Wednesday, March 7, 2012

#62 -- The Diffused States (Part 5)

"Don't answer that."

Read: [#23 -- The Diffused States (Part 1)], [(Part 2)], [(Part 3)], and [Part 4] to stay caught up. . .

As somebody that had been given the privilege of actually being allowed to look at her own brain on many occasions, Eliza knew that even though certain parts of it lit up when she thought about certain things -- hope and fear, anxiety and calmness, hate and love, they all spun different colors across the display -- she still was only consciously in charge of that famous 10% that people talked about. The rest of the processing power was running command loops to make sure her heart kept pumping blood and her ears kept hearing without a reminder and all the rods and cones in her eyes kept working hard. The 90% made sure the clock kept ticking without her ever knowing.

The nerves ticked all the way down. Eliza's eyes swung open. She tried to shut them but they would have none of it and they fluttered back, wider than before, realizing she had fallen asleep at her kitchen table again, luckily not on top of her tablet this time. It was raining in through the open window, and Eliza's legs ached, and when she winced in pain at the realization, she coughed her mouth dry. 

Dressing appropriately but preferring the misting spray over the encumbrance of an umbrella, she walked to the training facility, ignoring the weather. She had turned off her phone after the events of her post-race conference eight small hours earlier, it too was an encumbrance and an undesirable distraction, informing her of good news and bad news, neither of which she cared to hear. Again, an umbrella wasn't going to do her any favors. She imagined the exact advice each person would give to her during that coming day. Aran would encourage her to lay low. Han would assure her they were spinning it -- if he was even in today and wasn't out in the field glad-handing with sponsors already. Laureate would probably build her a playlist of world music and vapid pop-rock to make her forget her worries. 

And then there was Stro, who wouldn't even bring it up, whether on purpose or not, acting with refreshing consistency. 

So she kept her phone turned off, making her feel cool and invisible, and there was happiness for her in that sensation, all the while recognizing that she would speak to yesterday's events soon, give an explanation, maybe even a good one if she could summon the right feelings on the spot -- it did not burden her that she was running late as the clock struck seven o'clock. When she noticed the time upon entering, more nerves ticked in her and she woke up a little bit, wondering next if she would be allowed to have caffeine or alcohol that week.

It was Monday: on the docket was film, sync-strengthening, and probably time spent brainstorming with engineering and Smith or musical dilation with Laureate.

Stro had already begun his sync-analysis with Angel when Eliza arrived on the third floor. Eliza nodded hello at Angel as she entered the observation studio and they watched Stro on the opposite side of the glass. That was the room used to establish a Runner's biometric baseline so they could find a good kinetic sync with the D3's synthetic senses. Stro and Eliza secretly referred to that place as the Spiral, the empty, noiseless room with the soft wooden floors that curled towards the center like a hermit crab shell, built that way to channel their psyches down into the subconscious through sheer force of will. The floorboards were actually laid on top of very firm springs. It was kind of fun to walk on. In each corner of the room were white cylindrical machines that hummed with processing power, the black-glassed infrared scanners all up and down them pointed at the subject, who would sit the center. There was one long window and Stro sat, barefoot, with his back to it, and the rain drove hard against it without a sound.

"Almost all of my dreams," Stro's voice began to say over the speakers in the booth, projecting assertively within the audible silence Angel was recording. She and Eliza listened to him. "All of my dreams don't begin with me flying. But they all end there. If you know what that says about me, my sleeping brain obsessing over flight, please tell me. They all begin slow. I'm on the ground at first. I'm never alone, there are usually small crowds around me. The people approach me and I know them, but even though I know their faces, they are never themselves as I know them. Almost never. A lot of the time, the sound is gone when they talk, and somehow they figure out that I'm deaf to what they're saying. I know exactly what they're saying though. Of course I can understand, I tell myself. It's my dream. I can't convince them though. They don't believe me. Things speed up. They show me places I could go, different versions of the dream prepared and ready, like dishes on a buffet from my memories. I see all of them, recognizable patterns pulsing on top of my eyes. I hate all of them.

