Tag Archives: sci-fi

Brad&DadPod001: Midsouthcon, Steampunk, and Lycanthropy

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This is the first part of an interview with my father where he asks me about what I did at Midsouthcon, a science fiction convention held in Memphis, Tennessee. This is from March 2014 so the information isn’t entirely current, but the talk could just as easily be about any science fiction convention. We also talk about the phenomenon of steampunk in literature. Finally we discuss werewolves and related lycanthropic characters in fiction, partly due to the short story I recently had published. Dad has a way of asking questions that start out seeming basic, but end up being rather deep. It makes for some interesting conversations, and I think this one qualifies. Hope you enjoy.

 

Switchblade Pisces: pt 15

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Chapter 15

~~~~~*~~~~~

The feeling of elation lasts for about thirty seconds before I turn around to see if the old guy is alright. I’m not sure what I’m hoping for—for him to be okay or out cold—but regardless I can’t just do the cool guy thing and keep walking away without looking back.

As it turns out, Eklund’s got a bloody nose, but seems okay otherwise. Fine. Now I can get back to…

Jazz is in front of me. Or I should say Jazz’s chest is. He’s a big guy. He puts a heavy hand on my shoulder. “You ordered me to protect you, Baxter, but this person does not seem to be a threat any longer. How do you wish me to proceed?”

Eklund takes some time to walk up to me before he responds. “It’s okay, Jazz,” he says, holding his nose gingerly to keep blood from dripping, “He was just reacting to a little test I gave hib.”

Jazz reaches into his trouser pocket to pull out a handkerchief. He gives it to Eklund.

“Thank you, Jazz. Drat it. No batter how buch I dow I’b dot supposed to tilt my head back, I still want to.”

“A test?” I glance between the two men, still halfway wanting to find my way to Janis and the drama going on around the gurney that’s steadily retreating down the hall.

“That was very ibpulsive of you, hitting be like that.” Eklund frowns regarding the bloody handkerchief for moment before rephrasing.“Very willful.”

I shrug. “You pissed me off. I reacted. I’m starting to think that might be what will is all about. Just acting on emotions.”

“Is that it?” Eklund asks, “Or is it the codtroll, of your ebo…of your feelings, that indicates will?”

I’m a little confused at this point. Too many things going on at once. “Look, I’m not one of your experiments, okay? I want to see what’s going on with the FBI guy.”

“That’s true, I suppose. I’d have to have a lot bore test subjects before you could be part of ad experibent. You’re really a case study. The data I get frob you is strictly anecdotal. Still, it’s a starting point.”

I swallow, remembering that Eklund brought me here to experiment on me. I am literally his test subject. Or at least potentially one. When does a test subject start actually being a test subject?

I’m trying to tease this apart when Eklund continues “I was also hoping that by interacting with you, Jazz and Janis would learn to think on their own. Develop their own will.”

I look back at Jazz, just in time to see his face relax from a twitch that looked a lot like a sneer of contempt.

“Did you see it?” Eklund sounded joyful. “He still doesn’t realize he has opinions.”

Jazz’s cortex fans start whirring as he frowns.

“Just let it go, Jazz. Don’t overheat yourself.”

“Yes, Baxter.” Jazz says, relaxing.

“As for you, Mr. Yates, you should let Jazz take you to your quarters. You’ve had a lot of excitement recently and you aren’t going to be buch help to anybody for the dext few hours. I’ll just leave you with this small paradox: can a person choose to ignore his or her own will?”

“Of course they can!” I said, “Otherwise…”

Otherwise they wouldn’t have free will, only they are supposed to be ignoring their free will… Crap.

“Get some sleep, Mr. Yates. Things will likely get very interesting this afternoon.”

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Switchblade Pisces: pt 14

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Chapter 14

~~~~~*~~~~~

It’s morning when we reach the facility. Once Janis calmed down a little, she was able to act as my navigator, calling out directions from the back. I only had to turn around twice. Sometimes I asked her to give me directions just to make sure she was still okay. The last direction she gave me was to make sure to go into the ambulance entrance, which is to the right of the main entrance with all the windows.

There’s a sort of awning, similar to what some hotels have for arriving guests. It’s still going to be pretty obvious that something is up since we’re not wearing uniforms or anything, but the structure of the receiving area will block the view for most of the normal visitors to the clinic.

When I get out of the ambulance, Baxter Eklund and a doctor with an extremely short and well-kept beard are there to greet us. I’m guessing the bearded doctor is the one Janis said she knew from the clinic. I’m also guessing she doesn’t know him quite as much as she may have thought.

