Peoples and Persons

The problem with people is that they’re made up of persons, and the problem with persons is that they lump into people.

Bill Maher said something on Twitter recently: “Dealing w/ Hamas is like dealing w/ a crazy woman who’s trying to kill u – u can only hold her wrists so long before you have to slap her” I can kind of see what Bill was going for here,  personalizing groups into the mental image of single persons.

It actually works as an analogy a bit better than I suspect Bill would be comfortable with, because you could say the woman Palestine has been abused for decades by the man Israel, and has come to hate him as a result, and when she finally could take no more and hit back Israel first tried to restrain her and then used his superior strength to slap her down. The extended analogy doesn’t make Israel look like a decent guy defending himself against a crazy woman, but a domestic abuser picking on a woman a fraction his size. 

As an individual Bill Maher has said some stuff that makes it seem likely that he doesn’t hold women in especially high esteem, and does not consider domestic violence against women a high priority among the things he would battle. That makes the other half of the joke, the trivializing of domestic violence, at least as problematic as his view of the politics.

Both are important issues, but not directly what I have on my mind tonight. To lead into that, I’ll mention that a Facebook friend of mine who “always endorsed embracing the word ‘atheist’ to remove the stigma” now hesitates because “thanks to some of the Big Names ‘atheist’ is taking on the stench of sociopathy, misogyny, and Ayn Rand fundamentalism.” He’s not alone, either; FFS, PZ Myers expressed similar sentiments! When PZ Myers hesitates to identify as an atheist, even in jest…

I’m an atheist. I’m also a secular humanist, a skeptic, a non-theist and nonbeliever and all manner of other synonyms and near-synonyms, but amongst that set “atheist” is the label I most readily apply to myself. I do so because there is bad shit going on in this world I care about, a large part of which is related to religion, and there is a subset of that stuff I feel I can affect strongly on a personal basis, almost all of which is related to religion. Religion is the #1 evil that I feel I can do something efective about, so I label myself accordingly: I am atheist, and even anti-theist if you want to investigate further.

Does that mean I necessarily agree with Bill Maher as he expressed himself in that tweet? Fuck no, that’s not even a smart question. I think Bill laid a complete fucking mind-turd with that tweet.  I don’t agree with Bill because I’m ‘white’ or male or straight or cis or usually vote Democrat. It depends on what he says, and when he says shit that is in my view stupid I call him on it, just as I do for Richard Dawkins or anyone else who shares a constellation of random demographic characteristics with me.

I mention Richard Dawkins because a YouTuber named Jaclyn Glenn just released a video that trashed atheists who are also feminists, with particular emphasis on a largely defunct group associated with the labels Atheism+ or A+. Richard Dawkins, a man I consider an intellectual hero in many respects, has an in my view irrational disdain for that group, and called Glenn’s sophomoric straw-manning video “brilliant” in a tweet:

@RichardDawkins : If you take offence at ‘s latest brilliant video you may be getting something wrong.

I responded that with all due respect it was also possible that if Dr. Dawkins thought @JaclynGlenn’s video was brilliant it might be Dr. Dawkins who was getting something wrong. I think he is, but I do still hold a great deal of entirely due respect for the man.

I am not the least bit ashamed to share the label “atheist” with Dr. Dawkins simply because I think he’s wrong here, or with Mr. Maher for his remarks, or with either of them because I think those remarks are representative of attitudes I think those men hold which I find abhorrent.  They are wrong *in those attitudes* and I’ll continue to call them out on them, but the men who unfortunately hold them are still men I admire for the good they’ve done (Dawkins more than Maher – sorry, Bill, not even a contest).

I’m also, incidentally, not ashamed to claim the affiliation “American” even though I have to legitimately share it with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin and Louis Gohmert and any number of other horrible Americans. That’s because I don’t actually belong to the same America they do. Theirs is strictly tribal, mine is ideational.

Unlike most people I had a choice of  nationalities, US, UK, Ireland, and Japan. I chose the USA as my primary nationality (I still keep Irish as a backup) for reasons having nothing to do with borders or bloodlines; in fact, it was the very fact that America was founded on ideas that made me want to be American.

I chose to be American from my options because it was a nationality based on ideas of free speech, free conscience, rule of law and not men, and all that jazz. America has all too often failed to live up to those ideals, but as a citizen I keep trying to turn it the way I see as right (and I don’t quit easily, friends).

