley’s barrel shake.  In my ears, I could hear the roaring of machine guns, the shouts and cries of my companions as they fought and died.

My index finger felt the trigger resisting beneath it.  I should shoot – the man had been prepared to do the same to me.

But I couldn’t do it.

“Don’t you bloody try anything, or I swear to god I’ll shoot you,” I told the man angrily, even though I doubted he could understand.  “I mean it, I swear.”

The man just stared back at me, blinking but uncomprehending.  I sighed, trying to stop the shaking in my limbs.  I managed to re-holster the Webley on the third attempt – and then reached down, hauling the corpse of his companion off of the German.

I half expected the man to leap up, to make some heroic attempt to fight back.  But he didn’t move, even once he was in the clear – he just stared up at me.  Only when I held out my own hand did he accept my help, letting me pull him over into a sitting position leaning against the side of the trench.  I could see the grimace on his face at the pain of his injured arm bumping against the ground, but I couldn’t do much about that.

Around me, I could hear the sounds of battle growing fainter.  Maybe the rest of my squad had taken the trench – or maybe I was the last one left alive.  But right now, I didn’t want to think about that.

I reached up and patted the pocket of my jacket, feeling the crumpled rectangular packet inside.  I fished it out, pulling out one of the treasured white tubes.  After a minute’s consideration, I also grabbed a second, offering it to the Kraut beside me.

The man looked over at me, but then shakily reached up with his good hand and accepted the offer.  He stuck it between his lips, and then reached down to his own belt.  I watched with caution, but he pulled out a lighter, offering it to me first.

“Well, this is bloody awful,” I commented, after I had managed to light my cigarette.  I glanced over at the Kraut, who still looked like he couldn’t understand a word I said.  “Wilfred,” I said clearly, patting my chest.  “Wilfred Owen.”

After I repeated this gesture again, the man finally seemed to understand.  “Adolf,” he responded, tapping his own chest.  “Hitler.  Adolf Hitler.”

“Well, nice to meet you, Adolf,” I said, taking a puff on my cigarette and leaning back against the mud behind my head.  “I guess you’re my prisoner – or, if it turns out that all my buddies are dead, I’ll happily be yours.  Either way, beats getting up again.”

Next to me, Adolf’s eyes were closed, but his chest rose and fell as he puffed on his cigarette.  I kept one hand on my revolver’s butt, but I did the same.  For just a moment, as I closed my eyes, I could believe that I wasn’t in the midst of Hell.

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Danni California: Part 2

Continued from here.

It was the sixties, and all that folks could talk about was the railroad.

It was going to span the entire United States, they claimed.  It would stretch all the way from the civilization of the East Coast out to the wild West, to those hills that prospectors claimed were full of gold.  It would connect the two halves of the world, would let folks travel the whole length of the continent in under a fortnight.

Even now, although the great Trans-Continental project wasn’t yet completed, there were already folks heading in both directions as fast as they could, searching for some sort of magical opportunity, as if they were certain to find it if they just traveled far enough.

For Carson, he didn’t much mind when folks from his town vanished overnight, leaving behind just a scrawled note announcing that they were going west.  Most of the folks who left weren’t exactly the most stable type to keep around.  Many of them had spent at least a night or two cooling off in his cells downstairs.

If they just left, well, Carson wouldn’t complain over that.

But for each one who left, another individual would appear, taking their place.  And these individuals, these newcomers, they usually brought their crazy foreign ideas in with them.  Those ideas often stirred up trouble.

Particularly the girl who now glared defiantly across the room at Carson, her hands wrapped around the heavy iron bars of his cell.

Something about the girl’s wide eyes put Carson a little off balance.  Even though she was the one locked up, after he’d dragged her away from the town square even as she dug in her heels and yelled, she didn’t act like she was imprisoned.

“How long do you think you can keep me here?” she demanded, glaring at Carson with eyes that seemed to blaze.  “You can’t just leave me locked up!”

“Sure I can,” the man returned, not letting his tone betray any slip in his calm demeanor.  He lifted up his chipped coffee mug, taking a slow sip as the girl glared daggers at him.  His eyes roved over the girl from above the rim of his mug.