“Hey there,” I say, “We’ve got a federal agent in the back. He’s got a head injury. Possible brain damage. You folks want to take a look at him, see what you think?”

The bearded guy does not look amused. “How could you do something so reckless?”

Eklund doesn’t look angry, just sad and defeated. “They already suspect us of being a terrorist organization. What will they think now?”

“Right. Well, there’s that.” I grab the handle to the back of the ambulance and open the doors. “Look, we’re trying to do the right thing here. You want to help or not?”

The bearded doctor grimaces as he approaches the ambulance. “When you had Janis call, you were already on your way here. We were the closest medical facility.” He pauses as he climbs into the back. “It’s bad enough you’ve made us accomplices to kidnapping. We don’t want that to change to murder.” He grabs one side of Agent Fox’s gurney. “Give me the breather, Janis”

Janis complies readily. She rubs her wrists. I realize suddenly that repeatedly squeezing a plastic air bottle for half an hour might be especially taxing for a woman with switchblades in her forearms. “It was my idea to go, Dr. Gardener” she says. Her fans are starting to whir a little.

Dr. Gardener, whose beard now reminds me of a topiary bush, turns slowly to me, squeezing the breather more tightly than is strictly necessary . “What kind of sick bastard are you? Why would you coach her to say something like that?”

“I…I didn’t.” I’m a little confused and cowed by Gardener’s anger.

“She doesn’t have a will of her own. The only way she could have done something like this is if someone ordered her to.” Dr. Gardener uses the loud clack of the gurney wheels hitting the pavement as they unfold to punctuate his statement.

I have a sickening thought. What if someone else had ordered her to accost me in the hallway and lead me on this crazy quest? It doesn’t seem right, but I can’t completely rule it out.

“You might as well come inside, Ethan.” Eklund tells me, apparently catching the lost look on my face. “I have to make a few phone calls. See if I can’t salvage something from all this. I guess I can’t completely blame you though. Having someone who will follow your every order can get to your head, and it’s something you aren’t used to.” I follow Eklund into the building after Gardener and Janis go in with the gurney. Eklund speaks more softly once we’re inside. “Just in case things got..interesting? You don’t need to worry. She’s been sterilized.”

I’ve never punched anyone in the face before. It sort of hurts and feels good at the same time. The thought hits me as Eklund holds his bloody, broken nose, with that shocked, angry expression in his eyes surrounded by wrinkles, that he’s an old man, and that he might not heal as fast. Strangely, right now, I don’t really care.

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Switchblade Pisces: pt 13

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Chapter 13

~~~~~*~~~~~

The first problem we have to address is getting Agent Fox out of the room. Nurses or doctors will be in to check on the patient soon, even at this late hour. We have to transport him out of the room and somewhere that won’t be monitored so we can figure out our next move.

We need a gurney. I have no idea where one of those would be. They just seem to materialize, pushed by orderlies out doorways, into and out of rooms. Are they all stored in a central location? Or are they just left wherever for people to find as needed?

Thankfully I’m not alone. Janis leaves me in the room. I’m scouting out hiding places in case someone enters the room when she comes in with the gurney. She seems calm as she’s in the doorway, then as soon as she’s out of the hall, her movements become more frenetic as she moves the gurney into position, sliding down the safety rails on the gurney and the bed. I try to match her pace, even though I don’t really know what I’m doing. Janis directs her eyes meaningfully toward Agent Fox’s head. Getting her meaning I move to pick him up by the shoulders. Then I realize he’s still connected to machines. How can we put him on the gurney like that? It would kind of defeat the purpose if we ended up killing the guy in the process of transporting him.

I move from Fox’s head to the breathing machine next to him. It’s way too large to take with us. Also, it’s plugged into the wall. Does it have battery back up?

“Make sure the cords are clear. Move him first, then we’ll switch to a manual breather.”

I nod. It makes sense.

The rest of our flight from the hospital happens pretty much the same way. Me floundering along, Janis calmly explaining what to do. Before I can properly appreciate what we’re doing, I’m in the back of an ambulance pumping air into a federal agent that may or may not have been trying to kill me some twelve hours ago.

With each squeeze of the blue plastic breather, I’m counting up the charges. Theft. Kidnapping. Reckless endangerment. Does Janis have a license? Probably not. So there’s another one. I’ve never been to jail. Never even gotten a traffic ticket before this.

I realize suddenly that I’m smiling.

“Should we call ahead?” I ask Janis, raising my voice so she can hear me. I’m thinking that if we want Agent Fox to get his procedure before his people find out about it, we need to have everyone ready when we get there. At the very least, we’ll need a breathing machine or another hand to operate the hand breather.

“Not the facility. I will call a doctor I know. Once he looks at the agent, we can decide who else we need. I cannot decide if Baxter will support this or not. I think I may be scared of his reaction.”

“I guess we don’t even know for sure if we can help him.”

“We will help him. Our facility is better than any hospital’s.”

“What if he doesn’t want our help?”

“When he can say as much, I’ll listen.” Her voice is probably just raised so that I can hear her, but I swear I heard emotion in the sentence. I don’t know which emotion exactly. Anger? Resolution? Desperation? I wonder if Janis’s fans are whirring.

I remember in a flash what happened last time Janis’s fans whirred a lot. “Are you okay?”

There’s a silence. “No. I’m not.”

I feel the ambulance slow to a stop. Janis comes into the patient area. The scrubs she’s wearing are soaked with sweat. Her fans are making a constant buzz sound. I move so that she can take over on the hand breather. “How ‘not okay’ are you?”

“I will be able to operate the breather. You will need to drive.”

“Okay, but I don’t know how to get to the facility.”

Janis closes her eyes. Her fans start whirring even faster.

“I…I can figure it out!” I say quickly.

Janis seems to calm down. Her fans die down to less worrisome levels.

“Just…relax,” I say.

She doesn’t acknowledge me. She just pumps the breather.

I move up to the front of the ambulance. I sit in the driver’s seat. I don’t know where I’m going. I turn the ignition. I figure we’ll have to hit the highway, but I’m not sure where we are. Swallowing, I turn the wheel, pick a direction, and go.

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Switchblade Pisces: 12

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Chapter 12