"Things speed up again," said Stro. Eliza eyed the machine taking periodic CT scans of Stro's brain. Different quadrants lit up different colors with each word, a visualization of his emotional associations as he spoke. Then Eliza saw the timer running next to it. 

"How long has he been in there?" she whispered to Angel. 

"Two hours now," Angel whispered back. Eliza calculated the time out in her head. "He just keeps repeating this. Over and over. Describing the dream. It never changes. Not a word." She nods at the CT scan refreshing itself. "Only that does."

Eliza sat, observing. "So he's working through it. Little by little." The scan refreshed, the colors pulsing in a pattern she couldn't recognize, deciding, anticipating. "Little by little."

Angel agreed. She had become very familiar with Stro's personality in her few short months on the team, staring at his CT scans all night and observing his mannerisms all day. Even though she was the youngest person on the team at just nineteen, she had many years of self-dependence after emancipating herself at age twelve. Certain states had loose child-rearing laws, particularly in the upper northeast wilderness where if you could swing an axe or sell well-priced crafts to tourists, you could make a living. She sipped a mug of plain warm water and put her feet up in Eliza's lap, getting comfortable.

"The ground gives way," Stro continued, Angel mouthing the line along with him, familiar with it by now. "And I'm running downhill in a dead sprint. The people that try to follow me fall, rolling head over heels. I'm in complete control. One final speed jump happens and when I feel ready, I leap, and I take flight. It's cold but I don't care because I'm ricocheting off of treetops like a natural, gaining altitude, my heart-rate ratcheting up until it's a mechanical rumbling. When I finally arrive at the realization that I can accelerate and change direction at will, the cityscape opens up underneath me, massive skyscrapers full of every colored light imaginable. Then I wake up."

Angel grabbed Eliza's wrist, startled suddenly when Stro's eyes opened. He looked at Eliza through the glass. "Angel, your know me, and you know how my subconscious interacts with outside forces -- how come it always wakes me up right then? How does my brain time it like that?"

"Umm, well, because we aren't allowed to be in control," was the answer Angel came up with, holding the talk button so Stro can hear her inside the Spiral. "And it can time it like that because that's where your mind wants you to end. I think that's the moment it wants you to remember. It wants your conscious mind to remember that lesson."

The three of them were quiet for a few moments. Stro's heartbeat and brainwaves were recorded on the machine that went on making odd sounds before blinking three times and the light on the front changed to blue. 

-- |  |  | --

"Stro, check this out," Smith drew a pistol out of his belt and pulled the trigger.

Stro winced, clenching his teeth. The snapping click sounded like tooth being broken out of somebody's head. But there was no gunshot. There was an intense green flame cracking at the tip of the barrel, which Stro estimated was the most threatening and complex cigarette lighter he had ever seen. Smith waved the gun from side to side, entertained by the intense green flame spewing sparks at the tip of the barrel -- Stro didn't share his enthusiasm. 

"Fire. Baaaad!" he said, exasperated, trying to calm his heartbeat. They were three hours into stress-testing the D3's Tuck stance. Stro had been holding positions as Aran had been calling them out from the booth over the speaker with randomized wind gusts being fired to test aerodynamics. The D3 was mounted on a rig that swelled and dipped to simulate the undulations in a course, which was good for practicing form, but lacked the g-forces felt during the real races. 

"Hard right," Aran would say. Stro followed the command with a precise turn from atop his mount, feeling the rig swing around accurately. His stomach muscles had already been killing him an hour earlier -- this was just Aran's constructive cruelty now. "Gradual left. Hairpin. Left turn. Right turn. Hairpin again. Medium jump, you can suck it up." Stro stood up in the saddle and absorbed the simulated roll in the track. "Chicane. Hold tight for the pitch, it's going to last for seven seconds. Maintain that for seven seconds, six, five, four, three, two, and hold it. Good, set up early for the next soft left and then there's a double-flush before things straighten out again. Hold, okay, now a medium uphill, one -- one-two-one-two-one-two." There was a gyroscopic hum swirling from side to side and Stro executed the simulation almost flawlessly. He held the tuck as tightly as he could, feeling his joints burn but his form held until Smith came over with the green lighter and distracted him.