She was dirty, and definitely looked as if she’d just rolled in off the railroad, into sleepy Mississippi.  But under that layer of dirt and grime was thick, strawberry blonde hair, and her skin had the bronze sheen of a life spent out under a sun less harsh than here.  Her clothes were ill-fitting, but covered in riotous color.  If she just cleaned herself up a bit, Carson thought, she would be quite an attractive young woman.

But she’d have to get that scowl off her face, first.

“So, California,” the police officer said, using the name he’d given her when he dragged her in yesterday afternoon, “what brings you out here?”

The woman stared defiantly back at him.  “Life,” she fired back, as if this was the obvious answer that he’d somehow overlooked.

“And life brought you here,” Carson finished, reaching up and rubbing one hand through his own hair.  He looked at her again, sizing her up as she kept on staring back, through the dirty strands of hair hanging down across her forehead.

“Listen,” the cop finally said, setting his coffee cup aside.  “You want a shower?  Get yourself cleaned up?”

The woman looked suspicious still, but she nodded.

Carson rose up, picking up the keys from the old roll-top desk beside him.  “Now remember, don’t try anything,” he warned her.  “But I’m trusting you, not putting any cuffs on you.  And I’ll send someone running down to Miss Fansworth down the street, see about getting you some clean clothes.”

For just a moment, in California’s eyes, Carson saw a hint of something unexpected.  Was that gratitude?

But a moment later, she had raised her shields once again, and was glaring back at him.  “Don’t think that you’ve won me over with this,” she snapped at him.

Carson rolled his eyes as he unlocked the cell door.  “Perish the thought.”

To be continued!

"Slabs of Night Meat"

I glared down at the bank of TV monitors in front of me, despising my own existence.  God, I didn’t want to be here, I said to myself in a depressingly common line of thought.

Outside my little walled-off cubicle, I knew that all these idiots were wandering around the expanse of the mall, staring dumbly into the window displays, their wallets growing lighter as the bags in their hands grew correspondingly heavier.  The flow of customers seemed never-ending, all of them with that same stupid, poleaxed look on their faces.

I glanced over at the clock, begging for it to go faster.  I knew that I was only supposed to go on patrol once every half hour.  The mall administrator had explained it to me, using that patronizing, condescending tone that made me want to slam my fist right into his smug little face.

“See, we don’t want to make the shoppers feel like they’re being policed,” he had said to me, spreading his hands wide as if trying to say, ‘what can I do, I’m just another working stiff like you’.  “And your presence can be intimidating.”

I looked down at myself.  My uniform was baggy.  I had already managed to shed ten pounds, working towards completing my New Year’s resolution, but the cheapskates refused to give me a new uniform.  So now I was stuck in the shell of my old clothes, feeling them hang off my shoulders and sag around my reduced belly.

At my waist hung my belt of tools – but no guns, oh no.  That wasn’t suitable for mall security.  The most dangerous thing I had there was a snap-out baton, flimsy and slightly rusty.  It was balanced by a can of pepper spray that was probably a decade old.  The cheapskates refused to understand the idea of pepper spray “going bad” and refused to pay for a replacement.

It had only been eighteen minutes since my last patrol.  I still had another ten minutes to spend here in front of the monitors, staring as the fat little images of people moved from one screen to another.

But I couldn’t bear it any longer.

I jumped up, the noise making Frank, my partner, turn and glance at me.  “Going on patrol,” I told him.

“Seems soon,” Frank remarked, but I knew that he didn’t care.  Hell, the man probably preferred that I do it.  Frank was a big fan of hitting up the mall’s Krispy Kreme store for their duds and leftovers, and it showed on his waist and big hips.  Hell, he was part of my motivation to lose weight in the first place.

“Yeah, whatever.  Let’s see them fire me for it,” I shot back, and headed out of our little booth.

I liked being on my feet, but sometimes, out among the slowly wandering slabs of night meat, I still felt trapped.  They were all so big, mindless wandering cows.  They existed only to mindlessly consume, munching on greasy mall pizza and sipping from oversized cups of Jamba Juice.  I sometimes felt like I was watching over the urban version of a farm.

