Instructions Not Included: Part Five

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

The trucks were upon them now. The winged discs stopped shooting from the back of the first, the engines sputtered out, and the doors opened. Out stepped eight men, all dressed in jeans and dark-grey jackets. They were uniforms, and each of their shoulders bore the name “Clecir.” Two of the men were carrying large briefcases, and four of them had sidearms on their hips. They didn’t draw their weapons, though, instead all eight slowly walked towards the two brothers, fanning out to keep them contained.

“Hello, boys,” one of them said. He had curly, white hair and dark sunglasses on. He grinned broadly. “My name’s Maxwell. Please don’t be alarmed, we’re not here to cause any trouble. Just to take back what is rightfully ours.”

“Yours?” Gavin asked. Curtis frowned at him.

“Yes, the beacons.”

It took the boys a moment to realize that “beacons” must be the men’s term for the strange materials.

“You’re the ones who left the box of them out?” Curtis asked, anxious to take over the conversation before Gavin could try to argue about ownership.

“That’s right. A careless mistake.”

Curtis nodded. “Well they’re in that storage shed over there.”

Now it was Gavin who frowned at Curtis. To him it seemed like a betrayal. But really the mass of “beacons” still hanging off the sides of their shed had already given that information away. It was just about appearing accommodating.

Maxwell smiled, then nodded to the two men carrying the briefcases. They broke ranks and made their way to the shed. One of them came back a moment later and tossed one of the rods to Maxwell. Maxwell caught it and peered closely at the grooves on the rod’s side. He smiled.

“Batch 18, confirmed.”

The two men filed back into the shed, opened their briefcases, and began filling them with the brothers’ work.

“How long ago was Batch 18?” Maxwell said to no one in particular. “Twelve years now?” He turned back to the brothers. “Did you two work them this whole time? You said you found them in a cardboard box?”

Gavin’s frown deepened. “You didn’t misplace them at all! You planted them.”

Curtis elbowed his brother, but Maxwell seemed pleased by the insight.

“How perceptive of you,” he smiled. “And an excellent choice of words, we call it ‘seeding’ ourselves. I’m sure you’ve found that the secrets of the beacons are extensive. Infinitely so. Some of us even think responsively so.” Maxwell’s voice grew low, reverential. “Whichever way you push it, it discloses new truths. And so it is all the better to find curious minds that think differently from our own. We let them work uninterrupted, and sometimes they come up with the most novel inventions.”

The two men returned. They had selected the most complex examples of the brothers’ work and held them up for Maxwell to see. He looked them over one-by-one.

“I see. Crude clothing applications…but you’d run into trouble once you tried to make a full body-suit of course,” he chuckled. “You’d lose the wearer inside!”

Maxwell paused to look closer at the tunic, his brow furrowing. “Still…the fact that you’re using linked pieces instead of plates…how did you get them so small?”

“Perhaps this one sir?” One of the men held forward a piece fashioned by Gavin. It was the one where he had discovered how to create increasingly larger or smaller components.

Maxwell frowned in concentration as he turned it over until understanding set in. “But of course,” he gasped. “We’ve been blind all these years!” He turned it over more quickly now. Hungrily. “And it’s dual-ended! You can scale up or down with it! And I’d guess that this node-centric approach amplifies the resultant power!” His fingers clenched against the piece and a shudder passed through his body. A moment later he relaxed, and gently returned the piece to the briefcase. “Keep that one, get the bin ready for the rest.”

“Why take it all away?” Gavin asked before Curtis could stop him. “We’ve put so much of ourselves into it!”

Maxwell turned to Gavin and took off his sunglasses, looking him eye-to-eye. “It’s too risky to leave any developers operating outside of the organization, this stuff is just too powerful. Not to worry, though. We aren’t merely seeding new beacons, we’re seeding talent. The two of you have definitely proven yourselves ingenious and persistent….”

“You’re–you’re offering us a job?” Curtis cocked his head.

“So much more than a job,” Maxwell extended his hand. “I want you to be a partner to the future.”

The two brothers paused and looked to one another. Unspoken meaning passing between their eyes. They looked back to Maxwell.

“With all due respect,” Curtis said slowly, “we don’t like your style.”

Maxwell forced a smile. “Our way is necessary, but we know that it doesn’t appeal to all. Still boys, I like you. So just make sure you stay out of our way, and we won’t need to discuss the matter any further. You’ll do that won’t you?”

The two men with briefcases had finished hauling the rest of the brothers’ work outside. They had even brought all of their notebooks, clay, and graph paper, as well as all the winged discs that had slammed into the side of the storage shed. Another two men lifted a large “tube” out of the bed of one of the trucks. It was far cruder than Gavin’s solution for making larger structures. This tube had been fashioned by simply taking hundreds of the normal-sized discs and angling them to form pointy rings. Those rings were staggered so that they could slide over one another like some sort of giant telescope. The tube was capped at both of its ends.

Without a word the men opened a hatch on the side of the tube, put all of the brothers’ things inside, then closed the hatch and pushed the ends together. The overlapping flaps slid across each other, compressing down like an accordion until the two caps clanged against one another.

Gavin gasped as understanding set in. They had made the space inside too small to hold all of their things. With an open tube that had always meant the things would just spill out. In a capped one like this, it must mean that the items were obliterated into nothingness. Just like that, all their work was destroyed.

“You boys sure you don’t want to reconsider my offer?” Maxwell asked. “There are no second chances.”

Curtis shook his head.

“Suit yourselves.” He turned to the rest of the men and nodded, then they all filed back into the trucks and drove away.

Gavin and Curtis walked in silence back to their shed and stepped inside. They already knew what they would see…nothing. The men had been thorough. All that remained were two empty chairs and desks, the power generator, the lights and the fans.

“So that’s it,” Gavin said flatly.

“Yeah,” Curtis said, walking over to the power generator. He unplugged it and waited a few seconds for it to wind down. “Or at least it would be if they weren’t so stupid.”

He ran his fingers along the generator’s cord until he found a bump in the sheath. He felt out a slit in the rubber and peeled it back, revealing a microscopic tube that they had wrapped around the electric cable.

“I forgot about that!” Gavin said, clapping his hands to his head. “From when we were trying to get an electrical charge inside of a tube. We never took it out?”

Curtis shook his head. “Sounds like they aren’t accustomed to their ‘beacons’ being so small. They didn’t even think to check.” He unclasped the tiny tube and pulled it off the cord. “Of course those winged discs of theirs were able to hone in on us once…it’s a safe bet that they’ll realize they missed something sooner or later.”

The two brothers looks at one another, silently weighing their options.

“I say we don’t give it back,” Gavin finally said. “I say we run with it and start building again. Prepare for their return.”

Curtis grinned from ear to ear. “I was hoping you’d say that! Let’s go. I’ve got a lot of new ideas.”

The two brothers slapped each on the back and hurried over to their parked pickup truck. Curtis hopped into the driver’s seat and started the ignition while Gavin went around to the passenger side. He had just stepped up onto the running board when he froze.

“Uh-oh,” he said, and Curtis looked up to where Gavin was staring.

The two black trucks had turned around and were making their way back up towards the brothers and their storage shed.

“They figured it out already,” Gavin said.

“Yeah…do you still want to run?”

Gavin grit his teeth, then swung into his seat and pulled the door closed.

“Hit it!”

