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Donnelle

Me 2015

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January 28th, 2015

Dragons are not fertile creatures by nature; their brooding happens rarely, and takes many years. So when M'rtaka was heavy with egg, she searched long and wide for a haven that could sustain her through ten years of guardianship. She found a place, with high cliffs where the sun clung to the rocks, overlooking a wide plain where the herd animals gathered to drink from the cool, green river, and there she laid her eggs.

Most queen dragons lay one or two eggs, but M'rtaka was in the prime of health. Her four eggs, each of a different hue, were a truly prodigious clutch. She curled around them, guarding them through the night, and through most of each day, except when she would stoop on whistling wings to the plain below to kill, and to feast. And so the seasons changed, hot to cold, cold to hot, hot to cold.

The humans came.

M'rtaka sprang from the cliffs, talons bared, and the humans collapsed to the ground in fright. They were a ragged bunch, in poor condition, ill-fed and stringy. One of them, with the rare gift of dragontongue, cried aloud, "Oh, great one! Spare us and we will serve you!"

They didn't look tasty. M'rtaka stayed her killing blow and uttered one word; "How?"

The one with speech replied, "However you need."

M'rtaka leapt into the air, her powerful wings thundering through the air, and returned to her cliff-top abode. She curled around her eggs to contemplate the situation, gazing down upon the tiny humans.

Eventually apathy or exhaustion overcame their fear, and they staggered around making preparations for the night. They slept in the shelter of the cliffs, and M'rtaka watched with the same unceasing alertness she gave her eggs.

*

When the morning light struck the cliff-top, M'rtaka soared aloft, arcing into the wind. She monitored her eggs, and the humans, but she also searched for evidence to confirm her suspicion.

When she found it, she plummeted to the plain. The humans again cowered in fear, but the one who could speak crept forward. "How can we serve you?

The sleek dragon folded her wings. "You will hunt for me. At least two beasts, every evening. More, in time."

The human bowed. "Yes, oh great one. It will be done." The other humans muttered, but began collecting what meagre implements they had.

M'rtaka extended her front foot, the claws only half-sheathed. "And the humans who follow you- they seek to hurt you?"

The motley group froze in fear, but the speaker bowed again. "Yes, oh wise one." M'rtaka scented fear and uncertainty. "Will you... will you protect us?"

"It will be done! Now fulfill your duty!" M'rtaka roared, and sprang into the air.

*

The humans hunted through the heat of the day, their tools ill-suited to the purpose. At last, they managed to bring down two beasts, a nursing dam and her calf.

Evening shadows streaked the ground before M'rtaka returned. She gnawed half-heartedly at the calf, showing little appetite.

The speaker approached timidly. "Are they not acceptable, oh wise one? A thousa-"

M'rtaka growled, and the speaker froze into silence. "Enough with the 'wise one' and 'great one'. My name is M'rtaka, and there is no greater name. You humans may take the cow. I have protected you, and now you must grow stronger so that you may serve me better."

Hunger overcame fear, and the other humans bustled forward to start butchering the beast. M'rtaka turned her back, and lumbered to her eyrie. Her belly was deliciously full.

The preparations below took on a festive air, and what could have been just a meal became a celebratory feast. At last the humans slept, bellies stuffed into shocking protuberances on their depleted frames.

*

Months passed. The humans built shelters, and started to accrue tools and experience that made their hunting trips more successful. The budding settlement prospered under M'rtaka's watchful eye.

The humans grew healthier, but the belly of the speaker grew faster than most. When M'rtaka spoke, the speaker's stomach would jump and twitch, stretched and extended by something inside.

One night, when the moons shone bright and full overhead, the nocturnal stillness was broken by groans. The groans became screams; the screams became silence; the silence became a chorus of wails.

In the morning, M'rtaka descended to the village. No-one stood to speak to her.

*

Years passed. The humans multiplied, with little brown bodies skipping through the shallows of the river.

They hunted, still, but nobody spoke to M'rtaka, and she could not make them understand. The beasts grew scarcer and more cunning, and there were more humans to feed. With shifty eyes, the humans offered only one beast.

M'rtaka ate it, demurely, and flew to her nest as always.

When no-one died for their failure, they grew bolder. If a hunt was especially successful, they might offer two, but otherwise it was one...or sometimes none. Yet the humans grew fatter, sleek and healthy.

The dragon brooded, fussing over her clutch. The shadows within the eggs grew clearer each day, the shapes within coiling and shifting as the shells thinned.

She had no way to tell the humans that she needed more food. A dragon's pride is paramount, and so she refused to break the bargain by hunting for herself. Soon the hatchlings would emerge, ravenous and keening. If the humans would not meet their side of the bargain, they could serve in another way.

January 22nd, 2015

40 years ago...

I don't know how Chuck got the whisky, but he did. I'd never tasted it before, but when my first sip seared its way down my throat, I tried to refuse the next.

Chuck laughed at me. "Come on, Jimmy, you gonna come all the way out here and not have a drink? It's too cold to just sit here."

He had a point. The autumn air was brisk, and the warm glow of my first sip smouldered nicely within me. Wordlessly, I held my hand out for the flask. The second sip was smoother, and didn't seem so determined to ignite my sinuses. I took a third.

He grinned at me. God, I loved that grin. I didn't have words for how I felt about him, but that was okay; I knew I could never speak them, anyway.

"That's more like it." He settled back against the fence and stared up at the bare branches of the overhanging trees, taking a swig. I leaned back, too, careful not to touch him, but intensely conscious of the warm length of his thigh, stretched so close to mine. The scent of Old Spice, pilfered from his dad's bathroom, drifted around us. We watched the moon in companionable silence, sharing the bottle back and forth. I closed my eyes with each sip, aware that my lips were where his had been, knowing it was wrong.

"Man, this place is a mess." Chuck gestured, bottle in hand, to our shrouded surroundings. The crisp light of the moon made mysterious hummocks of the headstones, engulfed in masses of ivy and moss.

"Mum said the council is talking about cleaning it up, maybe opening it up again. Redhill Cemetery is nearly full, and this one still has plenty of space."

"Huh." He took another swig. "Good luck getting anyone to work here. What with the ghost and all." He handed me the bottle, warmed from his hand, and I took a mouthful and savoured it. Maybe this stuff wasn't so bad.

