Toska Rickard, an Expressionist doctor, manages to get through dinner with her father Nicolas Rickard, the Director of the Bourbaki Institute.
Zero Sum: A Stain on the Horizon at Dusk

The sound of applause echoing through the auditorium was as familiar as it was irrelevant.

Like most things in Nicolas' life, his incumbent speech welcoming the latest group of exceptional young minds to the Bourbaki Institute had been a foregone conclusion, written long before and forgotten immediately after. It was not recycled, as many expected, nor was it canned. In fact, it was surprisingly genuine; he had said precisely what he meant and meant precisely what he said. Everyone accepted to the Institute was accustomed to being the smartest person in the room, their class, their school. It was only natural for them to assume it would be the same here, and it was literally Director Rickard's job to inform them that it was not.

His speech had been a precisely balanced affair, equal parts congratulatory and cautionary. They had done well to come so far, he had told them in no uncertain terms. For all intents and purposes a matriculation at the Institute guaranteed not only success but insight, an opportunity to witness and understand the greater machinations of a grander world.

Many of them, he had made clear, would never take advantage of that opportunity.

When Nicolas Rickard spoke to his incumbents it was with the casual, biting eloquence of a pruning gardener. Upward growth towards light and learning was to be encouraged while deviation towards the inevitable and unsightly pissing contest was to be sliced away. They should be as proud of their success as they were dedicated to making the most of it, as ready to impress as to leave behind any notion that they would be considered impressive. Those among them that were more than simply brilliant might some day learn to do so gracefully. The rest would not.

As the doors of the elevator to the parking garage closed, a smile tugged at the corner of Nicolas' lips. It was an excellent speech, as they always were.

Toska would have hated it.

There was no noise in the elevator from music or machine. Like much of the interior of the building, it was carefully made to establish a sense of freedom within confinement, curved walls programmed to cycle through a number of equally scenic natural landscapes. The transition from the spring green of the bamboo forest to the painted white concrete of the parking garage was as jarring as ever, though Nicolas had become accustomed to it.

That his daughter was already waiting by the smooth contours of his black sedan did not say good things about her mood.

"You're looking well tonight, Toska." The vehicle chirped to hide the sound of its unlocking doors, lights flashing once with out-of-place cheer. He had learned it best not cede first blood to his daughter’s sharp tongue for the sake of the evening. "I take it you didn't feel like waiting upstairs?"

“Good evening, Nicolas.”

The patriarch may have made the first cut, but Toska's riposte was always quite exquisite. The tiny doctor kissed her father on the cheek in greeting without touching him at all.

“I do apologize for the consideration. I was afraid if I had sat through that speech again, you would have no new material for dinner.”

Her mannerisms pleasant, her face unwavering—a mask inherited from a mother long gone—she made her way to the passenger side of the Sedan. When she sat, she crossed her arms.

She always wore the dresses he requested of her,

but wore her boots from the day's work

to remind him of where she'd been.

As if he didn't know.

The dash came to life as Nicolas settled into the driver's seat, his own mask a patient-but-slightly-disappointed smile. If she pricked him he did not bleed, which of course was half of her problem to begin with. As much as Toska liked to feign emotionless poise, as though her arguments were plucked out of some objective morality to which she was merely a messenger, Nicolas had watched her tantrums since she was in diapers. Like always, the answer was simply not to engage.

"How was your day?" The car slid out into the campus night as if it was a part of it, shiny and black and curved like a mirror of the dark glass towers sprouting up from the foliage of the campus.

The solution to their various individual problems that came together in this slow motion trainwreck of a family could have been solved had they opted to engage their issues—but the avoidance was genetic, the fencing of words nurtured into Toska by the overwhelming intellect of the man who named her.

The dark blonde of her hair shifted, darkening with the fading of the Wright powered halogens that kept that parking garage safe from the night.

Staring out the window, Toska could feel the vague disappointment between them, tempered only by the pride he took in her academic achievements and diagnostic breakthroughs. For years, the doctor had taken her father's silent grievances as less of a reflection on her behavior and more of an introspective journey into his own.

He had, after all, made a machine of her: logical to a fault, vastly intelligent, and reprehensibly analytical. Constantly questioning. Never conversing.

“I made no headway in my personal research, but have compiled diagnostic criteria for a hereditary malformation previously considered an injury resulting from bloodwright practice.” Her eyes never wavered from the window. "I will be submitting the research for peer review shortly."

"Congratulations, Toska, that's quite a consolation prize."

It would have been wrong to say that she'd never had a chance in the same way it would have been wrong to say that she could have been anything else. We are the logical summary of the events leading up to any given moment, he had said not long ago to a much more receptive crowd. Perhaps to them in their moment of validation it had been a blessing rather than a curse, an opportunity rather than a sentence. They'd learn better in time.