Curtis pressed the pedal to the floor and spun the truck out in a wide arc. They turned 180 degrees and moved off the road, pounding across the rough desert ground, kicking up a tall plume of dust as they fled from their pursuers.

*

As I said on Monday, the ending of Instructions Not Included is only an ending of its first act. This would signify the moment of transition where the story enters its central conflict. The brothers would continue an ongoing battle with this strange corporation, the tension escalating until the point of climax. The brother’s triumph would depend on them resolving the philosophical differences that have been introduced in the first act.

In the end, I like where this story is headed. I think it could be a fun adventure story targeted towards older children and teenagers. I would like to complete it, but I’m already committed to one novel, with many other concrete ideas for other ones after that. For a while I struggled with how many story ideas I had. I didn’t want to accept that there simply wasn’t enough time to make every novel that I wanted to.

It was a tough pill to swallow, but in the end I was able to accept the truth of the matter: my productivity will never keep up with my imagination. I’d like to talk a little more about the realistic limitations of an author’s productivity, how to accept those shortcomings, and how to choose which stories one should write. Come back on Monday where we will discuss these topics. Until then, have an excellent weekend!

The Chase

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I remember the first story I read that didn’t have a proper ending. It was one of the many tales in One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). In this particular one the hero discovered a magic flying carpet, and by it managed to overcome the villain and was promised the hand of the beautiful princess. His every desire having been met he decided to take one last celebratory ride on the carpet the evening before his wedding day. At that point the carpet decided to get a mind of its own, and whisked him far and away, never to be seen again.

I thought that was a very strange and dissatisfying story, but it stuck with me. It seemed like it was supposed to mean something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then, several years later, I came across another story that brought me closer to an understanding.

This was a piece called Hypnerotomachia Poliphilli (or Strife of Love in a Dream). The basic outline is that a man is deeply in love with the beautiful Polia, though she spurns his every advance. He falls asleep and travels through a strange dreamscape, pursuing his love and assisted by all manner of mythic characters. In the end he finally does manage to win her heart, and is finally about to embrace her forever…when she vanishes into thin air and he wakes up alone.

Again, a very strange tale, but one that also lodges itself in the mind at least somewhat by virtue of that strangeness. So what is this all about? Well, it all came together for me when I heard the legend of how Alexander the Great became inconsolably distraught after he conquered all the known world powers, his one great dream. He had reached his “happily ever after” and that was the greatest curse of all.

Having only that one hope, the accomplishment of it, of consequence, must put an end to all my hopes; and what a wretch is he who must survive his hopes! Nothing remains when that day comes, but to sit down and weep like Alexander… (Way of the World, Act 2: Scene 3)

Now the message of those prior stories became clear. They are speaking to the natural destiny of man to ever have one dream to chase after and then another. If ever you achieve the goal you pursue, then that ideal vanishes and goes somewhere further ahead. It is the mirage you ever follow but never obtain, pressing onward without an ending.

To reiterate, it’s not that one can never obtain a reward, one might indeed gain the new job, the lover, the prestige; however it is the knowledge that even if they do so there will still be another mountain to climb after that. Which is worse, to ever drink and still be left thirsty, or to find a satiation that never allows for the sweetness of desire again? Alexander the Great seemed to feel that the latter was the greater curse.

Because really Alexander’s sorrow is simply due to never becoming any better. The literal definition of damnation is not be thrust into fire, but rather to be halted in all forward progression. If we are not improving, then what is the purpose for our continued existence? To have no path for growth is to frustrate the nature etched deep into our very souls.

These thoughts and others like them  have haunted me ever since I read and pondered over these stories. That is the power of a narrative: to set a trajectory to the infinite, then leave it to the reader to follow the implications as far as his mind dares to explore. Or to put it another way, stories like these plant a germ within a new host, and then let it take root and branch itself out into other original expressions. As a result I have found myself writing new stories around this idea of the chase, of how achieving one objective is only to be followed by pursuing another.

 

Power Suit Racing)

My latest story was my most direct effort at giving that original expression. A story of a man chasing for the ideal, and upon obtaining what he thought it was, he now realizes that it has moved on to somewhere new. As with the tale in One Thousand and One Nights and also Hypnerotomochia Poliphilli, this is a story where there is a man, a woman, and a chase. But in this case the chase is away from the woman, trying to find a new and greater definition to life.

Of course the chase away from the one woman leads to a chase towards another. But as is common in these sorts of stories that woman is only a representation of something more. She is a type for discovering one’s true self, for finding a purpose and cause, she is the reason to become.

Of course Taki doesn’t know that this is the case until the end. He isn’t sure what he is chasing, but he knows that something is stirring inside. His moment of clarity doesn’t arrive until he is offered back what he had before. Sometimes it takes looking into the mirror of the past to be able to discern the change that has occurred, and to extrapolate the trajectory of the future. That is the case for him. His hesitation has been due to balancing between holding onto the past and reaching for the future. He sees the past, he is repulsed by it, and so he dives into the future.

In this particular story I changed the end of the script to be different from most others, though. Taki rushes alone into the great unknown, and this time it is the girl who chases after him.

 

Washed Ashore)

Before Power Suit Racing I tried to do a different take on the chase with Washed Ashore. The chase in this tale turned out to be something very grim: one man pursuing another with fatal intent, each seemingly called by fate to ever pursue and be pursued. It was hinted that there was extensive collateral damage in the wake of their battle, yet neither was willing to relent.

With this story I meant to make reference to the chases that occur in a continual round within the same individual. The inherent weaknesses we are born with, the never-ending struggle we make with them, and the years of anxiety produced as a side-result of that conflict. You see this sort of approach in a story like Citizen Kane. The entire life of Charles Foster Kane is one continual struggle between his child-self and his overcompensating-self. The two sides wrestle for control, giving him alternating faces of sincerity and hypocrisy.

A more lighthearted example of this from my own life is that I am divided between introverted and extroverted tendencies. I want to feel comfortable, but also want to step outside of my comfort zone for some “betterment” of myself. And so that means a constant war between two sides of myself, one advocating for a sense safety and the other for healthy interaction. Thus neither side will entirely win out, but the hope is that the conglomerate of all my parts, the overall self, will be better for balancing between the two.

This is perhaps the most common way we experience an eternal chase within ourselves. Not so much an ever-progressing journey as a circling struggle between our different natures. Temptation, weakness, and fear challenged by virtue, resolve, and courage. Perhaps one doesn’t move forward so much as hold their ground, which can be a monumental victory in its own right. These are great races that are won by merely standing firm.

 

Mixing it All Together)

So here we have two very different takes on the chase. We have the one that is linear, moving on from one state to the next, achieving one dream and using it as a launching-off point towards another. Then there is the other that is cyclical, the one that finishes back at the beginning to go another round.

Now that I’ve written a story with each of these approaches I’d like to try and blend the two together. I recently saw the film I Can Only Imagine that did just this. In this film the main character found himself in a cycling struggle between his wounds and his faith. He holds out a belief that he was made for something more, but he also holds a fear that it just isn’t so. The cycle continues, it alternately raises him and breaks him down, and then he finally manages to break that cycle and finally chase on to the new.