"I modded it," the giddy Smith explained. "Do you know hot this thing is burning?"

"Very? Dude, hang on for a sec, Aran might be pissed you're down here."

"Extremely," Smith corrected. "Extremely hot is the answer. Hot enough to melt metal, hot enough to bake limestone into glass if you hold it on it for a minute or so." Smith stared, utterly in love with the green fire his home-made gun-lighter was creating. Not able to tear away his gaze, he put some plastic safety goggles on his stony face instead. With squinty eyes, he tried to look further into the center of the fire, then offered Stro some similar goggles, smirking and embarrassed by his own lack of manners.


One of the goggles' arms broke when he took them and Stro froze instantly, trying not to move too much while Smith had the lighter ignited; hot enough to turn rock into glass.

Aran's voice came on over the speaker.

"Alright, good session, you can ease back. Smith, thanks for the assist. Stro, we're going to spool up some lower tunes. Starting sync, shift to a Roid-stance, clamp down every sense except sound. You ready?"

"Well done, you stayed focused in the face of my casual psychosis," Smith encouraged, clapping his hand on Stro's shoulder again, and finally closing the flame on the lighter as Aran waved down at them, confirming that it was indeed all part of a sly distraction. "My advice to you, Frankenstein, is to live, and be happy, and make others so."

"Thanks, man," Stro answered. He exhaled and let his body ease up, secretly relieved by Aran's orders.

"Hey, also, what was the deal with Eliza's meltdown yesterday?"

"Meltdown? I might save the word 'meltdown' for a more severe situation."

"Have you talked to her about it?"

"Some people might need to talk about it, but I honestly don't really think she needs to talk about it. That's my diagnosis. She ain't exactly a girl in need of saving from her own fragile lady-thoughts." He nodded his head upwards at Smith. "Because they're oh-so fragile, right? Now, shoo. Okay, Aran, I'm ready when you are. Laureate, spool up the soundtrack. Hit me with a butt-kicker. I am strapped on, open-minded, and -- all the rest of the innuendo."

Stro exhaled. A darkening vibration numbed his body. The D3's mechanical exoskeleton collapsed onto his body, arms, and legs, armoring him and leaving only his face exposed as the vibration grew into a rumble. Getting comfortable, Stro leaned his head back just a little bit as he stood up with the plating fitted into place, allowing the backside of the helmet to find his neck so he could lower the facemask when it was time. He always heard his heart pump so hard when this happened, it reminded him of getting his blood pressure taken at the doctor -- the whole thing tightened, eased, and tightened over and over, alternating between rushing hot and vacant cold feelings.

He thought about his dream, and waking up from the dream, and asking Angel what it meant. The sync was all but done at this point, and he smelled the color blue in his nose, if that was possible. He felt present and comfortable. Fifteen feet tall and humanoid, all of his fingers wiggled just fine, the D3 handed over those sensations. He felt what it felt, wholly alive, relieved from the pain that was there a minute ago. He was in full-synchronization with the organism that the exoskeleton was laced with. It shared thoughts with him and he with it.

In the booth, Laureate scratched her nails across the guitar strings and thumped out a riff that would be more at home on a bass guitar or inside a sleeping man's chest.

"Alright, light it up," Stro said. He snapped his head forward and the facemask slide down into place. The UI-display loaded at the speed of light, bumping and rolling in perfect harmony with his breathing, with his heart, and with the music. Then Aran flipped a switch somewhere and everything went black, all of Stro's senses shut down except for sound. He floated, hearing, hoping that he was still breathing, left alone with Laureate's music.

It was fast and bass-heavy, driving ahead like it was catching up with something that had suddenly escaped. One-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two, one-TWO, one-two-three-four. Strings started to saw at double-time behind the beat before joining it in harmony.