Yes, that’s what I was.  The urban farmer, patrolling my meat beasts, watching for the occasional coyote or fox that tried to cause trouble.  I was just there to keep order, to keep the cows happy and mindless.

One of the slabs had come to a stop in front of me, his cottage-cheese bulk blocking most of the walkway.  “Excuse me sir,” I spoke up as he stared, his jaw slack, into one of the lit window displays.

Mister Night Meat didn’t respond.  Behind me, I could feel the other cows moving their feet, starting to get anxious.  Why were they being blocked?

I reached out and tapped the man on the shoulder.  He started, turning to look at me as if confused about who he was.  “Yuh?” he said, the sound deep and guttural.

“Sir, you can’t stand in the middle of the path and stare,” I told him, trying to keep most of the disgust out of my voice.  I didn’t need another official reprimand.  “Step to the side, or keep moving, please.”

The man gawked at me, but stepped over towards the window.  A moment later, the display once again captivated his attention, and he stopped – but at least now he was out of the way.

I kept on walking along the halls of the mall, my thoughts almost as dark as the night outside.

Danni California: Part 1

Author’s note: I tried this once before, here: http://www.missingbrains.com/2013/04/part-1-california-rest-in-peace.html .  However, just because I abandoned the story then, doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten about it.  Time for a second try!

The man came into town every morning, riding in on his old motorcycle.  The creaking monster spat out clouds of black smoke behind it, belching so loud that the whole town could hear him coming.

He’d plop himself down at the bar, pulling out his typewriter, slowly feeding in a new sheet of paper.  He’d wait for Jenny to come around, bringing him the cup of dark sludge that the place had the audacity to try and pass off as coffee.

And then, laboriously, he’d start to type.

No one really knew what he did, what he might have done.  Of course, dressed all in black like he did, there was no shortage of rumors.  People whispered that he’d been a gangster, that he had killed a man, that he’d robbed a bank, a whole string of banks.  Someone even claimed that he might be involved with that whole California fiasco, although they hadn’t offered any further details.

Only one other man in town seemed willing to approach the man in black.  Old Hillpaw, the grizzled prospector, would sometimes come into the bar in the afternoons.  Once his daily whiskey was in hand, the gray-haired old man would wander over to drop heavily into the chair opposite the man in black, staring at him over the paper sticking up out of the typewriter.

They never seemed to speak much, but the man in black would give Old Hillpaw a nod that seemed friendly enough, and Hillpaw would nod back.  For weeks, they shared the table, never opening their mouths.  Hillpaw never asked what the man was typing, and the man in black never offered Hillpaw the chance to read his work.

But one afternoon, as Jenny strolled closer, the rusty and chipped coffee pot in hand, she heard Hillpaw clear his throat.  The waitress paused, holding her breath.  Were the two men finally about to speak, to divulge the mysterious past they both shared?

Hillpaw’s voice was old, gritty, as creaky as the rest of him.  He sounded like half of the ore he had mined had ended up in his lungs.  He cleared his throat several times, coughing loudly, until the man in black finally paused and looked up, his fingers hovering just above the typewriter keys.

“Where’s your hat?” Old Hillpaw asked.

Jenny blinked in surprise.  Had the old prospector lost it?  What sort of question was that?  But the man in black didn’t look surprised.

“Don’t wear it any more,” he said, his voice even with just the slightest hint of a Southern drawl.

There didn’t seem to be much else to add, but Hillpaw, after a few minutes’ thought, persisted.  “You remember me?” he asked the man in black.

The fingers paused, once again lifting up off of the typewriter keys.  The man in black stared across the table at the prospector, not speaking.  “South Dakota,” he finally said.  “You were at the bar.”

Old Hillpaw clapped his hands together, looking delighted.  “You certainly still have your wits!” he cackled, rocking back and forth in his chair as he stamped his feet.  Back a few feet away, Jenny hovered, unsure of whether the old man had finally lost it.

But after a minute, Hillpaw’s braying laughter ceased.  “See, here’s the problem with the story,” he said to the man in black.  “I know the end, o’course.  Saw part of it myself, and read about the rest in the papers.  But I don’t know the beginning.”

