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The florescent light is cold even though the break room is warm. It doesn't even pretend to be natural, blazing in direct defiance of the night outside. You stare at the spill trailing from under the edge of the coffee maker. You are quite certain you cleaned up a spill of precisely that shape and size the previous week. A little water has evaporated from the oily surface of your coffee in this intensely dry air, leaving a rime of slick stain at the high tide line in your cup. There must be something more than this, you think, and then it's gone again, buried under paperwork, shuffling things around on your mental desktop until you can't see the image caught under the glass.
It comes back again when you are lying in your bed, with the sheets that don't smell like anything in particular, the color that you disliked least from the selection in your price range three years ago. There must be something more to life than this, you think again, and the longing chokes you like a mugger in an alley, and the tears soak into your pillowcase as you blink at the ceiling, because the thought is wrong, there isn't anything else, and you have made too many choices to go back, and you have caught yourself in a trap of your own design. Except when you trace it back and up and back and up it isn't your design at all, which is why its edges cut you so deeply. It is what you thought you must be in order to have more than what you had before, but now something vital is missing. You wonder what more you were supposed to get, what was so important that you sacrificed those things you liked most about yourself to fit in this small place. You wonder if it was love. You wonder if so, where it is, if you've sacrificed enough yet to get it. But you know what the promise of more was, and the knowledge is the stone in your stomach that says LIE in Garamond, font size 64.
So this is it, you think, and you go on, and on, and on, and you find yourself wondering about funeral arrangments, because surely you will need them, soon enough.
And then, one evening, as you are cooking beef stir-fry for the one hundred and twenty-third time, two men burst in through the back door and shove chloroform in your face and a bag over your head. The next thing you remember is realizing that you're naked on national television, and you start thinking fast, faster than you have in years. You know where you are, some of what you're in for- you've caught an episode here and there. And very quickly you make a few decisions.
1. You need an alias. There's a chance that if you manage this correctly, with a pseudonym and good manners, you'll have a salvageable career when you get home. You've worked too hard at learning how to move up the ladder to lose it all because your government is insane.
2. You ARE going home, and as soon as possible.
Even as you scream in terror and beat at things with your fists and try not to do anything especially stupid while on camera, you are thinking, analyzing, figuring out what you must do to survive.
Then comes the second set of conclusions.
1. Most things that were important at home are now negotiable. You were trying to hold onto those things, all of them intangible and slippery, and it keeps getting in your way. You must bend, in order not to break.
2. The person who kills things in the jungle is not you when you are in town. It makes things simpler. You wash someone else's hands, and try not to wonder where the blood along your cuticles came from.
You know that eventually, you will go truly crazy. You know that the longer you stay here, the less you'll be able- or willing- to go home. You've seen the Jokers.
The problem then becomes the slowly dawning realization that you do not want to go home. There is a reoccurring thought that you started having very soon after you got here. You can be anyone here, it said. Someone braver. Someone more interesting. You start acting like the person you had always wished you could be. It drives away the loneliness and the anger and the sorrow and the hunger, being that person. It makes the homesickness fade. What you did not know, what you did not realize, was that the longer you pretend something, the more real it becomes. Knowing that you could protect yourself put confidence in your stride. Making friends gave you cheer and an outwardly turned attitude. You try not to feel guilty that you didn't really want to go home, that you aren't even really looking for the Drive anymore, just walking from Outpost to Outpost and making your hotel room the Failboat, enjoying the company of friends. Eventually you don't have to pretend anymore. You no longer compress yourself to fit into any particular place. The relief expresses itself in a smile that is rarely completely gone from your face.
You don't so much forget that you had once been miserable as just stop thinking about it. You find a family. The Island is your home. It has everything you could have ever thought to ask for, and then some. Your joy cannot be fully described, although you try to, a few times, secretly, with the talent that you are slowly, quietly nurturing. Your stack of pages of hesitant writing gets thicker as the months go by. Soon, you will write something that is worth sharing, you hope, as you tiptoe on tenterhooks around the ink and paper.