The wheel spun slowly through his fingertips, pulling them towards the residential section of campus. It was just far enough to warrant a car, but in truth the Bourbaki Institute was a city all its own. University, research center, financial group...the beating heart of modern Expressionist practice, embedded by no coincidence in the beating heart of Amstead. A victory hollow enough to live in, outside of the muck his daughter stomped her petulant boots through.

Could they, a student had once asked, get off the grid? Did they need to be powered by Wright-generated power? It was the trouble with academia--it bred an uncomfortable depth of exploration.

Yes, had been the answer, and they had moved on.

"Don't let them put Daniels on the board for it, you know he'll just try to slow things down for you."

The Institute at night was a more ghostly place, its exhausted fellowship traditionally too tired to enjoy the carefully wooded roads. Studies had shown the benefits of green space on cognitive and emotional function years ago--the Institute's interior was carefully calculated not to look carefully calculated, its paths and plantings just inefficient enough to trick the mind into thinking efficiency wasn't the goal. That such subtleties had been the hallmark of Nicolas' tenure was, he felt, quite a compliment. He had no doubt that Toska hated them, too.

“He was always less than receptive to the concept that there are no real divisions between Wrights, just hereditary tendencies in the proclivities of their individual Expressions.”

Toska did not, in fact, hate the careful principles of her father's subtle behavioral engineering. If the goal was to create a space where students may best find their calm and, therefore, explore the limits of their capabilities and the boundaries of Bourbaki's knowledge, then by all accounts and means, the engineering was favorable.

It was the unattainable dream of Bourbaki that Toska found reprehensible. The positioning of the Institute as the high cost of freedom when, in fact, that freedom was a lie: Utility was a thing to be used, harnessed for a purpose, turned into a commodity. Some utility had value where other utility needed to be culled.


Every Wright was owned by someone, even if those someones were occasionally kind.

She chewed the inside of her cheek. There was no purpose behind discussing her feelings on the matter here. Her father knew full well her sentiments, logically refined with research and observation. And while she did vaguely respect his ability to keep at least one group relatively safe, understood the necessity of the sacrifices he strategically placed to keep the wolves from consuming the herd, she felt a vague draft of disappointment that he had focused his brilliant mind on the subtleties of tree placement rather than the reformation of a system that required Bourbaki's lock and key.

Your optimism is childish, he would say. There are lines drawn throughout this that you haven't seen.

And yet he had never requested her presence to power those rituals,

never showed her the path the Expressions had predicted.

“With any luck, it will see publication before the year is out.”

Nicolas smiled. It seemed to be what he did when he imagined his distant daughter's displeasure, heard it in the pleasantries she mouthed so that she could say she'd been civil when her moral dam broke. Mindfulness was not an expressive concept—if the present was a summation of the past and a predictor of the future, both past and future were far more important than the now. How could he sit next to her now without seeing her playing as a child, frowning and serious? She couldn't sit beside him as she was without being the woman she had been, livid and disgusted, when he'd first explained that her work with the Ossa would need to remain a personal project rather than an investigative program undertaken by the Institute.

How could he not smile, seeing the woman she would become?

The silence was enough for now, the quiet hum of the sedan's Wright powered engine a dark reminder of their inevitable fates: They were all one betrayal away from being a power source.

Toska let her forehead rest against the cool glass as she saw her father's home round the bend. She always dreaded her involvement in the strained pleasantries expected of a successful excursion into their neglected familial plot.

What was the point in lying when they were both intelligent enough to know what was necessary and viable?

As the car slid into the driveway and died, its already quiet hum disappearing into the faux-silence of the campus night, Nicolas was already moving from the car. He wasn't one to wait or sit still, even as he aged. There were better things to do than linger, even when that better thing was another excruciating dinner with his daughter.

"So tell me about your personal project, then." Now that they had arrived at the boxy modern house, its top floor set carefully not quite on top of the bottom to affect some artistry in its design, it was time to accept that pleasantries were over. That Toska refused to acknowledge their necessity in social interaction may have been a deficit, but it was equally pointless to imagine that her pet project wouldn't become the topic of tonight's conversation one way or another. Her dedication was formidable--he knew because he recognized it.

Nicolas thumbed his way inside, the lock clicking open and door swinging wide while lights clicked on throughout the house. Somewhere in its deep recesses music began to play in the background, something orchestral and forgettable. He slipped off his shoes at the door.

"No headway suggests an issue in either subject or methodology. Have you identified your barriers yet?"

Toska thought her barriers were fairly obvious, but understood that not being on the ground meant being oblivious to realities.

“My primary barrier is that my observations are being cut short by Trenchants murdering and kidnapping the population within my perimeter,” she said slowly, careful not to inject her words with the fervor she felt. “Every time Toriet kills an Ossan on TV, I lose someone. Every time a grandmother finds a body without blood, drained by junkies and Glow cooks, the community scatters.”