~~~~~*~~~~~

The way hospitals look is all wrong. They should be small, unassuming little buildings with people inside who greet you with a smile and chat with you about sports or something strange a family member did. You should go to a hospital feeling like you’re going to be cared for. Instead, just about every hospital I’ve been to is built like the lair of a robot overlord. There’s always this large, squat glass and brick façade that seems to say, “Yeah, maybe we’ll heal you. Maybe we’ll break your nose instead. You got a problem with that?”

Inside hospitals it isn’t much better. Usually they have the same set up as prisons and public schools. Cinderblock walls, white tiled floors. Sure, it’s because it’s easy to clean, I get it. But by the same token, five minutes after someone vomits violently due to some obscure illness or bleeds to death in the hall after getting eviscerated in some gang-related altercation, everything is going to be cleaned up and forgotten. It’s enough to make one a little wary about one’s surroundings. Would I prefer blood stains and scorch marks? I don’t know. Some acknowledgment of the passage of humanity beyond what could be put on a sympathy card might be nice.

On the other hand, if hospitals weren’t so sterile and uniform, I might not have been able to dress like a janitor and watch from behind as the nurse working the desk entered her password into her computer. This is what took place after Janis walked in and asked about a patient named John Smith (“I know it’s weird, but I swear to you that’s his name!”). If there weren’t so many regulations in place about how nurses and doctors should dress, Janis and I might not have been able to don scrubs and enter the room of Cooper Fox and Dale Mulder past visiting hours without anyone raising a fuss.

As it stands, I’m just glad we’re the good guys. At least, I hope we’re the good guys. Janis is looking over “Cooper Fox”’s chart, turning through the pages and referring back to the first page to check something. “You able to read that?” I tried myself, but unfortunately the papers are more complicated than I expected.

Janis nods. “Online resources are available to help with the analysis.”

“How is he?”

“He is stable.”

“Well, that’s good. The other guy looks good too. I guess we didn’t need to worry.”

The fluorescent lights above us hum softly. The respirators whosh and click. The EKGs plot out the agents’ heartbeats with hopeful desperation. Cooper Fox has a bandage over his eye and forehead. Janis is staring at him.

“What is it?”

“A piece of shrapnel went through his eye socket, into his brain. They were able to retrieve it. There was, however, irreparable damage.”

“That’s ‘stable?’”

“He will not die from the brain injury. He is in a coma. He may even recover on his own.”

“But he has brain damage.”

Janis nods.

“What about the other guy? Any surprises there?”

Janis picks up his clipboard and looks through it. “Second and third degree burns. He will likely make a full recovery.”

“Great,” I say. “That means we only have to take one of them back to Ecklund.”

Janis snaps her attention to me so fast I’m worried the boxes on her head might fall off. Her fans start to whir furiously, and then stop. “I did not plan on going back.”

“Yeah, I know. We’ll have to steal an ambulance or something. Plus we have to figure out how to get him out of this room without anybody noticing.”

“You knew what I would want to do before I did.”

