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Original - Talking Heads

OK, so this is an original story. It's not a great original story, since the title is very literal (as in, this story is just two characters talking to each other with no other plot whatsoever) but I do kinda like the ideas. Originally written for Imaginary Beast's "Utopia" issue.

IMAGINARY BEASTS is the webzine I edited with lilacfield... this story does actually belong to me!!!

Title: Talking Heads
Wordcount: ~3100
Characters: original
Note: Written so there'd be enough entries for the "Utopia" issue. Is there really such a thing as a "utopia", though?



Elenor rang the bell politely, but when no one answered after a few rings she entered the suite anyway. Pratt, her protoge, was seated on the floor of his messy apartment with a circle of books, articles and notebooks fanned out in front of him.

"So you are awake! You haven't been answering your calls, I thought I'd stop by to check up on you."

Pratt looked up, startled. "What... why? Is something wrong?"

"Why don't you tell me - have you even stopped to eat?" Saying that, Elenor used her elbow to clear space on a low bookshelf by the door, knocking aside the cassette tapes and plush toys that had been piled on top haphazardly. A few rolled onto the floor, where they joined the stacks of paper and recording equipment Pratt kept organized according to a system only he could understand. Once the space was clear, she gently lowered the cafeteria tray she'd brought with her. She looked directly at Pratt, waiting.

Pratt looked back blankly. The entire concept of food seemed foreign to him in that moment, as if it were a riddle he would have to solve before he could answer her. Elenor was easily able to wait him out: as a Guardian-in-training, it had become second nature to wait and observe.

"...Oh. I didn't notice. I'm not hungry, anyway. You can leave that there - I'll get to it later."

Elenor handed him a fork. "If you don't mind, I'd like to stay and make sure you eat something today. I also have some questions I want to ask after you've eaten." She smiled in a friendly way.

Pratt's brows knitted together, and he seemed momentarily annoyed, but the expression was gone almost as soon as it appeared. "Is this homework for you?"

"Something like that."

***

Once they actually started the interview, Pratt opened up right away, talking quickly and animatedly about the books he'd read, the ideas that were new to him, the authors he agreed and disagreed with, and the vast amount of material he felt he still had to cover before he could even begin to understand himself and the world around him. Elenor, who was familiar with most of the works in the Core but not all the scholarly debate they'd inspired, was able to place the books in their historical context and tell Pratt which authors had remained important and which had been discredited or forgotten. Mostly, though, she was there to listen. She made a mental note of Pratt's ideas when they were different from what she'd expected, but otherwise let the words pour over her without judgment. She didn't comment on his table manners either.

After a few hours, Pratt came to the end of his enthusiastic recounting, and Elenor took the opportunity to set up their next session: "It sounds like you've made a lot of progress in a short amount of time. Based on what we've talked about today, I can think of some other books that might interest you. You can press the button under the clock on your desk when you're finished with these, and the next set will be brought to you."

Pratt bit into his sandwich and beamed at her, a lettuce leaf dangling from the corner of his mouth. "That sounds wonderful."

***

Elenor rarely talked about herself in their interviews - after all the whole point was for her to listen to Pratt and learn from his insights and out-of-the-box ideas. Nothing in her life was a secret, however. She was very open about her coursework, perhaps more open than someone else in her position would have been, and easily answered his questions about her Training and the work she'd be doing after she graduated. Pratt was always curious about would happen if she failed to complete her training course.

"How would you complete your assignments if I refused to talk to you? I mean, it would be lonely for me, but..."

"I'd be reassigned to another Oddity. I'd miss you, obviously."

"But what if I was difficult to work with? Have you ever thought about doing anything else?"

"No, I've always wanted to be a Steward."

"Why?"

"I've just felt called to it - ever since my dad brought me with him to work when I was little. It's the highest calling we can have, you know. Whatever difficulties came up, I'm sure I'd want to work through them"

"What about after you graduate? What if the job you've dreamed about turns out to be difficult? Do you ever worry about messing up?"

"I think happiness comes from working to the best of my abilities to create something beautiful. I've always done well in the program so I've never worried about it."

"Why 'beautiful'?"

"Something that works perfectly, that is unique, and that makes others happy is beautiful, don't you think?"

"But every Steward completes the same training course?"

"Yes, we're all Trained to the best of current knowledge in each subject, and we have to master all subjects before we're given our Stewardships. We have to show practical aptitude and pass the simulation tests, too. There's no time limit to the Training - some Train their whole lines"

"So if everyone learns the same things... what's 'unique' about that?"

"Why don't you tell me? You've been reading that chapter."

"You mean Jothryn? 'A complex system can evolve in an uncountable number of ways, based only on small differences in initial conditions, which are compounded through time, with or without course correction'?"

"Exactly. You're very smart."

"For an Oddity, you mean."

"For anyone."


***

"I don't want to talk today."

Elenor nodded, and set the tray down on Pratt's bedside table.

