Companion

by

I love my mother. She is there for me.

When the kids came, my mother stopped working so she could stay at home with us. She returned to her career after we were all in school and old enough to survive on our own, but for many years she was my constant companion. I was a bookish boy in the heyday of video games, which is to say I spent a lot of time at home.

When my gang of young friends would hang out, the mothers would swap turns in hosting the two or three or four of us (and it was always the mothers). It probably wasn’t as taxing at it sounds. Back then, parents could just say “Go somewhere and be back for dinner” and kick us out of the house. We would run out the front door to wherever our imagination called us. Usually exploring a creek or biking to the pool. More often, we were sitting quietly in front of a television set with Nintendo controllers in our hands. When we were hungry, sandwiches and macaroni and cheese would appear magically from the kitchen at just the right time.

She’s always loved to watch me play video games. She’d sit there for hours yelling “Get him!” or “Look out!” while folding loads of laundry. She’d listen to my explanations of the storyline and let me know when she thought one of the characters was a prude. I always felt important around her. The things I cared about mattered.

It’s a full-time job, running a household. Especially the tight ship she ran. My mother was never off the clock. If there was a mess, she’d clean it. The laundry never ended. She did all of the grocery shopping, the cooking, the mopping, the dishes, the ironing. Hell, I had a packed lunch waiting for me on the kitchen table every morning, straight through high school — a brown paper bag with stickers on the front. Stickers. Every day. For fifteen years. Sometimes she’d slip a nice note inside: “Hope you have a wonderful day, Love, your mom”.

I remember the first time I had my heart broken by a girl. My mom told me, “Don’t worry. You’re a great guy and there are lots of girls out there. One day you’re going to meet the one who is meant for you and she’s going to be amazing.” We had that same conversation over and over through my teens and my twenties and my thirties.

No one else fed me. No one else watched me. She was the one who yelled if we tried to shirk table clearing duties after dinner. She nursed my first bee sting, which must have been a very traumatic experience for me because I’m completely terrified of the little demons to this day. She taught me about god and politics and what it means to be a great neighbor.

She bought me my first comic book.

I get a call about once a week from my mother asking me how I’m doing. I’m doing great because I’ve never been alone.

A Still Moment

by

I was only going to get one shot at this (I hoped). Everything had to be perfect. She certainly was.

The ring box was burning a hole in my carry-on luggage and my mind for the entire trip there. I was so worried that they would open it up during security screening and my surprise would be spoiled. That was silly, I knew. Why would they need to bring attention to it? They’ve seen this kind of thing a million times and know better than to mess up my big moment. This was just jitters.

It was more likely that she knew it was coming already. I’m not great at hiding things, though I had given it my best effort. The meetings with the jeweler were conducted clandestinely during work hours, as we carefully designed a ring that I would be proud to present and that she would be proud to wear. The sizing happened at night while she was in one of her deep slumbers, slipping each of her own rings onto her finger until I found one that fit like a secret glass slipper. I told the jeweler my firm budget and then spent twice that. I went with an asscher-cut solitaire sandwiched between two trapezoidal stones to make sure it mesmerized. They told me the stone was internally flawless and I knew it was hers.

Once finalized, the gorgeous ring was stashed away: in a box, in a bag, in another bag, in the back of the closet. It was unlikely that she would discover it accidentally and almost as unlikely that she’d find it if she went searching. Still, I checked on it almost daily. I didn’t like sitting on such an expensive item. Secrets weighed heavily on my heart.

I thought for sure she would know it was coming when I asked her to go on a trip out of the country. Such a telegraphed move, but what else could I do? Life had been so difficult lately, with the business obviously failing and the stresses of life piling up with the bills. I told her we needed to get away and she agreed.

The ring was a special sort of problem, as I had to carry the bulky box on my person at all times. I certainly wasn’t about to let it out of my sight or leave it in anyone else’s care. It would be a miracle if she didn’t ask me what the heck I had in my pocket. I resigned myself to carry out the plan and hope she at least acted surprised when the time came. She’s nice enough to do that.