On Thursday I’d like to take my own crack at that sort of story. I am going to present a man who carries two burdens: both very heavy, and each in danger of drowning him, one in anger and the other in grief. One of those burdens is one that can never be let go of, the burden of grief. He will always strive with it. The other though, one of hate, he will begin to realize it is possible to move on from, to cease chasing vengeance in order to pursue something better.

I’m excited to write it, and I hope you’re looking forward to read it. Come back on Thursday to see the first half.

Washed Ashore

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The surf did not break across the shore all at the same moment, but rather rippled down its length in a long, drawn-out rush. This was due to how the sandy beach was laid out at an angle to the flow of the tide. And so the waves sounded on the North-Western tip first, then worked their way South and East, where at last they rolled off in a curling white froth. Many the fish was caught in that circling current, and some of the weaker ones were unable to break free of it. They would die in its churning, then be deposited on the cold, wet sand when the tide drew back again.

It was a freshwater coast, and the white sand was dotted here and there with various bits of brown scrub and green needle-grass. About twenty yards back from the waterline the sand gave way to a more muddy carpet, and small gray crabs dug little burrows in that clay. The entire stretch of beach was backed by the black, porous bluffs that rose high above the scene. Sheer walls that were perpetually driven back by a continual process of erosion.

As that rock wall receded it left large, boulder deposits on the ground, sentinels that then crumbled to bits in slow motion. While they still stood their porous surfaces were turned into a thousand miniature lakes, each hole filled by the spray from the sea and then crowned by a ring of lichen. They all bore a head of hair as well, long, slick, green blades of grass that grew wild and unkempt, the same as could be found atop the bluffs.

The sky was perpetually gray, an endless stream of clouds ever passing over with no break to indicate where one ended and the next began. Winds frequently buffeted the small island, and rain flowed most days of the year. Not in torrents, usually, but in a constant drizzly weeping.

During the drier months the occasional gull would chance the voyage out to the island from some distant origin. It was a long and tempestuous route for them, but those that managed it would gorge unrestrained on the crabs, relieved from the usual squabbling of their brethren.

Further inland the grassy knolls were sprinkled here and there with small houses. The people that lived here were decent, quiet folk, as one had to be to make a home in a place so humble and gray. They were absent any ambition, and only worked the land for their own subsistence, never trying to raise a profit from its depths. All they wished was to enjoy the quiet tranquility, and the perpetual washing from the weeping rains.

Aside from their homes they had built only two other edifices for public communion. One was a church, whitewashed and prominent, with imported oak for the doors and the pews. It was at least five times too large for the small population of the island, but it had seemed disrespectful to make a place of worship that was too small. Each Saturday they all fastidiously cleaned it, and so it was the tidiest of any structure in town. As they felt it should be.

The other edifice was a pub. It was a long, low building, illuminated by orange lanterns without but left dark and smoky within. No one came here in a hurry, and every towns-person had their own seat for the long evening hours they whiled away within. One-by-one they came after the day’s work was done, and one-by-one they left at their preferred time for “turning in.” Unless, of course, there happened to be any visitors in the place, in which case they might stay as late as 2 or 3 in the morning.

These visitors were usually some fishermen who had stopped to make repairs on their vessel, and every now and again they some city-minded pilgrim would arrive after becoming hopelessly lost in the sea, seeking directions back home. More rarely, perhaps once every few years, an uncharacteristically powerful storm would arise, and then all of the nearby ships would be driven towards their refuge, skirting in like so many giant gooses caught in a gale.

It was the morning following one such of these storms, still much too early for the island to have fully awoken. Down on the soaking shore a dark form washed up, a mass of tangled clothes, sopping hair, and pale skin. The man coughed and his fingers clawed at the sand, but his eyes remained stubbornly clenched. The next wave came and engulfed him, and he sputtered a torrent of water from his mouth after it had receded. Instinctively he crawled on his belly a few feet further ashore.

He was a young man, surely no more than thirty. Yet the gaunt expression in his face aged him prematurely. His eyes were naturally sunk in deep, and seemingly all the more so with how his long, pointed nose extended out between them. Around the edges of his eyes was a scrawl of wrinkles, ones that extended uncharacteristically out and downwards, tracing onto the tops of his cheeks.

The man huddled his bony knees up to his chest, trying in vain to find some warmth as an easterly wind blew across in fitful gusts. Each of these breaths stirred him closer and closer to consciousness, until at last his eyelids slowly rolled back. His vacant eyes peered out unseeing, the focus slowly settled in, and at last the pupils lazily rotated to survey the scene about him.

He perceived the sand, the water, the wind, but all was strange and unfamiliar to him. His mind started working, trying to trace back where he was and why. What was the last that had happened to him?

He suddenly recollected all and tried to sit bolt upright. He barely made it halfway before he collapsed back on his side. He palmed his forehead, trying to ease the throbbing in his skull. After a minute had passed he tried to raise himself again, this time more slowly and cautiously. He winced as he dug his palm into the sand, propping himself up on that arm, and peering out into the wild sea. He scanned his eyes left and right, searching and searching again for some shape on the horizon.

He saw nothing, and with that blessed omission his mouth cracked open in a smile and a small laugh of relief escaped his aching chest. The wheezing chuckle passed, and it was immediately followed by one deeper and fuller. He clapped his hands in front of his nose and pressed his thumbs against his forehead, heavy sobs now mingling with the laughter, and eventually taking them over. His whole body shook as the moment of relief allowed himself to truly appreciate the trauma of his flight.

Could it truly be over? he wondered. After so long, so hard a chase? No matter. Time would heal all wounds, erase the memory of what had been. All that was relevant now was that the sea was empty, there was no more ship to be seen anywhere. It must have sunk, and taken with it all the men aboard. All but him. Such a terrible cost, indeed, but necessary. May a few dozen innocents die that the one great evil may be purged, and call yourself blessed that somehow you escaped the froth.

As his head bowed under the weight of his emotions he failed to notice the dark figure of another body washing ashore, some thirty yards from where he lay. That man was as motionless as the dead, though, and did not stir at all as the water continued to smother him with every wave.

At last the first man finished his heaving sobs and began to see about getting up on his feet. It was no small task, and he found that he would have to rub some life back into his legs before they would function properly for him. It was while he was in the process of this that he happened to look about him, and at last he saw the other man lying down-shore.

“Oh no,” he whimpered, his slight frame crumpling at the sight. The other man was  dressed in fine, black clothes, or rather clothes that had been fine before the sea had so bedraggled them. Over them was a rich, red vest, with some stitching that suggested a station of some sort. His hair was blond and close-cropped, his mustache was carefully trimmed.

The first man stared long and hard at his quarry, and finally trembled less as he steeled himself for action. Probably the aggravator was already dead. It was better for the body to wash ashore in this way, now he would be able to know for sure. And if, by some curse, the hole in the other’s chest still beat, then better to end it now and be done with it. And so the first man began to crawl forward, his legs still acclimating to regular use.

That monster had to be dead. He had to be. It was miracle enough that one of them had survived, for both to have done so would be…would be a sign at that the gods had fated them to this infernal dance eternally. The thought made the man pause in his crawl, then he swallowed hard and continued.

Even if he felt no heartbeat in that body he might as well be sure of the deed. He’d open the man and stretch him out across the whole beach, pocketing only the heart, just to be sure it could never return to its master. Or perhaps he would dry the body out and grind it into a dust. He’d feed it to those crabs over yonder. He’d–

Of a sudden the second man lifted up on raised arms and gave a long, startled gasp, like a sleeping beast pierced in the dead of night. Immediately his head snapped to one side and his eyes locked on the nearing other. Those brows furrowed so deeply that they ran together as one, and he began to take long, sharp inhales, filling his lungs with biting, cold air and willing its energy to flow from thence to his limbs.