But time spins on. It never stops for long. It is forever running ahead, looping behind, under, and through. Stories end and begin, weaving with time a rich and varied tapestry. And sometimes, the threads go in a direction you did not expect.
"What? Oh, it's you."
"What? What do you mean?" Binjali peers at the woman in front of her, who is wearing reading glasses and a resigned look. She looks. . .quite familiar, actually. It takes her a few moments to process- the features are reversed from how she normally sees them. In the mirror. "Oh."
"Yes, I remember that it didn't take long to figure out this time. Hello."
Binjali takes in the outfit, slacks and a buttondown, notes the appealing sweatervest in passing, the lack of hat or obvious weapon, her hands empty. "But you're from the future, aren't you?"
The woman grins. "Oh, I know I don't look like much. Don't worry about that, you'll find out about this-" she plucks at the vest- "later. Listen, um." Her face gets solemn, serious, and Binjali realizes with a shock that her face is really mobile and easy to read, and she thinks, Something horrible is going to happen. The woman opens her mouth to speak, and Binjali braces herself for bad news.
"Nevermind. Sometime soon there's going to be a path when you're in the jungle near Kittania. Don't go right, okay? You'll want to, but don't." The woman nods to her and limps off with a casual wave, her gait a practiced stumble. "Well, that was strange," Binjali mutters to herself, then changes her grip on the axe handle she'd picked up recently and continues to pick her way through the undergrowth.
Later, when Binjali leaves Kittania, she's presented with the choice of two paths, one wide and welcoming, the other overgrown, gloomy and singing eerily with the sound of miniature mariachis in the grass. She sighs and goes left, even though she's got goosebumps all down her spine. "Hey girlie, you should come this way, with me," calls another Rookie. She hadn't caught his name before she'd left town, but he'd been pulling a few female KittyMorph's tails, although in a misguided flirting attempt or just because he was the sort of person that pulled cat's tails at home, she hadn't been sure. "No thanks," she calls back.
"Have it your way," he says as he strolls away. She sighs again as she tries not to crunch the mariachis. 16/16 time, it must be pretty hot, although she can tell that without the wildlife commentary. She's a short way down the path when she hears a scream off to her right. It's cut off suddenly. She winces, shakes her head, and continues on, blinking in the dusk, thoroughly fenced in by trees and high bushes. The next time she sees the Rookie, he's found a stick to lean on, his right leg mangled past the abilities of the Hospital Tent or Retraining Personnel to fix.
Binjali blinks at the stranger. "Hello," she says cautiously. The stranger has a sunny smile on her face, which is in shadow from a large hat. It is the most beautiful hat Binjali has ever seen. The stranger has one hand on the hilt of a sword, and her bearing is confident. She sweeps her hat off as she bows, then looks up at Binjali, eyebrows raised. Binjali squawks, "What!?"
The stranger grins. "I thought you'd react this way. I know I did." Binjali looks expectantly at the stranger when she says no more. "I assume you're here to tell me something."
"Oh, no, nothing in particular. The statistics say this would happen sooner or later. Ah, however, while I'm here-" The stranger grins again, and Binjali wonders why she looks so cheerful when they're surrounded by things that want to kill her- them- her. The stranger says, "Remember to duck."
The next day, Binjali takes what money she has left over after she buys herself food for the day to the Haberdashery. The hat goes on layaway, since it is worth far more than a Rookie can afford, but she knows it will be hers. It's a small, comforting thought in the times that follow, although she ends up forgetting the advice repeatedly.
Binjali has removed the machete from her pack and is whacking angrily at the bushes in front of her. They keep dodging and giggling, their heart-shaped, shiny leaves rustling. "Not- a- good- day!" she's muttering to herself. She hears someone coming up behind her and dodges to the side, but they ignore her and walk right for the bushes. Binjali stares as the woman makes kissy noises at the bushes and they rustle right out of the path. The woman starts down the path, then pauses and looks back at her, over her reading glasses. She says without rancor, "Are you coming?" Binjali stares for a blink, two, then starts forward.