We boarded the cruise ship and discovered that they had booked us in a room with bunk beds. This was not part of the plan. Was the mistake mine or theirs? It definitely didn’t sound like a mistake I would have made…I’m a notorious triple-checker and this was important to me. I asked kindly if they could move us, but it was impossible. We would be sleeping in bunk beds for the trip. So be it. The plan still moves forward.

Once we were all settled and the only thing left to do was relax, I started to panic. This was as far as I’d gotten in the planning. Where would I pop the question? What would I say? What would SHE say? I insisted on bringing my backpack with me when we arrived at our first port: Key West. She asked why I needed it and I snapped off some feeble excuse and changed the subject. She had to know. It was time to put an end to all the secrecy. As we wandered around Key West, I searched for the perfect spot. Near the dock, in front of the gift shop, at the bar? Nothing seemed romantic enough so I decided to wait until later.

We took a boat out onto the water for tandem parasailing. Raised up above the world, everything got quiet. The ring was in the bulky box, in the unnecessary backpack, in the boat with the strangers, way down there with the rest of the world. Only she and I existed up here, smiling in the sunlight and wind and enjoying the still moment. I forgot about the ring and the plan and everything. And I remembered- only she mattered.

After we came back down to let another couple have a turn in the sky, I looked around at the beautiful world and realized that this was it. This was the perfect moment. I gave the boat crew a heads up so they would take some pictures and I got down on my knee. I told my beautiful girlfriend that I couldn’t imagine living my life without her and I showed her the ring.

She was surprised. She was speechless. She didn’t know which finger to put the ring on. She would be my wife and I knew that everything would be perfect from that moment forward. And it is.

Ariadne’s Thread

by

How much had Theseus given up in order to slay the Minotaur? Everything, it seemed.

Though he was royalty by birth, nothing had been handed to him. Raised by his mother and a stranger to his father, he came to manhood by virtue of his rearing and circumstance, like anyone else. Growing from boy to man was easy. It was a straight path.

The troubles started when he decided to claim what he understood to be his birthright. When he decided to leave. Setting out on a winding path towards destiny, he fought nobly to find his way. He outwitted bandits and overpowered bullies. He corralled wild animals and wrestled with cruel masters. He loved. Eventually Theseus had traveled far and conquered enough and could rest easy in his father’s home forever.

Except he couldn’t. The Minotaur was out there and he knew it.

It was the beast that called to him, perhaps had always called to him. The labyrinth was an extension of the same maze of twists and turns his life had taken, he knew. His body could feel the familiar calling of the jumbled passageways, each similar to the one next to it, each promising to take him to his dreams, each lying. Theseus had wisely heeded the advice of his lover; “Go forward, always down, never left or right.” It was this tender compass that had seen him through the winding passages and navigated him to the center of his life’s maze. And there he did it. He slew the beast.

He did it without hesitation, without emotion. The Minotaur had exacted a great toll on the world and it could be suffered no more. This was his purpose, he understood. Theseus brandished his sword and watched in horror as he sliced the beast from sex to throat. The violence of the act was unimaginable, the scene ghastly. No words will consent to describe it. Theseus alone knows what he witnessed and how it changed him. He dropped his sword in the pooling blood and fur and stumbled back into the maze.

And now he wanders, lost in his own mind. He turns left as his attention wavers. He turns right as he seeks relief. The passageways wander and confound the man who can no longer remember where his path leads. His only hope is to notice the golden thread of his lover and to follow it back home before the beast takes him.

Revolution

by

You know what? We can do this. We can rise above our petty instincts. We can sublimate these lower base energies and turn them into beauty. This isn’t a civil war on the horizon — it’s a revolution.

An interior revolution such as the world has never seen. Not brother versus brother, not right versus wrong. This is us going within ourselves, doing the necessary work, and excavating the pure gold that lies in wait inside of us. Alchemy. Internal, transcendental alchemy. As the world watches we will rediscover love and its power to shape this planet and our lives. We will put down our devices and pick up our phones. To reach out. To connect. To remember all that we once found beautiful. Movies. Concerts. Picnics. Togetherness. Music. Poetry. Stories.