The first man recoiled in horror. Though he had been conscious longer, he knew he was not so well recovered as to overpower his adversary. And so he stumbled backwards. His feet had at long last discovering their strength in his terror, and so he rose and staggered away backwards.

That second man continued to hold himself on wobbling arms that ever grew more steady. His breath pumped in and out of his lungs, whistling around his clenched teeth, his face etched with a deep and hurtful desire. He seemed to breathe hate in with the air, using both to strengthen him. The second man could not continue to look at such a terrible sight. He turned, and sobbed bitterly as he ran away, wondering what the use of it was. Would it never stop? Would he never wake from the nightmare?

No. Evidently it was their fate to chase and flee forever. He would neither overcome nor escape his enemy, yet also he would never be overcome nor destroyed himself. Somehow he always managed to just barely escape his death, while countless other innocents perished in the wake of their clashing instead. It was his curse. Wouldn’t it be better to just stop and endure the agony and then sleep? Wouldn’t it be easier and quicker that way? More humane to the world? Maybe it would, but his courage failed him.

And so he ran, tears splashing around his feet as he went. Some for him. Some for the poor souls who chanced to live on this island, and would soon be swept away in the tide of violence.

 

My post on Monday was all about the mood of the story. My suggestion at the time was that it didn’t have as much to do with what you wrote as how you wrote it. For me the most difficult part of this piece was the very beginning, where I tried to first establish that mood, but once I found it the rest actually followed quite naturally.

One misstep I had at the beginning was that I originally began by talking about the villagers on the island. Right after I mentioned how the tide broke across the shore at an angle I wrote about how the locals had learned to listen to how long that breaking took, and from that extrapolate how many knots the wind was blowing at. I then said they would use that trick to impress the visitors at their cozy pub, whom they would then regale with stories.

It was a fine little detail, but it suddenly made the mood far too warm and pleasant. It made everything that followed lack that somber tone I was looking for. And so I cut it, and by the time I did get around to discussing the townspeople they were living under the tone already established by a muted gray beach, rather than the other way around.

Often that’s how it goes for me when establishing a mood. I have to ask  myself “does this feel right?” And if it doesn’t I try other things until I find the one that does. Then progress continues as normal.

There was another element of this story that I would like to look at in greater detail, that of the motivation. I was intentionally very sparse on specifics for why these two men are so irreconcilably opposed to one another, we just know that they are. But isn’t the classic question for an actor “what is my motivation?” Don’t characters always need reasons to do what they do? Well, to put it simply it’s not that simple. But let’s take a closer at all of that come Monday, and until then have a wonderful weekend!

Network Down: Part Two

abstract aluminum architectural architecture
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“Dani, are there any nearby buildings open right now?!”

Checking…The Barrows Banking and Loan seems to have left its doors open.

Really? Maybe the rumors about that place were true then. He’d had his own reasons to suspect so after all. Still he’d never make it there with that truck coming after him.

“Dani, can you establish which network that truck is connected to?” Kevyn wheezed out as he felt a stitch growing in his side.

It’s a public service. Voracia Systems.

“Dani, buy a hack from the black market. Get me control of that truck!”

Sir, even performing that query is a misdemeanor and actually implementing it is–

“Do it!” he screamed as he felt the rumble of the truck’s nearing mass. It wasn’t slowing down to let one of the passengers out to grab him, it was going to run him over! Not even daring to look, Kevyn tried to judge its distance from him until the last possible moment.

“Not yet… not yet…” he muttered to himself through clenched teeth. “Now!” He threw himself to the side just as the truck tore through the space he had just been standing in. It wasn’t able to swerve to follow his lunge in time, and so he fell to the pavement untouched. There came another squeal as the truck spun back around to face him.

Sir, I have access to the truck’s internal functions.

“Alright, on my word I want you to accelerate it down the street, lock the doors, and…”

Kevyn stopped speaking as the truck’s wheels whined from the strain of being turned too quickly. In his anxiousness to run Kevyn over the driver had overestimated his vehicle’s capabilities, and now the entire thing lifted onto its two side wheels, teetered there for a moment, and then thudded down on its side.

Sir?

Kevyn snapped himself out of his disbelief, turned away from the truck, and began sprinting the other direction.

“Never mind, Dani,” he panted. “I guess it’s just a misdemeanor…for now.”

He could hear the looters clambering out of their sideways vehicle, and a quick glance over his shoulder showed that they were still intent on running him down. At this point their persistence seemed to be fueled more by rage than anything else.

“Dani, direct me to the Barrows Banking and Loan.”

Certainly. Just take your next right and it’s two blocks down on the left.

“Alright, and keep track of those guys chasing us. I want to know if–”

Kevyn was interrupted as all of the ad-boards crackled back to life. He didn’t slow in his pace, but listened intently, hoping to hear that the security network had been restored already. From the very first words was disappointed.

“This is CLNN, the Chicago Local News Network” blared down the deserted streets. “Hello Chicago, my name is Cindy Trulick. As the city continues to be blackened by a security network failure, we are now receiving additional word that Governor Haley has just been assassinated in his office. We started seeing reports on social media three minutes ago, and the details are consistent enough to conclude that heavily armed assailants broke into the City Office Building, subdued local security, and then shot and killed the Governor. We cannot yet verify that this attack was the intention behind the citywide security network failure, nor which organization might be behind this atrocity. It has been posited on many social media forums though that the mob has had reason to–”

Kevyn stopped listening. To all the rest of the city this news might be significant. To him, in this moment, he couldn’t care less. His legs were beginning to get wobbly, entirely unaccustomed to such vigorous exercise, and with every glance over his shoulder he could see that his pursuants were growing ever nearer. He made those glances after every twenty paces, and then looked forward to the looming figure of the Barrows Banking and Loan, trying to gauge whether he was going to make it there or not.

Kevyn glanced backwards once more, just in time to see that one of the looters had fallen behind his fellows and moved into a shooting stance with the gun raised to his cheek. The man was aiming with what appeared to be a practiced confidence. Kevyn tried to lunge sideways, but too late. The high staccato of the gun being fired echoed down the street and Kevyn felt a sudden, searing pain in his arm. He instinctively clapped his other hand over the spot, about halfway up from his elbow, and found his fingers moistened by blood.

He felt shock at the realization of having been shot, yet Kevyn managed to stumble back into his run and the aiming looter followed suit. The man would wait until he was a little closer before trying again.

“Just keep going,” Kevyn muttered to himself. He was now nearing the doors to the Barrows Banking and Loan. He would make it inside, he would find help, he would survive this…no matter the cost.

The building had a distinct and old-fashioned style to it. The architecture was Roman in design, complete with supporting external pillars, white marble, and an unnecessarily long flight of stairs to its entrance. Kevyn instinctively tried to swing his arms as he dashed up the steps, but his wounded arm gave protesting spikes of pain at the slightest of movements, compelling him to hold it stiffly at his side.

He mounted the last of the steps and moved into the shadow cast by its overhanging roof. For a moment he was blinded by the sudden transition from light to dark, but he continued groping forward until the heavy oak doors swam into his view.