“The beginning was in the papers, too.”

Hillpaw shook his head.  “Nah, that’s just them writers, putting words on a page,” he replied, dismissing the man in black’s comment.  “That’s not the real beginning.  Not where they started.”

“No,” the man in black agreed, “that’s not the real beginning.”

For a minute longer, the man in black paused, looking down at his typewriter and the neat stack of typed paper beside it.  Then, slowly, he raised his gaze back up to Old Hillpaw, sitting and waiting across the table.  “Too impatient to wait?” he asked the man.

Hillpaw glanced down at himself.  “Hell, I might not be around by the time you finish,” he replied.

The man in black leaned forward, reaching out and lifting the cup of coffee up to his lips.  He took a long, slow sip of the sludge within, setting the cup back down on top of his papers so the stack wouldn’t slip away.  He shrugged and leaned back in his chair, his long black coat falling open to the sides.

As the man’s coat fell open, Jenny saw something gleaming, tucked beneath his shoulder.  As she realized what was stowed there, she gasped, unable to keep quiet.

“And you might as well sit down and listen, too,” the man said to her, no change in his tone.  He didn’t even turn his head to look at her.

Jenny realized with a start that the man had known she was hovering, listening in, the entire time.  Not meeting his gaze, she pulled up a chair from the next table over, setting down the coffee pot and smoothing her barmaid’s skirt.

For a minute, the man in black just stared back at them both, his eyes dark, appraising.  The heavy revolver hanging under his arm gleamed dimly in the light.  His two audience members stared back at him, Hillpaw looking studiously blank, Jenny trying not to show her uncomfortable nervousness.

“It starts back further than the papers ever said,” the man in black finally began, his voice filled with deep timbre.  “Back in the deep South, before the riots tore it apart.  Even before the rebuilding made enough for the riots to tear apart.

“It starts with a cop – and with a woman named California…”

To be continued (for sure, this time!)…

Book 7 of 52: "Pitch Perfect" by Bill McGowan

To start this review, let me say that Pitch Perfect is probably the best book on public speaking, bar none, that I’ve found.  This book has so much good advice, I’m actually considering buying a copy to keep it around permanently.

Let’s face it – everyone hates public speaking.  Some people are better at it than others, and I like to believe that I, personally, am not the worst at it.  But still, whenever I have to get up and talk (even if it’s just in a small meeting), I get nervous.  And presenting a more detailed topic, to a large audience?  I cringe at the thought!

In Pitch Perfect, McGowan starts by acknowledging this, and he first drills down on the idea of practice, practice, practice!  He explains how everyone goes through three stages: dread, acceptance, and enjoyment.  He emphasizes that it takes lots of time/practice to get to the enjoyment stage, but that it’s possible!

He also brings up practice to show that all those people who are “natural” speakers are nothing of the sort – they have practiced!  This was a huge realization to me personally.  I always thought that some people could just stand up and talk, and their words would come out perfectly.  Oh, how I envied them!  But the dirty truth is that these people have to practice, just like everyone else – and if they don’t, it shows in their next talk.

After these broader statements, McGowan buckles down and emphasizes everything that can go wrong, everything that makes a speech fail.  He touches on body language, overused words, the most common (and, coincidentally, the worst) ways to start a speech, and how to fix each of these points!  He shows how even experienced presenters shoot themselves in the foot, and how to avoid those same mistakes.

Finally, McGowan talks about some of the more specialized speeches – how to give a toast, how to speak at a corporate event versus a social event, and how to handle other parts of communication.  In the end, I finished the book feeling strengthened, but not overwhelmed.

In fact, only a day or two after finishing the book, I had to give a speech, and I put some of McGowan’s suggestions into effect.  And I was astounded to see positive effects right away!  I would wholly recommend this book to everyone, and in fact have already done so to several colleagues.

Time to read: about 6 hours.  I really focused on going slower with this book to absorb everything.

Who’s the real villain?

I stared up at the hole in my ceiling, trying in vain to blink back tears as I watched the caped man vanish into a dot.