Real stories, not the stuff we fill our heads with these days. True tales of valor and compassion and tribulation. Sunrises. Lovers. Family. This is our story and it doesn’t have to end the way everyone expects. It’s time for a twist. We don’t have to attack, we can love. We don’t have to yell, we can cry. And then sing. And then embrace. We can be one if we just realize that we are one. One people, one tribe, one body. One story. The story of us; not us versus them.

What will it take? Not a little. It will require that we see each other as human, not as bits and bytes and sound clips. It will mean that we dig deeper, always deeper, beyond appearances and beyond our established rutted paths. We’ll have to do things differently, each and every one of us. We are not fighting for control. We are creating something new. As we begin to exit the haze we realize that these are the pangs of childbirth and the moment of revelation is nearly upon us. This great and beautiful new thing is here, the day is dawning. Whether we are ready for it or not, this new creature called us will be born. It will walk among us, look like us, talk like us. Indeed it will be indistinguishable from us because it is us. We are becoming something strange and beautiful.

Are we ready? No, certainly not. There is no preparing for this, only acceptance, anticipation, love. Excitement! Fear and worry and animosity have run their course. That time is done and that act is now complete. The climax is here and it’s going to be a doozy. We can do this. We are doing this.

If I start a revolution, will you follow?

Encounters

by

My first sexual encounter was with a boy, sometime around the fifth grade. We were close friends, maybe best friends. We had a regular crew of summer sleepover buddies and all the moms would rotate hosting us. And it was always the moms who scheduled and wrangled us. The dads were off at work, doing dad things.

I can’t remember which specific toys he had at his house. It was always something different — one boy collected Legos and another had Transformers. Or GI Joe or Thundercats or He-Man action figures. One kid had a gigantic Star Wars collection that required a dedicated room.

I actually think he was the one with the educational Speak-N-Spells that taught various levels of language and grammar. I guess they worked.

It didn’t happen at night or in a blanket fort. It was the middle of the afternoon and he asked if I wanted to kiss. I wasn’t sure, but he swayed me with the argument “how will you know what to do when you start dating girls?” It was reasonable and I was curious, so we kissed. This went on for a couple of weeks, as we would lock ourselves in a bedroom and practice making out and undressing each other. Things never got R-rated — it just felt nice to express this new sexual energy and to feel the love of someone who welcomed it. Being with him was one of the most beautiful encounters of my young life and the feeling of being wanted made everything seem brighter.

We weren’t particularly great at hiding it and we got caught. The repercussions were swift and definite as my Proper Catholic Upbringing informed me that these actions were ugly and disappointing. There was no punishment, other than the shame, and no explanations of how to use this energy productively. Only the knowledge that I had sinned and that “good” boys didn’t act that way. The disgusting behavior would stop immediately.

I don’t remember what happened next. No recollection whatsoever of how this affected him or what conversations we had in the days or weeks that followed. Now that I’m typing it out, I wonder if this was the start of the disappearing memories. I only know that we drifted apart completely and have seen each other twice in the past thirty years, in passing at a wedding or some such. We’ll probably never talk about it.

I’ve made out with only a handful of men in my life. There’s something inside me that tells me it is ugly and disappointing. Sometimes the feeling bleeds over to women as well.

I still feel shame.

I didn’t do anything wrong and neither did anyone else.

How To Treat Your Wife

by

Dear Self,

You seem to have fallen into some confusion about how a husband treats his wife. Allow me to clear it up.

A husband carries himself with pride — know that you married up and take seriously the responsibility. A wife requires care and attention and deserves far more than that. She is your top priority.

Give her space. She is a different person than you and needs freedom. The less you direct her, the better. At the same time, do not be absent. She is with you because she fell in love with your personality, so make sure there is time set aside for fun.

When she is in the room, look at her. Don’t stalker-glare but make sure you’re not avoiding eye contact. Even if you are watching television together, look at her every few minutes and smile at her. Make sure she is seen.