Kevyn crossed the threshold into the massive lobby within, his quick steps echoing loudly off the marble floor as the upper-class people lounging around on the plush seats gave him dirty looks. Even in his haste Kevyn couldn’t help but realize how bizarre it was that these people were gathered so calmly behind un-shuttered doors while the rest of the city was gripped in complete terror. It seemed to add further credence to the all of those rumors. Rumors that this business was nothing more than a front.

The receptionist at the desk frowned deeply at Kevyn as he came wheezing up to her station. He was sure he looked a mess, covered in sweat, panting heavily, and bleeding down the arm. Before the woman could call for security he took a deep breath and blurted out his request.

“I want to apply for a position with the Inner City Mob.”

Her eyebrows raised clear into her hairline and her nostrils flared. “What did you just say?!” she exclaimed with a bitter hostility.

Undeterred Kevyn continued. “I have considerable services to offer as a top-of-the-line accountant. If you pull up my profile you’ll see that I have extensive experience with a number of distinguished firms, currently at Johnson & Webber.”

She still looked enraged at his insinuations and was about to spit out a retort when the front doors slammed open again. Kevyn took a hasty glance over his shoulder and saw the looters awkwardly file into the place. They quickly spotted him up at the counter and then divided into two group, each slowly strolling up a different side of the room towards him.

“Friends of yours?” the woman said, now with a slight tinge of amusement in her voice.

“No, and I would need…protection from them.”

“Sir, I’m not sure who told you that this place was being run by the mob,” she said curtly, “but they were making a fool of you.”

“No one told me,” he said shortly. “People talk, yes, but I figured it out myself. Last year a man named Barney James transferred 110 million dollars from one of our agencies to this one. I handled the case.”

Out of the corners of his eyes he could see the looters nearly halfway to him. He continued speaking in a hushed but rapid tone.

“And when I did so the FBI came to me and instructed me to install a trace on those funds. It’s an entirely new currency tracking technology, one that not only contaminates the funds it is installed on, but the entire ledger that they sit with. Now I’ve been hearing all this year on the news about how they’re finding all of your side businesses and shutting them down…I’m confident it’s because you’re funding them with that contaminated money. But I know how to help you find which of your funds are tainted and clean them. Just ask your ‘managers,’ they must know something is up–”

A heavy hand fell on Kevyn’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry about our friend here,” the looter said gruffly while digging his fingers into Kevyn’s shoulder. It was the arm that had been shot and Kevyn winced at the fresh waves of pain that came over him. “We’ll just be taking him and going.”

Kevyn looked his silent plea to the receptionist, but he only saw cold indifference in her face. She merely nodded and two more sets of hands grabbed Kevyn, pulling him away from the desk.

“But wait–I–” Kevyn wriggled around but couldn’t free himself from their grasps. They were dragging him back across the lobby, towards the exit, into the streets. All of the patrons seated on the plush seats still seemed strangely disinterested in his plight. Most of them refused to even make eye contact with him, their faces buried in their various digital devices.

Kevyn spun his head back around to look at the receptionist over his shoulder. “Please, just give me a chance to–” his eyes grew wide. He had just been dragged past a group of four patrons, all of which were now silently rising to their feet behind the looters, reaching into their coats, pulling out black-metal guns.

Kevyn cried out and flung himself to the floor so suddenly that he managed to break the grips on him. One of the looters cursed, and it was the last sound he ever made. The high-pitched whistle of silenced weapons rushed over Kevyn’s head, followed by the thuds of the looters’ bodies on the clean marble.

Kevyn’s hands were up around his head, trembling, waiting for one of those bullets to find him. Waiting, waiting, but the shot never came. Slowly he looked up and saw the receptionist marching down the floor towards him, waving the assassins to the side and motioning them towards the entrance doors. They moved away and began locking the place down. She reached him and stooped down to look him in the eyes.

“My…managers wish to speak with you. Please follow me.”

He awkwardly clambered to his feet, his face still washed in dumb disbelief. He started to instinctively turn, to look at the fallen forms of the men at his feet. He caught a glimpse of one of their boots before he stopped and turned back. He didn’t need to see. Just knowing was harrowing enough.

“You understand what this means, don’t you?” the receptionist squinted at him.

He nodded. Just like that, he had sold his soul. His home, his job, his loved ones… his entire life up until this morning. They were all gone. But–he was alive. That was all that mattered wasn’t it?

The receptionist turned and walked back the other way and Kevyn followed after her. She led him to an elevator. It’s glass doors slid apart and they stepped inside. They stood there in almost complete silence, the only noise was the occasional drip of blood from his arm echoing off the floor.

“We’ll need a clean-up crew, and he’ll need a doctor to look after his arm” she said into an unseen microphone. “…yes, of course I shut down the entry.”

There was a screen in one of the upper corners of the elevator and it suddenly came to life with another public alert. Kevyn knew what the text was going to say before it even showed up.

“The Chicago Central Police Department has just regained control of its security networks. All monitoring and robotic police units are fully functioning again. Even so, citizens are still encouraged to remain indoors until the streets have been cleared of debris.”

It didn’t matter, Kevyn thought. It was too late. Fifteen minutes and his entire life had been lost, replaced by something else. That new life was looking pretty bleak perhaps…but at least he had something.

 

On Monday I said it was my intention to write a story where the main character loses what he has to gain something new. In this case it was his entire way of life. Kevyn has made a choice that he will never be able to walk back from. Even if he tries to undo it, there will be permanent ramifications that follow him wherever he goes.

But, of course, that was his choice. The only reason why he would make a choice to lose the life he knew for something so much worse, was that it was preferential to losing his life entirely. Many times you see this in stories. Tragedy strikes, takes all that the heroes had defined themselves by, and forces them to face the new. Usually that change isn’t what they wanted, but it ends up bringing them to their ultimate calling. This is Luke in Star Wars, Edmond in the Count of Monte Cristo, and Hansel and Gretel. Who knows, maybe there is a way through to a happy ending even for Kevyn.

We’ll just have to use our imaginations there, though, because this marks the end of Network Down, and also the entire story. Come back next week when we’ll be off to something new. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!

Network Down: Part One

codes on a screen
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

Kevyn strode down the sidewalk bearing that satisfied contentment that always came during his midday ritual. Each day around noon he made sure to get away from the office for a bagel and some fresh air. His carefree reverie was interrupted by the triple-honk of a nearing taxi, the cabby calling out to see if he wanted a ride.

“Dani, I don’t want any transportation,” he sighed.

Confirmed. The digital assistant sounded in his ear as she updated his public profile. Now all of the HUDs on the passing taxis would see a red X over his head.

“I thought I set a reminder for that, Dani,” he stressed. “Whenever I leave for lunch I want to just walk.”

Whenever you leave your workplace between the hours of 11 am and 1 pm?

“Figure it out,” he said. It was a phrase that Dani would understand to mean she should use her own algorithms to assume his intent.

Confirmed.

Kevyn reached the alley that led down to his favorite bakery. It had been intentionally positioned apart from the main thoroughfare as the owner valued a personal relationship with all his clientele. No one came here unless they meant to, and everyone who did soon became a regular. It wasn’t business so much as family.