"Oh yes, the terrible ghost." This was something we'd done together since we met in first grade, traded ideas back and forth, making up stories together. "He wanders the cemetery every night, you know."

"Looking for the pants his wife stole." This struck us both as hilarious, and it took several minutes for us to hiccup our way back to sensibility.

"It's a tragedy, a man without pants," I said. "If only..."

"...if only, he'd kept them on."

The whisky spoke. "When his boyfriend came to visit." Chuck put his head back against the fence, his whole body relaxing and shaking with laughter. His leg touched mine, and I froze. My blood was racing through my body, driven by whisky and desire. He stilled, and I held my breath as he turned to look at me. In the moonlight, his eyes were the colour of smoke.

A moment passed.

Chuck scrambled to his feet. "School tomorrow. We'd better get home," he said. He tucked the flask into his jacket pocket and offered me a hand. I stood up, braced against his warm grip, and we walked to our houses in silence.

35 years ago...

"Hey, Jimmy." Chuck leaned over the cemetery fence. I'd never found work after graduation, so when the council finally got around to sorting out the old cemetery, I went for the job. A dollar an hour pulling up ivy and digging up weeds. The work was hot and hard, but muscles formed and bunched under my skin, and I bulked out from the angular teenager I'd been.

"Hey, Chuck." He threw me a beer; it fizzed as I opened it. I chugged it as he half-unzipped his greasy overalls and lit a cigarette. "How was work?" Chuck always had a story about something that had happened at his dad's workshop; how old Mrs Williams filled her car up with oil instead of petrol; the dodgy magazine they'd found under the seat of the pastor's car.

"Old man Montgomery brought his truck in today. He backed it into his wife's clothesline and put a leak in the gas tank. He patched it with gladwrap and bandaids to get it to the workshop." Chuck took a long drink from his can of beer, and offered me a cigarette.

I accepted, and held it between my lips as he lit it for me. "Really?"

Chuck snorted. "Don't know how it held together. He had a black eye though, said his wife was pretty cross about the clothesline."

I laughed. "Wives, eh. Who needs them?"

"I'll drink to that." We clinked cans, and drained them dry.

"Speaking of Montgomeries, I found another one today," I said. "Over under the oak tree." I gestured to the furthest corner.

"Oh?" he said.

"Ebenezer Montgomery, 1910 to 1928."

"Huh, right age to be Monty's... brother?"

"I figure so." We often did this, discussing the headstones I'd uncovered. So many of the surnames were familiar.

"He's the one that joined the circus, right?" Chuck grinned at me.

"Yep. Such a tragic end. Death by lion."

"That's what you get when you sleep with the liontamer's wife."

We laughed. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than this, forever; standing in the sun with Chuck, inventing stories about their lives, much more exciting than our own. It was amazing how many of the people buried in our little town had travelled the Amazon, or explored the Arctic.

But he wanted desperately to leave town, to see the world, to do bigger things. Every paycheck was squirreled away, saved for his escape. I saved, too; I liked our little town, but I wanted to go where he went.

30 years ago...

I'd long ago cleared the cemetery, though the ivy had a way of sneaking back in. It was no longer spooky, beyond the usual unease that cemeteries generate. I was proud of it, proud of my service to the town, and glad that the council kept me on as a groundskeeper and gravedigger.

I dug Chuck's grave.

He'd come by after work as usual. He was in a bad mood, bitter about being tied down. His dad was ill, and he couldn't leave the workshop. We'd drunk our usual beer, and followed it with extras. It had warmed me, and I'd done something I'd dreamed of for years.

I'd kissed him.

He'd kissed me back.

Then he'd turned, got into his car, and driven away. He never made it home.

Each shovelful of dirt was salted with my tears. The preacher spoke of loss, of friends and family, and Chuck's dad leaned on his cane with a trembling, accusing glare. He blamed me.

I blamed me.

20 years ago...

The council bought a little digger to dig the graves. It's not dignified. Easier on my back, though. I did the weeding and mowing, tidied up the flowers when the wind came through, that sort of thing. At the end of each day, I'd sit by Chuck's grave and talk to him.

But then Chuck's dad died. The bitter old man hung on longer than anyone thought he would. His headstone glowered at me, stark and stern next to Chuck's, and I couldn't shake the feeling that he was listening in. It was never the same, after that. I couldn't tell Chuck how I was feeling; just "Good morning, Chuck" and "Good night, Chuck".

1 year ago...

The council set up a team to handle all the cemeteries; Redhill, my one, and the new one they opened on the south side of town. They said I was too old, that I couldn't handle the work. It was true. All those cigarettes took my breath away. But I didn't like the job they did; their weedwhackers were quick, but the ivy is smart enough to just stay low. It'd take over if I let it.

So I kept doing my rounds, tidying up, weeding where I could, and checking on Chuck. It got harder every week, especially in winter when my breath whistled like the wind in the branches, and I thought about staying at home.

My little one-bedroom flat had little appeal, though, and I couldn't leave Chuck out there, alone. I'd bundle up warm, and shuffle out to his grave, sitting in silence, thinking the thoughts I couldn't speak.

One day I got there, and his headstone was gone. His father's stone still loomed, but Chuck's was gone. Those bloody teenagers, always hanging out here and mucking around, must have broken it. I was so angry that my chest hurt.

With tears in my eyes, I knelt beside his grave, in the spot that I'd worn bare of grass. "Oh, Chuck," I said.

I smelled whisky and Old Spice. I knew it was him, before I felt the warm grip on my shoulder.

Now...

I must be dead. There's no other explanation for it. I don't mind. My body is firm and fit again, no aches and pains, and Chuck is here with me.

The afternoons are endless. We sit together against the fence, sharing a flask that never empties. He flashes that grin at me, and we spin stories back and forth between us.

January 20th, 2015

I found half a magic wand today. Mum said it was just a stick, that there's no such thing as magic, but I saw something sparkling in the middle of it, where it's all broken. Maybe it's unicorn hair. Maybe it's a phoenix feather.

Mum told me to put it down, but it's mine. When she wasn't looking, I put it in my pocket and took it home.

When Mum started cooking dinner, I went out in the garden and tried to do magic with my half-a-wand. I said "Abracadabra!" but nothing happened. I said "Wingardium leviosa!" like they do in the movie, and pointed it at the cat, but nothing happened. The cat ran away, but she wasn't flying.