In a sudden burst of anger, overcome with impotent rage, I stamped my foot.  I stamped both feet, jumping up and down and waving my arms and screaming, not caring about the ruined bits of electronics that were further crushed underfoot.  Tears were rolling down both of my cheeks, now, but I didn’t bother to try and wipe them away – I knew that they’d soon be replaced by their fellows.

How the hell could the damn man believe that he was doing the right thing?  Even as he flew away, he called back over one shoulder, with that pompous smirk, that “the authorities were on their way.”

Yeah.  Like they’d do anything but help me up, apologize, and pat me on the back with sympathy.

Finally settling down a little, I took a deep, rattling breath, feeling my rib cage creaking.  I had to remind myself that I was getting older, that I didn’t have the same strength as I’d once possessed.  I was a crippled shell of a man, trying to undo the mistakes of the past – and blocked, prevented.

I bent down, gathering up the few remaining components that had escaped PowerBolt’s assault.  “More like PowerBrat,” I snarled to myself, the words more sorrowful than angry.

Not much had escaped his blasts, of course.  Most of the integral components, including the main drive chip that had taken me hundreds of painstaking hours to assemble, were smashed to splinters.  I could perhaps recycle some of the incredibly rare raw materials, but I’d have to rebuild all the complex assemblies.

Even though I knew that it was no use, I couldn’t help raging against the man in my head, endlessly replaying what-if scenarios.  I had been so close!  The machine had been powering up, getting ready to take me back to the chosen moment, when PowerBolt came smashing in.  Just a few more minutes, and I would have been gone, finally beyond his reach!

“Saving the world from meddling interference,” he announced to me, as his blasters turned my hard work to rubble.  As if he had any right to judge humanity, to single-handedly condemn it to live with its horrifying mistakes of the past!

I tried to think of what I could have said to him, to convince him that my “fiendish quest” was for the best, but I knew that there was nothing.  I’d even tried, once, back when I thought that I had more time.

I had captured him, bound him with energy fields to contain his power beams, and tried to explain my reason why the past had to be changed.  I showed him the photographs of those people, suffering on the edge of death.  I read him accounts of the Allied soldiers when they finally discovered the atrocities that their enemy had been committing.  I even showed him my wrist, let him see the tattooed numbers that were still faintly readable.

And then, when I set him free, he knocked me out, dragged me out of my research laboratory – and set the building ablaze.

There was nothing I could do, no way for me to change the man’s mind.  This had been my last chance, and it had failed.

My eyes turned towards the device in the corner, covered with a white sheet.  I could feel my hands trembling, but I forced them to be still.  It was the only way.

I pulled the sheet down, revealing the sleek, dangerous lines of the machine hidden beneath.  I’d never built anything like this before.  Years ago, I had sworn that I never would.  A weapon?  It was wrong, it was what my captors had demanded from me.  I swore upon my soul that I would never create another device intended for harm.

But now, I could see no other option.  And it was for a good reason, in the end, I told myself.  And even I didn’t know the extent of PowerBolt’s strength – maybe the weapon would only cripple him, giving me enough time to escape to the past.

But I had to use it, now.  I could feel the cancer deep inside my bones, growing stronger each day as it sapped me.  I knew that I didn’t have long.  This next attempt might well be my last.

And I wouldn’t let myself fail.

With trembling breath, I returned back to my bench, beginning the long and painstaking process of reassembling the time flux components.  But my eyes kept on being pulled off to the corner, to the sinister weapon that stood there.

A weapon of such elegant simplicity.  And the logic behind it had been so simple.  A natural chain reaction, amplified from the subatomic level up to vastly heightened strength.

I estimated a roughly seventy percent chance that the entire ionosphere would ignite, and an eighty percent chance that life on Earth would be extinguished within two months.

But if I could go back, could change the past, I wouldn’t ever have to use it.

With one last, deep breath, ignoring the tightening in my chest as my heart beat shallowly, I returned to my work.

What would you change?

The waitress glanced over at the bearded man in the corner.  He had been sitting here for several hours, now, and she was starting to feel a little concerned.

