Thursday, April 10, 2014

I'm not leaving without that kid

[Inspired by a story involving time travel, Fred's one sentence summary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (I’m walking away from Omelas, but I’m not leaving without that kid), and stuff.]

A child's voice cried out, "You are EVIL!" as Alex approached the house.

"We are evil," his target told the girl in a level tone.  She was already having a conversation with someone and from the inflection on the "we" he guessed it was her past self.  Not good.

Time travelers were getting better and better at staying ahead of law enforcement.  The department's own success had made it so that no one who tried to change the past did it without what they were convinced was a very good plan.  The problem was when they were right.

The target had bought herself hours at most, but if she was talking to her past self there was no telling what damage might have been done in that time.

Alex looked down to his left forearm.  A screen built into the fabric of his coat lit up and based on the readouts it looked like the future was secure, so long as he prevented any more changes to the timeline.  He sighed in relief, took a deep breath, and kicked in the door.

"Hands where I can see them!" he shouted before he even got a look at the inside of the room.  In his experience it was good to get to the point fast.  In his business moments mattered.

The target put up her hands and took a step back.  What she took a step back from was the part that almost threw Alex.  There was a little girl, naked, handcuffed to what appeared to be some sort of heating pipe.  Alex willed himself to pay attention to the mission and approached the target.

"Your travel through time is unauthorized and you killed two people--" Alex began.

"You knew?" The little girl asked.

Confused, Alex looked at her and then the floor.  There were two bodies.  A man and a woman.  Probably the girl's parents.  They'd been shot to death but no shots had been fired since he checked on the state of the timeline.  Apparently their lives didn't matter much to history.  From what little he knew about them, he didn't think they'd be missed.

"You killed four people," Alex corrected, "and you will be brought--"

Things happened fast.  He guessed she had enhancements because the target's speed didn't seem to match her age or apparent muscles.  He lost his gun and she drew her own.  Alex grabbed the gun with both hands, the target did the same, and it was a fight to see which way the weapon would point.

Alex was surprised when the gun went off.  Had he pulled the trigger without realizing it?  It didn't make sense for her to do it since the gun had been pointed at her.

The target collapsed to the ground.  She was dead by the time she hit it.

The whole thing was a mess but the job was done.

"I'm sorry you had to see that," Alex said to the girl.

"It was... it was self defense," she said.

"Smart thing," Alex thought.

"You saved me."

Alex found the key to the handcuffs and freed the girl.  "Put some clothes on honey."

"Thank you."

Alex began the work of scanning for things from his own time.  It looked like it was just the target, her gun, his gun, and a bag.

It wasn't actually part of the job to find out what was in then bag, but he was curious.

"Oh God," he said, a taste of vomit in his mouth.

"Are you ok?" the girl asked.

"Fine.  Fine.  I just threw up in my mouth a little and that's nasty is all."

"Icky.  Why did you throw up in your mouth?"

Alex sighed.  "I think she," he said pointing at the target, "was going to do to you what they," he pointed to the girl's dead parents, "would have done to you had they lived."

"What would they have done to me?"

"If I try to tell you that I'll throw up for real," Alex said.  "Can we talk about something else?"

"What's your name?"

"Alex," he said.  His name wasn't going to disrupt the timeline or make him vomit so this was a perfectly good subject in his mind.

"Mine's Margie."

"Well, Margie, I'm going to--" Alex stopped as someone else entered the home.  "Why are you here, Perry?  The mission's over."

"No, it's not," the newcomer said.

"The timeline was intact before I engaged the target, and while I'd rather have brought her in alive she's definitely not going to be doing any damage now."

"Things got worse when you neutralized the target."

Alex looked to the readouts on his forearm screen while saying, "That doesn't make any--" which is as far as he got before realizing Perry was right.

"Our world is hanging on by a thread," Perry said.  "We've had some close calls before and it's never been this bad."

"What happened?"

Perry just looked.  It took Alex a moment to realize Perry was looking past him toward Margie.

"Her?  She's supposed to--"  Alex looked at the three bodies on the floor.  Margie's parents.  Margie's future self.  He remembered the content of the bag.  "There's no one left to abuse her."

Perry nodded slowly.

"So what are you suggesting?" Alex asked. "Damage done."

Perry said, "We'll take care of it."

