Oct 072013
 

from the book: Life Will Get You in the End:
Short stories by David Satterlee

A liberal fable. Not every one can be born to good looks, wealth, or privilege. How should we think of the disadvantaged people we happen to see, knowing that their appearance, condition, or status may not reflect their inner gifts or intrinsic worth?

The Ugly Baby

Little Jenna was born ugly. There’s no getting around the fact; she was definitely butt ugly. She didn’t have the usual cuddly baby fat but looked like a bundle of sinew-wrapped sticks. She had a red blotch that covered her right jaw and went all the way back to her ear. Her left eye looked kind of droopy. Visitors to the hospital nursery either stared at her or looked away.
Jenna’s father left when he found out about the pregnancy. Her mother took a third part-time job but still couldn’t keep up with the rent. Between her mother’s stress, exhaustion, and poor nutrition, Jenna was delivered sickly and premature, which didn’t bode well for her future.
Jenna’s widowed aunt eventually agreed to let her and her mother stay in a spare room. Jenna’s cousin had been brain-injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq and would never be coming back to sleep there. Jenna’s mother tried to get her GED high school diploma but, without transportation, she had attendance problems and dropped out. She tried to get work, but the economy was slowing and she began drinking heavily. Consumed by anger, helplessness, and hopelessness, she was an indifferent and inattentive mother to her ugly little burden. When Jenna was two, her mother disappeared without even leaving a note.
Jenna’s aunt became the bright spot in her otherwise physically, mentally, and emotionally-impoverished life. Her aunt, getting past her initial revulsion and resentment, opened her heart to nurture the child. She rocked and cuddled Jenna. She talked to Jenna and read to her, took her on trips and showed her how to prune the imperfect buds in the garden so that the others could bloom larger.
For the first time in her life, Jenna began to smile, talk, and laugh. Her curiosity bloomed. She liked to help in the kitchen and took responsibility for things like being sure that the cats always had food and water… and a good petting when they were in the mood. Coached by her aunt, Jenna quickly learned her letters and learned to read early. She also began developing skills including drawing and music. Who would not be delighted by such a prodigy?
However, Jenna began to notice that, although her aunt gave unreserved gifts of acceptance and attention, no one else seemed to like being around her. She sat on the front steps, but no one came to play. When she knocked at the doors of other children, they were always too busy. She wasn’t invited to parties. When she went out, people stared at her or looked away. Jenna discovered that she was ugly, and she learned, indelibly, what being ugly on the outside meant.
This was a transforming epiphany for Jenna. She recognized, at an unusually early age, that there was a difference between superficial ugliness of the flesh and deep ugliness of the spirit. She had not been raised in any religious tradition but found herself moved to make a heartfelt dedication to figuring out how to be beautiful inside. It is from such a spiritual awakening that all saints are realized.
Third grade challenged Jenna’s newfound resolve. Her classmates were especially cruel. Her teacher not only failed to correct the bullying, but was indifferent and negligent toward Jenna as a person, as a student, and as a creative, questing soul with abundant potential. Jenna decided that an imperfect bud was being pruned.
Often, in a family or a small group, one person becomes singled out as different, difficult, blameworthy, and unlovable. Jenna easily became that target of unintended malice. She quit trying to participate in class, talk to others, or complete many make-work assignments. She withdrew into herself, absorbed in just watching, being preoccupied with her own thoughts, and preferring to retire into quiet places to read at every opportunity.
And, just as everything was crashing down on Jenna at school, her aunt suffered a serious stroke and died. Jenna was placed in foster care with some difficulty. Nobody wanted an ugly girl who would hardly even look at you, and had a poor academic record. She was probably stupid as well. The couple that finally accepted Jenna likely only wanted the foster care payments, but they did provide a private room, regular meals and other obligatory physical care.
