Friday, December 25, 2015

Volume 3 - Chapter 9 - ?????

Okay, Merry Christmas! It's late, but the wife and I have been having a wonderful day and I lost track of time. Sorry! That said, I have a section for you. The text won't be all the same color, because I'm looking at completely rewriting one part, and tweaking several others. With the end coming up, it's hard to get my head around "how" or "if even" I want to end TBK. This feels like a good spot to wrap up a trilogy and work on developing new characters, but that's difficult for me, so I've dragged my feet. That said, I shouldn't delay further. Here you guys go, I hope you enjoy.

Also, for those who don't celebrate christmas, =P Take the section anyways maybe? Have a good one. Ps. SPoilers in chapter title caused me to leave it as ???? But, yeah, you all knew this was happening =P


Light. Red, blurry light veiled Kass’s vision as she struggled for breath. What . . . What is that light? Turn it off. “I just need a little more . . .” she started to say as her eyes opened, struggling for clarity. She started to look around when pain shot through her stomach and rippled up her chest and into her throat. Ow, ow ow ow, she thought with a grimace, clutching the spot where the first bullet had entered. Then she heard clicking, the familiar clicking that came with keystrokes across the mechanical keyboard her dad insisted on using when working at home. It was accompanied by a smacking and popping sound. Dad . . . Is he here? She tried rubbing her eyes, the moving of her back creating more tremors of discomfort where she had been shot. When she looked over to see where the clicking was coming from, she saw the back of Stephanie, or at least she thought it was Stephanie. After all, no-one else chewed their bubble gum quite like that.
While she couldn’t see Stephanie’s face, she could see the back of her head with her black hair tied up in a ponytail and draped over the chair she was sitting in. She was leaning back in the chair with a keyboard in her lap--or Kass hoped that clicking sound was from a keyboard-- watching three different monitors and smacking away at what Kass could only assume was bubblegum. “Stephanie?” she asked, the words failing to come out well. The injury had taken its toll, and, even though she was mostly certain that she hadn’t been shot in the lung, it was too hard to pull in or push out enough air to generate much of a voice.
“That’s usually my name,” Stephanie responded without even taking a break in her typing.
Kass wanted to say something to the smart-aleck response, but her pounding head and breathless voice left her muted as she did her best to sit up without causing herself any more harm.
“Oh!” Stephanie threw the keyboard onto the desk in front of her, turned her chair around and popped up in half a second. “I am so sorry! I completely forgot about you. You know how work is,” she said as she walked over to the bed Kass had been lying on. “How are you holding up? Do you feel okay?” she said when she noticed Kass wasn’t responding, She put a hand on Kass’s forehead. “Hmm, no fever, and you did talk earlier. You just feeling weak?”
Kass nodded. Weak is an understatement. I feel like someone ran over me with a truck and then backed up to see if I was still around.
“Alright, good. That’s great. I have to be honest: I didn’t know if you’d actually live. You were bleeding pretty bad, covering the floor like a bottle of ketchup having revenge against its angry potato rivals on a white plate, so I kind of . . .” Stephanie paused, frowning on one side of her mouth in a way that puffed out only her left cheek. “I kind of patched you up, but it wasn’t enough. We didn’t have time to see what blood type you were, so I gave you some of mine. I couldn’t give you as much as you needed, given that I needed to stay alive too, but I gave you enough to live and get you back here. That killer headache you are having, like a hangover, it’s probably the dehydration. But yeah, the bullets are still in your gut, I wanted to wait until you had enough blood back in you before I rooted around and pulled them out. Dumbest thing you ever see on television shows from the 1900s is that every joe shmoe in an action film has to pull the bullet out as soon as they get to a safe spot. Like them digging around with grubby fingers or metal tools is going to somehow undo any damage.”
“But . . .” Kass tried to hold onto her brain. She wasn’t sure if she felt the headache as much as the fatigue. “But how was that enough?” she managed. She wanted to get out a longer sentence: How did a little bit of blood stop me from dying from three gun wounds? She didn’t know much about medicine to any great extent, but she was pretty sure she had lost enough blood where a simple transfusion from someone who still needed enough to carry her out of the place wouldn’t be enough.