Twenty minutes later Kevyn emerged having enjoyed the combination of good food with even better conversation. He felt invigorated to tackle all of the afternoon’s reports, and maybe even still have time to–

ALERT! ALERT!” A loud voice suddenly cut through the air, simultaneously emanating from every ad-board in the entire city. Everywhere Kevyn looked he was met with the same warning bulletin.

“The Chicago Central Police Department has just been compromised by a network attack. This attack has crippled all communication with automated units. Regular police forces remain in active duty, but citizens are strongly urged to vacate the streets and lock down their premises. Keep watching for confirmation of system restoration.”

An artificial voice began reading the message out loud but Kevyn didn’t need any further warning. He instinctively spun around to seek shelter in the bakery he had just left, but the metal shutters were already clanging shut. No doubt they were automated to do so in such events, and could not open back again, no matter how he begged for admittance. There was nothing for it but to run and grab any taxi that still dared to be on the streets.

As Kevyn sprinted down the alley he watched the small slice of the street he could see ahead. Though the window was small it still communicated the immediate panic that was sweeping all across it. Cars whizzed by at dangerous speeds, horns honking, tires squealing, bodies crunching against one another. Those on foot dashed down the sidewalk, taking wide swaths to avoid passing too near to any of their fellow pedestrians. They stared into one another’s eyes as they passed, trying to tell if this other might be a closet homicidal maniac about to spring loose.

That was the true horror of these episodes. The Police Department’s monitoring and enforcement network was state-of-the-art, and the dismantling of it had only ever been accomplished whenever a very powerful entity had wanted to enact a very dire evil, such as with the terrorist bombing of ’31. But beyond the grand act of terror there was the more common criminality as well. The human officers were simply too limited to hold back the tide of depravity that burst free whenever the dam came down.

There had been years of pent up felonies waiting to be committed. People had been silently seething: hating their bosses, jealous of ex-lovers, feeling a need to silence certain public voices… They had been burning with want, but been too afraid of the guaranteed repercussions that came in a world of constant monitoring and enforcement to do anything about it. Well, now in this brief window of opportunity every degenerate had just been given free license to do as they saw fit, and they were going to take it.

“Dani, flag down a taxi for me,” Kevyn shouted as he neared the end of the alley. “And alert me to any individuals approaching within a hundred yards of me.”

Confirmed. Removing transportation filter from your status.

Even before Kevyn reached the sidewalk he could tell he was in trouble, and as he came to the road, clutching a stitch in his side, his worst fears were confirmed. This was usually one of the busiest, most packed thoroughfares in all the city, and now it was entirely deserted. A few retreating taillights shone eight blocks down, a few doors were still slamming in the nearby apartment buildings, but there was no one near enough to offer him shelter from the storm.

Still, at least deserted was better than being approached by thugs.

“Dani, I…” Kevyn paused as his eyes lit on a wreck. Three cars had plowed into one another during the mad scramble and now all of them were deserted, their drivers having evidently continued their exodus on foot.

“Dani, see if we can buy any of these cars,” he ordered, sprinting over to them and trying to assess if they could still function. The Lexus that had been T-Boned looked pretty bent out of shape, and the Goat was so boxed in he wouldn’t be able to get it out. But maybe the Buick in the back?

The owner of the Lexus is willing to entertain an offer, Dani replied after completing her queries.

“What? No. What about–” Kevyn started at the sound of a loud bang just a few alleys away. “How much are they asking?”

91,670, standard price for a new Lexus Aria.

Kevyn cursed, but made his way around to the driver’s door. “Buy it!” he hissed, tugging at the door’s handle repeatedly.

A pause. And then Purchase completed.

The handle now opened for him and Kevyn dove into the car’s interior. Just as he pulled the door shut another bang sounded behind him and he spun around in the seat just in time to see a band of looters spill out of that nearby alley onto the street. One of them was behind the wheel of massive, black truck which pulled to the side of the road as the rest hopped out from the back and began moving down the street. They all held 3D-printed firearms and blasted away at any lockbox in sight, pillaging the contents inside.

Kevyn swore again and slammed the seat into its most reclined position, laying flat and hoping they hadn’t seen him. They would see the wreck and assume the owners had left it, wouldn’t they?

Sir, I am notifying you that individuals have entered the 100 yard radius you specified, and they are moving in your direction.

“I know,” Kevyn whispered. “Just keep me updated on their distance.”

Of course… 80 yards… 60 yards… 40…

Suddenly Kevyn had a horrifying epiphany. They wouldn’t leave the cars, they would loot them. How had he been so stupid? Panicky he flung the seat back to its upright position and punched the button for the ignition.

The car roared to life, mingled with shouts of surprise from the looters. Kevyn slammed the pedal to the floor and felt a rush of relief as the car lurched away from the rest of the twisted metal it had been enmeshed with. He was curving sharply to the right, though, and as he spun the wheel to correct it he found that the steering didn’t respond. The passenger side was too dented in for the vehicle to drive straight.

A building loomed up ahead and Kevyn was too slow reaching for the brakes. His vision turned white as the body-cushion sprung up around his form, suspending him in space and giving the accident that followed a strangely muffled crunching sound.

“Get off! Get off!” Kevyn shouted, punching the deflating cushion away as he scrambled for the car door. A thought occurred to him and he pulled open the glove box before exiting the car. A gun! A beautiful, glossy black handgun. He grabbed it and leapt out of the seat, pressing his back against the side of the car. The vehicle was a barrier between him and the looters, something he was grateful for as there came the sharp pinging of bullets hitting the car’s other side.

“Stay back!” he roared, shaking the gun where they could clearly see. He squeezed the trigger to fire back a warning shot but nothing happened.

Sir, you do not own this firearm…

“Buy it!”

And even if you did, you would require a weapon permit before its use would be authorized. All permits have been suspended while the Police Department’s security network is down.

Kevyn’s bluff didn’t seem to have impressed the looters very much either, and they were piling into the back of their truck as it rolled down the street, making its way towards him.

Kevyn ducked low and scrambled away towards the nearest alley, his heart thumping painfully in his chest. He reached the gap and gave a silent thanks that it was too narrow for their truck to follow him. It was just a slight gap between two apartment buildings on either side, a place filled mostly with refuse and broken appliances.

“Dani, are any of these apartments vacant?” he asked as he sprinted down the length of the alley towards the adjacent street.

There are numerous apartments available in each of these buildings, ranging in price from…

“Never mind.” He realized that these buildings would also be locked down with metal shutters, and he wouldn’t be able to enter them even if he was a patron.

A loud clap rang out as the stucco wall next to him burst from the impact of a bullet. Kevyn wheezed in shock and flung himself away towards the other side of the alley. The fact that the shot had been so close to his head was evidence of how terrible the looters’ aim was. They needed him alive, after all, if they wanted him to transfer his money into their accounts.

And there would be no negotiating with them if they did manage to catch up with him. In a world where every transfer was registered in a digital ledger it was also possible for each transaction to be reverted. The only guarantee a robber had that you wouldn’t later retrieve the money you gave them was if they left you dead. Their promise was always that the death would be much worse if you refused to transfer the money.

Kevyn continued his run, now bobbing and weaving as much as he could in the narrow alley, trying to throw off the looters’ aim.  The occasional shot clattered around his legs and feet, but thankfully none of them had found purchase yet. He was nearly to the adjacent street now, but no closer to safety.

“Where are we Dani?”