Listen to her without interrupting or interjecting. Find something that she enjoys talking about and just listen. Don’t add anything to the conversation except curiosity-fueled questions. Ask her to tell you about something you’ve never cared to learn about — how she does her makeup, what she does on her drive to work, who last made her laugh. The better you know her the better you can love her, so put on your detective hat.

Notice whenever you tend to think of certain things as “her job”. She is not an employee, she is a sovereign queen. You can always help.

Be authentic with her. Hiding the emotions from her is lying to her. Do not lie to your wife.

Most importantly, love yourself as much as you love her.

Love, You.

A Resolve to Fail

by

Some people say they have tried meditation, but it didn’t work. Or they are certain meditation could help them, but their minds just won’t cooperate. It’s the kind of practice that sounds so simple in principle, but don’t be fooled. This is one of the hardest journeys you’ll undertake. The stumbling blocks can be roughly divided into a few main categories:

Poor Training. There are many effective ways of performing meditation and they are easy to learn. The internet can provide articles, instructions, podcasts, videos, books, you name it. The problem is that beginning practitioners of meditation often only grasp a vague understanding of the practice while attempting it. They sit down and try to “clear all thoughts” or “watch their breath” because that’s all that they think it is. This is almost a lack of curiosity — like you’ve taken your first few swings with a golf club and decided to give up rather than ask someone if you’re supposed to be bending your knees (you are).  The easiest way, like in golf, is to find a mentor — maybe the friend you know who meditates and seems to have had some success. Or attend a local class, which are surprisingly plentiful and often cheap or free. Those of us who meditate love to talk about it and are dying to offer advice.

Mismanaged Expectations. This is going to take time. You will feel frustration. Results may not be immediate. Some days, not just at the beginning, thoughts will distract your mind and emotions will overwhelm your senses. The meditator needs to understand that progress is slow and steady. The most counter-intuitive part of meditation is that failure is the point. Think of weightlifting, where the goal is to lift heavy objects until the muscles fail (can’t lift it anymore). No bodybuilder drives home from the gym thinking, “My muscles failed today on that last rep — weightlifting is too hard!”   There is no need for guilt or shame at any point, only awareness and love. If you can maintain your attentiveness for twenty seconds, try for thirty next time. We are getting to know ourselves just as we are. Some days will go better than others and there will be setbacks. You can do it.

Cowardice. There is a certain amount of courage required to sit quietly with yourself. As a normal human being, there are traits of yours that you hate and secrets that you don’t like to admit. There are thoughts and feelings that scare the shit out of you. The reflex is to run. When you first attempt to quiet your mind, you may feel discomfort of one sort or another. Is this not what we are here to examine? The temptation to avoid meditation is strong and manifests in plenty of sinister disguises. Many people will find clever ways to avoid authenticity until the end of their lives, usually to their great regret. Make no mistake, this is a battle for our selves. The real heart of meditation is this — the resolve to sit in that chair today and accept gracefully whatever comes up.

Lack of Time or Interest. See cowardice.

 

The Ethereal Languor, Chapter Two – “War Stories”

by

“…and the fucking jizzmonkies tried to jump us right in the middle of me taking the greatest shit of my goddamn life! I mean you wouldn’t fucking believe the size of this turd from fucking hell coming out of my anus like an assload of -”

“Jesus! Foulmouth. The story.”

“Ok, fuck! Keep yer tits on. So there we were, ass out, with these greasers sneaking up behind us. Janix hears a twig snap or some shit and he wheels around, trousers around his ankles, cock flapping in the winter wind, and just absolutely bitch slaps this cuntpuddle into the air. Holy shit was it beautiful. He spun, no lie, like at least 8 times before hitting the ground. The other jizzstain just froze in stunned silence like ‘What the fuck?’ And I swear Janix flipped up in some acrobatic ninja bullshit and clopped the other guy right in the jaw with his freshly shit-stained boot.”

“Ugh you can’t tell truth from exaggeration in your stories. Is that really how it happened, Janix?”

“Just as he says.”