“Well, let’s just say that the creator gave us something special in our blood and leave it at that,” Stephanie said, pulling her rolly chair over to sit next to Kass. “Now, that said, how are you holding up? I put orange juice on the nightstand for you. I imagine you’re going to need a lot.” Stephanie grabbed the glass and gently put it in Kass’s hand.
Kass, not realizing how thirsty she was, found herself trying to down it all at once, but, halfway through, she ended up almost coughing it up and had to take a break for a moment. “Thanks,” she said as she came up for air and took a brief respite from gulping down the orange juice. “So . . .” Kass started, but the words were taking a while to get out. So why were you there? she wondered to herself, again failing to finish her thought aloud.
“There, there, are you really sure you want to be talking right now?” Stephanie asked, leaning back in her chair as she watched Kass look around. “Do you need some more orange juice?”
Kass nodded.
“Alright, here you go,” Steph said, handing her another glass from the nightstand.
Kass looked over to see that there were still two more glasses waiting if she need them. she just hadn’t noticed them at first because they were behind a lamp. “Thanks,” she said, taking another sip.
“You know, you’re lucky to be alive. I almost wasn’t there,” Stephanie said. “And if it had been the other grunt, well, he might have shot you in the head, and that would have been that. Nothing I can do to heal a headshot,” Stephanie said with a shrug.
“Why?” Kass asked, still having trouble with full sentences. It wasn’t that she positively couldn’t say them. It was that everything felt heavy and difficult, and the searing pain in her stomach occasionally flared up when she talked, a sure deterrent against conversation. What she was hoping to convey was “Why were you actually there?” But it was clear from Stephanie’s answer that she had misunderstood Kass’s single word inquiry to be into be “Why can’t you heal a head shot?”
“Oh, that’s ‘cause I can’t bring a person back to life if they’re already dead. Well, I technically might be able to . . . maybe . . . I guess? That’s actually a good question. Even though the you in front of me might die, all of your data should still be loaded into the databases from Tiqpa. I have a full mapping of your neurological networks, every cell and atom in the head, so theoretically I could possibly create a new you . . .” Stephanie trailed off, “I mean . . .” She paused again, only having advanced two words, but Kass could practically see Steph synapses flickering back and forth through the look in her eyes. “I mean, if I were to create an organic robot with the exact same memories, or rather the same set of experiences and the same biological make up, would it be you? Could there be two yous? Or do we only consider it you if it occupies the same place in the space-time continuum.” Stephanie then grinned. “For that matter, who is to say that I didn’t do that,and the person sitting right in front of me is just a copy of the girl who died in the restaurant.”
Kass’s gut managed to feel worse than it already did as the possibility struck her. “I’m . . . I’m not. Am I?” she started to ask, but Stephanie was already shaking her head before the first word even came out.
“Relax,” Stephanie said. “You can rest assured that even if you don’t trust me to tell you the truth, you can trust logic to tell you that you’re not worth recreating. I’ve got a lot of bigger fish to fry than worrying about whether some fresh off the boat kid dies in a barbecue joint. But you have to admit the question is still there. Like, even when you consider the video game world, for most single player games, we do multiple saves, and each save is considered part of the same ‘character,’ right? So if I rebooted you, so to speak, would it be the same as bringing you back from the dead? Would it be like a videogame where I’m simply loading a file where you’re still alive?” Stephanie scratched her head a bit. “Oh well, too much meta, but, yeah, no matter what I did, I don’t think I could bring you back to life from a headshot no matter how good I am. Dead is dead.”
