RJ Brewster — 2114
There was some draw, some appeal to Dr. Ramirez. At first, RJ suspected that it was the quiet intensity of her confidence, the way she moved through the world with a hunger for knowledge that was at all times colored by the light of the desire to do right by the world as a whole. Then, ey thought that it might simply be that she was a good person. She was the one who believed hard enough and strong enough to follow up on the lost. She was the one who had actually tried, had actually moved forward at a pace that meant progress on the case. Recently, ey had been thinking that it was something more abstract than that.
Concrete? Abstract? The line had long since blurred to meaninglessness.
Ey had been lost for something beyond an eternity, for ‘eternity’ implied the existence of time, or at least a form of time that actually meant something. Ey had been lost for a day longer than forever, and had ey been lost for only hours, as Sasha had, it would have been longer still. Even then, the word ‘longer’ held far too much savor. It burned in the sinuses and left eir eyes stinging with tears.
She had been the first one in more than forever that ey had seen. She had been the one who broke through the wall of eir solipsistic existence and encouraged em to reengage with the world. As the orbits of eir life grew smaller and smaller, they had collapsed into a wandering figure-eight around Sasha, the one who made em complete, and Carter, the one who tied em to reality.
And so it was that, even beyond the meetings and interviews, beyond the panels and studies, ey found emself staying in touch with her. Once or twice a week, ey would make the long walk from eir flat down to the cluster of UCL buildings and wait until she was free for lunch or dinner, or, had ey yet again forgotten the meaning of time, wait for her to arrive at work early in the morning so that they could get coffee together.
She had not questioned it at all. Even that first time, after ey had hunted down her office in the UCL directory and arrived, unannounced, outside of it to wait awkwardly until she pulled back from her rig. She had simply smiled, shaken eir hand, and they had gone out for an afternoon cup of coffee with no further discussion. It had simply become the thing that they did every now and then.
Perhaps that was why ey liked her? Maybe.
Today, at lunch, ey joined Carter and two of her coworkers, Prakash Das and Avery Wilkins. Vietnamese was the order of the day, and each of them had consoled em in turn about the loss of eir dear Priscilla, the cat who had been the only other grounding factor in eir life these last two years. A sudden loss of appetite, and then a sudden loss of life, and now ey needed the comfort of friends — or whatever it was that Carter had become — and some noise other than quiet jazz and London streets.
To their condolences, ey had simply raised eir cup of tea and nodded to them, saying, “To deny the end is to deny all beginnings.”
“Delphic, as ever,” Prakash said, though his smile and the lift of his own glass took any sting out of the words.
Ey smiled too, though ey could feel exhaustion tugging at eir cheeks. Ey had slept, ey knew, but did not remember when. “Oh, trust me, there is plenty more where that came from.”
“Where does it come from?” Avery asked.
“I am not sure.” Ey sipped at eir tea, still too hot to drink comfortably. “Whatever wellspring that was unstoppered in…in there.”
“Seems like it stuck around.”
“Think you’ll ever turn it into something?” Avery grinned to em. “You know, write a book. Something like that.”
“I had not thought of that. I do not know that I could make a plot out of what feels like millions of words in a rock tumbler. Perhaps a poem.”
“Even infinite monkeys,” Carter said, as she always did whenever the topic came up. She, of all of them, knew best. She had been in there with em for a few minutes or a few eternities. Another reason to like her. “Either way, you look thrashed, RJ. You sleeping okay?”
“No. Maybe. I do not know.”
Perhaps sensing some emotion deeper than exhaustion laying beneath the equivocation, the table fell silent, and ey once again looked out the window into the greying afternoon, thumb-tip tapping rhythmically along each of the contacts on the middle joints of eir fingers.
Once the food arrived, the mood loosened up, and ey was able to smile and laugh and take part in the conversation, and even managed to apologize for being a damper on lunch only twice.
Spring rolls and phở occupied their attention for a while, then, and they ate in silence except for the occasional ‘good soup’ and other such nothing compliments.
The time neared one o’clock, whatever that meant, and they settled up the bill and took the remainder of their conversation outside, hands stuffed in pockets while clouds of steam preceded them.
More laughter, more companionship. More warmth, despite the cold.
Perhaps this is why, ey thought. Perhaps Carter and all of those she has introduced to me can add at least a little bit of warmth to the winter of my life.
No, no, must not think such things. Ey had made eir decision, had ey not?
At the door to the building where the three worked, they all exchanged hugs, another bright spark of warmth in the cold afternoon, enough to carry em back home. Empty home, where ey could listen to more jazz and the distinct lack of purring. Empty home where ey could stare at eir rig and dare emself to delve in, if only to see if Sasha was about after work. Before work? What time was it for her? Time had left em; ey had only words.
Ey made it a block before ey heard the sound of jogging behind em, and stepped over closer to the wall to let the jogger pass. The sound slowed, however, and ey was greeted once more by Prakash.