This wasn’t the first time that a senior citizen had wandered into the coffee shop and refused to leave.  The waitress could still remember that incident a couple of months ago, when a man with Alzheimer’s insisted that his daughter “would be along to pick me up any minute.”

That hadn’t been so bad – until the man stayed for another four hours, staring blankly out the window and shedding all over the floor.

So, once she had a few free minutes between waves of customers, the waitress sidled over towards where the bearded man sat, his cup of coffee in front of him long since gone cold.

“Sir?” the woman said as she stepped up to the table, her tone not impolite.  “Sir, is everything okay over here?  You’ve been nursing that cup of coffee for a while.”

The man glanced up at her as she spoke.  His eyes were bright and focused, she observed with a hint of hope.  Maybe he would turn out to just be some philosopher, reflecting on some problem for a local college, or some harmless story like that.

“Oh, things are quite fine, Virginia,” he replied, his tone gentle.  “I’m just reflecting back on my past, you know?  Trying to think of, if I could do it all over, what changes I might make.  What I might do differently.”

The waitress was startled for a moment.  How did this man know her name?  But then she remembered that she was at work, in uniform – including a name tag – and relaxed.  A glance towards the front of the shop showed no angry and impatient line of customers, so she slid down into the seat opposite the elderly man.  Her back fit smoothly into the two indentations carved into the back of the chair.  It felt good to take the weight off of her feet, even if just for a minute or two.

“Well, I certainly can think of a few things I’d change!” she commented, rolling her eyes.  “But hey, you made it to this age without killing yourself or losing any limbs, so you must have done something right?”

The man just smiled kindly at her, his eyes twinkling in amid the mass of white hair.  He had similar gray running all down his back, and his hands looked wrinkled but still able to move and grasp.  He looked oddly like one of Virginia’s grandparents, in that distant sort of way that all older people look the same.  Something about him radiated trustworthiness, insisted that he couldn’t cause any real harm.  Despite her natural cynicism, Virginia felt oddly at ease.

“I suppose that I’ve done a lot right – but in broader terms, wouldn’t you say that the world is a bit off track?” he asked, spreading out his hands as if to encompass the whole globe in a single shrug.  “Maybe, if the dinosaurs hadn’t been wiped out, they wouldn’t have had such war and bloodshed.”

Virginia couldn’t hold back a laugh at that.  “Really?  Dinosaurs?  The big lizards with the huge teeth?” she replied, still chuckling.  “You think that they’d ever learn to get along?”

“Intelligent plants, perhaps?  I do like the photosynthesis.  They wouldn’t go to war with each other.”

“What, like the whole world would get six months’ vacation every winter?” Virginia asked, almost liking the idea.  “But wouldn’t they all start fighting over who has to go live in cloudy places like Seattle?”

The man laughed at that – a rolling, deep belly laugh that was naturally infectious.  Virginia laughed along with him, imagining the absurdity of plants that could actually think.  Impossible!

“So, you like how things turn out,” the man finally concluded, as his laughter subsided.  “You think that everything went as well as it could, in the end?”

“I mean, nothing’s perfect, but that doesn’t mean that any big changes would help,” Virginia replied after a minute of thinking.  “You know what I mean?”

The man didn’t reply, but lifted his cup of cold coffee to his lips, gazing over the brim as if waiting for the waitress to continue.

“I mean, nothing ever works out like it should, does it?” the woman continued, feeling suddenly uncomfortable, as if speaking on a stage.  “Like, we plan for it all to go perfectly, but no amount of planning accounts for everything that ends up going wrong.  There’s always some moment where we have to sort of scramble to keep things together, but it all works out in the end.  Doesn’t it?”

The man smiled at her, his eyes twinkling again, and Virginia felt as though she’d just managed to ace a speech.  Warmth bloomed inside of her, and she couldn’t help but smile back.  “It’s good to hear someone talk like that, with such an optimistic view,” the man told her, still beaming.

And with that, he pushed back his chair, standing and stretching his limbs out to the sides.  “I think that I’m about done here, then,” he said, as Virginia rose up across from him.

The waitress also started to stand, but she felt herself catch for a minute against the back of the chair, and had to twist around to get free.  “Although if there is one thing,” she started.