She came to rest at the kitchen island, hands folded tightly together as she tried to feign a calm she did not feel.

“I am finding my ability to maintain control lacking.”

"The plight of the social scientist."

Nicolas was already moving to the kitchen, assembling his mis en place, stacking small bowls full of carefully prepared ingredients. Cooking was just chemistry, rendering fats and catalyzing reagents into a new form. As always Nicolas was prepared, easing the transition from future to present, present to past. A cool bottle of white wine was opened and set between them on the counter like a peace offering, sweating to the marble of the counter.

He had already turned to the stove.

"Populations at risk rarely wish to be catalogued and identified, Toska, you know that. You've started with community centers, haven't you?"

The blonde was silent in the face of the most basic of her father's condescensions. Slowly, she rose from the kitchen island, retrieved two glasses, and decided that the wine was less a peace offering in this instance and more a necessity.

For the both of them.

Delicate hands poured heavy because this was going to be quite the long evening.

“It is not access, nor is it a lack of acceptance, father,” she said with a measure of vague indignance as she placed a glass next to Nicolas' workspace. “It is the dying that is the problem.”

Accepting it with good cheer--a raised glass, an appreciable sip--Nicolas returned to his work. Oil was heated, aromatics were deposited. The pan and kitchen hissed to life with the spicy scent of garlic, ginger, peppers.

"You can't operate an experiment you can't control, Toska," he pointed out patiently, evenly. Condescension, yes, but also a basic fact that his daughter seemed intent on refusing to acknowledge. Engaging with her on moral grounds was hardly productive, which was of course where she was trying to go, because the simple facts of the matter were what they were. That it was hard for her to accept was a shame. Objective reality didn't change simply by will, it had more arcane mechanisms in place.

"If your goal is to work with illegal wrightwork, you can't be surprised when the authorities cause trouble for your study. I was simply suggesting that known community centers are more likely to be able to put you in contact with Ossa who are less likely to be at risk of disappearing."

A hiss of vegetables hitting the oil, the water keeping them crisp scattering into a dozen different directions.

Perhaps it was better that the father did not know the full extent of Toska's work these days. Maybe if it was just the classification of utility lineage in Ossan clans, it would be easier to swallow, to understand. If it was just diagnosing and treating disease in underprivileged communities, he would be proud of the charity, of the effort.

She took a sip.

But the true core of her research applied her gift of transference, typically used in her medical efforts in her diagnoses and in her work easing the passing of the elderly in Ossan communities that couldn't afford or access hospice care, to learning the utility of others through muscle memory.

If she could manage it, perhaps she would be able to tear this system of division and classification down.

Do something,


She would not be wrong to think her work ran counter to her father's efforts, so she sipped at her wine and allowed the elder's line of questioning to continue. “I have made some stable contacts, yes. I am just upset at the state of things.”

"Of course you are." It was questionable whether his understanding made things better or worse between them. After all, it was hardly surprising that Toska was upset at the state of things for wrights. Who wouldn't be? That more people weren't was the trouble, that things had yet to become bad enough that they couldn't be concealed was the problem. Perhaps it was simply apathy, that they didn't care. Dehumanization was always the first tactic of oppression, and wrights had been outsiders since the moment they manifested. Or perhaps there simply wasn't enough fight in them anymore, ground out by a system designed to extract literally every last usable drop from its thaumaturges.

Yet, he reminded himself quietly. Yet, yet, yet. Toska wasn't the only one with secrets.

"But these are the givens of the situation you're working with. Being upset at them is pointless, and being visibly upset with them is actively detrimental. Perhaps you should give yourself a bit of distance. It can be difficult to remain impartial and unbiased when surrounded by human factors."

Aromatics, vegetable, protein. Tofu for Toska, who had once pushed away her pork loin and argued that eating something with the functional intelligence of a two year old was wrong in the middle of a dinner party. He'd been proud of her then, too, even if he'd sent her to bed hungry for making a fuss. The sauce was poured from its little ceramic ramekin, thickening until it clung to the rest of the meal. Heat transformation, just another set of chemicals.

“Perhaps,” she intoned. Toska was not expressive by any means, but her father’s perception of her baseline rendered the slightest dalliance from her typical dispassion a prevarication of her character,

every microexpression a shout.

“I have an appointment with Alois tonight.” She turned so as not to observe the reaction. She still had not decided how Nicolas felt about her continued correspondence with the Scientist, looking up briefly when she had gracefully slipped into a chair at the dining table she had done her childhood homework upon. She could feel the ghosts of her pen strokes in the wood, the heaviness of her handwriting the only outlet for a lifetime of comparably minor frustrations.