“It’s not that hard to figure out. He’s got brain damage, you feel responsible, you come from facility that specializes in treating brain damage. Of course you’re going to want to take him there. It’s just a matter of working out how to do it.”

“Why are you still helping me?”

This stops me.

“You have done enough. You can leave if you want. You should leave.”

“Is that an order?” I ask, laughing nervously. My expression turns to a frown as I try to work out why it is that I have to keep helping her. It isn’t just inertia any more. There’s something else. “I don’t know, Janis. We can help this guy. I can help you. It wouldn’t seem right to leave you alone on this. I care about you.” The words are out of my mouth before I can think to stop them. But then I can’t bring myself to take them back. Mostly because they’re true.

Janis tilts her head in thought for a moment. “I think I care about you as well,” she says.

I cough nervously, “Right! And we both care about what happens to agent Fox here, so let’s get this guy to the brain doctor!”

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Review of The Windup Girl

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It’s a dilemma we all face to one extent or another: we like technology, but we hate what it does to the environment. We like driving, but not oil spills. We like electricity but we don’t like to think about what ecosystems are being damaged to produce it. You’ve got solar cells? Great, what are they made of? Is that recyclable? We are in the process of resolving this conflict, but we’re not there yet. Let’s say the fossil fuels we rely on finally go out. Let’s say all the things environmentalists have been warning us about actually happen. What’s next? How would people cope?

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi, takes place in a different world. A world that is born after the world as we know it ends. The primary sources of energy are metal springs wound by hand or by the use of elephantine beasts of labor, and the methane produced when burning the refuse from men and beasts alike. The main police force is the Environment  Ministry,  who patrol the city in their white uniforms, ruthlessly burning or destroying anything that might pollute resources too much, or release plague into the populace. The only edible plants that survive are genetically modified to resist such plagues and even then have to be closely monitored. The “white shirts” are at constant odds with businesses, who often hire mercenaries to protect their cargo from destructions when bribes to corrupt white shirt officers don’t work. And then there are the people who are genetically modifying the crops. Called gene rippers, they are loathed by all because they are the source of the plagues that threaten the populace, but tolerated because without them, there would be nothing to eat.

From this short description, you can already get an idea of the vast amount of world building that Bacigalupi did for this book, and his characters are as complex as the world they inhabit.

Anderson Lake is a gene-ripper who has a cover job as the overseer of a massive kink spring factory. The factory is huge, with giant elephant beast turning giant cranks in giant baths of algae. Helping him out with the logistics of this operation, and with bribing the necessary officials is Hock Seng (pronounced hock sahn), an Chinese refugee from the genocidal massacres that had taken place in Malaysia several years before. Hock Seng’s entire family was killed during the tumult there , and he had barely made it out alive. So now, even as he pretends to do Anderson’s bidding, he is secretly making plans to steal enough money to establish himself as a merchant in a country where he won’t be persecuted.

The book starts as Lake finds a bizarre fruit in a market that seems to be immune to plague. Realizing that this means there must be another Gene-ripper around, and that this gene-ripper must have access to other sources of genetic information, Lake quickly makes meetings with important business leaders in order to leverage himself into getting access to the gene pool. One of these meetings takes place in a brothel where a beautiful looking Japanese girl, with skin eerily white and smooth, serves Lake. She moves in stops and starts, identifying her as a genetically modified or “new” person. She is Emiko, the wind-up girl.  She is lower than a slave in the brothel, only allowed to exist because of the bribes paid to white shirts. She is mocked, ridiculed and despised by almost everyone she comes into contact with. But Lake is intrigued by her, and he tells Emiko of a village of wind-ups to the North where Emiko might be accepted. This gives Emiko hope for the first time in years.

Finally there are Jaidee and Kanya. Jaidee is the captain of a squadron of white shirts. He started out as a Muay Thai boxing champion and carries his fighting spirit into his job. When there is a ship full of suspicious cargo, he doesn’t bother trying to sort through it, he burns it all. Even while most of the Environment Ministry are despised by the people for their corruption and meddling, Jaidee is well-liked because of his pure motives. But his exuberance has cost a lot of powerful businessmen, and they are going to try to make him pay for it.

Kanya is Jaidee’s first officer, and where Jaidee is boisterous, Kanya is quiet. She rarely ever smiles. She seems at first to be a relatively minor character, but she has many secrets, and after a series of catastrophes, she becomes one of the most important characters in the book.