To Stro though, deprived of four senses the moment Aran threw the switch, there was nothing but the sound. In there, without the rest, he floated. Just the sound. A beating, rotating, revolving, rising, waltz, spinning higher, speeding up, ascending out of dark into light.

"Feeling good?" he heard Laureate ask.

"It's a new dawn, it's a new day," Stro joked. It was odd talking and hearing himself speak, but not tasting the vibration from his voice box or the air coming out of his nose. It was still happening and he was acting on muscle memory, but he was numb in his nerves. Those senses belong to the D3 right now. In a little bit, the trust between him and the machine would be nurtured, and they would trade back. A great deal of practice was required to get used to this feeling, he remembered nearly passing out the first time he was hit with it. Here he was now though, without an active nerve-ending in his own fingers, retinas in his eyes deactivated, all of it, everything but the sound -- it was just the music now. He had to believe that the living creature, whose entire physiology and neurological systems were etched into the D3's frame, would recognize and honor him, and give him his senses back. 

The music calmed him and he felt no conflict, but he wasn't sure his body would be able to sense if anything was wrong where something to happen.

That was when, without meaning to, he started to see things. It had to be in his mind, but what was really the difference? Without the rest of his senses to occupy its time, his brain was finding other things to do, diverting power to something new. He decided that had to be the answer. It only started out slowly -- the blackness started to peel, showing frayed edges, giving way to color, always accelerating. He assured himself that he was imagining these things himself and he expected Aran to chime in, to tell him with what was going on, that this was a normal reaction, but there were no voices from the outside. Thoughts were still there. Thoughts were all there was, really, that and the music, which had threaded into the images. Stro kept himself from trying to control them, choosing instead to watch.

"Are Stro Gilroy?"

"Depends who's asking."

The response was human and as clear as any thought he'd ever had. "You do not have to be afraid. I am here to protect you, okay?"

"Why would you protect me? And protect me from what?" Even though the voice had suddenly become familiar, he asked, "Who are you?"

"I am Suede."

Stro drew his mind away. There was no resistance and he felt fine, and he wanted to be amazed and confused like somebody should be, but there was no mistake that he had just communicated with the D3's biomech, the living machine, and on a very simple level. The first thought he had was that it spoke good English. Still his mind demanded some intrinsic astonishment. He wished he could feel the air in his lungs -- he didn't think he was gasping, but he imagined a person in his situation would be. Normally, Stro would have been filled with disbelief, and questions would be trundling around in his head, demanding that he ask, ask, ask! This was different though. There was nothing to grapple with -- there was just comfort and a calm confidence that when he needed answers, he would get them.

Suede was a real entity, whatever that meant. She was there. He knew she was there and he could trust her -- and he knew that she was a she.

In the moment he decided on that fact, reality returned. "Take it down," he heard Aran say right there, and the music tapered out. Stro's heart thumped back into place as his senses came back. He flicked his head back, facemask sliding off. His senses started to come back, first his skin, then nose, and fingers. Aran approached now, coming into focus as Stro's sight began to return. He whispered something in Laureate's ear, who checked her watch and left the simulation bay. Standing nine feet taller than Aran still in the D3, Stro nodded at Smith, who was exiting the recording booth now.

"Umm, so," Stro started. "How'd it sound?"

"How'd it feel?" answered Aran. "Don't answer that. You shouldn't have felt anything. Stro, you were in perfect sync with the D3. Absolutely outstanding."

So that's what it was -- perfect sync?

"Yeah, thanks. The sensation of touch was still sticky, the signals coming from my brain still felt sorted and individualized, like when you get your nose back after having a cold for a while. It kinda resonates, even after we went into full audio. I still felt. . . well, it seemed I was in control, even when all I could hear was the music. Can I talk to Laureate about it?"

"In a minute. Now, the more you give yourself over to the D3, the more power you give it, and the less your pink little monkey brain limits its functions. There needs to be the balance though, you can’t just hand over all five senses, there's the danger of diffusing entirely into the cybernetics."