If Nicolas had formed an opinion on Toska's friend he certainly hadn't said anything about it. When she was younger it had been a necessary social interaction, a bit of socialization for his precocious and distant daughter. Now it was likely just as necessary, and if he knew the depth or extent of it he certainly wasn't saying.

He dished up dinner without fuss. Sesame seeds and scallions, flaked sea salt and cracked pepper. The final necessary ingredients to balance the equation and flavor profile. He brought the plates to dinner alongside the sweating bottle, taking his seat. A pair of slim, metal chopsticks were laid carefully on a napkin beside the meal. It suited him to be able to precisely grasp, manipulate, and maneuver the minutiae of a meal--his preference of utensil often dictated his menu.

"I hope he's doing well. Have you been collaborating on your research with him?"

The tiny woman considered briefly as her father placed the plates on the table. Was he a collaborator? If he was, she did not think that it had ever been his intention. They went through their cycles, phases as predictable as the waxing and waning of the moon. Alois and his inability to alter their pattern, Toska and her constant awareness of his pain.

She sipped her wine, lingering a little too long on the idea of their circles. It all seemed so complicated despite the outward simplicity of friendship.

“He has proven to be a very dependable sounding board.” She very nearly smiled as the picked up the chopsticks.

"High praise, coming from you." In sharp, birdlike motions, Nicolas started to work his way through the meal. He made a great deal of stir fries, appreciating the fine organization of it. Endless permutations of ingredients and flavor profiles, the ability to emphasize individual textures and flavors, the opportunity to capitalize on ripe produce as it became available, a final product at once greater than the sum of its parts and render able back down into them for specific examination...

The riesling complimented it well. It always did.

It must have been difficult to be his daughter, he realized long ago. Every minute detail examined, every slight indication of mood or preference or interest carefully catalogued. Never obvious, never intentional, never hidden--raised for privacy but never truly given it. It was good that she had a friend in Alois. The slight glide of her lips towards the corners of her jaw combined with the softening at the corner of her gaze suggested she needed that.

"You should bring him along next time. I'd be interested to hear his perspective on your work."

“Thank you for cooking,” the observer’s daughter replied briskly, not personally or generally acknowledging the sentiment implied by Nicolas’ request.

The girl was just like her father in more ways than she liked to admit—the cataloguing, the examination, the impressive analytics that groomed her perception and informed any barbs that she found herself forming despite her knowledge that such behaviour was not necessary—but the vegetables were crisp and the day was not terrible.

“Your preparation is always impeccable.”

Raising his glass in acceptance of praise, he took another sip and let himself smile at her discomfort. It was important for her to have parts of her life her father wasn't engaged in, that much he understood, but that didn't mean it wasn't occasionally worth the exploration.

"Good ingredients and a sharp knife. I do some of my best thinking while preparing a meal; there's something to be said for mindless activity as stimulation for more abstract thought."

The doctor, without any direct requests for input, ate in relative silence.

As with anything one practiced enough, occupying the same space as her father had become easier over the past year. What used to be frigid hush was now a moderately comfortable quiet--not that Toska would ever verbally admit to feeling a vague sort of comfort from her father’s home.

“I do apologize for my brevity, father. As much as I would enjoy a nightcap—” She would not, really. “I have an appointment to maintain.”

It was endearing to watch her play at social niceties both of them knew weren't true.

Nicolas hadn't expected Toska to linger. She never did, given any form of choice in the matter, and Nicolas wouldn't have been surprised if she scheduled her appointments deliberately to avoid it. Having finished his meal quickly given nothing to distract him from it, he stood and swiveled his plate atop hers to bring them both along to the kitchen.

"Of course. Do you need a ride back to your car?"

He doubted it.

“No,” she replied as she collected utensils and napkins from their abandoned places at the table. “But if it would not trouble you, a ride to Alois’ residence would be suitable.”

Napkins away, utensils in the sink, she patted her father’s shoulder with something akin to affection as she went to retrieve her pocketbook.

A request like that was enough to give even Nicholas pause. Toska had been predictably careful to prevent any meeting between her father and her pseudo-boyfriend for as long as he'd come up conversationally, in spite of Nicolas' socially appropriate efforts to suggest otherwise. That she might willingly place them in close proximity to one another was surprising, particularly given her reticence just prior in the evening.

"No trouble at all." Dishes set aside, he made his way for the door and even held it open for her while she gathered up her shoes. "Should I change first? This is something of a casual look, I'm not sure that I'm sufficiently intimidating for a first impression." Nicolas smiled. He couldn't resist.

“I will call a service instead.” She shot her father a narrow look as she stood in the doorway.

His smile widened, slightly, as he waved her to the car and avoided saying another word on the matter.
Sal, Toska, Nicolas, NenNen Chang