The Windup Girl is science fiction written as epic fantasy. If you’re ready for it, the plot is intricate and engrossing, but if you aren’t, it can also be complicated and confusing.  There are also several sections depicting gory scenes, and there are two rape scenes that I find disturbing. These scenes aren’t gratuitous. They are important to show the arcs of the characters, but you should know this isn’t a book of chaste kisses on gleaming spacecraft or anything. This is a gritty depiction of an all too possible future, a future that you could argue is already taking place in some developing countries.

So why should you read it if it’s so depressing? First off, I wouldn’t call it depressing. I would say illuminating and even uplifting to an extent. The book illustrates an important point about the conflict between technology and nature: there is no real conflict. Technology comes from us, and we are part of nature. Nature changes all the time, and like all creatures, we must adapt or perish. We can now control larger and larger areas of nature. As part of nature, we have to adjust to this. We can’t eliminate technology, but we can’t be reckless with it either. We’re grabbing the steering wheel of the Earth-mobile. If we don’t pay attention, this could go very badly.

This isn’t the only theme of the book,  and I’m not sure if the author would even agree completely with my interpretation. You don’t have to agree with the theme to like the book, though. The characters carry the story. They are all flawed people trying to do the right thing even while they end up fighting against one another. Anderson Lake is my least favorite of the point of view characters, but even though he can be arrogant and inconsiderate, even cruel, he has a discernible arc, and his motives are understandable.  All of the characters, Anderson included, had numerous moments where I was rooting for them.

http://paolobacigalupi.blogspot.com/

On the negative side, there were some ends that were a bit too loose at the end of the book. Particularly for Hock Seng. He was the biggest underdog in the story and his fate was a bit too unclear for my taste. Although some things made sense after thinking about them for a while, the ending initially felt a little too abrupt too. I wasn’t sure about the arc of all the characters. Once I figured out how everything tied togethera couple days after finishing the book, I was struck at how moving it all was. As I figured out, there is an emotional theme along with the semi-political one. To paraphrase Jaidee…Cities don’t matter. Plans don’t matter. In the end, what matters is people.

There were some moments as I was reading to the book that I didn’t like it much at all, mostly because some of the scenes with Emiko were a bit hard to get through, and because it took a while to get a grasp on the plot, but by the end of the book, it was a 7/10, and after I reflected on it, it reached 8/10. (This is a pretty high score. For comparison, the Lord of the Rings movie series gets an 8/10 from me).  I bought the book after attending a panel at The Southern Festival of books where Bacigalupi was a guest. He does an incredible amount of research for his books and seems to look deeper into things than most people. After reading this book, I want to meet him again so I can be properly impressed.

Switchblade Pisces: Pt. 10

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The room I’m in isn’t too bad. It’s a little on the small side. It’s even smaller than my efficiency apartment where this all started. There’s a double-sized bed, and the room can fit maybe three more beds of the same size and that’s it. On the other hand the refrigerator is well stocked with tv dinners, the microwave works well, and best of all, the flat screen opposite the bed takes up almost the whole wall. It’s got all the satellite channels, and all the latest operating systems, including the ones for video game consoles. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, all in one Frankenstein set up. Testing the system out earlier, I started up all three versions of the same game using the same disc slot, giggling madly when they all ran flawlessly. I felt like a mad scientist. And that’s when I remembered where I was.

So I’ve been lying in bed, staring at the ceiling for the past hour or so. I should try to escape. But I’m not really a prisoner. The FBI is possibly going to try to kill me, but probably not. If I just go the police or something… I want to help out Janis, though, even though she killed those people. That was kind of my fault though, wasn’t it? And maybe they aren’t dead.

I’m stupid for agreeing to stay here. Baxter is a madman, I don’t care how good his intentions are. Teaching Janis self defense, okay. Surgically attaching knives to her wrists? Crazy. Even if it is kind of badass.

Letting out a growl of frustration, I get up and look at the games available on the entertainment system. It looks like Baxter’s got Biomechanica 4. It just came out last month. I really liked the other three games in the series. They had a lot of action, and a nice linear plot. None of that role playing crap where you had to figure out what the right thing to say is and depending on what you do the game could change.  All three console versions of Biomechanica 4 are in the display case underneath the television. The Playstation version is supposed to have better resolution, but the Xbox version is supposedly more stable. The Wii version would normally be my last choice, except I’ve heard that there are some extra features they put in that version since it was the last one they rolled out.

I rub the bridge of my nose with my fingers. I rummage in my pockets. I normally carry a six-sided die and a coin with me for just this kind of predicament. I left in a rush though. I’ve got my wallet, but no change. I don’t even have my keys, much less anything else. I could maybe try to flip one of my credit cards, but they’re too light. I want to be able to see whatever I use spin a few times before landing. That way I can sure it’s truly random. Maybe I could fold one of my dollar bills into a foot ball shape and mark one of the sides?