"Really?" Alex asked, anger growing in his voice.  "I didn't know we had a department for that."

"If she doesn't ... go bad--"

"Evil," Alex snapped. "The term the girl used is 'evil'."

Margie hid herself behind Alex.  She didn't understand the argument, but of the two total strangers in the house she knew which one she trusted more.

"Fine," Perry said, "Go with the melodrama.  If she doesn't turn evil then she won't do certain things, which will lead to other people not doing certain things, which will mean that our entire world will cease to exist."

"We're talking about a child."

"No.  You're not thinking straight.  We're talking about the whole world.  My family.  Your family.  Our friends.  Everyone you've ever met--"

Alex mumbled, mostly to himself, "our happiness, the beauty of our planet, the tenderness of our friendships, the health of our children, the wisdom of our scholars, the skill of our makers, even the abundance of our harvest and the kindly weathers of our skies."

A dangerous edge entered Perry's voice when he said, "You're quoting Omelas."

Alex lunged for one of the guns still lying on the floor and in a moment he and Perry were facing each other weapons drawn.  "How long have we known each other?" Alex asked.

"If you think you can trade on our friendship to--"

"That's not it.  This is: You know I can't lie for shit.  Before I finally gave up on poker you called every single bluff."

"So?"

"So you'll know that this is true: If I hurt you I'll never forgive myself, but that isn't going to stop me from hurting you if you try to do anything to this girl."

"You like your short story so much?" Perry asked.  "Then walk away.  Isn't that what the good people do in the story?"

"Oh, I'm walking away from Omelas," Alex said, "but I'm not leaving without this kid."  He reached back and held Margie by the hand.

"Seriously Alex, just walk away, I'll do what needs to be done."

"Could you Perry?  Could you really?"

"Yes," Perry spat.  "I'm not so selfish that I'd destroy the entire world just so I could sleep at night.  If the price of saving everything I care about is not being able to look at myself in the mirror then I'd pay it gladly."

Perry opened fire, and Alex returned it, but none of the shots connected and soon both needed to reload.  In the silence Alex said, "If you hit her you'll erase our future even quicker."

Perry said a quiet, "Shit."

Alex led Margie out of the house.

Perry activated a communications device and said, "I need backup now.  Alex has gone rogue and the new target is with him," so quickly that he almost tripped over the words.

---

"Will I really turn out like... like her," Margie asked when they stopped running.

"No, one of the effects of the time machine is that it insulates the user from any changes in the timeline.  A time traveler pops into the past exactly as they left the future even if that future no longer exists.  It can be quite disorienting, I'm told, because changes mean that some time travelers appeared in pasts that didn't even exist when they used the time machine.

"There's actually an entire colony of former travelers who have banded together and bonded over coming from timelines that don't even exist anymore.  It's in..." Alex looked at Margie.  "You're not following any of this, are you?"

Margie gestured that she was following very little.

"The short answer is, 'No.'  You have free will.  You'll be whatever you will be."

Margie, "But?"

"What?"

"You said that like there was going to be a "but"."

"But some people, people like Perry, want you to end up like her.  As close as possible."

"I don't want to be evil," Margie said.

"I'm going to do everything in my power to protect you from those people," Alex said.

-

[I'm not actually a fan of the trope that abuse leads to evil and thus evil comes from abuse.  Some people who were raised just fine none the less turned out quite bad, abused people are not to be regarded with suspicion because seriously that's just wrong.]

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8 comments:

  1. >>>I'm not actually a fan of the trope that abuse leads to evil and thus evil comes from abuse.

    Yeah, not a fan either. Maybe stories that go like "he was bullied, so he became a supervillain bent on revenge!" make *some* people think: "See? Bullying is bad!", but twice as many people would be all: "See? He retroactively *deserved* to be bullied!"

    --- Redcrow

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  2. "Come with me if you want to live… better."

    I'm entirely prepared to accept that some (emphasis on some) people who've grown up being abused may normalise that as their model of human relationships and thus continue it. And some don't. Levels of abuse differ, levels of mental resilience differ, responses to damage differ.

    I really despise the Hollywood trope of making one event the entire basis of someone's character. This happens a lot with science heroines (Contact, Twister, Deep Blue Sea): daddy died of something related to X, so I will make X my career. Because goodness knows a woman would never simply develop an interest in science on her own.