"What would happen then?"

"Your own consciousness would be gone, it would blend with the D3, you'd probably live for a few minutes, and then your fused sentience would turn on itself, viewing your fleshy meatbag as a gigantic tumor. Your spine would snap, all the water in your body would crystallize. Then you'd die. Both of you. You and the D3."

"Ah. OK, right. Balance that then?"

"Balance. Playing it safe, stick with sight, sound, and touch. The D3 is actually a fairly feral, animalistic organism, so giving over your smell and taste will only help you. It’s better at utilizing them than humans ever were."

"So you're basically part-man, part. . . -robot cheetah," decided Smith with a flourish. He pointed to the D3's exo-skeletal structure. "In a way, it's built more like a bug. Armor on the outside, keeping you and your squishy organs safe. However, for movement, we designed the plating so it could shift and bend in and out of itself like an accordion. Or, again, like a huge cat. It keeps you secure and also flexible. Eliza's been doing yoga. Have you been doing yoga?"

"No. No, I haven't been doing yoga." Stro worked his way out of the D3, climbing down, and stepping onto the floor. He looked up at the D3 frame, chest-cavity exposed like it was on the operating table, bones pried apart by a rib separator. Then he thought of Eliza and he reminded himself to tell her what he'd seen in there in the silence. What he'd been told.

Smith stretched his shoulders incorrectly, as inexperienced athletes are wont to do, until they popped a little and he noticed Stro was giving him they stink eye. "Stro," said Aran. "Do some kind of flexibility work before your spine suffers a spiral fracture doing a 5-g turn at 800 km/h."
-- |  | --

Laureate sat herself down opposite Eliza on the floor in the Spiral. It was exactly 6:00pm. Laureate's punctuality was rubbing off on her. 

"What do you have for the rest of the day?" Laureate asked.

"Stro and I have film to go over. That's it."

"That's more important, so I won't take up too much of your time. I know it's been a long day. How'd you sleep last night, Eliza?"


"No trouble? I can compose you something if you like?"

"Nah. It's fine. Thanks though."

"Sure thing. Now, for the pre-race prep next week, what song are you gonna use? Don't answer that. Listen first. It's so damn important. Sound is so damn important to your mood. It changes your mood and it changes your mind. It's memetic. It's not just a part of you. It's a part of all of us. A world can make a sound. A place that's never existed and an emotion that you've never even felt can have a voice and a sound and a song. It can send you back in time. The music can move and haunt you, manipulate you for good or for ill. Want to slow down time? It can do that. Want to speed it up? We can give you a sound that'll move your brain faster than any drug. It's a digital thought in an analog code. It's gonna make you a machine. It's gonna change every heartbeat in the world because they're gonna be watching you and they're gonna hear every move you make. And when they feed on your energy, you're gonna feed on their excitement, all because of the bassline and the rhythm and the words. The race is alive and poetic, and the music helps create the meter and rhyme, and you're the one that makes it all visible. You cast the light on it. All of that energy is gonna be synchronized and it'll call out to you, and when it does, you can sustain that grace -- you'll have them all in the palm of your hand. You can make them rise and fall. You can command them and then that soul will offer you strength back. You aren't God, but you can make all of them human, just like you are. Make them the best. Inspire them. That's what you can do. That's what you're here to do. You can't do that in the silence.

"Have you ever been in silence? Have you ever been anything but lonely in silence? Silence is never bright, it crushes all the other senses. On instinct, humans reach through silence. That's what you have to do."

"Then that's what I'll do."

Eliza lowered her headset onto her ears and sat herself straight, cross-legged on the floor so her body formed a right angle. 

"Eliza. You rule." With that, Laureate leaned in and flicked the noise canceler on the headset.

It was still raining outside. She let herself think about breathing, feeling air pass in and out of her lungs, and there was a dry smell that dust carried into her. "I'm ready," she said softly to Laureate. "Start the composition."

Laureate nodded, feeling confident, and switched on the music before she left the room. 