“What would that be?”

“Well, these wings,” Virginia said, gesturing at the offending appendages hanging off her back.  “I mean, the scientists say that they help with balance or something, but they’re always getting in the way, and they can’t even keep us aloft more than a few seconds.  It would be great if they weren’t in the way so much.”

“No wings,” the man said, nodding sagely.  “A good suggestion.  I thought they’d be perfect, but it’s like you say – things never quite work out perfect.”

“And while you’re at it,” Virginia kept going, suddenly feeling on a roll, “maybe you could get rid of this bobby glowing thing up above our heads.  Makes it really tough to fall asleep at night.”

“No halos,” the man repeated, as if he was making a mental checklist in his head.  “Got it.  Anything else?”

Virginia shrugged, the wings making the gesture quite elaborate as she headed back up to the front of the coffee shop.  “I think that’s about it,” she said.  “So, do you need me to call someone to come pick you up, give you a ride home?”

Silence was her only answer.  The waitress glanced up, and was startled to see that the man was gone.  He must have ducked out the door while she was busy getting through the thin passage back behind the counter, she reasoned.  Once again, her wings had gotten in the way, slowing her down.

About forty minutes later, after the next rush of customers was subsiding, she glanced down at herself, and noticed that her name tag was missing.  She didn’t find it until she went back home that evening.

Book 6 of 52: The Circle, by Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers’ “The Circle” is a narrative story that starts off as what sounds like a utopia, and very gradually shifts towards the other end of the spectrum, until we’re eventually staunchly opposed to everything described in the book, all the actions that the characters make, or are forced/coerced to make.
However, what makes The Circle great is how smoothly and gradually the world changes, leaving us nodding along, unable to gather enough energy to stand up and voice a complaint.
In fact, reading The Circle puts me in mind of a prank pulled in the TV show, “The Office.”  In this prank, Jim slowly adds nickels into the handset of his coworker Dwight’s phone.  This makes the receiver grow slowly heavier and heavier.  Dwight, of course, doesn’t notice until one day when Jim removes all the nickels – resulting in Dwight smacking himself in the face with the suddenly much lighter phone.

Similarly, the changes that we see in The Circle creep up on us slowly.  We feel slightly uncomfortable about them, but we can’t quite put a finger on how it’s wrong, why we should be opposed – especially when the characters offer such compelling arguments for these choices.

The Circle, the self-titled company featured in the story, is the ultimate tech company, a mixture of Google, Facebook, and other Silicon Valley companies.  Everyone who works for The Circle enjoys amazing amenities and benefits – but they also are subjected to a hectic lifestyle in which they have virtually zero privacy and must always be acting for The Circle, even in their free time.

There’s nothing particularly interesting about any of the characters, and they’re mostly one-dimensional, but that seems to be the point here.  We don’t need rich and detailed characters, because in the world of zero privacy, we are reduced down to one dimension.  Passions and hidden hobbies just become another facet of our “profile.”

In one particularly chilling passage, the main character is slowly convinced that secrets, all secrets, are evil and should never exist.  “Nothing should be kept secret,” she eventually proclaims.  “Secrets are lies, and privacy is theft.”  As I read this passage, I kept trying to think of a situation where this was not true – but I was having a hard time disproving the statement, even though I disagree vehemently with it.

In the end, there isn’t much of a conclusion – but again, it may not be necessary.  The Circle is intended to show us a future, not to solve it.  And for those who can overlook the at-times banal narrative, that future is disturbing and alien.

Time to read: 3 hours.  For a 400-page book, this goes very, very fast.  Most of the writing is quite light.

"I love you, but I can’t wait to kill you."

I stared at the screen in front of me, watching the green text scroll by on the black background.  Lines and lines of information, most of it moving by too quickly for me to read.

Of course, I knew that I didn’t have to strain my eyes to capture those fleeting words.  Everything was logged, was being saved and preserved.

All I had to do was wait for my program to finish.

I leaned back in my chair, interlaced my fingers behind my head, closed my eyes…

…and then opened them in annoyance as the computer beeped.

