Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Mar 8, 2006

Fiction: Trade

As Told by Dakota Sue

And then, it was tomorrow.  I think my reluctance to get out of bed was due to a vain hope that I could avoid dealing with the mess that I knew awaited me at AEGIS.  After contemplating my alarm clock for half an hour I decided I disliked suspense more than shouting and hauled myself to my feet.

I knew I was late but I was still surprised, and even a little miffed, to find that no one had bothered to wait for me.  Even Archer’s office was empty.  I’d thought that everyone would be titillated to see me getting raked over the coals yet again.  I sat at a table and fidgeted for a while, then finally gave up and went looking for someone to annoy.

Finn was the easiest to find, however he wasn’t much in the mood for conversation; in order to make him submit to treatment the medical staff had finally resorted to sedating him.  I wondered whether someone had actually held him down or if they’d resorted to using a tranquilizer gun instead.  Nat was curled up in a chair outside his door, looking like she hadn’t slept.

“You all right?” I asked.  She nodded distantly.  

“It’s not what you think,” she started.

“It’s fairly clear to me that you don’t know what I think.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have other teammates to find.”

Q and Durance were threading their way through the obstacle course.  I waved to them from the control booth, but since I doubted either of them wanted to be shot again I didn’t offer to join them.  Paul wasn’t due back until tomorrow, meaning that I had, essentially, nothing to do.  It was an odd sensation.  I didn’t care for it very much.

Wandering down to the locker rooms with some vague intention of going for a walk through the city, I was startled to realize that someone was using the gym.  Curious, I pushed the door open and discovered Archer.  He was dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt and methodically lifting weights; his bad leg was strapped in a brace to keep it out of his way and his long white hair was tied back in a ponytail.  Evidently he’d been at it a while; his shirt and the loose strands of his hair were plastered to his skin with sweat.  I stood quietly until he set the weighs down, then ambled over.

“Hey there, boss.”  I swung my leg over the next bench and leaned back casually.  He jerked in surprise and turned to glare at me, his expression angry and hostile.  Possibly he hadn’t wanted to be interrupted.  Up close, I realized that he had an impressive physique, clearly carefully maintained.  A difficult feat for a man that walked only with the assistance of a cane.

“What do you want, Page?” he demanded.

“I can come back when you’re in a better mood,” I offered, standing up again.  Strangely I actually meant it.

He grunted.  “No, no, sit down, I’m finished anyway.  I didn’t mean to snap at you.  I don’t like people to see me here, stumbling around awkwardly,” he added by way of explanation.

“I don’t expect you’re feeling especially social after dealing with Powers yesterday, either.”
He shook his head.  “Yet another excellent reason to crawl into a hole and never come out again.  Sometimes I wonder why I don’t do just that.”

“Why don’t you?”

“Just pigheaded.”

“What happened to your leg?”  I asked abruptly.

“That’s a bit personal, isn’t it?”

“I’m just curious,” I faltered for a moment.  “I don’t like to see people reduced by circumstances.  It nags at me.”

“Hmm,” he responded faintly.  “What made you decide to run away from your family?”

“I never ran away from my family.”

“Page, I’ve read your file, there’s no point in trying to hide where you came from.”

“Who said I was hiding?  And my name is Susan, thank you.”

Archer rolled his eyes impatiently.  “Fine, have it your way,” he said, gripping the supports next to him and levering himself to his feet with a grimace of pain.  “I don’t like playing word games.”

“And here I thought you had me all figured out.”

“I doubt anyone could make that claim.”  He bent and began trying to undo the straps on the brace.  Without thinking I leaned over to help him.  He jerked away.

“Dammit, Page, I can do it myself!”  

“I know you can do it yourself, sir.  Is it so bad that I respect you enough to want to spare you some pain and effort?”

He sighed heavily.  “You’d be the only one, then.  I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t yell at you; your past is your business.”

“I’ve sort of made it yours by coming here, though.  Tell you what: let’s trade.  I’ll answer a question if you answer a question.”

“I can’t reveal classified information,” he hedged.

“I don’t care about classified information.  I’m curious about you.”

“I’m just a grumpy crippled old man.”

“You’re a man?!  When did this happen?!” I retorted.  He shot me a sour look.  “Hey, that was the only accurate word in that sentence.”

He lowered himself into a sitting position again.  “Ask me a different question.”

“Like what?”

“Anything but that.”

Ten seconds ago I’d had dozens of things I wanted to know; now I couldn’t think of a single one.  “What’s your full name?” I asked finally.

“Ethan Keller.”

“There’s no Archer in that.”

“I never said Archer was my name.  It’s what I am, or, well, what I used to be, anyway.”

“Ethan Keller,” I repeated.  “Hmm.  It suits you.”

“It does?”

“Yes.  It’s dignified without being pompous and masculine without being butch.  Your question.”

He blinked and then shook his head once, sharply, as though trying to clear it.  “All right then.  Why did you decide to run away from your family?”

“It’s a long story.”

“And your dancing around is only making it longer.”