I shake my head. Too lopsided. I’m in a huge building. There has to be a coin or a die somewhere. I’m still dressed, I just need to put my shoes on. I usually put my right shoe on first, because I’m right-handed, but the left one is closer this time, so after some deliberation, I put that one on first and then the right.

Before I open the door to leave, I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths. I’m acting crazy. Why can’t I make a decision? Is Baxter right? Is it a lack of willpower? I swallow. I feel like I have willpower. I can go days without having one of these attacks of indecision. It’s probably just stress. Whenever I get stressed, it’s like the part of me that knows what to do just takes a vacation. I always kind of thought everyone was like that. Maybe they are a little bit. Maybe whatever it is most people go through, I just go through more. Or less. Or something.

Maybe I’m just tired. If I sleep for a while, maybe I can figure all this out when I wake up. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to go to sleep though. Maybe if I just lie down, though, I’ll calm down enough. It seems like a reasonable plan.

I hesitate at the door while I consider it. My hand turns the knob.

Why am I even leaving? For a coin so I can flip it to make a decision? That’s stupid!

I push the door open.

I should just stay in the room and think about things a little more.

But the door is closed and I’m outside of the room in the hallway.

It’s two in the morning, and the front part of the clinic, where I am is mostly empty. The room I came from is at the top of a T intersection in the hallway. I can go forward, left, or right. All three ways seem to disappear into shadow.

I feel utterly lost.

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Switchblade Pisces: pt 9

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After going through the office door, there’s a short antechamber, and then another door. There are more hallways after this, only these are a more modest size with rooms that remind me of a retirement home. When I look back at the door, there’s a sign reading “employees only” in serious-looking blocked script.

After the wide expanse of the other hallway, these corridors seem positively claustrophobic. They turn and exit in several different ways. Along one branch I see what looks like sunlight.

“This is the front of the clinic. The only part most people see. Everyone thought I had gone mad when I put so much money into this place. Baxter’s Vegetable Garden, they called it.” Eklund stops at a room. He opens a door. Inside there are bright decorations, stuffed animals, a girl sleeping in a bed connected to machines. “They told her parents she was brain dead.” Eklund shakes his head. “It’s only part of her brain. Just twenty five percent. People have survived with less. But it’s her personality that’s missing, her dreams. Her will. There’s no way to give that back to her, the doctors say. They say it’s better to give up.” Eklund closes the door and faces me. “I will not give up.”

I’m impressed, but the force of Eklund’s convictions scares me a little too. I actually step back away from Eklund into Jazz’s chest. Swallowing, I say, “I still don’t see where I come into the picture. I don’t think I have much willpower. Why are you interested in me?”

Eklund looks down, a small smile coming to his face. “That’s precisely it, Ethan. You have the lowest amount of willpower of any otherwise healthy person we have documented. You are intelligent, you’ve gotten admirable marks in all the classes you’ve taken in college and in high school. The jobs you’ve had have all been brief, but you’ve gotten good reviews when I’ve interviewed your employers. Still, you’ve been in that efficiency apartment next to the university for over a decade now. You’ve changed your major eighteen times. It’s astounding that you’ve been able to keep going the way you have.”

“I’m just trying to figure out what I want to do,” I say, “That’s not that strange.”

Eklund raises a bushy white eyebrow.

I swallow nervously. “Well, I mean, it’s a bit weird I guess. Ten years is kind of crazy. But I’m just interested in a lot of different things.”

“You see?” Eklund raises a finger. “You can’t even stick to your guns on your own opinion of yourself.”

I want to protest, but I can’t think of a workable argument.

Eklund glances at Janis and Jazz behind me and looks down. “I can only imagine how you must feel. To never be sure of anything. I’ve had my doubts before. It is true I need security to protect myself and this clinic, and it is true that I can’t risk this place being discovered by the wrong people. Using Janis and Jazz as I have, giving them their modifications… It was a creative solution to a problem. It protects them, and they have not suffered for it. Still, sometimes I feel like I’ve taken advantage of them.”

“We would not exist without your assistance. Any advantage you take from us is therefore morally acceptable.” Jazz states, his prosthetic cortex whirring a little. Janis’s whirs some as well.

“Thank you, Jazz, but I’m afraid I can’t take your words to heart, especially when you act like a cult member about to drink the kool-aid.” Eklund sighs, looking a little older. “The kool-aid comment was an allusion to the Jonestown cult. I am speaking about a conflict between philosophy and emotion. Do not attempt to understand.”