It wasn’t supposed to finish that fast.  And sure enough, as I looked at the bottom of my screen, I saw an error.  Some inane code, followed by a bunch of gobbledygook that doesn’t make sense to anyone except the programmer who wrote the thing a decade ago or more.

My program was still sitting there, confused, waiting on me like a dog that doesn’t know how to proceed when faced with a new obstacle.

I grimaced, and then killed the program.

Killing programs… it sounds so vicious!  Like an act of violence, not simply the press of a button.  Yet although it’s just a couple of key strokes, the act does have an almost satisfying finality to it.  The click of the keys, and the program vanishes, aborted before it can reach its normal conclusion.

I’ve seen some programmers that exult in this savagery.  Although they can’t kill the alpha males that walk around the building, bragging about their sales numbers and effortlessly scoring women hotter than the programmer can ever hope to bed, these quiet and introverted individuals can kill their programs, at least exerting their control over something.

Some programmers even force their creations to kill each other.  I remember reading over the code of one especially bloodthirsty colleague, notorious for creating subroutines basically only to slaughter them en masse a dozen lines later.  Even I felt a twinge of squeamishness at the sight of that writing.

Opening and closing files is done all the time, of course.  There’s no real violence there, no more than hanging up a phone call.  But programs are alive, are in motion, and premature termination prevents them from reaching the conclusion they strive to achieve.

Of course, most of the time it’s necessary.  Now, for example.  My program isn’t running right.  I killed it, but only to open it up and perform surgery, after which I will breathe new life into it as I try the commands again.  It is not a true death, but merely a nap, a temporary spell of non-existence.

And, paradoxically, the more I kill a program, the more I appreciate it, come to love it.  Some of my programs have been terminated hundreds of times, but each termination leads to new growth and improvement.  I kill it, but bring it back each time to be stronger than it was before.

I am not like some of my colleagues, I tell myself, as I open up the code to search for the source of the error.  I love my creations, and want for them to succeed.

But still, I cannot completely purge myself of that desire to shatter the programs I write, to cut it apart and dissect it into single-line fragments.

If I could speak to my program, if I was forced to tell the truth, I know what I would say.

“I love you, but I can’t wait to kill you.”

The Angels: Trapped in Stories

As the angel’s story came to a close, we felt as though we were returning back to our bodies, as if we’d drifted away, becoming insubstantial ghosts as we watched the angel’s story unfold.

I was the first person to shake off that feeling.  “Ugh, that storytelling ability you all have is really annoying when you stop talking,” I complained.  “Always feels like a hangover when we have to push our way back to reality…”

The angel shrugged without any sign of understanding.  But even as I groaned and rubbed at my temples, I heard Father Helms also waking up.  He blinked a couple times, but didn’t seem as thrown by the abrupt return to reality as I felt.

“How do you feel, Father?” I asked quickly, before another one of these angels could open his mouth and ruin things again.

The man held still for a moment before answering.  “I’m not quite sure,” he finally replied.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, on one hand, I think I feel a little bit better about not understanding everything, after hearing that story,” he tried to clarify, nodding at the angel, who was slowly trying to sidle away.  “But now, I’m starting to lose some faith in whether these angels truly serve a higher purpose.”

I had hoped that the other angels would keep on moving away, that they wouldn’t be eavesdropping.

Unfortunately, these hopes were in vain.

“Ugh, don’t talk to me about purpose,” snorted one man standing far to close to the table.  He leaned over, spilling a few drops of his coffee (which definitely smelled like it was a fair bit stronger than just espresso).  “The whole thing’s a scam!”

I looked up at the angel, my eyes narrowing.  I officially didn’t allow “fallen” angels into my coffee shop, but I didn’t often care much about enforcing that rule.  This angel wasn’t quite at the point of sprouting horns out his forehead, but he definitely looked ready to pull on a leather jacket and start waving a switchblade at an old lady in a threatening manner.

“No one knows what they’re talking about!” he insisted, taking another pull of his drink.  “And here, I’ll prove it!”

And with that, the half-drunk “falling” angel (“down on one knee” angel?) slipped into the booth across from us, and started to tell us his tale…