They get through the bushes with only one leafy grope each- she still squawks in surprise the same way in the future, which is somehow comforting. Binjali kicks and waves her way through the light blue grass that's got to be at least ten feet high that comes after that as the woman steps lightly next to her, hands in her pockets. Binjali isn't sure, but she thinks maybe the woman is somehow slipping between the stalks. As soon as she tries to do that, instead of trying to push them out of the way, it gets a little easier to move- although she can't quite manage the woman's smooth motion. Binjali thinks, Practice, and chuckles.
The woman's voice drifts to her as they go. "So. Tell me about Pinche," she says, her tone friendly and neutral.
Binjali gets whacked in the face by a few stalks. "What?"
"Tell me about Pinche Cabron."
Binjali tries to elbow through smoothly again and can't focus on it. "You know him. Probably better than I do."
"I don't know how well you know him," the woman reminds her. "So tell me."
So Binjali tells her about how they met, and their friendship, and how Pinche wants more than friendship and it makes her
sweat and panic and turn red and she sort of likes him but she's confused and "It's like Richard all over again only worse because I think Pinche likes me, not my 'type'- have you figured out what Richard meant by that?"
The woman's voice sounds amused. "I haven't thought of Richard in years."
Binjali finishes with, "And now he's kissed me."
The woman says warmly, "Aah. I remember that."
Binjali says, "I think I liked it."
The woman says, "It gets better."
Binjali says, "Oh!" She walks on in silence, her face and neck warm enough that she can tell she's blushing, has been for a while.
Eventually the woman says, "Thank you," in a thoughtful tone.
"You're welcome," Binjali says, wondering, but not asking.
When she comes out the other side, the woman is gone.
Binjali is just walking by a camera when it hiccoughs and drops a clatter of requisition tokens at her feet. She chuckles in sudden delight and crouches to gather her windfall. "Must have malfunctioned," she says to her wallaby. "They do that sometimes." The wallaby nods, then kicks, drumming her feet against Binjali's pelvis in alarm. "Or. . .perhaps not," she murmurs as she shuffles sideways off the path, keeping a low profile. From behind a convenient bush, she sees a top hat. "Oh, great, another Joker," she whispers resignedly to the wallaby. "You can never be really sure with them." The top hat, which had been bobbing along at a steady walking pace, stops. Binjali freezes. This bush wasn't really a good hiding place, and even whispers were a bad idea, apparently. The Joker confirms this by peering around the edge of the bush and tipping her hat. "Hello there."
"Hello," says Binjali, cautiously. The Joker backs up a step, but her bright green eyes remain trained on Binjali, obviously expecting her to come out of her mediocre bolt-hole. She does, reluctantly, and watches the Joker to see what she'll do.
The first good look at the Joker comes as a shock. Binjali stares. The Joker smirks back. Their clothing is identical- the Joker wears the dark green surcoat and the rest of her gear, but her plumed pride and joy has been replaced with the black top hat. It looks. . .odd. The Joker's smirk widens as Binjali stares, and then Binjali asks, half outraged, half bewildered, "What happened to my hat?"
The Joker looks up from Binjali's eyes. "It's on your head!" She smiles and tips the top hat to her again, then starts to speak, her smile oddly fixed.
"Do as I say, not as I do. No dice means no roll, no roll means no chance." The Joker turns her hand in a practiced gesture, cards appearing in a fan behind her fingers. She snaps them together into a deck, cuts them apart, shuffles and bridges. The Joker smooths out a line of cards resting on each other in midair, then tips it so they all ripple and the end card flips over. Queen of Diamonds. The Joker then plucks a card from the middle of the line and lays it flat a little closer to Binjali, then uses the same tipping motion. The card flips. Seven of hearts. "Not as much fun without the rest," the Joker says.