The corner of 13th Street and Mull.

“Where’s the nearest police precinct?”

1.1 miles.

1.1 miles. Normally that wouldn’t sound very far. Now it might as well be in another galaxy.

Kevyn’s eyes flashed as he spotted a mobile trash container at the end of his alley. It was the large, industrial kind, about chest height and wider than the entire alley. It was designed for mobility, with automated wheels on its bottom, so that it could be dropped off to private events and retrieved afterwards if needed.

“Dani, rent that trash box, then tell it to rotate around!”

The cost for immediate use comes with a significant fee…

“Buy it!”

There was a moment’s delay and then the container began to spin, forming a wall between the two apartment buildings just as Kevyn dove through the shrinking gap. There came a grinding sound as the edge of the container scraped along the building walls. It was too large to rotate fully, so instead it just wedged itself in as tightly as it would go.

Kevyn spun around and looked over the top of the trash container at his pursuants. They were still sprinting towards him, streaking to the barrier he had made, crouching low, and then leaping to clear it.

“Dani, open the trash’s lid,” he ordered coolly. The top sprang suddenly upwards and backwards, blocking his vision of the alley just as the looter’s eyes widened in surprise. Kevyn allowed himself a smile at the sound of the bodies slamming into the raised lid, followed by the cacophony of them tumbling back down into the container’s interior.

“Close the lid.” It slammed shut and he heard the muffled shouts of the angry looter’s banging their fists against their metal prison. “You can transfer control of the box back now. At whatever loss is fine. And tell the new owners they ought to–”

Before Kevyn could finish his snarky one-liner he jumped at a sudden squealing noise. Three blocks south of him the looter’s large truck spun around an empty intersection, then turned, and came barrelling towards him once more.

Kevyn grimaced and then began sprinting the opposite direction as quickly as he could. He wasn’t in the clear yet.

***

I mentioned on Monday how I wanted to write a story that would feature a small novelty, and then explore all of the implications that would branch out from that seed. When I started working on this story all I knew was that I wanted a world where currency had become entirely digital. I wanted to explore how ownership might be a more fluid notion when the changing of hands could be done without any hands at all, handled instead by the interfacing of different AIs.

The first implication of this was that obviously this story would need to be set in the future. A world like our world, but later. And with that came the setting, the style, and genre of the piece.

Next I drilled deeper into this idea of transactions being conducted entirely remotely. We already see the beginning of this through online shopping, but I wanted to take it a step further. What if every item was tagged with its owner, who could be remotely queried for a purchase? Every item could be tentatively for sale, so long as your offer was compelling enough.

With that in mind I wanted the story to have a reason for someone to be buying a great number of things, one right after the other. That brought up the image of someone running, trying to escape, and purchasing tools to aid him in that flight. Obviously that would mean our main character was in trouble, being pursued by some ne’er-do-wells.

And now that I was thinking about robbers, I started to wonder how that would even work in a future where every transaction could be tracked and reversed. The chillingly fatal implication of how this crime could still be effective presented itself, and I began piecing together the last parts the story.

Of course there is a little bit left to tell of it, and in the second half we are going to learn even more about the digital currency in this strange world. Before getting there, though, I want to examine a theme that has been present in all of my stories for this current series, one that has given each of them a particularly somber tone. Loss. It’s a weighty topic, and yet one that we each need to process in one way or another. I’d like to make the case that stories are a uniquely fitting way to do just that. Come back on Monday where I’ll explain why. Until then have a wonderful weekend!

Phiserman: Part Three

photo of house during daytime
Photo by Sarah Eaton on Pexels.com

Part 1

Part 2

The trick is going to be maintaining an attitude of complete nonchalance. It will be the middle of the day and that means any neighbor or passerby might see me at any moment. If they see me sneaking glances to each side and wearing a dark hoodie over my head they’ll be tipped off immediately that something is wrong. If, on the other hand, I am seen striding up to the door like I owned the place they will just think I am some out-of-town uncle that has come for a visit. Hopefully they will think that anyway. There’s no denying that there is a very real danger in all of this. But then again, if there wasn’t real danger it wouldn’t be so appealing in the first place, now would it?

And so here I am, driving up to 17462 Oak Lane right at noon. It’s such a quiet, ideal sunny day and I park smack in the middle of their driveway like I don’t have a care in the world. I allow myself one more glance down either side of the street and take a steeling breath. It’s now or never.

I don’t remember deciding to pull the trigger, but suddenly I’m hearing the sound of my door opening and the feel of my feet strolling down the cement. I fish in my pocket for my make-shift key, scraping my finger along its teeth to vent my anxiety. Though I’ve forced a mask of calmness over my face my heart is racing as though I’ve just run ten miles. My hand is trembling as I lift the key out and slowly insert it into the lock.

Please work.

Please don’t.

Click! The lock opens with perfect ease. I exhale a deep sigh as I push my way through the front door and bolt the door behind me. I close my eyes and strain my ears, listening for any sound of movement within, though I already know that I’m alone. I remind myself that I’ve been far too thorough in my research to be caught by surprise by anything, and so the key goes back into my pocket and the latex gloves come out. I suit up each hand and scan the house again, taking in the scene.

It’s a small, one-story affair. Several decades old, and you can see it in the dated wallpaper and siding. Even so, it’s been well-cleaned and well-cared for. There’s pictures along the wall, faces I’m already well-familiar with. I stroll casually past the entrance area and into the living room. There’s a light on the blu-ray player beneath the tv and I walk over and press the eject button, curious to see what the last movie they watched last night was.

Way of the Dragon.

An involuntary memory forces its way into my mind.

“But why would Chuck Norris choose a role where he gets beat?” I’m asking.

“Well, you gotta remember this was before Walker, Texas Ranger,” Dad is explaining. “He wasn’t such a big star yet, so he was gonna do whatever role he could.”

I shake my head. “It’s weird.”

“I do like how he looks in this one,” Dad grinned. “Without his beard on he’s pretty similar to me, don’t you think?”

“But he’s the badguy here!”

“So?”

“Naw, Dad, you’re Bruce Lee!”

Dad laughs. It isn’t particularly mirthful. “And how can you tell me who I am, kid, when you can’t even tell me who you are or what you want to do?”

He’s jabbing his thumb at the summer camp brochures on the table. He brought them home for me to choose where I want to head out to this weekend.

“I just–none of them sound like the sort of things I want to do,” I say slowly, not wanting to retread this argument.

“Oh yeah? And what does sound like the sort of thing you want to do?”

“I’d rather just be with you this summer!” I suggest brightly. “We could just watch movies like this all day.”

“I told you, I have to go on a trip of my own this summer.”

“I could come with you,” I say quietly.

His face turns cold. He doesn’t try to explain, he just speaks with a grim finality in his voice. “No. You couldn’t.”

My throat is tight and the blood is pumping in my ears. I’m spinning on the spot, looking for something. I don’t know what, but I know it when I see it. One of those family pictures is on the mantle, a small piece of them smiling out on a grassy hill in a dark wooden frame. I don’t look at it so much as through it. I grip it with my hands and hold it a little lower than my chest, staring dead ahead as my arms twist. Long, slow, but powerful. The wood creaks, the glass cracks, and at last the whole thing gives way and bursts apart with a snap. I let go and the various pieces clatter to the floor.