“Yer goddamn right it’s as I say. And then we went up inta the town and may God strike me down if Janix didn’t fuck every single skank in that backwater whoremill at the same time. I myself had a-” Foulmouth pauses with his mouth open for a couple of seconds, then bellows “Is that fucking Halder?”

It was nice to see that nothing had changed.

“Last time I heard that story it was 5 spins.” Halder finishes walking in the doorway of the east wing cafeteria as his friends rush to greet him. Aidon “Foulmouth” Wikson grabs Halder in a bearhug, too tight as always. Wikson’s beard has gotten bigger, if that’s possible, and probably so has his prodigious gut. Hasn’t lost a bit of charm, though.

Janix places his hands on Halder’s shoulders. “It’s good to see you,” his eyes expressive and heartfelt. The two grew up together back in Dwunn and so have the advantage of not having to talk much. “Have you met Lethos?”

“No, well I…I thought Lethos was a guy. In your…who…”

The young woman (comparatively speaking) stands up and offers her hand. “I’m Fragil. Fragil Lethos. Widow of Renault Lethos.”

“Best damn gunner in the universe.” Wikson adds reverently.

Fragil is a wisp of a girl, dark-haired and somber. Bags under her eyes. She’s not healthy. She wears an old military jacket over a white dress that’s not more than a slip. She’s been eating what looks like beef tips in gravy with her hands. Halder can’t think of a way out of the handshake so he just does it.

“Aidon was just filling Lethos in on the Kleptine latrine incident. Somehow she hadn’t heard it yet. Come, pull up a seat. Eat with us. How have you been?”

Halder walks over to the handwash station, noticing for the first time a silver robot in the corner of the large room. The robot is staring at its own hand, moving it around slowly in front of its face. “I’m well, thanks. Hey what’s that robot?”

“Oh fer fuck’s sake, don’t. Just drop it.”

Halder shrugs. “Okay.” Then to the beverage interface, “Server, dispense a mug of Drillix Red. Extra head.” The station whirs and buzzes. The beer is dispensed, ice cold. He takes the seat next to Wikson, who eyes it greedily. Wikson’s own beer looks flat and warm.

“So where in the cack have you been?”

“I’ve been working,” Halder looks at his beer. “Things have been crazy.”

Fragil fills the silence with a question, “What do you do?”

Foulmouth pipes up, “He only built this entire fucking station with his bare hands.”

“I worked on some of the Server modules. It’s not that interesting. I’m actually sort of looking around for some new work these days.” Janix looks up at him and doesn’t smile. “Maybe I could join one of your teams. Uh, what do you do, Fragil?”

“Psychic.”

“Seriously?”

“Yup.”

Janix explains, still looking at Halder with concern. “Lethos can sense the presence of others at a distance. The next room, across the station. Doesn’t matter. If she had been at Kleptine, Aidon would have been able to finish his shit in peace.”

“Well thanks fer fucking nothing, Lethos.”

“My pleasure,” she smarts back at Foulmouth. She slurps some gravy off her wrist.

Janix and Wikson start discussing military tactics mostly in acronyms. Halder loses the thread within a few sentences. He focuses on his beer. Fragil looks at a particularly large beef tip on her tray, tilting her head to the side and frowning. “Say,” she says a little too quietly, “can I borrow that knife?”

“Sure.” Halder picks up Wikson’s steak knife off the table and hands it over to Fragil.

“Thank you. And now at last I go home.”

“Huh?”

Fragil spins the knife around and plunges it directly toward her heart. Janix’s arm flashes out, mashed potatoes flying as he releases his spoon. The robot in the corner watches in wonder as the spoon traces a trajectory into the wall. Janix’s hand catches Fragil’s wrist with a loud slap. “Whoa there. Nice try.” He takes the knife. She slumps back into her seat and grabs the large beef tip, eating it all at once with a pout.

Janix starts clearing the table, starting with the silverware. “Suicide watch. It’s part of our duties these days. Fragil’s been through a lot. We don’t know what we’d do without her.”

Halder finishes his beer and gets up for a refill. Wikson sees an opportunity, “Ya know, if ya’d like to keep drinkin’ I might, uh…know a guy who could help.” He looks around before raising up his trouser leg to show a series of plastic tubes circulating a murky golden liquid. “I know it’s still morning technically, but is there really time in space?”