“I mean, why were you there?” Kass shook her head, brushing off Stephanie’s strange ramblings so that she could finally get out the question that had been bugging her for some time now. “Why am I lucky?” She asked, doing her best not to sound ungrateful. Being alive was probably better than the alternative, but she didn’t understand what Stephanie was doing hiding there in the first place or why she didn’t jump out earlier to stop her from being shot. Kass wanted to know why she let her get shot. Why does it hurt so much? Kass felt herself sniffling before she completely realized that tears were starting to pour out of her eyes and down her cheeks. Why is it lucky that it hurts so much? Why is it lucky that this happened to me? Why lucky? She found herself railing against Stephanie’s word choice, the tears turning into a steady stream as her nose struggled to pull the renegade snot back to its starting line.
Stephanie took Kass’s orange juice and put it aside before giving her a hug. “I’m sorry,” she said, patting Kass’s back as Kass cried onto her shoulder. “I’m so sorry this happened to you. You didn’t deserve it. You didn’t deserve any of it, and it’s okay to cry,” her voice seemed to carry feathers as it soothingly swirled around and through Kass’s ears. “Just let it out,” she said, continuing to pat Kass’s back as she cried.
It took almost five minutes for Kass to recover. It might have taken less, but each sob pulled on her diaphragm and pushed against her stomach causing the sharply burning spot in her abdomen to pulse with pain again. Finally realizing she had been holding Stephanie so tightly as she cried onto her shoulder, she pushed Stephanie away and tried to regain some of her dignity.
“Not to be a broken record, but ‘there, there,’” Stephanie patted the top of Kass’s arm again. “It’s really okay to cry. It’s okay to let it out. Some awful things happened to you that shouldn’t happen to anyone. Coping with it in any way you feel is okay. Don’t worry about feeling ashamed, there isn’t any such thing as shame for someone who has been through what you have. In two days you’ve seen us demons enter the world and gotten yourself shot as well. You’ve gone through a lot, and you should know that I’m here for you. You just need to rest, get some relaxation and get better.”
“Why?” This time it was Kass who was the broken record, but even if the faucet had turned off, the emotions hadn’t. She was still miring in crippling confusion as she tried to deal with what was going on around her. Every ‘why’ had a thousand tails, each one seeming as important as the next in terms of what needed to be answered. She still needed to know what Stephanie was doing there. She still wanted to know why she had to be shot. Charles’s explanation just didn’t make sense to her. There wasn’t anything to be gained by killing her as she saw it.
“Kass, stop talking. Your body still needs to recover. Here, lean back a bit,” Stephanie pressed a button that caused the top half of her bed to fold upwards like it was straight out of a hospital, and Stephanie pushed Kass back onto it so that Kass was still upright enough to see Stephanie sitting beside her without an issue, but she wasn’t supporting her own weight anymore. “If you really want to know what happened, fine. I’ll tell you. You were lucky because I was busy watching Darwin, trying to find Eve and monitoring the changes that were going on with Valerie when I got a call from a friend of mine who works with the barbeque joint that Charles loves. He said he was planning to order for two people, not one. I called Charles’s driver and got him to stall out arriving long enough for me to sneak in the back and get behind the counter before Charles entered the restaurant so I could listen to the conversation. I thought he’d be meeting with someone else, like your dad, so color me surprised when it turned out to be you.” Stephanie took a deep breath, waited a minute, then sighed it out: “It’s half my fault. I gave him most of the technology he uses today. I gave him the device that forces me to crawl around like a monkey as I try to stay on top of his game.”
“On top of his game?” Kass repeated back to her. You gave him the tech he uses to stop you?
“Yeah. He has been moving pieces to try to outmaneuver me since the day he met Eve and knew what I would offer.” Stephanie leaned further back into her chair, reaching to both of her pockets almost instinctually. “See, not that many people would believe me, but Charles isn’t the type to care about money. I mean, with how much he’s accumulated, it is hard to imagine he didn’t do it on purpose, that I pushed him through every bank account and checking book he had. He doesn’t have a greedy bone in his body, although I’m not sure he hasn’t grown into his role, titles or positions. But, he is a nationalist first, a cold, hard, calculating nationalist and humanist,” Stephanie stated with a  frown. “He even tricked, lied to and married Eve, a perfectly innocent and naive girl--well, when he married her at least--just so he could study her and her child in hopes of helping ‘humanity’ advance a little more. He forced that poor daughter of his to go through tests every day of her life until Tiqpa, and I have no doubt that, even now, he’s still running tests, still drawing blood samples and running diagnostics just to see if it can bring him a little closer to the truth.”