"If that's how you feel. Eat this or I'll come back in a few hours."

***

They got along well, for the most part, without the combative or competitive - or even sometimes flat-out adversarial - relationship that sometimes developed between Stewards and Oddities. Sometimes they didn't talk at all, but just sat together comfortably, with Elenor typing up her assignments and Pratt reading on his own or over her shoulder, commenting on her work. His comments were always good - Elenor was currently pulling the highest grade in her course. Her greatest worry at the moment was actually that one of her classmates would pull strings to get her reassigned, maybe by spreading rumors that their relationship was inappropriate, on the slim hope they'd get Pratt for themselves.

He wasn't without his faults, she would warn them - he could be moody sometimes, and although it was true that he was mostly very helpful, his helpfulness was an outgrowth of his desire, or actually deep-seated need, to bond, which which could be difficult to negotiate within the limits of the Trainee honor-code. The line between openness and saying too much was a thin one, and required sensitivity. (In fact, Elenor had a feeling that their conduct outside of class was another Subject they were secretly being evaluated on - another reason to not resort to any underhanded tactics to finish the course.)

In her heart, though, she was very aware of her luck - Pratt was very sharp and, for an Oddity, very cooperative - Oddities were defined by their opposition to the societies they'd grown up in, after all. Her strategy, then, was simply to mention Pratt as infrequently as possible, without violating the truth-telling code they were also bound to uphold. Elenor knew how much her status at the head of the class made her a target for students' jealousies and ambitions; that was why she tried to do things by-the-book as often as possible.

It retrospect, then, it was inevitable that she and Pratt would one day have the conversation they were now having.

***

"Elenor?"

"Mmm?" Elenor took the pen she'd been chewing out of her mouth and closed her classbook screen - something in Pratt's tone telling her that this conversation would need all of her attention.

"There's no way I can enroll in your training course, right?"

Elenor thought she knew where this was going. "That's right. The training course starts right after Primary, so you'd be too old now to enroll."

"But if I was younger, I could enroll?"

"Well... we don't generally classify Denizens as Oddities until after Secondary. In fact, even a situation like yours is really rare. Generally we wait until after Tertiary."

"But why? You said there's a profile to identify us?"

"Yes, but..." Elenor took a moment to consider her words. She could recognize from her training, and also just from her knowledge of Pratt, that they were skirting on dangerous territory right now. She unconsciously started fingering one of Pratt's plushies she'd been holding in her lap, but stopped as soon as she noticed what she was doing. Pratt had probably seen and picked up on her unease - he was perceptive like that.

"Let me put it this way. Even though we have a profile, we still take our time, because the consequences if we make a mistake are so severe. Many Denizens are traumatized by the sudden removal from their tribes - by the loss of everything they knew before. Even if they were unhappy in their previous lives, they can be even more unhappy in an unfamiliar place. That's the last thing we want, obviously.

"If they aren't truly Oddities, the removal is even more traumatic for them - then we've made an unforgivable mistake by separating them not just from their friends and family, but from a way of life they actually valued. Before Secondary is much too early for us to make that call. We need more time to observe, to make sure we're not making a mistake."

Pratt looked at her steadily, with bright eyes. "The upshot, though, is that no Oddity can ever become a Steward."

"Yes, that's a side-effect I suppose."

"I think it's the main effect." Pratt's eyes were getting brighter - she could see them shining. She started fingering the plushie again - this time Pratt gave her a look to show he'd seen her, and she set the toy aside, annoyed with herself.

"I don't think you people want us mucking up your perfect system," he said.

Elenor winced inwardly at you people, but tried not to let it show.

There was an answer in her Training for this. Generally it was for their own benefit, but she'd always been open with Pratt. She decided to go for it - she felt he deserved an honest answer, anyway.

"No system is perfect. That's the purpose of the sessions we have - by talking directly to Oddities who used to live as Denizens but rejected the world their Steward created for them, we learn more about the true nature of human fulfillment and happiness. That knowledge helps Denizens and us. Everything we learn is added to the Content - all our sessions are recorded. Humanity's knowledge is always growing and evolving - we're always looking for ways to make it better." She knew she was babbling, but under the weight of his scrutiny she found it hard to stop. Get it together, girl, she coached herself.

"'Our Only Aim Is to Serve'." The worlds sounded supportive, but Elenor could still see that gleam, the bitterness Pratt generally concealed from her. There it is, she thought. I have to be creative here, I can't stick to the script.

"You might believe this motto to be an empty platitude, but Stewardship truly is the ultimate service profession. We love our Denizens as dearly as ourselves, but they aren't even aware of us - not the time we spend, not the years of training we undergo, and not the sacrifices we make so that their lives will be better, more meaningful. It's a noble, but thankless task." She waited for the slight eyeroll before she added, "...that's the official line, anyway. You can see the power and prestige in the position, too, obviously - the freedom Stewards have to do almost anything with the worlds we've given. I haven't tried to keep anything from you, Pratt." Maybe she could convince him that she was a co-conspirator in his small rebellion.