“Thank you, Baxter. I will not.” As I look back at him, Jazz seems to relax a little.

“That goes for you too, Janis.” Eklund warns. “This subject might make you overheat.”

Janis nods.

“She overheated a bit on the way over here,” I said. “She was upset about the agents she killed.”

There is a soft sound of something sliding against skin, and Janis’s cortex begins to whir.

“Janis,” Eklund said, “Please retract your blades. You are angry at me, but you probably don’t want to kill me.”

I whip my head around to see Janis snick-ing her blades back into her wrists.

“Janis, you should visit Dr. Kisugi to make sure you haven’t hurt yourself.”

“Yes, Baxter, I will do that.”

I watch her turn and walk down the hall, through the employee’s only door.

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Switchblade Pisces: Pt.8

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“I’m glad you could make it, Ethan,” the man says, “I’m Baxter. Let me show you around.”

Eklund sounds older; he’s maybe in his sixties, but his voice has a manic energy that makes me wonder if maybe he’s my age, only he has bronchial pneumonia or something.

He leads me, Janis, and Jazz through a bulkhead door and into a brightly lit expanse lined on either side with doors and glass partitions. The floor is covered in white tile, and the aisle way is as large as a two-lane road. The wet stone smell of the cave is still there in the background, but now there’s a strong scent of antiseptic. It’s like a hospital, an airport, and a mall all had an orgy and left this place in their wake.

“Impressive, eh?” Baxter says. In the light I can see the lines in his face. He has more crow’s feet than I would have thought possible around his eyes. He has thick laugh lines too, and some nice forehead creases. The man is a prune. His eyes are sharp though. Light green and piercing. His hair is bright white, but thick and dynamic. I hope I look as good as this guy when I’m his age. I hope I’m as energetic too. “Four wings of a hospital all the way down, with multiple ORs, elevators, stairwells, and bathrooms spaced evenly in case of emergencies. Easier to dig forward than down, you know.” He hopped into the driver’s seat of a golf cart that was sitting by the door. “Well, get on. The offices are at the very end.”

I sit next to him uneasily while Jazz and Janis sit behind us. I keep on thinking I should do something, but I have no idea what that might be. Looking at the long corridor ahead with labcoated people walking busily down and up its length I ask, “How are you paying for all of this?”

Eklund raises a bushy white eyebrow at me as he keys the engine. It’s electric, so there’s only a somewhat disappointing hum when he does this. “This is the Baxter Eklund Cognitive Trauma Ward. You have a loved one in a coma? We take care of them for you. The place would practically pay for itself if it weren’t for the goddamned government regulators.”

I raise my own eyebrow at this.

“We take on a few pro bono cases as a charity. But the government wants all of our cases to be pro bono.”

I’m starting to get that desperate, queasy feeling I always get when people talk politics around me, so I attempt to change the subject: “Why am I here, Dr. Eklund? Why is the FBI after me?”

Eklund doesn’t answer right away. He drives past a bathroom, and a small group of people in lab coats pointing their tablet computers at each other and nodding. Finally, he says, “You’re a curiosity to me, Ethan. Unfortunately, the government has learned to be a little suspicious of the people I’m curious about.”

“Why would they care?”

Jazz speaks from behind me in his deep baritone. “Dr. Eklund has been trying to solve the problem of free will.”

“Yes, thank you, Jazz. I tried to find people who seemed to have a lot of free will first. People who followed their own path regardless of the consequences. After I contacted two people the FBI had under surveillance, they got leery. When I found the third they started to get violent.

“They used some strong arm tactics. Some of my staff were beaten when they refused to cooperate. I had to let them see this part of the ward, so they could see I wasn’t heading some sort of paramilitary boot camp back here or anything. Thankfully they didn’t know what all the equipment was for.”

The golf cart is finally reaching the end of the hallway, where a comically innocuous looking wooden office door stands inset in the wall. Eklund steers the cart into a space by the door and turns off the ignition. I don’t feel like getting off yet, though. I’m feeling a little sick. “Why couldn’t you have just told the FBI what you were doing?”

Eklund lets out a rasping laugh that turns into a cough before he gets control of it. “For one thing, they wouldn’t have believed me, and for another, I don’t exactly want the FBI to know what I’m doing.”

“Why did you program Janis to kill those people?”

Eklund’s expression turns serious. “Why didn’t you order her not to?” He turns away and gets off the cart.

“There, there,” Jazz pats me mechanically on my shoulder. “You did what you thought was right.”