“That’s . . . That’s not possible. How could he . . .” Kass sat wide-eyed and open-mouthed as she stared at Stephanie in disbelief. How can a man be with, marry and raise a kid with someone just so they can study them? How does someone spend every waking hour pretending to love someone while at the same time treating them like just another rat in the laboratory? That’s monstrous. Experimenting on his own daughter? That’s insane. The idea alone made Kass feel nauseous.
“Look, you don’t have to believe me. I’m the biased narrator as far as you should be concerned. Maintain your skepticism, but you should at least consider the possibility that, whether you want to be or not, you’re on my side, and, as a result, he wants you dead and thinks you pose a threat,” Stephanie said and shrugged. “You don’t have to believe me, and you don’t have to even agree with that conclusion, but do consider it. Because he is that ruthless a man. He is that dedicated to his beliefs.”
Kass, who hadn’t been trying to call Stephanie a liar, wanted to apologize that Stephanie took it that way, but the whole thing did sound dubious., like something she ought be skeptical of. What if Stephanie is on Charles’s side, and the reason she was there to save me was less of a coincidence and more of a planned event? What if my believing he wanted me dead is yet another piece in their grand plan to twist the board in their favor? Doubt started to creep into Kass’s  head as she thought about what Stephanie had said. “So you were spying on him to stay ahead of his game, but, don’t you already know what he’s going to do?”
“That’s exactly it!” Stephanie’s face shifted from morose to happy in half a second as she smiled ear to ear. “That’s exactly what people are supposed to think! The smarter they think you are, the more reckless they play. They start looking over their shoulder thinking that you are always there, that you already know the moves they are going to make!” She looked like she was about to clap she was so excited. “They don’t realize for a moment that you’re not half as smart as they gave you credit. You’re just sitting there with a dictionary when they ask you what a word means.”
“So, you pretend to be smarter than you are?” Kass didn’t comprehend what point Stephanie was trying to make at all.
“Or dumber! Both are useful. If you know a language, pretend that you don’t and let people feel comfortable enough to use it to voice their real opinion of you right in front of your face. If you don’t know a language, pretend that you do, that you know just enough of it to understand a few things, so that people are careful about what they say. It’s all about managing your enemies’ expectations. Never be who they think you’re going to be,” she suddenly started making the smacking, bubble-gum-chewing sound again. “Although, it, like, totes takes a lot of dedication to, like, pretend to be someone else. You have to, like, practice all the time.”
Kass’s jaw dropped for the second time in the conversation. She fakes her accent, her character and everything about herself all the time just so that people won’t know who or what she really is? How paranoid is she?
“Right?” Stephanie’s response assumed incorrectly that Kass was impressed. “It’s such a good trick. But it takes a lot of dedication, a lot of hard work. If you know something before people think you should, they’ll treat you differently. They’ll be so careful that they’ll be foolish, shutting perfectly good doors to very viable options as they think that you’re going to have a trap waiting for them. They’ll assume you’re going to be preparing countermeasures for options that you never considered, and, as a result, they’ll be more easy to manage.”
“So . . . you pretend to be smarter than you are?” Kass repeated her question. She still didn’t follow, but she at least understood the gist of what Stephanie was doing even if she didn’t get the why.
“Yeah, because as long as Charles thinks that I know what I know from simply predicting what he’s going to do, playing the chess game better than him, he’ll never expect that it’s something more obvious than he ever anticipated. I just listen and study him. It may be difficult, using just the right pieces at just the right time without ever letting him see the full hand in front of me, but it’s how it has to be. I have to spend minutes, hours, days and weeks researching, studying, working just to keep this front up, but it’s worth it so that I can win the long game.” Stephanie nodded her head over at the series of monitors and the old-fashioned mechanical keyboard she had been clicking away with.