Pratt gave her a one-sided smile. "Yes, I can see that."

Maybe flattery could get her out of this? Elenor was generally free with her praise for Pratt, who in any case usually deserved it. This wasn't a train of thought she wanted to encourage, though - once Pratt was convinced that he could see through the "lies" of the Stewardship system, there'd be no dissuading him from that line of thinking. This was, in fact, exactly how he'd ended up classified as an Oddity in the first place - although he had a strong desire to please, he hadn't been able to accept the reality of his world as his tribe's priests had explained it, convinced there were unseen forces at work.

Of course, he'd been right. Just as with all Denizen worlds, there had be unseen forces - or more precisely, extensive terraforming being dynamically controlled by remote operators - at work. His whole world had been a "lie" in a manner of speaking, a carefully constructed paradise upheld by an invisible will.

But in this case he was wrong, she thought - or if not wrong, then dealing with a system far more complex than he could possibly imagine, despite all of his reading. The Denizen world was simple compared to the world she inhabited - a world Pratt thought he was coming to terms with but, in fact, saw little of.

And there was her answer, her way out.

"I think you ultimately don't object to the power we have, Pratt. I think you can see the logic behind the system and appreciate it. I think you object to your position in the system."

"I think that's exactly what I implied when I asked about joining your training course, Elenor."

He'd caught her using his name to establish a bond between them, and was mocking her. Elenor had to prove to him that she was smart enough to understand what he saying - and not saying - but without seeming like she was looking down on him.

This was the kind of subtle manipulation her training was designed to accomplish, though Stewards usually worked with physical objects to shape the social structures of small bands of Denizens, rather than with carefully chosen words to influence a single individual.

"Let me make some inquiries for you. I don't think there's a way you can be admitted through the regular track, but exceptions are made from time to time."

"For Oddities?"

"Not that I know of. There's a system for Trainees who decide to leave the program, but later change their minds and decide to come back, though. They have to pass a placement exam, but they're readmitted."

"Hmm."

"There's also a system for Stewards who lose their Stewardship through mismanagement, so they can redeem themselves. I guess the Trainee program is pretty costly, so the proctors don't like to see their investment go to waste." This kind of frank cynicism was pretty addicting, she had to admit.

Actually... could Denizens also enroll in a "rehabilitation" program? The program was designed to completely alter the thinking of the participants from the ground up - ingrained habits and assumptions they may have held for years. Wasn't that what Pratt was already doing, alone, with his books and research right now? She'd started this speech intending to placate him, but the more she considered it, the more it seemed like an actual possibility.

"Pratt!" He actually seemed surprised her sudden enthusiasm. Now Elenor knew she was on the right track - the more she could surprise him, the more he'd be forced to let go of his (dangerous) idea that they were enemies, and she was against him.

She cleared a space on the floor and sat next to him. "I have an idea. I've never heard of an Oddity doing that rehabilitation program, but if you were admitted, wouldn't you have to forget old habits just like the Stewards who made mistakes?"

"I've had to unlearn many things," Pratt said.

"Exactly. And we already make a pretty big exception when we admit anyone to that program - integrity and trust-worthiness are the most important qualities a Steward can have. Why don't I-" She had another thought. "Why don't you write something arguing for an expansion of the program. Write a treatise, a position statement, and a program guide, like the ones you've been reading." That should buy her some time, she thought - and anyway she was really curious about the kind of work Pratt would come up with.

"Write a guide?" Pratt seemed alarmed, but also a bit intrigued.

This could definitely work. Elenor nodded, taking up his hands in her own. "Write it. I'll edit it for you - after all the help you've been been giving me with my course, it's the least I can do. I'll make sure it gets into the right hands, too. After that..." she hesitated.

"I understand. You can't promise anything."

"Right, my hands are tied. But the system isn't unchanging, we do try to incorporate your ideas as much as we can."

"Right." Pratt thought for a moment. "Give me three months."

***

He needed a lot longer than three months, and Elenor was able to use her contributions to their joint paper for her final dissertation. She graduated far ahead of schedule, with honors. After that she lost track of Pratt for a while - the first few years of Stewardship are the most crucial, her dad had told her, when you have to establish the routines and structures that will allow your tribe to grow and flourish in the future, maybe even into a chieftainship or a kingdom. She was so busy with work, and she was learning so many new things - the simulations didn't really prepare you for the full complexity of Stewarding a tribe - that she didn't remember to wonder how he doing, honestly.

When she finally did meet up with him, it was in an unexpected way - at a commencement dinner for her Alma Mater.

Pratt wasn't an inductee, though. He was the speaker.

"A Treatise on Arrogance, Addressed to the Philosopher-Kings" was title of his speech in the program guide.

Tags: oneshot, original
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