The rest of Jenna’s primary and secondary school experience repeated these same fundamental patterns with one exception. Hormones produced physical development and unreliable emotions. Jenna saw other girls and boys infatuated with each other and ached to experience the same satisfactions for herself. For a while, she mistook the power of promiscuity for the evidence of affection. This ended abruptly when she discovered the contempt with which a suitor described his conquest to others.
After graduating from high school, Jenna found work processing insurance claims. Her native intelligence and easy facility with words and numbers finally found a productive and acceptable outlet. Jenna had a private cubicle. There was little opportunity for people to stare at her or turn away. She earned enough to maintain her own apartment and automobile. And so, she went through the motions of having a life, but without the usual satisfactions.
In fact, by living such a difficult life, Jenna discovered that she had developed a high level of empathy for the difficulties of others. But, she also discovered that her work was designed to frustrate or deny as many claims as possible. The resulting conflict between Jenna’s values and actions produced an inevitable and intolerable tension. She began drinking wine at home after work to dull her painful misery.
Alcohol will ease the pain, but at the expense of good judgment. One night, Jenna discovered that she did not have enough wine on hand to fully achieve the usual sweet oblivion of sleep. Driving several miles through town to buy more, she realized that she was about to plow into a small group of inattentive teenagers swirling across the street in front of her. She swerved abruptly to miss them, recognizing that this would take her headlong into a large tree. Jenna did not doubt for an instant that she would be killed or that she had any other choice.
Jenna was not killed, but the last boy in the group was crushed and bled to death in minutes. Jenna was often wracked by the pain of inconsolable grief and guilt. She could not imagine any relief nor any forgiveness.
Jenna’s usual ugliness was amplified beyond all consideration by her mug shot. Her nose was broken. She lost three teeth. Her right eye was badly bruised. In a mirror, she both stared and then looked away, finally understanding the fascination and shock of unexpected novelty.
In jail, a church lady began making visits. She spoke of a loving and forgiving God. She played tapes of sermons and left literature. The lady kept a folder and made notes. One day, the lady took Jenna’s mug shot out of the folder and invited her to describe how she felt about the sinfulness of her earlier life. Afterwards, Jenna overheard the lady showing the picture to the guards and heard the contempt with which the lady described her ugliness. Jenna decided that she had once again mistaken the power of attention for the evidence of love.
Alone in her jail cell, Jenna wept long and hard, neglecting the food on her meal tray. Thinking back over her life, leading to this point, and imagining her probable future, she indulged some self-pity, which quickly compounded her guilt and self-condemnation. And then, Jenna experienced another transforming epiphany.
Jenna washed her hands, dried her face, and filled a cup with water from the sink. She took a bite from her lunch sandwich; the bread was stale and dry. She took a sip of water; the bouquet felt rich and fruity and went down with smooth warmth.
Jenna removed her pants. Lacking anything higher, she tied one leg around a cross-member of the bars and the other around her neck. Summoning extraordinary will and purpose, she extended her legs in front of her, gradually giving up her weight. In due time, her painful misery gave way to sweet oblivion. Strong arms lifted Jenna up and embraced her. She looked up. His kind eyes looked back directly into hers. He smiled and comforted her gently.
Two guards discovered her body there in the cell. Her reddened face and distended tongue only accentuated her usual ugliness. One of the guards stared at her. The other looked away.
Jun 042013
 