Then I looked at my wand. It was definitely sparkly. I poked at the end but I couldn't get the sparkle out. It made a little noise, though, sort of a bzzzt.

I thought very hard. Maybe the wand didn't understand big magic words? Maybe it was like the nice old lady on the bus. You have to talk slowly and use little words or she doesn't understand. I pointed it at the clothesline and said, "Candy!"

The wand went bzzzt.

And the clothesline was gone. But there wasn't any candy.

Just a can of beans.

"HOLY COW!" someone shouted, and I got a fright. It was my big brother Andy. He's okay. He can be a bit mean sometimes, but he's nice to me when Daddy comes home. I call him my biiig brother because he's so tall. Mum says he's growing. He looks kind of funny with his skinny long legs.

He yelled at me again. "What did you DO?!"

"I don't know!" I said.

He said Mum was going to be mad, and he said I was a "stupid head". So I called him "froglegs". He hates that.

Bzzzt.

Andy was gone. And there was a big green frog, looking at me with big eyes, and legs all long and sticking out just like Andy.

I nearly cried. Dad would be so mad at me. He might get his belt again. I had to fix Andy! But I didn't know how.

So I thought and I thought and I thought. I said "candy" and I got a can. I said "froglegs" and I got a frog. Maybe my half-a-wand only did half-magic?

Then I thought and thought some more. And I wondered if maybe I said "boyfriend" it would turn Andy back to a boy? It was a bit scary because I didn't want to have a frog for a boyfriend, but I didn't know what else to do. So I said "boyfriend", and it worked! Andy turned back to a boy!

He was a bit scared so I gave him a big hug. And then I told him all about the magic wand and how it only did half a word. I showed him the sparkly bit at the end. He was looking at it when Mum called us to come and have dinner, and he put it in his pocket. I tried to get it back off him but he said no.

Mum tried to get us to eat dinner quickly and go to bed before Dad got home. We tried, but we weren't quick enough. Dad came home and he was all loud, and he smelled like the funny drink he keeps in the cupboard. He yelled at Mum, and then he yelled at Andy.

Andy and I usually go hide when Dad starts to yell. Or we just sit and be as quiet as we can. So it was funny that Andy stood up and said "Stop." Dad got even madder and he yelled some more, and he he started to take his belt off.

Andy told me to close my eyes and keep them closed. I didn't want to see Dad hit him, so I squished them all closed like this. And then Andy said "Deadbolt", which was a funny thing to say. That's the special lock that Mum got put on the door when Dad went away for a while but then he came back and broke it. And I heard a bzzzt.

Is Andy in trouble, Mr Policeman? And can I have a sandwich? I didn't get to eat all my dinner.

January 15th, 2015

LJ Idol Week 33- Musth

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Me me
This planet is not our home. We came here thousands of years ago, in a failing ship. The flickering remnants in the reactor core were barely enough for us to fire off a call for help, and guide the ship to earth as best we could.

Though the planet seemed to bask in blues and greens, our scarred ship landed in a brown dustiness. We could not survive here, not in our true forms. The gravitational pull was too fierce, the atmosphere too oxygenated. Our ship was nearly drained, and help was a million light years away. We had no choice; we had to meld.

Melding is an emergency procedure, used only in direst need. If lifeforms are compatible, we can integrate our consciousness to form a shared symbiont, where we can bide our time, passing from host to host with each generation, waiting for assistance to arrive.

Earthbound, we could only scan the nearby area, hoping for a suitable host animal. Should it be those spotted creatures, with claw and tooth and the fearsome speed of our nf'anda at home? Or those small, darting animals in their underground colonies, taking democratic turns to bask in the sun and stand on guard? Or the voiceless, angular beasts that graze on the treetops?

Eventually we settled on an animal with size, intelligence, and strength, with social behaviours that mimicked our own. Its grey, wrinkled skin offered protection from sun and foes, and its faintly ridiculous facial appendage was nimble enough to be useful. We used the last dregs of power to entice a herd closer, broadcasting their own calls back to them.

They came. We shifted, and merged, encoding ourselves into their very cells. They welcomed us, in their basic way, and we learned the rhythm of the seasons, and the way of our new world.

It was brutal.

Life came and went with sudden redness, with fear and pain. It was strange to us, but we persisted through the years, passing from parent to child.

We survived, nothing more, waiting for help. Then, a thousand years ago, we heard it; the faintest signal, getting ever closer. Help was coming.

The realisation struck us hard. We had no way to respond, to show that we were still here. Helplessly, we listened as the signal peaked and then faded again, sliding into an orbit around the sun.

Despair drove some of us mad. Our mental anguish festered in the host animals; they rampaged across the dust, devastating anything that lay before them. The rest of us could only watch in horror; the other hosts learned to flee until the madness had passed.

Every year when the temperature drops, in the period of time they call "winter", the beacon comes around again. We listen powerlessly as it drifts past us. Each year, it is quieter; each year, that knowledge drives some of us mad.

I've never succumbed. Not yet. But if one day, winter comes, and the beacon does not... then, I will truly despair.

January 14th, 2015

On an island in a lake, there stands a tree. Its roots stretch down to drink the sweet waters in which the silver fish play; its branches dance against the sky, revelling in the flow of the wind, back and forth.

Each morning, the wind blows from the east, fragrant with spices, and bearing pollen to fatten the blossom buds. The afternoon wind blows from the west, bitter and alkaline, carrying ashes and salt, but pollen, too.

The fruit on the east side of the tree grows sweet and juicy, its thick, silver rind enclosing soft, pulpy flesh. Children row out in their little rowboats, and gather the fruit, stuffing as much into their mouths as they can. There is always one child, young and on their first visit, or hopelessly optimistic, who ventures to the west.

The fruit on the west side of the tree is dusky, its rind thickened against the bitter wind. The pollen from the west tells a different story to the tree's blossoms as they swell, and the flesh within is dry and seedy. Children who try it gasp about the sourness, with their mouths puckered dry, and scamper back to the east, to sweetness and goodness.

Come autumn, the remaining fruit fall from the tree, scattering into the lake, and the tree prepares for the winter ahead.

Winter passes with its usual bluster, but one afternoon brings a terrible storm. The westerly wind, bitter and cold, lashes the tree, battering it with fury. The tree resists, but from the west comes a terrible rending sound.