“I’m just trying to come up with some way to explain.  I guess what it really boils down to is that they didn’t want me.  I was the first grandchild of the Grand Experiment, and I was totally useless by their standards.  I’m not any kind of mentalist; no mind control or telekinesis or precognition.  It made me mad to be treated like a . . . a possession that happened to be lacking some basic features.  So I left.”

“I find that extremely odd.”

“How so?”

“Because I don’t have any sense that you’re lying.”  He hesitated a moment, then went on, “The chief psychologist here at AEGIS has just a touch of psychic sensitivity, and she says that she’s has picked up strange glimmerings from you on a regular basis.  According to her they’re incredibly faint, but she doesn’t receive the impression that you have very weak powers.  She thinks you’re very, very good at hiding them.”

I pursed my lips and looked away silently.

“Why are you hiding your real abilities?”

“It’s my turn,” I managed.

“Ask, then,” he said, his voice surprisingly gentle.  I glanced over at him.  He wasn’t making accusations; he just wanted to understand.  I could try to deal with that.  I decided to let him off the hook and ask something non-threatening.

“Are you married?”

He chuckled and shook his head.  “No, never had the time, inclination, or opportunity for it.  Why are you hiding your real abilities?”

“I’m not.  Not intentionally, anyway; I didn’t know I had any until you told me just now.”

He nodded, thoughtful.  “It’s possible you’ve repressed them, likely, even, considering your circumstances.  The doctor could . . .”


“Why not?”

“Are you gay?” I retorted.

“What?!  No!”

I bared my teeth at him.  “Your question?”

“This game is becoming annoying.”

“You could just order me to tell you.”

“I’m sure I could.  I’m not sure that I could secure your obedience, which is one of the reasons I dislike giving you orders.”

“What are the other ones?” I asked.

“Ah, but it’s my turn now,” he informed me helpfully.  I laughed.  “Why don’t you want to find out whether you have any hidden talents?”

“I like the powers I’ve got.  I’m happy with them.  I don’t want to be a psychic.  It’s invasive, disturbing, morally repugnant.”

“I think I can understand.”

“Oh really?  Everyone needs privacy, even if it’s only the privacy of their own thoughts.  Everything you do or say has consequences, sometimes consequences you didn’t expect and don’t like.  Your mind is the one place where you’re free to try things out without having to suffer any consequences; unless you decide to act on a thought, it’s completely harmless, totally ephemeral.  Now imagine having all that taken away by someone that sees you only as a means to their ends.  Then you’ll have the beginnings of an understanding of why I prefer being a brute.”

Archer reached over and squeezed my shoulder gently.  I smiled, warmed by the gesture.  “So what’re the other reasons why you don’t like giving me orders?”

“I prefer to trust you.  On first brush, you seemed very complex and difficult to work with, but after a while I began to realize that you’re very simple; it’s the world that’s complex.”

“Wow.  Thanks, I guess.”

“Do you miss your family at all?  Fear them?”

“Nah, I’m done with them.  It’s been almost twenty years since I’ve seen any of them, and I really don’t think about them any more.  Why all these questions about them?”

“I was afraid that I might someday find out that your demeanor is a façade concealing something terrible.”

“So you don’t really trust me after all.  Well take a number, there’s a few people in the suspicion line ahead of you!” I snapped, shooting to my feet and turning to leave.  A tiny part of my mind wondered just why I was so violently upset by the idea that even Archer couldn’t bring himself to accept that I was exactly what I said I was.  I’d expected better of him for some reason.

“It was my fault,” he said harshly.


“The leg.  It was my fault.  I used to belong to a group like yours, and during the Terminus invasion I overstepped my limits and got a mangled leg out of the bargain.”

“At least you tried.”

He sighed.  “It wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d just let it alone to heal, but I didn’t.  I tried coming out of retirement to help during the Grue invasion and I re-injured it.  So, there you go: stupidity, plain and simple.”  He thumped his knee for emphasis.  “It’s almost become a symbol of the failure of my career.  I’ve been fighting this war for my entire life, and what have I accomplished?  Sometimes I wish I had a family or even a hobby so that I could retire gracefully, but I know if I quit, I’ll rot.  It was somewhat pathetic how grateful I was to Powers when he offered me this position.”

“You could get a cybernetic replacement, like Durance has.”

“What would be the point?  I have too many dead bodies in my past to ever operate actively again.”


He sighed.  “It was the right thing to do at the time.  Things have changed now; in some ways they’re worse, but in others they’re better, and that means that the old methods aren’t called for now.  Do you despise me for that?”

“Does my opinion matter?”

“It does to me.”

“No.  I don’t despise you.”

“Thank you,” he said softly, sagging a bit and turning his head to look up at me.

“Um,” I said brilliantly, fiddling with the cuffs of my jacket.

“You know, it’s almost five.  Quitting time for you, I think.”

I smiled.  “See you tomorrow?”

“Of course.”

“Good night, Ethan.”

“Good night, Susan.”

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