“Hey RJ, mind if I walk with you for a bit?”
“Sure.” Ey frowned. “Do you not have work?”
He shrugged. “I do, but I’m getting sick of being cooped up. Begged an additional hour off to just get out for a bit.”
A silence stretched for a few minutes before Prakash said, “Nice day, isn’t it?”
“No,” ey said, laughing. “It is cold and gray. My cat is dead, my job is gone, and my two friends are someone I can only meet in a place I am terrified to go and a researcher of something that is no longer a problem.” Memory is a mirror of hammered silver, the litany continued within as always. Silently, ey hoped. A weapon against the waking world. “Dreams are the plate-glass atop memory: a clarifying agent against the– Sorry.”
Prakash nodded, as though this was part of a normal conversation. “You’re okay, RJ. No luck on the job front? Are you doing alright for cash?”
Ey rubbed away unwelcome tears and nodded. “Enough for another six months here, and then I need to either find a new job or move back to America. My parents have said–”
“Would you be interested in a job offer?”
“From the university?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“Where then? I did not know you worked anywhere else.”
“Work is probably the wrong word, here,” Prakash said, grinning. “But, I mean, if you don’t mind heading out of the WF for a while, I might have something for you.”
Part of RJ stopped up short — though not, ey noted dispassionately, eir body — and ey blinked rapidly down towards the ground. This was a new, strangely shaped bit of information. There was no opening within eir mind that would fit it perfectly, so ey carefully set it aside. The waking world fogs the view and time makes prey of remembering. “And what would this job that you do not work at entail? I am wary of sims.”
“Of course. Minimal work on the ‘net.” He seemed to consider for a moment, then shrugged. “Well, no work on the ‘net, actually, but minimal work in-sim.”
Ey nodded, waited for Prakash to continue.
“Carter was kind enough to provide us with some extra information. Michelle’s core dump from when she got lost, yours from the theater sim that the techs were careless enough to leave around. Some people I’m…not working with at my non-job with have been digging through those and, in combination with the testimonies of the lost, come up with some interesting hypothes–”
“A way back?”
The intensity with which ey replied startled Prakash, who held up his hands defensively. “Sorry, RJ. If I overstepped–”
“No, sorry,” ey said. “I did not mean to shout. If it is a way back, I will say yes. If it is a way to ‘fix’ whatever I have become, I will say no and do not wish to waste your time.”
He relaxed and shook his head. “I see. You’ve mentioned not wanting to lose what you have. I wouldn’t have offered if that was on the table. They’re not really thinking of a way back, no, but maybe a way forward. Use what you taught us to find — or make — somewhere new.”
At this, ey really did stop up short. “What do you mean, ‘somewhere new’?”
“Arms races have fallen out of style. It’s not really considered fashionable to stockpile weapons or anything anymore.”
RJ blinked, nonplussed.
“Technology, however, brings with it a status of its own.” Prakash smiled, neither pityingly nor happily. Dreamily. “So if, as you say, dreams are the plate-glass atop memory, and if, as you’ve said in the past, getting lost put you in a mirrored cage, then these are bits of information related to technology. If one could set aside the cage metaphor and set up a mirrored world, well, that would be quite the status symbol.”
RJ stood a while in thought, searching Prakash’s face until the man averted his eyes. “What would be required of me?”
“Nothing, for now. Just to stay in touch. Eventually, though, we’ll get you somewhere we can dig into research and after that, you’ll be one of the founders of something big. Really big.”
The words came in a torrent, then, and with such an intensity that ey staggered and had to clutch at Prakash’s arm for support. “The flow of prophecy climbs up through the years, winter upon winter upon winter, and compels the future to do its bidding. The prophet is only a pipe that sounds when the past…shit. I am sorry. All of that to say ‘yes’. I am sorry.”
Once the shock of the onrush of words wore off, Prakash nodded, smiling cautiously. “It’s okay, RJ. Like I said, nothing needs to be done right now. And I trust that you know not to mention this to anyone. Someone else will talk to Michelle about it. Talk to each of the lost, I mean. No need to bring it up with them. When things are lined up, we can go for another walk after coffee or something. Sound good?
Ey swallowed dryly, nodded. “Thank you. I will hold on until then.”
They started walking again, the researcher explaining that he really did need the air, since all that waited for him was an office sim.
RJ did not mind. What sadness that dug at em from Prisca’s passing had been blunted, softened by the prospect of something new. Something ahead of em. Something to look forward to that did not bring with it more exhaustion, more words.
“You know,” Prakash said thoughtfully. “I know the things you say sometimes aren’t really intentional or anything, but you’re not wrong.”
“About prophecy, I mean. Just over two years since you got back and here you are, being invited to compel the future to do your bidding using what you learned.”
Ey laughed, earnest and true. “I suppose so. I was going to say ‘the prophet is only a pipe that sounds when the past demands it’, and given that I cannot seem to live in this world anymore, that demand is getting to be overwhelming.”
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