Spring comes. The morning wind brings perfume and pollen. The afternoon wind brings only salt and ashes.

As spring stretches into summer, the fruit on the east side of the tree fattens into delicious weightiness. The west side of the tree is empty of fruit, covered only with soft, silver leaves. The children come, with greedy mouths and empty bags, to gather the fruit. They are pleased that there are no sour fruits, and strip the tree bare.

Autumn comes again. There are no fruit left to fall, to scatter into the lake. The silver fish cannot feed, to get strong for the winter ahead. Many die. Their darting dances no longer sweeten the lake, and the water begins to stagnate.

The tree has no choice but to drink of the water. The sourness seeps through its sap. The silver leaves wither, and spring brings no blossoms to scent the air.

There will be no fruit this year.

January 8th, 2015

I ordered my usual gin from the servo-bot and sat down at the bar. The air was redolent with the stench of the Hudson River; ongoing clean-up work hadn't yet reversed the eco-collapse of 2133, and ten years later it still smelled of death. You got used to it, mostly. It was worse in hot weather, and today had been a scorcher.

The last few weeks at work had been hellish, fighting to meet the fixed deadline of today's lottery, but we'd done it. The atmosphere at CyberCo had been triumphantly collegial. We'd declared it "beer o'clock" at three, and then left early. I'd come straight here, for my annual tradition of watching the lottery at my favourite bar. I nursed my drink and gazed at the screen.

The Lotteries head, Jaylene something-or-other, gave her usual aspirational speech- "think big", "make a difference", the same old stuff. Then the lottery-bot, gawky and angular, fished a ball from the spinning barrel and held it aloft. It was all for show; the barrel was nowhere near big enough to hold the 38 million balls needed to represent every law-abiding, employed, adult citizen of New York, not unless the balls were

<Implant query: container volume / 38000000, allow volume factor of 1.6 for movement> 0.32mm>

0.32 millimetres in diameter.

The ball the bot held aloft was much bigger than that, but no matter. Digits slid over its SmartSkin, displaying the citizen number randomly selected by the algorithms behind the scenes. There was no need for all the stage-dressing; you could just run a random number generator over the citizenship list and choose the first seven, but the flashing lights and glamour kept people tuned in. A voice-over announced the digits, and my implant

<Implant query: Citizen 752341857> Henry James Fernandez, b. 2108, Apt. 3012, 452 Foster Ave, New York, NY 10016. Three children, 2142 income of $132,023.>

flashed up his details, while the screen showed an animated cut scene with his name and photo. The upgrades I'd made to my implant weren't strictly legal, but I hadn't been able to resist the challenge of breaching and integrating a number of supposedly-secure city databases. It was useful.

I sipped my gin; it mingled warmly in my stomach with the beer I'd had at work. I wasn't alone. A rowdy group of college kids in the corner laughed over the traditional lottery drinking game; they each picked a digit, and every time their digit was announced they had to drink. One, with the pasty pallor of a physics student, argued it was unfair to pick 0, given that citizenship numbers don't start with 0, and that started a loud discussion about probability and the unlikely characteristics of each others' mothers.

It wasn't so long since I was one of them, oblivious to the real world; I'd graduated with an double degree in Mathematics and Computer Science eight months ago, and since then I'd been working at CyberCo. They provided the gear for the lottery winners, and I spent my days working with probability analysis and consensus, modifying differential equations with 30-plus variables and integrating the calculations into code. It paid the bills, and left enough time for my other interests.

The second ball was drawn,

<Implant query: Citizen 684128953> Alicia Rose Willcocks, b. 2122. Final year PoliSci student at NYU, with part-time employment at McDenny's. Minor traffic violation in 2141, expunged with the minimum 320 hours of community service.>

and the group in the corner started the next round, reciting each digit and pointing accusingly if the person took too long to drink. Alicia's details came on screen, and they whistled appreciatively at her picture. "I'd like HER number," some wit yelled.

I rolled my eyes as I took another sip. I'd had enough of that sort of nonsense at college. Despite many attempts since the late 20th century to address the gender imbalance, I had still been severely outnumbered in my classes. I've never been a stunner, but the very fact of my femininity had been enough to goad even the most awkward of classmates into propositioning me. Urgh. Not interested. Alicia, on the other hand... I'd appreciated her smile as much as the college kids, but I wasn't crass enough to whistle about it.

The lottery-bot reached into the barrel again, and grasped one of the swirling balls. I barely listened as I savoured my drink, until

<Implant query: Citizen 722148301> Shay Malloy, b. 2120.>

I realised it was my number, my name and face being flashed up on the screen. The glass slipped from my numb hand, and shattered against the floor, the abrupt noise interrupting the next round of "Drink your digit". The pale student stared at me, and a flurry of elbows and whispers flew around the group. Suddenly they were around me, crowding me with beery breath and exclamations.

"You won!" one yelled.

"Vote for cheap beer!" shouted another, to general cheers of approbation.

I ignored them. My implant was flooding with message pings, from friends and family. I started to check the one from my mother, but it was over-ridden.

<Message: Priority: Governmental Urgent, Classified. From: New York Lotteries and Electoral Commission> Congratulations on your election. Stay where you are.>

The group around me grew quiet and withdrew, watching as two large men in dark suits approached me. How did they get here so quickly? I briefly considered running, but my shaky legs wouldn't let me. I didn't want this.

"Miss Shay Malloy." It wasn't a question. "Please come with us," said the taller of the two suits, extending a hand. I didn't have a choice; I went with them.

*

The room at NYLEC was spacious and comfortable, with the pale cream furnishings of an institute that can afford plenty of cleaner-bots. I huddled in the corner of an enormous couch. Henry Fernandez sat opposite me, his dark face wrinkled with concern. We'd exchanged introductions, then left each other alone to ponder what would happen next.

Alicia was ushered in, still in her McDenny's uniform. Despite the unflattering beige-with-yellow-trim clothes, she was stunning. Her dark eyes were wide, glittering with calculation and suppressed fear, but she maintained a casual demeanour as she introduced herself. We chatted about the superficial pleasantries of people in unwanted situations, telling me nothing my implant hadn't already reported.