Believe it or not, never in all my planning did I ask myself what I was going to be doing once I got in here. I don’t need their money or valuables, I don’t particularly care to trash the place any more than the one picture I’ve broken. Whenever I hack people I don’t ever drain their bank accounts or sell their information. I just enjoy the sense of knowing them.

I guess that was my general intention here, too, but now I want to do a little bit more. I want to take a memento, and also I want to scare these people. I want them to know I was here and have them fear what I might have done, though I won’t have done anything at all. I’ve already broken their picture, but I scour the surroundings for something else. Something big, something prominent, something personal. Something that has been placed very deliberately, something that couldn’t have just fallen down and rolled under the sofa. Something that the absence of will immediately stand out like a sore thumb.

And then I see it. There’s a nanny cam staring directly at me from the mantle.

How did I miss it when I came in here? How did I not prepare for this? I really didn’t think that they would have one.

Why not?

I don’t know…I guess I just wanted them not to. So much so that I felt they couldn’t possibly. Stupid as it sounds, I’m completely frozen in space for a moment. The only movement is my hand slowly raising to touch my open, exposed face. I didn’t want anyone to suspect me as I entered the place, but why not keep a mask in my pocket to wear once I had closed the front door?!

My instinct is to seize the camera and smash it to pieces, as well as any computer or tablet in this home it might be streaming data to. But with it’s sleek, angular, gray-and-white design I can tell this is a modern device, one that no doubt supports motion-tracking and automated alerts pushed to a user’s phone.

They already know that I’m here.

I manage to break the spell I’m under and scramble for the front door. As I wrench the doorknob and swing the door open I see the policeman stepping out of his car. He hadn’t had his sirens on, evidently intending to catch me unawares. The man is startled by my sudden appearance, and I instinctively slam the door back shut.

I pelt to the back of the house, roving my eyes in search of a door out the back. There, in the kitchen. I lunge for it, twisting the knob before realizing that the bolt is still holding it fast.

Stupid!

I fumble with the lock, hearing myself crying as my chest heaves with fear. I finally jerk the door open just as I hear the front door being flung open with a smash.

“Stop. Now!”

Needless to say I ignore the commanding voice calling from behind as I sprint out of the house and across the small yard to the six-foot chainlink fence separating their property from the neighbors’ place. I don’t try to fit my toes in the narrow gaps, instead just kicking forwards and upwards as I half-pull half-roll myself over the fence, getting a few scrapes in the process.

They’ve already seen your face! And you’ve left your car back there!

None of that matters. I’ll figure it out later. Somehow.

I hear the heavy footsteps behind me but refuse to look over my shoulder. The more I see the officer more real he’ll be. I hear the clatter of him scrambling over the fence as I sprint around the neighbor’s house to their front-yard, exiting onto the next street and peeling off to the right.

It’s still an ideal, sunny day in modern suburbia and I feel myself cowering like a wild animal at being so exposed out in the open. My legs are shaking, threatening to turn into molten jelly at any moment.

“Please!” I wheeze out between sobs. “Pleeeease!”

I just have to get past this. I just have to get clear. If it takes everything I’ve got, I just have to escape. I’ll be able to work it all out after that, I’ll tackle each problem systematically and one-at-a-time. But I just have to lose this cop.

The click of a clasp being unbuttoned.

“Stop or I’ll shoot!”

It honestly never even occurs to me whether he might be lying. I just feel a pure and violent terror seize my chest, gripping my heart like I’ve never experienced before. I throw my hands up in the air and spin on the spot, my voice breaking and warbling as I splutter out my pleas.

“I’ll stop, I’ll stop! Just please don’t–”

He doesn’t slow one bit in his run. Officer Daley’s name badge fills my vision as he goes horizontal and t-bone’s me right in the chest. The top of his head catches my jaw and I see a stream of blood curving through the air in slow motion as I become weightless in space. He’s knocked more wind out of my lungs than I ever knew could fit in there, and so there is no noise to the crying my throat is trying to make. I spin backwards, hurtling towards the pavement, anticipating the impact that cannot be denied.

“Alright then, Dad” I say slowly, trying to keep the trembling out of my voice. “You tell me. Where should I go this summer?”

“Naw kid, that’s not for me to choose.”

“Sure it is. You want me to go, so you can decide where.”

“You gotta decide what you want for yourself.”

“But only from what you decide I can choose from?”

Both our voices have been getting louder and faster. Half in anger, half in exasperation. The tension of unspoken truths mounting. Finally Dad stops to knead his brow heavily.

“This summer is going to be hard on all of us, Terry. I’m sorry. Really I am. But I’ve got to figure stuff out, and I need to do that alone. I need to…well…find out who I am.”

I’m quiet, staring blankly through the floor. “You know Dad, you were right earlier. I don’t know who I’m supposed to be either.”

“Hey, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that–“

“No, it’s alright. It’s true…. Dad, can you do me one thing before you go?”

“Sure kid.”

“Who am I?”

“C’mon, that’s not fair. I just said, I’m still trying to figure out who I am, I’m not the person to tell you about yourself.”

“But you’re my dad. Just tell me what you think even if you don’t know. You don’t have to be right. I just need to know what you think.”

The tears were streaming from my eyes then, too. Dad was frowning, shaking his head at the responsibility.

“I will. Okay? Let me get myself sorted out and then when I come back I’ll tell you. It’ll be something you can look forward to when I return.”

“You promise?”

“Yeah.”

I rub the tears away with my grubby hand. “Daddy… I love you, y’know?”

“Sure, kid. I know you do.”

You may crush me as hard as you wish, Officer Daley.

***

 

As I suggested on Monday, unreliable narrators have the power to divulge as much from what they aren’t saying as what they are. I tried to craft Phisherman so that observant readers would be able to realize that not everything was adding up with our narrator. My hope then was that they would start reading between the lines to extract the missing pieces, and picking up on little clues.

There were things like his obsession with consuming other peoples’ identities, his unwillingness to define his own, and his negative perspective of men. All of these were supposed to tease that he bore some wound related to a father figure and his own role in life. Although the full details of that wounding would have been impossible to predict exactly, hopefully when finally witnessed it felt consistent with what had been suggested before. The ways his father left him will hopefully match up with the personality we see in him now.

Also, a week before Monday, I posted about how characters can be portrayed as one-dimensional villains at the outset, and then given a sympathetic backstory to evolve them later on. Obviously Jake (or should we call him Terry?) is doing something horrible when fate finally catches up to him, and he is deserving of all the legal action that is sure to follow.

And yet I do hope he also comes across as pitiable. I hope that the readers feel that the way he has become makes sense, even if it cannot be justified. This is actually an essential groundwork for any time a villain in a story is meant to become a hero. Once a character is understood, they are also redeemable.

It was in reaching this point of inflection that I ultimately decided the story was ready to close. I knew that Terry was stuck in an unhealthy rut at the outset of this story, and I wanted to get him to where he finally had a choice again. In this story we see him hitting rock bottom and what will follow could be either a spiraling demise or the beginnings of turning over a new leaf. Either way, that would be another story in and of itself, the story of the hacker “Jake” has reached its end.

Even so, I’m sure there are those that would rather have had the story go further into what happens next for Terry. This brings up a common question in writing a story: when exactly should it end? I’ll explore this question in my post on Monday. Come back then to chime in with your own takes on the matter, I’ll see you there.