Binjali is still ready to dodge- she doesn't even trust herself as a Joker, especially since apparently in becoming one she'll stop making sense. She shivers a little, uncontrollably, and finds that she's speechless, captivated by this person that she will- might! Nothing is set in stone! Might!- become. She takes in every detail, listens to every word, trying to figure out what went wrong- or if she just did her best, and failed.
The Joker performs the traditional 'nothing up my sleeves' gesture, bringing Binjali's attention to her cuffs, flapping loose, marred by mud and tattered. Binjali tries so hard to keep her clothing well-mended. "Nothing to see here, nothing to see here," the Joker says as she pushes up each cuff off her bony wrist, then starts cutting and shuffling- "Move al- don't move." Binjali wasn't moving, but she freezes anyway. The Joker's attention isn't on her though. She hasn't looked at her since that first long glance. Binjali doesn't know if she's grateful for that or not.
As the Joker goes through more card acrobatics, Binjali watches her hands, encased in smart gray Victorian gloves. She remembers that she had gloves, once, nice tough things, leather, matched the rest of the swashbuckler's outfit she'd woken up in after the first time she'd met the Drive, the outfit she and the Joker still wear. She'd taken them off as soon as she'd seen Pinche that first day, so that when she reached him, she could feel his fur under her fingers. She never wore them in town- she enjoyed her sense of touch too much- but was grateful for them in the jungle, at first. It made her feel unfocused, a little dulled, protected. She had to pull them off the first time she met that great hulking magpie, the hilt of her rapier cold and lively in her grip. She'd laughed after she'd won, the relief and adrenaline rush making her giddy, and her sword had swung and hit so easily. She wore them less and less after that. They were less and less of an advantage.
Binjali does not wonder but knows that the Joker's gloves never come off.
The Joker says, "Aces wild hurt when they bite. An assembly of fools isn't one. There is no such thing as a home. A friend in deed might help with need." The cards flicker. Binjali sees the Jack of spades, three of diamonds, five of clubs, then the red backs again- a Joker, using a basic Bicycle deck, it's absurd. It's as if the Joker didn't think too hard about her tools- or just didn't care, Binjali thinks suddenly, and the Joker's entire appearance makes sense, put into that context. She frowns.
The Joker deals out poker hands to five nonexistent players as she says, "Every game can be worth playing. Can't always play solitaire, it's boring. Other players make it interesting." The cards hover obediently in midair. "Any more bets, any more bets," she calls out suddenly and Binjali jumps. The Joker, smirking, pushes her deck into the empty space among the flat hands like poker chips, explaining, "All in."
The Joker looks at Binjali as if waiting for her to say something. Binjali just stares, still analyzing. This Joker is truly mad. Why? she thinks. "Why?" Binjali says. The Joker looks at her stack of card-chips, then back at Binjali. "Well, it's the only way to play, really. Can't hold back, can't wait and see, can't try to figure them all out, you'll never do it, you'll never be able to put them in slots, they are unslottable, they don't fit, they won't do what you expect." She eases the top card off the deck, peeks at it, puts it back, saying, "You can cheat a little, but not a lot."
Binjali doesn't touch the cards, and after another few heartbeats, the Joker sweeps up the hands, clacks them into order on the air, and places them gently on the top of the deck. She leaves her hand there, caging the cards, watching them as if they might struggle to fly away. "Seems like a trap but it isn't. There is no such thing as an assembly of fools. Want to go home but there isn't one." The Joker looks up, stares at Binjali as her hands move on the cards, cut the deck three ways. "Only one right choice," she says, as she shows Binjali the bottom card of the middle section of the deck, before sliding the three parts around as if for a shell game. When Binjali's eye has been thoroughly dizzied, the Joker flips the center deck-section to show the Queen of Hearts. "Only one right choice," she repeats. The Queen hides again, and then she shuffles the split deck together, tapping to bring all of the edges even. She then tilts the deck up, palm covering the bottom card, and slips half the deck up a little. The Queen of Hearts peeks at Binjali coyly, and then the deck is held horizontal again, and still. "Alone is wrong," says the Joker. "Alone is wrong." Her eyes implore understanding. She is not wearing a clan badge. Binjali nods.