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    1. I'm entirely prepared to accept that some (emphasis on some) people who've grown up being abused may normalise that as their model of human relationships and thus continue it. And some don't. Levels of abuse differ, levels of mental resilience differ, responses to damage differ.

      Yeah, definitely. Abuse does have an unfortunate habit of perpetuating itself where some (same emphasis on some) percentage of victims do end up becoming abusers themselves. It's just that people make the connection way too strong. In both directions I might add.

      "Bad person must have tragic backstory."
      And
      "Tragic childhood must mean future bad person."
      are both harmful ideas when it comes to dealing with victims of abuse, trauma, or whatever else can fuck someone up. Because "can" doesn't mean "will" and even amoung those who get fucked up, not all get will fucked up in the same way.

      -

      It's interesting though that just after reading the story that inspired me to write this* I was talking to someone about how I was bothered by an impression (quite possibly incorrect) that I'd been getting from a work of popular fiction. That being that the it seemed that bad guys were all raised in abusive families which is unfortunate implications like whoa.

      -

      And the same problem exists with heroes. Batman can't be a rich person who was raised lovingly in the lap of luxury and wants to give back to those who are less fortunate than himself. He has to be, "My parents were killed and therefore I must be a hero or a villain." *Flips Coin* "Hero it is then."

      Spiderman couldn't be someone who said, "I've suddenly got these great powers that aren't really useful for most conventional jobs, but I bet they'd help with crime fighting a lot," he has to be, "I'm angsting because my uncle was killed off by my origin story."

      No one makes choices in these stories. They're all forced to be whatever they are because [tragic origin story here].

      In reality, whether you've got a tragic backstory or not, it's your choices that make the difference.

      -

      * Which is unfortunately incomplete and apparently abandoned. I wanted to see if the author could somehow deal with the fact that several of the main characters' very existence depended on an innocent little girl who apparently had a pretty well developed sense of good and evil being abused at a level of torture until she broke, twisted, and turned into someone who was downright evil.

      Dealing with the adult you'd just point out that she was responsible for her actions no matter how bad what happened to her was. But when time travel made it so you'd end up dealing with the child could you really let that happen to a child, or anyone really, even if your life depended on it?

      Unfortunately the story was abandoned before any of the good people came face to face with the child. I think it was supposed to happen the chapter after the point where the story was abandoned.

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    2. Agreed again. Reducing people to their traumatic pasts not only downplays their achievements, it's worryingly close to determinism. I don't think it's deliberate; it's a short-cut by lazy writers to explain why they have a simplistic har-har-har villain (or a simplistic rah-rah-rah hero) rather than someone a bit more interesting.

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  3. Just managed to read this (v behind on my blogs). Brilliant story (and also the comment on the trope itself was much appreciated) :-)

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  4. I read it! I have thoughts! (Not deep ones, though...For instance, I would like Perry to be some sort of alien mutant platypus.)

    It is a very good story. I'm sure it needs some kind of editing, but you should submit it somewhere eventually.

    Also it reminds me of American Gods, which is probably supposed to remind me of Omelas...

    For some reason I thought Alex changed gender during the story, but then I realized if that had happened it would be a typo because, as I understand it, your version of time travel doesn't allow for that... But it makes me think of magic/tech that did...I'm not sure how to articulate it, but, like, it would be sort of less about causality than just maintaining a certain amount of...chaos? entropy? left turns vs right turns? ...something...in the universe. Hmmmm. (Sort of like the Improbability Drive, but on a different...axis? OMG, can't make thoughts into words, grah.)

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    1. For some reason I thought Alex changed gender during the story

      Presumably complete coincidence, but Alex changed gender in my head several times, so it was a struggle to keep a consistent one in the story. In the end I decided that I wanted Alex and Margie to be opposite genders. I think there was also a desire on my part, not quite conscious, to avoid the whole "Maternal Instinct" angle that stories of protecting children often have.

      -

      But it makes me think of magic/tech that did...I'm not sure how to articulate it, but, like, it would be sort of less about causality than just maintaining a certain amount of...chaos? entropy? left turns vs right turns? ...something...in the universe. Hmmmm. (Sort of like the Improbability Drive, but on a different...axis? OMG, can't make thoughts into words, grah.)

      That does sound very interesting.

      -

      And lastly:

      I read it!

      Yay!

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