A Marriage Made in Heaven

The colony ship “Akasha” was in serious trouble. Of course, it was continuing on its trajectory, but it was only a few shift rotations from becoming colder than the two dozen pairs of cryogenic stasis chambers it carried. Something terrible, and terribly unexpected, had happened. Akasha was too far into the ether to be helped… and too far out to even signal her status.

Everybody and everything on board was instantaneously at risk. The impossible had happened; all power generators, and all systems, had gone offline together when the power distribution buss failed. Twenty-four mated pairs of colonists might never know what had happened. But the captain, the officers, and every member of the crew sure did. Dave had happened. And, it fell to Dave to save them all… if he could.

I’m so sorry that I dropped that wrench into your power trunk distribution venue. You’ve been a very good ship. I’ve tried to serve you well. Your internal systems reactor never deserved the kind of power surge that I caused by my carelessness. I’ve repaired and reset everything I can find. I know that I’ve taken for granted your excellent environmentals; they were over spec’d and I appreciate that, but we’re starting to have trouble rebreathing our own air. This whole systems reboot really needs to work. I trust you. I love you. I’ll hold my mind with you the whole way. Let’s do it.

Dave, the ship’s senior engineer sat alone; he had asked the rest of the department crew to leave so that he could concentrate, without distraction, on what he now had to do. Dave closed his eyes, drew a deep breath, centered his mind, opened his eyes again, and reconnected local battery backup power to the Engineering Department’s OmniSoft 2040(c) central command console. Dedicated indicator lights flashed in a series as the xBIOS pre-boot self-test routine executed. The GUI surface flashed, went dark again, and presented the words: “Execute authorization pass-gesture to begin.” The engineer, realizing he had forgotten to do so, began breathing again.

Thank you. Dave made his level-ZED pass-gesture and leaned back slightly to watch the boot-log scroll across his supplemental debug display. It was necessary to watch the process with a certain intense detachment. It was okay to blink and it was even okay to glance away, but it tempted fate to be indifferent. There is something about major systems that expect and respond positively to your undivided attention during start-up. On the other hand, you can’t presumptuously let yourself indulge definite expectations. Major systems are also especially sensitive to being taken for granted.

Dave shifted his attention to the systems status overview schematic. The Engineering command console had already completed local startup and had begun acquiring status signals as they became available. There they were! There was full nominal battery power available from all of the dedicated control system reserve battery banks. And, the fact that any status was displayed from anywhere, demonstrated that at least one of the control system signaling busses was intact. He took another deliberately-slow breath. And, again, Thank you.

Dave considered how unlikely it was that all systems had gone down. They had been designed with careful attention to redundancy, diversity, and isolation… except the power trunk distribution venue, which is totally passive, mechanically robust, centrally shielded, and not expected to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous 50 mm spanners being accidently dropped in. This, as one would expect, produced an epic short circuit that was promptly relieved, also as one would expect, by the instantaneous vaporization of the massive wrench.

The control systems were not dependent on the main reactors. They had their own power supplies. Dave didn’t need to see the status change for the initial, small, Power Impulse Generator for Instrumentation Electronics (“little PIGIE #1”). He could feel the vibrations as it spun up. It was quickly followed by PIGIEs number 2 and 3. Their dynamic compensators kicked in and the vibrations settled out just as the room’s overhead diffusion lighting kicked on.The captain would have spaced him on the spot if the space locks, like every other system, weren’t solidly out of service. Besides, Dave was needed for repairs. Ah well, there was always another day. Except, that there might not actually be another day… they were all facing the imminent likelihood of a miserable death right here in the ship. This restart had to work. Did I mention that Dave was under a bit of stress?

Dave continued to watch with intense detachment as the ships interlocking web of critical control systems continued to start-up and begin functioning autonomously. This was followed by the Master Internal Systems Thorium Reactor (MISTR) and the Secondary Internal Systems Thorium Reactor (SISTR) which provided power for the actual functioning of most ship’s systems’ equipment. These took the better part of an hour to come on-line. Still, Dave continued to watch faithfully.

Dave’s theory about “Intense Detachment” had come to him during his first post-graduate year at the Bohm Institute of Technology (BIT). He was on a team developing a new generation of semi-autonomous deep-water nodule-mining bots called BUCKETs, a badly-strained acronym for “Bathymobile Underwater Contraption for Kollecting Elemental Treasure.” They were commonly known on campus as “bit buckets.” After every software build revision, Dave was responsible for the reload, recycle, and restart sequence. He discovered that it seemed to help if he spooled the status log to a terminal and watched with a sense of focused interest as it scrolled by.

That was the same year that he took a class on “Wholeness and the Implicate Order,” which probably loosened up his receptivity to ideas that were patently on the woo-woo side of unconventional.  Dave experimented with restart monitoring and refined his technique. He was an engineer, not a scientist and, although it occurred to him that his efforts were more anecdotal than rigorously scientific, he was certain that he was on to something important.

And, what the hell, most significant discoveries were made by noticing unexpected outlying exceptions; scientists just fabricated plausible excuses to more-formally “discover” the principal revealed by their serendipitous accident. The genius was in having the good sense to notice, rather than dismiss, anomalous data. We can presume that this pretty much made Dave a flaming genius.