Binjali walks into the kitchen one day and finds Zolotisty already there, gnawing on a piece of jerky. They greet each other, and Binjali stands there awkwardly, fidgeting, waiting for. . .something. For Zolotisty to give her an order. That is what she'd expected- that being part of a clan would involve an exchange, being a part of something for some personal freedom. But she's barely even seen her, hasn't been given so little as a suggestion. As Zolotisty continues to peacefully gnaw in silence, Binjali waits for her to say anything, anything at all. But she doesn't. Binjali fidgets until the wallaby kicks her in irritation, and then she asks what she's wanted to from day one, her remembered meeting with the Joker in the jungle giving her tone an edge of urgency. "What do I need to do?"
Zolotisty looks up from her jerky. "What?"
Binjali twists her hands together to keep them from shaking. She doesn't want to look the gift horse in the mouth, but she's felt so foundering. She doesn't know the rules, doesn't know what to do or not do, and so can't get comfortable. She has to ask. "To stay here."
Zolotisty says, "You're already here."
Binjali says, "No. I-" She bites her lip. Zolotisty tilts her head, looking at her. Binjali looks away. She remembers that she signed a contract without knowing what she was signing into. She knows that she was desperate and lonely and hopeful and has nothing more to lose because there is no way she can beat that damned Drive. She predicts that she will never be strong enough to take it out, if everyone else, stronger and faster and smarter, couldn't figure out a way already. So she cannot go home, and she has lost everything, and so she signed her name for a chance at something, and she is at the mercy of this- person, this Joker, the ultimate wild element, unable to be categorized and predicted, and she had loved statistics so in that world that she will never return to, where she knew what the next day would be like, and what set of things any given person might say, because they were all very easy to figure out. But she cannot figure out this person, and does not know what she will ask of her, and that is more frightening than the physical dangers of this place.
Binjali says finally, "Being here as in, being a part of the clan. Staying in the clan. What do I have to do to stay? I mean, the food, and the building, it costs to keep a place like this going." She can almost hear her finger joints creak as her hands clench together. "What am I supposed to pay?"
Zolotisty stares in disbelief, then leans forward on her barstool to examine her.
Binjali examines the floor, scuffing her foot. Her nails bite skin as her hands twist tighter, first one way, then another.
After an eternity, Zolotisty says, "You don't have to do anything."
Binjali looks up, her eyebrow shooting up without permission. She stares at her.
Zolotisty shrugs. "No, you don't- just participate."
Binjali can't believe her ears. The other eyebrow scrunches down, as if her disbelief can be better measured the further her eyebrows are apart. Zolotisty raises her own eyebrows in response and gnaws on her jerky.
Binjali doesn't have to think very hard, for once. "I can do that."
"Good," says Zolotisty, scooting off her barstool. "You're welcome to everything in the ice box, by the way. And the pantry." With that, she's gone. Binjali tentatively opens the ice box door and peeks in, looking at everything but not quite courageous enough to take something, yet.
Well, there's that taken care of, she thinks.
She's wrong, though.
When the time comes. When Binjali has left, has attempted to escape her sorrow by sleeping in trees, living off ratpacks and her kills, when she has run her claws ragged and her body thin, searching for someone she knows she will not find, the temptation to simply disappear rises. She has not been home in weeks. It would be simple to leave the badge with Julia and never have to speak to anyone again. It would be simple. It would be a good thing to do. If she does not speak she does not have to think, and if she does not have to think she does not have to feel. Home means talking. Home means feeling. Home means attachment and losing them all, because eventually the odds turn against everyone.
Her dreams are full of mad, bright green eyes and the burring sound of cards flicking, things out of place. She finds that even though she wants nothing but solitude and the hunt and silence, she cannot give up together and peace and noise entirely. She gives in to her yearning for home, eventually, not her craving for oblivion, and soon after, gives up the ghost and comes home for good.