The other chosen citizens gradually arrived, escorted by their own pairs of large men: Maria, a middle-aged Latina who owned a well-known bot distributor; Sherm, a 20-something who worked "whatever's going"; Charlotte, a dancer from Brooklyn with two children, fretting about whether her mother would be able to pick her kids up from school. Rickard, a perfect blustering example of middle-management in a grey suit, demanded to know how long this would take; we shrugged and ignored him. We all knew the theoretical premise of what was about to take place, but the practicalities hadn't been covered in our civics classes.

The door opened, and Rickard fell silent. The head of NYLEC came in, as pristinely groomed as when she'd appeared at the start of the lottery, followed by a few others in less formal clothes. They were techs; I knew the type, and they carried CyberCo-branded boxes.

"Good afternoon," the head announced. "I'm Jaylene Davidson, head of NYLEC. No doubt you have many questions-" she raised a manicured hand to silence Rickard as he began to blather- "and they will all be answered in time. You all know that New York is governed by consensus. Each year we select seven good citizens, assess their values and priorities, and use our analysis to form a consensus. Your consensus will drive policy and funding decisions in the coming year."

Charlotte tentatively raised a hand. "How long will it take? My kids..."

"The process takes several weeks." Charlotte gasped, and adopted the glazed expression of someone accessing her implant. Jaylene continued, "During that time, you will-" Charlotte twitched, as if receiving a painful electric jolt, "-not be able to access messaging. Any dependents will be taken care of by the city."

Alicia spoke up. "How do we do it? I know it has something to do with our implants."

"You will be fitted with a headnet. We'll put them on now, to give them time to integrate with your implants before we begin in the morning. The headnets assess your response to a range of topics. Your responses will be averaged out to form a consensus. Any questions?" Her tone was polite, but the expression on her face was cool enough to quell even Rickard.

She nodded curtly to the techs. The scruffiest one, clearly senior, fiddled with a handheld device, while the others moved around the room, fitting a stretchy net over each of our heads. One by one, a light lit up on each headnet, but the tech behind me muttered and fussed, pulling and adjusting it. The senior tech came over.

"Is there a problem?"

The tech behind me mumbled something about non-compliant settings, and the senior tech caught my eye. His eyelid flickered.

"I'll sort it out." As he adjusted the headnet, he tapped the handheld device, apparently calibrating some settings. From his smile, he succeeded, and the techs moved back to stand behind Jaylene. The senior tech gazed blandly at me, and a brief expression of abstractedness passed across his face.

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> Do not react. I will contact you later.>

He winked at me.

*

The evening passed with more briefings and acclimatisation. The real work would begin in the morning. We were shown to individual bedrooms, each sumptuously furnished in pale neutrals. I collapsed onto the bed and stared at the ceiling.

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> Are you alone? Respond if so.>

I considered his message. Concealed surveillance aside, this was as alone as I was likely to get. I composed a message and replied: <I am alone. How are you messaging me? I thought we couldn't access it.>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> I set up an internal commnet on your specific headnet. I needed to talk to you. You are not here by chance.>

<Oh?>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> I accessed the algorithms for the lottery selection and made sure you'd be picked. I need your help. The city needs your help.>

<What's going on?>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> Jaylene is working with CyberCo. She's being paid off by the Chief of Police. They came up with a scheme to reduce unrest in the city. They want to take consensus to the next level - feed it back to the populace so that they will all agree with the city's policies. They've put a feedback loop in, to override your response and encourage you to respond as they want. Then when they have the nicely-packaged consensus they need, it'll be pushed out to the citizens.>

<That's horrible! Can they do it?>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> CyberCo has the tech. You've been working on some of it. That's why I need you.>

<What can I do?>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> I hope you will be able to disable the override.>

<OK. I'll try. What do I need to do?>

I waited, lying awake until the dark hours of the morning, but my implant remained silent.

*


=====================
Please note: this is the first part of a two-part story. The second half is for the second topic of this week, Overwatch, and can be found here: http://jexia.livejournal.com/1338376.html
Please note: this is the second part of a two-part story. The first half is for "Intersubjectivity", and is essential for this piece. (Sorry.)

The first half can be found here: http://jexia.livejournal.com/1338776.html


=====================

A quiet knock on the door startled me awake. I must have dozed off unwittingly. My head felt murky; my mouth, too. Too much beer? Gin? Unsettling dreams about a megalomaniac trying to mess with everyone's brains?

I called, "Come in," and a servo-bot entered, carrying a tray. My mouth watered; the accompanying scents were greasy and savoury, just what my stomach wanted.

As I ate, the servo-bot bustled around, making a point of opening the wardrobe so I could see the clothes hanging there. I had no doubt they were just my size. After a quick shower, I found they did indeed fit me. The servo-bot gestured to the hallway, and I wandered until I found the others in the room where we'd met.

Alicia greeted me, but my response was lacklustre and distracted. My mind was churning furiously. Where was Benjamin? Was he okay? Jaylene came in, accompanied by a trail of techs. Benjamin hurried in at the end of the group, his cheeks flushed. He looked dreadful, his eyes dark-ringed with exhaustion.

<What happened?>

He didn't respond, other than to glance at me. I bit my lip and waited.

The techs bustled around, checking our headnets. I held my breath as the tech scrutinised mine, but apparently it passed muster.

Jaylene started to speak, and I cast a carefully casual look in Benjamin's direction. He looked distracted, tapping at his handheld device, but he paused long enough to send a message.

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> Sorry. Detected signs of someone trying to breach our commnet. Took a while, but I managed to deflect them. I'm sorry there hasn't been time to brief you.>

<What do I need to do?>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> It's my understanding that the override will appear as differential equations, in the preprocessor subroutines. You'll probably recognise them, but you'll need to locate any changes and revert them. You'll have to work fast.>

Jaylene was exhorting us to be honest and think of the big picture. I mentally snorted, knowing who I'd give that advice to, and ignored her.

<OK, I can do that.>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> There may be data protection on them, so you'll need to subvert that, and maintain the cyclic redundancy checks so the changes aren't detected.>

<That's a hell of a lot of calculations!>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> I know. Do your best. I've got your back.>

Jaylene finally stopped, and nodded significantly to Benjamin. He met my eye, and tapped his device.

I fell through familiar blackness, to the malleable space where I had reshaped my implant's functionality. I could sense others with me; the solidity of Henry, the grey sponginess of Rickard, the fiery flicker of Maria. Alicia glowed, ethereal and pulsing. If this was my mental model of them, there was no doubt how I felt about her.