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Switchblade Pisces Pt.7

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I’m beginning to get a picture of things, but I’m not sure how much of it I’m making up. Filling in the spaces, I ask, “Janis,have you ever killed anyone before today?”

Her cortex fans are whirring more now. “In simulations. I have been training for three years now.”

I cover my forehead with my hand. “Janis, you’ve been playing video games. Real life is different. Ending someone’s life is not anywhere near the same as making some mass of pixels go away. That’s what your brain is telling you. What happened to your father and you, when you saw him lose you, and then when your mother visited you and you saw her realize that you will never be who you were again, that’s what those FBI agent’s families are going through right now. Maybe one of them is at this moment in coma just like you were. Or maybe all them are dead and their loved ones don’t even have a body to cry over.”

“If they were agents, then she did the right thing. They would imprison Eklund and without him, many would die and quality of life would diminish worldwide. They wanted your information to get more control over people. That would diminish freedom. The negative of their death is less severe than the negative of letting them have what they want.”

I shake my head, “Jazz, it doesn’t matter whether what she did was right or not. They were people. Whenever people die, it’s sad. That’s just the way it is.”

“Would you like me to believe this?” Jazz asks.

“Believe whatever you like!”

“I only believe what I am told to believe. I am a Pisces.”

I’m about to argue the point when Janis grabs my free hand. “Thank you, Ethan. I think I understand now.” She releases my hand suddenly and stares at it for a little while. Then, slowly, she wraps her fingers around my hand again. “It is not only me. I see myself in other people. I…feel a little of what they feel because I can imagine myself in their position.”

Janis’s hand is so warm against mine. She looks so beautiful. I close my eyes and swallow. I can’t be thinking about things like that!

“You do not have to be…afraid, Ethan.” I open my eyes and there is Janis looking up at me. “I will not hurt you.”

“Unless she is ordered to,” Jazz adds, his cortex whirring, “Have you made your decision yet?”

Oddly, when I look at the fans on Janis’s prosthetic cortex, they don’t seem to be spinning much at all.

“I’ll go see Eklund,” I say, almost without realizing it.

Jazz nods and takes an exit onto a highway.

~~~~~*~~~~~

After the highway, we travel through several back roads until Jazz pulls over at a fairly nondescript area where the road widens a little for cars that need to turn around. The road here cuts into the hill so I can see the sedimentary layers underneath the soil. There’s a sign that says to watch out for falling rocks.

Jazz puts the car in park and gets out.

I look at Janis, but she’s just sitting, rubbing her wrists, looking distant.

Through the side window, I can see Jazz touch an area of the shorn off hill with his large hand. The surface moves inward and up, revealing a rectangular space not unlike a garage.

Jazz walks back and folds his large body back behind the steering wheel.

As he drives us inside, I feel like I should say something but I have no idea what would be appropriate. Wow? Cool? Nice place you’ve got here? That last might be good, but the moment’s gone by now and I don’t think either Jazz or Janis are in a position to appreciate sarcasm. It bothers me that I’ve driven by so many areas just like this one and never really noticed them. Somehow I’ve always had the feeling that if I drove past a secret hideout I would know it if I saw it.

After we’re inside, Jazz turns off the engine and the door —rock face? Portcullis?— falls back into place with a reverberating thud. There’s an uncomfortable time when nothing seems to be happening, but just as I’m about to mention this, there’s the sound of hydraulics and we’re being lowered down below the floor.

Once again I get to see the sedimentary layers of the rocks through the car window, but now they’re lit by sparse, artificial light and covered over with algae blooms where the light is brightest. We keep going lower and lower, down past older and older sedimentary layers. I’m just beginning to worry irrationally about possibly going through the crust into the mantle of the Earth… when we stop.

Jazz and Janis get out of the car immediately. I take a moment to think about how I got to be where I am and whether I really want to be here. I wonder if perhaps I might be safer staying in the car. But then I realize that I’d be staying in a car several stories beneath the surface of the Earth on a hydraulic elevator operated by someone I can only assume is some kind of mad scientist.

Might as well see if I can figure out where the controls are.

When I get out, the scenery reminds me a little of those caves they have at tourist traps. Stalactites and stalagmites dramatically lit by strategically placed lights. Dominating the scene is a man wearing a linen suit that was probably white at one time. He has a white fedora on and glasses with flashlights embedded in the rims so that looking at his head is like seeing a car coming at you in the night. Because of this, I can’t make out his face too well, but judging by the martini and olive he’s holding jauntily in his left hand, I don’t get the impression that the conversation I’m about to have with him is going to be dull.

“I’m glad you could make it, Ethan,” the man says, “I’m Baxter. Let me show you around.”

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