Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Fractal, Part I

This is the first part of a fictional short story draft.

The worst part of being here is the routine. From cell to cafeteria to gym to cell, again and again. If you let yourself fall too much into it, it starts to feel like something inside you is dying. The body can survive imprisoned, but the mind lives only when free.

To keep the routine from becoming too oppressive, I find myself living to a great degree in my imagination. Sometimes I try to imagine what she might be doing now. I always imagine her on a beach. I do not know whether she is anywhere a beach, but that is where I imagine her. I picture her walking, an endless line of footprints behind her, the wind blowing in her hair, sometimes looking out to sea, sometimes picking up a seashell and examining it closely, perhaps for the first time. There is a salt tang in the air. It sometimes makes my eyes water.

Sometimes, even though I try not to do so, I end up imagining what might have been done differently. Where would my life be if I had never met Becky or David, if, for instance, I had gone to a different college, or if I had never agreed to be Becky's roommate? What if David and I had never become friends? What if Sparky had never existed, or I had seen the warning signs earlier? The questions leave me baffled and depressed.

Most often, though, I find myself imagining what it must have been like for her, that first day, all the blooming and buzzing confusion. I try to put myself in her place. I imagine that it must be like waking up. It is never like flipping on a switch; there are too many facets to our conscious life for that. Perhaps she first had a dim sense of breathing, of feeling the currents of air in the room, or, perhaps even more likely, of sound, first dim and far away, the humming of the machines, the babble of voices.

Then her eyes opened and she looked around, not knowing where she was. She started, afraid, but David was right there, soothing her. I doubt that at that point she understood a word he said, but she became more calm. David was always like that, and I suspect it is why Becky was first attracted to him. There was always an air of calm around David. And she seemed to recognize his face.

It felt like forever, because I think we were all holding our breath, but it must have been just a few moments later that she closed her eyes and drifted into sleep. David sat back as if stunned.

"We did it," I said. It was in a whisper, because I did not want to wake her. But I think I would have whispered even if she had been awake.

"We did it," he replied, also in a whisper, shaking his head as if he could not believe his own words. He let out a long, shaky breath. "Becky would be proud."

I could not help but look at the table. It was a bit eerie. She looked so young, exactly as I remembered Becky in college, years and years ago, slightly awkward but girlishly beautiful. As I watched, she shifted slightly, with the slight moan of sleep, and breathed out. It made her seem very child-like.

Very life-like.

I looked over at David, and he too was looking at the table. But I do not think he was looking at the girlish woman on it. I think he was staring into the past, trying to grasp how we had come to be here.


David eventually married Becky, but I was his friend before she even knew him. Becky never would admit it, because she was like that, but I am very sure that they first met through me. David and I met in R/O Week, the very first day, in fact. He just stuck out with that pool of calm around him, and I needed a bit of calm. We got along well from the very first moment. Becky came later. I think I first met her during some SWE event. She stuck out a bit, too, an awkward but nonetheless lovely girl, looking out at the world with dark eyes that seemed set in a look of suspicion. At first I thought she was shy, but that turned out to be completely wrong; far from shy, there was an occasional brashness to her, an utter refusal to be trampled on, even if it meant trampling other people first. Being quiet myself, I admired that, and I think that is why I agreed when she asked me to share an apartment. I never knew why she asked. Perhaps I just seemed the reliable type, and as good as anyone. I do not think she had any friends before David and me.

Looking back I can see that she set her eyes on David at once. David, of course, was oblivious. He was never stunningly good-looking, but he radiated intelligence and had that ineffable calm, a sober, confident seriousness that seemed sometimes to be melancholy but could just as easily flash into a bright smile or a quiet laugh. And I admit that I myself was not immune to thinking that David had uncommonly nice eyes when he was smiling. It seems so long ago; it's almost embarrassing to have been a silly girl once.

I do not know who came up with the idea first. I am fairly sure it was not Becky, although she certainly had an ambitious enough mind. It could have been me. I do remember that I started working my way through neuroscience journals before we were ever talking about it. But I cannot imagine myself, even as a silly girl, having such an ambitious idea. The first definite memory I have of it is David laughingly saying that if we called it 'fractal metaprogramming', no vice presidents of marketing in the world would be able to resist it. But I am certain we had been talking about it long before then. Perhaps it just grew. However it came about, by the end of sophomore year we were all obsessed with it. Evenings, weekends, early mornings. We never went to parties. It was just classes, and internships later, and our project, and even the classes and internships we drew into it, by treating them as merely further research for our obsession.

It was definitely David who had the first major breakthrough. Becky always said she came up with the biopolymer first, and David let her get away with it, but she was always like that. It was definitely David. I remember him talking about it, laying out the precise method, the method we still use, as if it had somehow sprung up in his brain over night, and I remember being more excited than I had been perhaps in my entire life, because as he spoke I could see in my mind that very first glimmer of the platform it would require. We were awhirl with ideas at the time, and an idea one of us had would spark the solution to another's problem.

Not long after that, Becky came home with her polymer and a plan, and it sounded good, and, almost miraculously, by the end of another year we had it. David and I worked out a presentation together, a good, solid, cautious presentation.

Becky, who had been off somewhere, came home and, after taking one look at what we had pulled together, said, "Neither of you have any clue, do you?"

She made us start over again, supervising us the whole way. Becky was the kind to do what she wanted, although David and I together could rein her in. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if we had refused, but it's a futile counterfactual. We went along with it, of course. David was having difficulty saying no to Becky even then, and I, well, I suppose I was no better. And it sounded so good at the time.

So we gathered everything up and found ourselves in a meeting room at Trisagion.

to be continued

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