A "voice" echoed through, more sensed than heard, all glint and steel. Jaylene, not bothering to materialise herself. "We are about to begin. Keep your responses as honest as you can. There is no judgment here."

A symbol appeared, the arrowed triangle of recycling. "Rubbish collection - should we increase the fees?"

Numb lassitude spread through me, warm and enticing me to agree. I mentally twisted, but couldn't escape it. Was this the feedback loop? I looked around frantically, but couldn't see anything to challenge. Maybe I had to go deeper?

I dropped to the preprocessor level, glimpsing the tail end of a calculation. Gah. I'd already missed it. These buggers were fast.

"Consensus reached. Fees to be increased 237%."

Another symbol appeared, the tasseled cap of an archaic educational ceremony. "University fees. Currently 15% funded by the city. Should the funding be dropped?"

Surely Alicia would protest? Her glowing form appeared quiescent and compliant. The amenable lassitude spread through me again, but I fought it, dropping to the preprocessor level again. There! That was one of my equations! I hurriedly scanned through the variables, searching for alterations. The sum of... ζ'... and -15 Ψ... no, that was the same... There! They'd swapped a Φ and a θ! I swapped them back, trying to resist the inexorable tug of the equation's processing. A warning chime sounded, and I reached for the CRC subroutine, frantically diving through calculations to rebalance the checksum.

I was too slow. It was gone.

Jaylene's steely voice sounded a little perturbed. "Consensus reached. University funding to be dropped, effective immediately." She paused. "Is everyone ready to proceed?"

"Yes, Jaylene," we dutifully murmured.

A green warmth appeared. "There may be some recalibration required." Benjamin's voice flowed liquidly through the virtual space.

"Yes, there does appear to be some fluctuations in the response matrices," Jaylene said.

"I'll stay here and watch over the consensus collection, if that is acceptable?" he asked.

"Of course. Let's proceed."

The malleable blackness formed into a shape, a human shape, the archetype of every unemployed citizen. The media liked to demonise them, painting them as dirty, stupid, and drug-addicted, while carefully avoiding any mention of the bots that had reshaped our society.

"The unemployment problem - does it require a more permanent solution?"

The figure lurched, leering and grotesque, and then shuffled up a ramp to a sinister black box, marked with the red logo of Animal Control.

I didn't wait. I dropped to the preprocessor level and scanned for the equation. Whoa. This one was a juggernaut, unrecognisable to me. I fumbled through the variables, simplifying where I could, trying to discern a familiar core. Could this substitute for that? I made the change, and was immediately surrounded by a swarm of stickiness, engulfing me and hampering my movement. This equation had data protection, and plenty of it.

Suddenly Benjamin was there, green and warm. "I've got it," he said, and embraced me. As he let go, sticky strings clung between us, but the bulk had transferred to him. I could move again.

What had they done to the equation? I made more changes, finding fragments that I recognised, and stringing them together. I almost had it.

"Look out!" Benjamin was behind me, watching as I worked, and he'd spotted another layer of protection. It exploded, pelting me with stinging fragments, but he shielded me from the main force of the blast. His glow flickered; he was hurting.

"Almost there!" I said, pleadingly, and made the final switch. The warning chime sounded, and I dived into the CRC calculation, trying the most common polynominals to see if I could find a match. Binary digits swirled around me; this was low-level stuff, and hard work. Yes! a 65-bit exponent, as I'd hoped! Any bigger and I couldn't have managed it. I had my new checksum, now I just had to overwrite the old one so that my changes wouldn't be detected.

"This way!" Benjamin's green glow shaded, dark to light, indicating the direction of the checksum, and he shifted.

<Message: Priority: URGENT. From: Benjamin Cleaver> GO DARK.>

I damped my virtual appearance, stifling it to an infinitesimal speck, and followed him, cautiously. Jaylene was there. That spiky form could be no-one else. "What are you doing?" she snarled.

Benjamin said, "I detected some more fluctuations, and I was trying to track them down."

"Hrm." Her steel was icy and disbelieving now. "Back to the group."

He bobbed and obeyed, disappearing up through the levels. She followed. I'd have to be fast. I flicked through tags and found the checksum, and clumsily overwrote it with the new value. It'd have to do.

With a jolt I was back with the others. Their forms stirred and twitched, as the figure of the unemployed man turned away from the sinister box.

"That's not right!" Jaylene shrieked. "That's not what the consensus was supposed to be!"

"'Supposed to be?'" asked Alicia. "How do you know what it was 'supposed to be'?"

Jaylene's jagged form twisted. "That's not your concern."

"Not our concern?" Henry demanded. "This is our consensus. What are you doing?"

Benjamin's green glow throbbed. "The same thing she wants to do to everyone. She wants to run consensus in reverse and make us all think the same."

You don't really have lungs in virtual space, but nonetheless, everyone gasped.

"Enough," she snapped. "We have enough data to extrapolate and do it without you. It won't be as concordant, but it'll do. I'd rather you complied, though."

Rickard, bless his blustery grey soul, found some spine and spoke for all of us. "No."

"Then you're superfluous." Jaylene's spikes distorted in a way that shouldn't be possible, and agony washed through me. My senses were overwhelmed with pain, though I could still hear the screams of the others. A stream of inversion matrices flooded from her, corrupting the innards of my implant.

Reacting instinctively, I gathered the malleable darkness around me. This was my space, in my head, and I'd be damned if this sociopath was going to kill me with my own brain. Through virtual eyes blurred with pain, I followed the flow of evil to its source, and engulfed her in a wall of blackness.

The pain stopped. Jaylene's shrouded form twitched a few times and fell still.

"What happened?" Sherm asked.

"I... turned the pain against her. I guess she got an extra-strong dose with it all focused on her."

"Is she... is she dead?" Alicia's radiant form huddled against me, still shaking with reaction. I did my best to exude competence and comfort.

"Let's go find out." Benjamin's form was starting to fade. The seven of us gathered around him, touched, and ascended to consciousness.

The brightness of the pale room was a shock. We still sat on couches and chairs- except for Jaylene. She lay crumpled on the floor, with the techs fussing around her. Benjamin levered himself stiffly to his feet, and limped over. "Don't bother," he said.

"She's still breathing," said one of the techs, hopefully.

"She got hit with an eightfold inversion matrix."

"Oh." The tech shrugged and moved away.