“The long game?” What long game? What is it that you’re doing that Charles, the nationalist and the humanist, would want to stop you?
“Come on, Kass. You haven’t figured it out yet? Why do you think Charles wanted you to spy on me by hanging around Darwin?” Stephanie said with a condescending tone as she shook her head. “It’s all about Darwin. It’s all about the species. Charles is using Tiqpa to study Darwin because he thinks that he can find the cure to all of humanity’s problems. Every disease, every aging issue, every medical difficulty a human being can suffer--he thinks the cure can be found by studying Darwin and his own daughter, which is why he agreed to work with me in the first place. But, once he found out what I’m trying to do, he panicked. He’s been moving every piece possible to stop me and, at the same time, keep Darwin contained within Tiqpa.”
“Wait, what you’re trying to do? Keep Darwin contained?” Kass’s curiosity pushed her pain and struggle aside as her need to know drove the questions out faster than a hare running from a wolf.
“Yeah, don’t know how to say this without bothering you, but I’m trying to end humanity, wipe away every trace of them from this earth before the final coming. At first, I was going to do it through violence, but then I realized that there were easier options, more efficient options, that would further my efforts to save my people. The differences between humans and demons were so small on certain continents that I could slowly change them before they realized what was even going on. At first I thought that this would put me in line with Charles, that our goals would line up. You could say it was my greatest miscalculation, and it has cost me and others dearly. I found out very quickly he wasn’t just about science. He’s about purism within the human species.  He thinks that if a person changes into a demon, then they might as well be dead. It’s a thing he can’t tolerate,” Stephanie sighed. “Immortality and the key to all his problems are already within his reach, but he’ll continue to reject them if it means he won’t be a human.”
“But . . .” Kass’s mind tried to wrap itself around it all, but it was too much. She had already fainted once when finding out that Darwin was a demon, she didn’t want to do it again, but everything from being shot to hearing this story was leaving her head spinning like an old disk drive trying to load every file on the computer. “But what do you mean about trapping Darwin in the game?”
“Kass, haven’t you wondered why Charles really shot you? He wants Darwin to lose control. That has to be it. Nothing else makes sense. He wants to leak it to Darwin that you’re dead, and, given you’re the first real friend Darwin made in over thirty years of life, he thinks it’ll do two things for him. I’m only taking a stab at figuring this out, but my guess is he thinks Darwin will go mad with rage and he’ll transform again. This will keep Darwin stuck in the game and give Charles even more data to study. If Darwin isn’t sane, he won’t be able to exit the game. We built a fail-safe together to keep Darwin in Tiqpa if he ever went ballistic.” Stephanie’s face slumped as she said it. “I think the reason he shot you right after you met with Darwin today had less to do with you being ‘unreliable,’ as he said, but more to do with what he saw with Valerie. I think he’s finally put together my plan. That’s why he’s rushing his side of things, but I don’t know how he plans to break it to Darwin that you’re dead--or if he even plans to keep up friendly appearances anymore.”
“Your plan?” Kass didn’t understand. Is there more to it?
“Of course, my plan. It’s already in motion and going smoothly. Charles may have played a role in developing Tiqpa, but I still snuck something into both the hardware and the software. I still put together conditions he won’t realize until it's too late. The funniest part about it is that Eve even tried to stop me and warn him.
“Why do you hate us so much?” Kass closed her eyes as the question left her lips. The talk was fascinating, and there was so much she wanted to ask about, but she could only put together pieces of it, and, even as she strove to stay engaged in the conversation, Kass also reasoned that closing her eyes again was fine. She also figured that it was okay to relax more, to rest a little.
“Hopefully, one day, I won’t hate ‘you all.’ We’ll just hate ‘them,’” Stephanie said, and then Kass could hear her footsteps as she walked back to the computer. The clicking resumed as Kass felt herself being pulled by the heavy hand of the sandman once more into the dream world.

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