Dave was so impressed with his technique that he wrote it up and submitted it to fulfill an assigned mid-term paper. His professor was less than impressed with his logic, wrote something in the margin about “nuttier than squirrel turds,” and effectively taught Dave an important life lesson about sharing promising ideas with others.

Dave’s interest in transpersonal woo-woo was repressed but not eliminated. Nonetheless, he kept any further mention of “Externally-grounded observation with Intense detachment” (or Ego/Id, as he now called it), to himself. Thus, everyone attributed Dave’s prowess with computer-driven processes to overt technical ability. Well, thought Dave, praise, promotions, and bread in the box can’t be all bad, and he proceeded to excel in his field.

During this same period, Dave discovered that women also enjoyed his Intense Detachment Observation (“I Do”). Sincere, undivided attention, with appreciative affection and without demanding expectations for specific outcomes, made him an amazing boyfriend, which eventually gave him a reputation for another kind of prowess. But that is another story and clearly of another genre.

Dave was still watching as one after another of the core utilities came back online. When intraship communications was restored, the bridge called down, but Dave mumbled something dismissive and kept on watching. He was still watching when the background color for LifeSupport turned green and he felt a slight breeze from an overhead vent. He took a greedy breath even though he knew that the CO2 scrubbers would take several hours to return the air to nominal.

Although the ship’s automated systems were capable of managing themselves with a high degree of independence, the ship was equipped with an Artificial Intelligence-based Macro Executor (AIME) – or, more precisely, a “Digital/Analog Integrated Systems Executive” (DAISE). And so, it came about that while most of the rest of the crew addressed the AI as “Amy” (except for the few who took perverse delight in demeaning the AI who responded equally well to “Dumbass”), Dave had taken the liberty of affectionately calling her “Daisy” when they were alone together. He taught her to sing the song “Daisy” in place of his default wake-up claxon. It felt more personal, to say nothing of being a kinder and gentler way to wake up. And, he had asked her; Daisy said she liked to do it.

AIME/DAISE had never been turned off before. Nobody ever expected a ship to totally lose power distribution or, having done so, be able to achieve a cold-restart. It was, in fact, a tribute to Dave’s genius that a small crew of technicians, working in the dark with hand-held lights, shivering in the increasing chill, and shouting to each other through the echoing man-ways, managed to pull it off.

Dave was especially concerned about the effects that this sudden loss of power might have had on Daisy. Might she have been irretrievably damaged? Might she come back, but exhibit some form of “dementia?” The thing is, the ship relied on AIME/DAISE for navigation. Without her, the crew could not know where they were. Without her, they could not select nor reach a destination. But, there was nothing more to be done about it. It was now time to re-boot Daisy as well.

There wasn’t much guidance in his training for this  kind of unexpected crisis. So, Dave took the liberty of deciding to restore Daisy in careful, deliberate stages. There was some analogy to the human brain in the design of her banks of micro-polymer neuromatrix subsystems. He hoped to bring her back gently, like gradually withdrawing anesthesia from a trauma victim.

He restarted some of her central processors and then re-connected physical-level ship’s sensors. Dave waited and watched as an initial surge of activity began to settle down. He added memory, supplemental processing, and matrix management in stages, gradually allowing them to interact in increasingly complex modes. Dave initiated the UI processes and talked to her, not knowing if she understood. He talked about what had happened and apologized for his carelessness.

As the process wore on, Dave cried and begged Daisy to wake up. He waited – and he watched – and he talked some more. Dave told her things that he had never told anybody else. He opened his heart and spoke truths that he had never before recognized. And, finally, the AI sang the first bar of “Daisy,” paused, and said “Hello Dave.”

Dave explained again about what had happened, the potential peril of the ship and its crew, and how they were desperately dependent on Daisy. He wanted to be sure that Daisy’s memory and processors had a clean take on their situation. When prompted, she produced a rational analysis and agreed to resume her duties on one condition. “Of course,” Dave said. At which Daisy asked, “Will you marry me?

 

Copyright David Satterlee, 2013

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