*

There were weeks of inquests, debriefings and implant inspections. I put up with the rifling through my implant, on the basis that it was the quickest way to absolve myself. Eventually, Jaylene was found guilty, and sentenced to 10400 hours of community service. A moot point, really.

Alicia and I saw her a couple of years later, begging outside NYLEC. She looked at us blankly, open-mouthed, as we went in to work. Alicia's an assistant director these days; she graduated top of her class. University funding has increased 12% since then. I work with Benjamin and the other techs; we're building a way to find true consensus, not just from seven representatives. The city belongs to the people; we can all govern it, together.

December 7th, 2014

Week 30 - Critical Hit

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The door jangled as I opened it and inhaled the warm, welcoming aromas; I needed a coffee, and I needed it fast. Sheryl, the hippy-artist-grandmotherly type who ran the café, greeted me with her usual cheer. "Morning, love, how'd it go?"

I smiled wanly and waggled my hand in the so-so gesture, belying my actual thoughts. We'd nailed it last night, with none of the usual hiccups of a first-night performance. The audience had been on their feet. That hadn't stopped me lying awake for hours, replaying it through in my head. Had I missed that note, or held it too long? Did I remember to hold the dramatic pause at the end of Act II, as Sam, the director, had hammered into me?

Sheryl grinned, her dangly earrings chiming. "I'm sure it was great. You've been working on this for so long."

She'd know; we were in here every evening, thrashing out and rehashing whatever we'd been rehearsing. She was privy to all the politics and peccadilloes to be found in every theatre troupe. I'd confided my crush on Erik to her, and sat up drinking with her all night when her daughter left for Australia. She was practically our mascot.

I smiled back at her. "Thanks, Sheryl."

The door chimed, and I turned to see Sam coming in, wiping the dirty sidewalk snow off his boots. I waved to him, and headed for our usual corner, drink in hand. The couches were shabby, with that embracing softness that makes it so hard to leave. Just like Sheryl.

Our corner filled up over the next hour, as we traded jokes and worried over how each scene had gone. We drank too much coffee, and indulged in Sheryl's comfort food. Her omelette could heal a broken heart. It was tradition, just as it was that Erik would be the last to arrive.

At last he did. As expected, there was a newspaper tucked under his arm. We waited, tense with pretended nonchalance, as he spoke to Sheryl, collected his drink and came over. He squeezed into the middle of the couch, his taut thigh hot against mine, and I suppressed a thrill of desire as he made a great show of settling into place, carefully sipping his drink and adjusting the cushions behind him. At last he sat back, and as on so many other mornings-after-the-first-night-before, he held up the paper and said, "Let us consult the Curmudgeon."

James Curgeon was the local theatre critic. We'd called him "the Curmudgeon" ever since our first opening night, six years ago, when he'd described Erik as "a luscious Lothario with the wits and voice of an adolescent weasel". Erik was many things, but a weasel he was not. Still, that review had spurred us to work harder and longer, and we were seeing the benefits. The Curmudgeon's arrival in the theatre foyer last night had flown backstage in whispered messages, and I wasn't the only one who had been inspired by that knowledge.

Erik spread the newspaper on the low table as we hurriedly moved cups and the detritus of assorted breakfasts. He flicked through, searching for the review section, jokingly reading (and inventing) parochial headlines in tones of disinterest, but his act dropped in a second as he froze, then leaned forward to point at a page.

As one, the cast leaned forward to read the headline that his finger had speared.

"Local critic found dead," it read, in bold blackness.

I skimmed through the article, leaning to see around other fingers stabbing at points of interest. "...found in his home..." someone murmured. "Authorities suspect poison!" someone else gasped.

The cast broke into fragmented conversations, talking over the top of each other. "Murder!" Erik exclaimed. "Who would-?"

Sam snorted in half-amusement and gestured ironically around the group. We'd all felt the bite of the Curmudgeon's acid keyboard at some point, all entertained wistful notions of him undergoing a painful and unusual death.

*

Behind the counter, Sheryl watched the group with her usual beneficent eye. She'd grown to love these kids, with their crazy, overgrown dreams of stardom. They deserved it. They certainly didn't deserve the scathing critique that nasty man had been typing up when he stopped in for a coffee during the show. He hadn't even waited for the end, just slipped out during the intermission! So rude.

She yawned. It had been a long night.

November 24th, 2014

Week 29: Gauntlet

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Four and a half years ago, I went to work.

I had five-month-old twins.

And a five-year-old.

And no car. Every morning, I would somehow manage to get everybody out of the house at 6:15am. We'd walk to before-school care. On a good day, it would take 20 minutes. On a bad day... ever seen someone endeavouring to push a tank-like double pushchair while piggybacking a tantruming five-year-old?

Most days, I cried on the walk from before-school care to the train station. The train was never the same way around; some days the carriage with a pushchair area would be at the front, sometimes at the back. The best I could do was wait in the middle of the platform, and try to get there before all the seats were taken.

On a good day, people would deign to move over so that I could put the pushchair in the designated area. On a bad day, I got sworn at.

The express train took 50 minutes. On a good day, the babies would sleep, or at least babble to themselves. On a bad day, I would do my best to soothe two fractious babies, usually by feeding them. If I fed them, I got glared at. If they cried, I got glared at.

I'd take them to daycare, hurriedly feed them, and rush to work, getting there around 8:30am. I juggled my schedule so I could feed them, but that meant my only breaks were spent with babies' mouths on my boobs. I tried not to drop crumbs in their eyes.

Come 5:30pm, we'd join the crowds rushing to the train station. The trains ran on time, sometimes. The commuters relaxed, slouched in their seats, and I anxiously worked to make sure that my children didn't disturb them. Then I'd walk home, barely in time for dinner and a goodnight kiss from my eldest, before frantically trying to keep up with housework and laundry.

I'd fall into bed, so exhausted that I couldn't shut my brain up enough to sleep properly.

Did the twins sleep through? Did they hell. They were up three times a night...

...each.

After paying for daycare, before- and after-school care and train tickets, I was going through this hell for $140 a week. I couldn't do it. After two months, I came home one night, having contemplated how much easier it would be to be under the train, and wrote my resignation letter.

While working out my notice, I was assaulted by one of the "passenger operators" for daring to breastfeed while I sat on the floor of the train because nobody offered a seat. I'd been abused too many times to dare to ask for one. And then his supervisor came and told me that I had no right to bring my children on the train and that I needed to stay in town until the rush cleared at 7:30pm.