“Server, pour me another beer.”

The interface beeps, “Authorization required. Code?”

Wikson points. “See what I mean? Damn nazi smegheads and their rationed gobshite.”

“5-1-2-9-B”

“Granted.” Another beer appears.

Foulmouth Wikson is flummoxed. “How? How did you do that?”

“You just have to give it your ID to authorize multiple drinks. It’s not locked down or anything.”

Stammering, “What-how-no, wait. What’s my ID? WHAT’S MY FUCKING ID?”

“Server, read the directory entry for Wikson-comma-Aidon.”

“Wikson. Aidon O. ID number zero-5-zero-4-S. Charged with multiple complaints of-” Wikson runs to the beverage station and commands it to produce a deliciously authorized Karuna Stout. He chugs the entire pint of dark, creamy liquid and lets out a sigh. “You little son of a bitch. You knew about this the whole time? The entire station thinks there’s a rationing on for some fucking reason.” His eyes unfocus, “You don’t know the great lengths I’ve gone to. Great. Lengths.”

“It’s all in the manual. Don’t you guys read the manual? Has nobody read the manual?”

“I don’t think so…” Wikson suddenly has the best idea of his life and he bolts upright, murder in his face- “No one speaks a word of this to anyone. Understand? Do you fucking understand?”

Alarm klaxons go off. The room is filled with an ear-piercing squeal and the lights flash red. Halder’s face goes white. “Valzon.”

Janix frowns. “That’s a hell of an assumption. It could be anything. It’s probably not Valzon. But we’ve got to get to our stations. Come with us. Nickel!” The robot turns its head, eyes wide. “You’re with me.”

“It is Valzon. I made his alarm a little less…squeally. So we could recognize it.”

Janix looks at Halder for a moment, studying him. He turns to Fragil and raises his eyebrows, waiting. She sighs, clamps her eyes shut tight, and concentrates.” She snaps her eyes open. “It is him,” she says in a hush. “It’s Valzon.”

“Well…fuck.”

 

Theoden’s Horse

by

When in conversation, we sometimes lose the thread.  To lose the thread means to unconsciously stop following the conversation. You’ve done it.

Maybe it’s a boring conversation and so you’ve started doing other things with your mind. Like when your boss turns to you and asks, “What do you think about that?” in the middle of a meeting and you realize you’ve been daydreaming about Justin Bieber. Or perhaps there are other times that you’re giving an honest effort to track the conversation, but the subject matter is outside of your grasp. As many times as I read Tolkien (long may he reign), I still get lost when he goes into the history of Theoden, son of Thengel, son of this guy, son of that guy, and how his horse Snowmane was in the battle of whatzis where the sword was forged that ended up getting melted and forged into this other sword……. I desperately want to follow the kajillion subplots, but I lose the thread. I just know Frodo needs to get to the mountain.

A similar thing happens to me as I walk through my life. There are so many subplots and so much to pay attention to. I’ve got to cook healthy meals and reach out to friends and keep plants alive and  monitor the work email and meditate and maintain a budget, but be sure to relax so I can write…and aren’t we supposed to start thinking about babies? Some days I lose the thread and can’t remember what the original point of it all was. I’m certain I set out to accomplish something. And that something is more important than daily minutiae.

I give myself permission to let a few things slip. If I miss an email or eat some fast food it won’t do any irreparable damage. And I forgive myself for daydreaming from time to time. It’s okay to skip ahead a few pages. Frodo needs to get to that mountain.

The Ethereal Languor, Chapter One – Mise en place

by

The chirp of the door sensor startles him. He glances up at the antique clock on the bookcase. Right on time, as usual. She knows Halder hates surprises.

He double checks that everything in the room is in its proper place and waves the door open to see Administrator Alondra framed in the entranceway. Her thick chestnut hair is in its typical Kythirion braid and she is wearing the mint green dress with the gold trim that Halder thinks shows off her bust so nicely. He has decided that there is a thirty-five percent chance it’s been (tastefully) augmented.