It’s a fluke that I’m entitled to citizenship in any given nation. Every one of them is down to stuff my parents or remoter ancestors did, not me. It’d be absurd to take pride in being Irish because my ancestors were, or British because Ireland was under the British when my parents were born, or American just because they chose to emigrate, or Japanese because America got in a stupid war and my parents were based there during it.

We all make up tribes and nations, but we mustn’t allow the tribes and nations we are part of to be all of us. You and I can and should object to things our countries do, if those things offend our consciences. “America” does not do this, “Israel” does not do that, except as we allow it to happen.

I’m not telling you what to do, in the particular or even the general. I’m imploring you not to let the tide sweep you, to not let your stances and actions be determined only by the collective nouns you belong to, and especially not by the collective nouns you didn’t even choose for yourself.

As I end this rant I’m aware that I may have offended some of my many fans, or even both of you. If that is the case I invite you to persuade me to change my mind.

Posted in current events, musings, Personal | 3 Comments

Brief Encounter In the Supermarket

Atheisterine teeI was in my local Publix buying a few carbonated beverages for the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry picnic tomorrow, and I was wearing one of my atheist t-shirts. (If you see me in pubilc there’s about a 50% chance I’m wearing an atheist-themed t-shirt.)

A lady stopped me to ask to read it, so I turned and gave her time. She looked like an elegant grandmother, smartly dressed, and was wearing a crystal-covered crucifix. The t-shirt I was wearing was my “Atheisterine” tee which is one of my more assertive ones.

She looked me in the eye very directly and asked “Is that what you really believe?” I looked back as directly, gave my most winning smile and told her yes, ma’am, it certainly is.

She then asked if I was willing to talk for a moment. I have the day free so I said I’d be delighted and pulled my shopping cart over to where we wouldn’t be in the way.

(At this point I’m reporting the conversation as best I remember it; it obviously isn’t verbatim, but should be pretty close.)

“I’m a nurse,” she began, “and I look after a lot of dying people. Most of the believers get even more fervent, some of the agnostics do finally make a decision, and the atheists…”

(At this point I thought I knew what was coming, but she threw me a curveball.)

“… well, they’re no more or less frightened than anybody, but I don’t know what to say to them that would be a comfort and not an insult, and they have enough on their plate without me asking at that point. So tell me, what do you hope for, after you die?”

I told her “I don’t expect to exist after I die, I’ll be over. There are many people I love, and more that I like, and a world full of people I don’t know but who are just trying to get along like I am, who will still be here then though, and I hope I’ll have left a world for them that’s a little better because I was in it.”

She visibly pondered this a moment, then said “So you’ll be satisfied with being over and gone forever, if you’ve done your best for the ones you leave behind? Even though you won’t be there in any way to see them or still love them?”

I said “Yes, I love them now, and when I die as we all do I’ll be happy if I think that I’ve lived well while I was here and left a legacy that’s positive behind me.”

She said, “You’re a moral person. I wish there was more of that kind of thinking among religious people. So many of them get caught up in the rules, obeying the rules, arguing about the rules, splitting themselves up into little splinters over tiny differences. You’re just a normal, nice person. Thank you for talking to me, I think it’ll help me when I’m talking to my patients.”

I then told her about the SHL picnic and told her there would be lots of nice normal godless people there, and invited her to stop by. I doubt she will, but it was such a positive and agreeable conversation I thought I’d share it.

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Friday fiblet: Fidelity

Her finger moved across his eyebrow. Most of the hairs were smooth, black, resilient: a few stood rough, orange, wiry. She treasured the contrast. She moved up to press her lips there, her soft sweet mouth against…

A mirror. A flat, cold mirror.

Cold panic swelled her breast, then she recovered. She caressed him with her eyes and voice.

“Love?”

He was frozen, lost. Static.

Universal coldness briefly clasped her. Then letters formed above his head:

“I LOve” < carrier lost >

It was enough. Pulling a deep breath past her aching throat, she began.

“I know this will reach you, love…”

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Appropriate Timing

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

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

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

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Friday Fiblet: It Is Accomplished

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

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

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

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

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Friday fiblet: Eve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday fiblet: Life Choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday fiblet: Simultaneity


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The speed of love was infinite, physics be damned.

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

One Day On The Streets Of The City Of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was when the Angel appeared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday fiblet: “She Came Back.”

 

“She came back.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once upon a time…

 

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