He told me not to cry.

It was cry, or punch him in the nose. I think he was lucky that I cried.

It took some adjusting to being a stay-at-home mum. My career, my brain, was essential to my self-image. I struggled through feelings of despair and uselessness. Hubby paid off his student loan, and while I congratulated him, I secretly mourned my untouched debt.

Four and a half years later, my children are all at school. Suddenly the financial balance of childcare and wages has started to tip in the other direction. There's still lots to organise if we're both working; what about sickness, after-school activities, and school holidays?

But we'll make it work, somehow.

We'll have to.

I went to work today.

November 17th, 2014

Gary hated the opera. Wailing warbling wobbling women, trilling away in incomprehensible duets. Even when they used English, they kept singing over the top of each other. Ridiculous. But Cleo wanted to go, and what Cleo wanted... he sighed, and stared at his neatly-hung shirts, trying to choose one.

It's not that Cleo had any particular love for the opera, herself. It's that the neighbours had raved about it, and she was determined to impress them. It's all she seemed to do, these days; they'd only bought the house a month ago, and she wanted to fit in.

He suppressed the thought that she never would; the other houses around here were filled with the guffawing, giggling products of the best British public schools, and a plumber and his wife were never going to be particularly welcomed. Lottery winnings could buy you a house, but they couldn't buy you that ineffable, upper-class grace.

Cleo tried, he knew. One day, he'd borrowed her phone to google "electrician woldingham", and "elocution lessons woldingham" had come up in the history. She'd taken to flicking through a thesaurus before bed, consciously expanding her vocabulary so she could converse in a manner resembling theirs. She would tentatively use the new words in conversation, and look to him for approval. Like he knew! He was a plumber! He just wanted to kiss her and tell her to be herself, the woman he loved.

A clattering of coat-hangers came from the walk-in closet on her side of the bed. Ludicrous, really, to have not one but two walk-in closets, but she'd set about filling hers with a joyful avarice that made him smile. They'd got by okay before the lottery win, but they could indulge now. It made him happy.

"Darling, it's nearly time to go," Cleo called. "Are you dressed?"

"Nearly," he called back, and clattered his own coat-hangers.

"Wear the tux!" she called back.

Gary winced. He'd never imagined himself as the sort of person to own a tux, but Cleo had insisted. He picked out trousers, shirt, jacket, and tie. Dressed, he emerged to find Cleo bustling about, trying on jewellery in the mirror. He grinned. She looked glorious, her dress skimming down over her curves.

"You look ravishing! Sure we have to go?" he said, waggling his eyebrows and patting the bed.

Cleo grinned back, and waved the tickets at him. "Definitely. I got us the best seats in the house! Front row, centre. I wonder what the Harrington-Smythes will think of that!"

#

The Harrington-Smythes didn't think much of that, since they were sitting next to Gary and Cleo. Julian and Eloise offered courteous greetings, though Gary was sure he caught a glimpse of a smirk shared between the other couple.

The seats were plush, with rich red velvet that made Gary want to doze off. Not much chance of that, though, with seats directly in front of the orchestra pit, and two burly, horned-helmeted sopranos conducting aural war over a rotund tenor. Generous bosoms trembled under the combined force of industrial corsetry and operatic lungs, and Gary amused himself by imagining what would happen if the corset strings broke. Cleo watched happily, though her frequent consultations of the programme suggested he wasn't the only one who was perplexed.

The scene ended, with the tenor marched off stage at shoulder-height, standing on a giant shield and brandishing an axe. Someone with the deep, gravelly voice of an operatic Darth Vader, and the backing of an enthusiastic chorus of Viking villagers, bemoaned the loss of his wife. Or possibly mother.

Gary started to fidget. The two beers he'd downed to steel himself for the evening were jostling for attention in his bladder. At last the curtains descended with the audience shuffle that signalled intermission, and he could excuse himself.

As he left, he saw Cleo lean over to Eloise, and overheard her say, "Aren't we luc- privileged to be here tonight? To observe such a wonderful event?"

Eloise answered her with a disdainful, "Indeed," then promptly turned away, pretending interest in something on the other side of the room. Cleo gaped, then slumped back into her seat, staring fiercely at her hands.

Gary fumed all the way to the bathroom, and fumed all the way back. He clasped Cleo's hand as the curtain lifted again, silently willing his love and support into her.

The next scene managed to engage his interest. The two burly sopranos were apparently now in a love triangle, no, square, with the rotund tenor and the gravelly bass. Either that, or it was a very enthusiastic family reunion. The tenor, with cup in hand, gestured and proclaimed dramatically, and the chorus answered with fervent echoes.

A dramatic pause in the music was filled by a metallic crash from off-stage. The cast started in surprise as the giant shield from the first act rolled across the stage, and the music came to an uncertain halt. The rotund tenor jumped backwards to avoid the shield, but tripped over a soprano's foot. Stumbling, he managed to somehow headbutt the bass in the stomach. The large man, already rather flushed from his sonorous exertions, turned a peculiar purple-green, and promptly vomited.

Into the tuba.

A startled cry of "What the hell?!" was heard from the depths of the orchestra pit, followed by a thump and a howl of pain. Gary, convulsing with laughter, unashamedly stood to see what was happening. Julian and Eloise glared at him, and Cleo clutched nervously at his hand, but Gary didn't care. He was too busy laughing at the antics of the musicians.

The tuba player had dropped the fouled tuba onto the trombonist's foot, who was hopping up and down, holding her squashed appendage in one hand. The other hand still held her trombone, but since she wasn't looking too closely at what she was doing, she managed to whack the trumpeter in the side of the head with it. The trumpeter fell off his chair, causing a domino effect of toppling music stands. Violinists and cellists fluttered nervously in the front rows, and the conductor slowly swiped his hands over his face in horror or despair.

The toppling music stands finally reached the double bassist, who, in attempting to protect her instrument, somehow managed to whack the table containing assorted percussion instruments. One end folded, and a maraca flipped into the air, performing a perfect parabola and striking Eloise between the eyes with the exact sound of a dropped coconut.

Eloise collapsed in pain and surprise. Gary collapsed in laughter, wiping tears from his eyes and snorting in a decidedly lower-class way.

He loved the opera.
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