"Gonna conquer the world," Eliza breathed to herself. "Gonna break right into heaven."

Outside the Spiral, Laureate rubbed her eyes, feeling thankful that she could go home. She wasn't halfway back to her office though when her thoughts were interrupted by what sounded like a rather harsh conversation. She stopping dead, and feeling the air press up inside her chest, she heard the exchange down the corridor rise and fall, and she slipped into a side-hall, listening as hard as she could.

"Sponsors are a hairsbreadth from dropping us," Laureate could hear Han hiss, letting the volume bump up to a more normal tone when he added, "We need her to issue an apology."

"She'll race. She'll be herself. That'll be her apology." Stro's voice remained calm, as usual. "If we cave to the league's expectations and to the fans' expectations, that is a slippery slope. It's a part of who we are. We're human -- and we're better than human. If at all possible, we don't backpedal, we embrace our emotions and demonstrate our command over them. You came to me asking me to do the same thing once, and I did it, and what happened?"

"The league put us under investigation for the allegedly-deliberate on-track murder of another Runner."

"And we started getting slapped with bullshit fines and penalties every other week. They started targeting us. And how did we beat it? We won the crowd back -- Eliza won the crowd back for our team. She is the best there is and she can handle herself, and if you, or Aran, or anybody says something, you risk taking that away. People respect backbone more than manners."

"Sponsors don't, Stro! You--!" Han's voice spiked and he reeled it back in. "--You have to talk to her. She'll listen to you."

"I'm not going to manipulate her for you. I'm not going to go against her trust." 

"Then what fucking good is that trust, Stro?" Laureate made herself as silent as she could. "If you're going to keep it all to yourself, what have you and Eliza got? And what good are you to her, while we're at it? That's the simplest advice I can give you. Do as you please."

"Han, hey, wait. Listen, I will talk to Eliza. Trust me, I'll do what I can to smooth this over, but I'm going to do it my way, alright?" Han mumbled some agreement. "Cool. Oh, and one more thing. I know this has been a tough day for you, but I gotta know -- does it bother you to know that in another dimension, Bizarro-You is probably having one of the best fucking days of his life?"

-- | --

There was a rush of black smearing across the display that was beginning to pixelate, even at maximum resolution and scan-rate. It bolted from one corner of the screen to the other -- 

"--Here. Pause it here." Stro twitched his wrist and the film on the projector went static. Eliza focused on the frame and the instant it held, a single turn two-thirds into the Death Valley race where she had felt her rear wheel slip when she entered her Tuck and there was no way she could defend it. "Do you see it right here? You're coming into the turn very high and that's good. Then you get through the corner." He twitched his wrist again and the video went forward a few frames. It went back and forth when he scrubbed it between each moment and it was showing her something that Eliza couldn't identify. "I think you dusted just a little bit of speed here. You didn't need to either. See here? Come out of the corner and then just. . . stand on your legs. Trust them."

Eliza leaned forward and examined her form, trying to think. "What do you mean exactly?" She stood up then and pointed at the image. "I'm on top of the apex, aren't I?"

"Absolutely. Hitting the apex isn't your issue though, it's that you're losing velocity because of form within the turn itself," he pointed out, letting the film go forward a few more seconds. On the screen, Eliza struggled against the downforce in her Tuck. "You need to get your butt down. You're riding the thing like it's a horse. Except it's not a horse. The wind is knocking you around, destabilizing you, and then coupled with the rut in the corner, you get thrown a little. You're up in your stance and it's not because you're not strong enough. Were you afraid of wrecking in that turn?"

"I don't remember."

Stro chuckled. "You were doing almost 4oo km/h coming out of this turn and even as you set up for the next one, you hesitated, just for a second. Look right there." Stro held the image. "You're already being brave, entering a turn like that. You were in Tuck. You could be doing maybe 600 km/h. What's the deal here? Were you afraid of wrecking?"

"Eh, not really," Eliza answered. "Just got lazy, I guess. Cost me seven-tenths of a second?"