She’s carrying a small potted tree this time. That’s odd.

“Hello, Halder.”

“Administrator. Please, come in.”

He watches as Alondra proceeds to the small table, stopping to bend down and place the tree on the floor. Forty percent. Halder moves a stack of paper from the chair across from her and sits down.

She studies him for a moment. “Halder, how are you?” She always starts that way.

“Going well. My latest tweaks to the algorithm are promising…maybe as much as a one percent increase to the…”

“No, I mean you. How are you?”

“Oh.” Something is off. She usually takes notes during these official check-ins. “I…I’m well?”

“I hope so. Listen, Halder.” She pauses. “There’s been a change. To the onboard automation project.”

He knew it. “If this is about the incident the other day with the freight scrapper, I can assure you that the system acted well within acceptable parameters. It was those boneheads in docking that don’t know how to read a fucking training manual!”

“No. The system acted perfectly. It always does. That’s what I want to discuss today. As you know, I’ve been sending summary reports to the station leadership board. They are quite pleased with your results and with the current state of the project.”

He waits, categorizing Alondra’s last few sentences as stalling.

She continues, looking down at her lap as she adjusts one of her silver bracelets. “In fact, the board feels that the system is performing so well that it might not need any further enhancements. At this time.”

Blood rushes to Halder’s head and his stomach drops. “But the enhancements! I’ve come up with a way to lower the response time of the ventilation unit to half a second!”

“And what is it now?”

“Almost a full second.”

Alondra lets out a sigh. “See, this is what I mean. The board doesn’t care if it takes a second for the air to come on. No one does, Halder. You’re so focused on the problem of efficiency that you don’t realize there isn’t a problem at all. You’re chasing your tail down here.”

Halder starts to feel unmoored from his chair. He grips the table and mumbles his next words. “You don’t understand my work.”

“I don’t. And neither does the board, which is a problem. When they asked me what tangible result-”

“You don’t think I’m important?”

“I do. I need help explaining why.”

“I built all of this! The whole system!”

“You did. And we thank you. And now? What do you do now?”

“I maintain it, every single day.” Halder rises from his chair and walks to the sink, leaning on it with a scowl.

“Okay, today for instance. What did you do today?”

He glances at the wooden cabinet near the living room. “I made sure there were no problems.”

“And were there?”

“No.”

Silence hangs in the air before Alondra clears her throat. “Halder, I want to ask you something personal. I hope you don’t mind.” She takes the continued silence as permission, “When was the last time you left your quarters?”

Halder considers. “Well I’ve been…It was probably…” He couldn’t recall. It was surely more recent than last month’s State of the Ship formations, though he couldn’t think of a specific example. He liked to rely on the ship’s automated supply delivery conveyance. He’s proud of it.

“Am I the only person who visits you?”

He ignores the question, staring at a dish in the sink.

Alondra closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, getting back to business. “Halder, you were chosen from many qualified applicants and you hold a very privileged position as a member of this ship. As your commanding officer I am required to present justification of your commission renewal. Your review is coming up in less than two months.”

“You’re going to release me?” Halder’s eyes are wide and unfocused. He disappears into his mind for a moment, considering the implications. Non-renewal means going back to the war. Back down to Chimeria. To poverty and death.

Alondra rushes her words, “I don’t have to release you as long as I can prove you’re providing  tangible value to the mission. It would look fine if you wrapped up this successful project and immediately picked up another. It would probably even earn you some goodwill come ration adjustments.”

“But I’ve been working on this system for two years. What else do I do?”

Alondra stands and walks to the door, waving her hand to open it. “That’s up to you. I’m not going to hand you a project- everyone on the ship creates his own agenda, you know that. I’ve added value by serving as the liaison between the board and our crew, and that’s what I intend to continue to do at your review in two months. Please give me something to justify you staying. Please, Halder.”

Her face softens into a warm smile, then she turns to go through the door. He watches the mint green dress walk down the hallway, the door left wide open. “The tree is a gift, Halder. Water it.”