"Yeah, about." Stro checked the time-split with the video at full speed, observing Eliza enter the turn, body pinned in perfect form as she entered the apex with transfixing grace, and then emerge. "Seven-tenths exactly. This was the one that gave everybody trouble. You still nailed the corner better than everybody else did -- better than I did."

"Hey, what time is it now?"

"Right now?" It had been dark outside for a while now. "Eight. A little after."

"Fuck this day," she growled. "Fuck every ounce of this day." 

"You know Smith talked to me? He wanted to know if I'd talked to you." He scrubbed the video back and forth to distract himself before looking back over at Eliza. "About yesterday." 

"And what did you tell him, Tobias?" 

Eliza occasionally used his real name for comedic effect. The nickname 'Stro' had allegedly been coined by Aran, who insisted that it had come from Astro Boy, an old cartoon about a kid named Toby that was turned into a robot. The public loved the story, so the name stayed.

"Not much," Stro replied. "There's not much to be said about it. I don't think you needed to be talked--" He thought about his wording, "--at. That's probably what would happen." 

"Yeah, probably," she said, shrugging. Stro passed her the remote when she asked for it and she twitched the film between a few frames. "I need a new bathmat. Mine's getting groadie. I stand on that thing and it's all damp and furry and uneven -- it's like standing in roadkill. In roadkill." 

"My bathmat's a piece of shit." 

"Maybe I just need to wash it? Would that bring it back to life?" 

"No. Only washing it in holy water would do that. Then you'd have to dry it on a clothesline made of rosaries whittled from the bones of Saint Sebastian and then beat the grunge out of it with a piece of the true cross. If there is indeed a demon in it, that'd force it out." 

"Gremlins live in my shower and fuck with the hot and cold water." Eliza scrubbed the film back and forth between those same few moments a few more times and then gave up with an exacerbated sigh before wiggling in her chair and rolling onto her side as if she was preparing to fall asleep. But then she said in a normal voice, "Seven-tenths of a second. Game over. My brain has stopped functioning. I am out of brains." 

"Is your brain used up?" Stro joked. 

"I think I need a brain factory-reset. Do they have that? If that's a thing, I need that. I've got too much gunk clogging up my cerebral cortex. I'm running on fumes and burning motor oil over here." She spun her phone on the table and when it stopped, she added, "Eh, so it goes. I'll be more with it tomorrow."

"It's fine, we got a lot done today anyway, more than we should have. Still, I don't think I'd be able to think straight if I didn't have this," he waved at the room around them. "I mean, I like it. I like that our job is to be good and to be admired. What's better than being yourself, professionally? When the hardest part of your day is to persuade people that you're, in fact, a good person, that's a pretty nice feeling. Hit them with awe and just take the gravity outta them -- that's all I want to do and all I need to do. Nobody expects us to be sensitive. They just expect us to be honest." 

"People expect us to be kinda sensitive. Polite, vulnerable, and sensitive. As if that's the best thing a person in the spotlight should be, especially an athlete. Some talented, hyper-humane, yet sensitive flower in mid-wilt." 

"Sensitive people?" Stro shook his head. "We're still calling them that? Jesus, when do we get to go back to just calling them pussies? There's good, and there's bad -- politeness is just gentrification for people without the natural compulsion to be honest with kindness." 

Eliza lifted up her head to look at him. "You're polite." 

"I promise, it's not on purpose." He turned off the projector and the room went dark. In a moment, their eyes would adjust a little -- for now, there was just the dust for them to smell on the air, and Stro heard her rub her eyes and roll over. "It is on purpose sometimes -- I'll give my mom some credit for not raising a bum. Hmm. I was going to tell you something else. I can't remember what it was though." 

"If you remember it, tell me." 

A few minutes later, the temperature dropped, and the rain changed to snow. It was the third week of January and the next race was in five days in Nevada.

-- Doberman
. . .follow the person on Twitter 

 Recommended related reading:
[The Diffused States (Part 1)] by Doberman
[The Organ] by Ghost Little
[V.i.] by Ghost Little

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