011/Trial and Error

After many years of applying a theory with no results, Toska and Alois have a breakthrough.
Zero Sum: A Stain on the Horizon at Dusk

Toska was already awake when the sun had risen.

Long-limbed and frail, delicate in her own skin, pale grey eyes simply studied the scientist whose bed she sometimes occupied but never really filled. The doctor had always found it difficult to ascertain the necessity of a full range of emotion, a full spectrum of need,

her culpability in the negligence of his biological imperatives,
his fundamental criteria.

Yet in this moment, this quiet platonic moment repeated through all the times they'd existed together, when the sun lit him gently at the hazy dawn, she considered that what she felt for him may have been love.

It was difficult to verify.

She didn't have access to enough data to fully analyze the scenario. There wasn't a control in this experiment. No parameters, no statistics, no hypotheses to prove.

It was just Alois and Toska and her research and his pain
her aversion to physical intimacy
and their combined inability
to discern what any of it
meant.

Just that it was.

There was a beam of light, cream coloured and bright, that flit through a crack in the shade.
A blue cast pool across the white sheets that made them both seem much more pale than they were.
Across the ceiling, a leak of reflected light from another building across the way.

She strung her fingertips through them in her mind like a cat's cradle, even as she absently ran her fingers through her best friend's hair.

Greed could only be obscured by the guise of sleep for so long, yet Alois allowed it to persist until it was just past its logical conclusion. The truth of the situation was that he basked in the silent moments the two of them shared; the weight of that reticence between them was always calculably more significant than any exhortation of theory or exhalation of breath could ever be.

The scientist kept his apartment sparse, an expression of what was likely to be the combined eschewing of material goods and affection for the transience that came with such an empty and malleable lifestyle. He drew no joy from the compensation of his various successes nor did he delight in society's abundant excess. None of it meant anything outside of the unnecessary easing of life's natural progression. Rather, Alois preferred to feel all facets of his existence—let them shape and whittle him.

In the presence of Toska, he was able to feel beyond the streamlining of formulae that consumed his daily life,
beyond the blips of headlines decrying communal horrors on the daily sites,
beyond the stodgy patterns of speech his colleagues used in their daily conversations.

He turned as his eyes blinked open to catch the doctor in her incandescent compassion. An Expressionist's mind was a diligent machine, trained to extract fact in favor of conscientiousness, refined to repress any sense of sophistic leanings in one’s humanity. Luck was labeled a plague whose effects touched the minds of those weak enough to be susceptible to its charm.

Perhaps, in that moment, Alois felt very weak.

“Tell me honestly, doctor. Am I done for?” He half smiled with the jest, unable to predict whatever plans she had made for him.

Deductive in her reasoning, her endeavour ever systematic, she tilted her head.

“I found nothing in your anatomy misaligned.” Toska’s words were always gentle with him, fond—but somehow still seemed a sledgehammer for their inability to resolve the nuance between the syllables, the vulnerable context beneath the meaning’s shell. “Unless you’ve felt a change since last night’s exercise?”

Perhaps she could resolve the subtext and just found it easier to believe that she was incapable of such capricious analysis.

Pale fingers continued their irrelevant path through Alois’ pale hair. Despite the many conjectures she’d invalidated as to the purpose of such activity, she found it a repetitive motion she couldn’t constrain.

A creature supposedly above comfort
unable to find reason in her action.

She observed him through clinical eyes made human by proximity.

“I’m sorry.”


Alois huffed. "That's not really necessary."

As though they were a task to be terminated, Alois found himself past the point of needing any apologies. They had rounded a corner similar to this before and he was confident that they would circle again, indefinitely vexed by a perpetuity that was equal parts isometric and unpredictable. She had touched the fabric of his making; any shame stemming from faults and feelings beyond those of abject reason that lingered within him was not her burden to bear.

He slipped out of reach to peer down the alley of light cut by long, bland curtains. The city was as it always was. Stirring, lustrous, defiantly algid in the presence of the day star.

"What is the schedule for today?” he asked after a moment.

That illusory girl rose gently and drew her knees in with a slow grace that reflected her extensive consideration of the question. The duration of reflection was perhaps connected to the myriad of repetitive discords that brought them here—these mornings she didn’t entirely understand and he didn’t entirely recognize.

“I have work at the hospital this evening,” she said, already diagnostic in tone. She took a breath to reset herself, tried her best to sound a little more human. “... but we can try again, if you would find the practice to affect your progression favorably.”

Toska had always found Alois’ dedication to knowledge captivating, his research pristine, analysis void of prejudice or intent. Where often at Bourbaki she found her classmates’ desperation for prestige rather onerous and more than a little unseemly, she was always quite taken by the integrity Alois maintained in his presentation of fact.

She trusted his veracity more than her own intuition, drawn to doubt by her inability to recognize what lay just underneath.

"I want to try it dressed in the light of a new day," he said, "With a clear mind, and refreshed perspective." Sometimes that was the only way to approach a recurring challenge. Take a break. Clear intrusive thoughts. Relax. Return. Rework.

If the tenacity of the commitment to their life's medley of enterprises wasn't what had connected them together in the first place, it certainly had done its part to strengthen the bonds of their relationship. For better or worse, neither Expressionist was very good at letting themselves get distracted. Alois was hard on himself when it came to meeting his own expectations in experiments like these, but he was not the type to give up when he felt a breakthrough might be looming on the horizon.

The blond pulled the curtains to drench the room in the glow of that platinum morning, to face the day that had just been born.

The reasons he found himself drawn to the woman before him were multitudinous, enumerated facts rendered unseen by the accumulated layering of historical sediment between them, but now, in this moment, he was drawn to her by a need to see things through. In that, they were much the same.

Alois took Toska’s hands in his own and reclaimed a spot on the bed before her. "Run me through it again," he said, "Guide me."

“Of course.”

A slow shift, almost languid, had her on her knees before him, the strap of her tank top clinging precariously to the edge of her clavicle. But it didn’t matter—not here. She tilted his chin up to meet the colorless light of her lucent eyes and she held him there. “Remember what we talked about. You have to leave your body and enter mine.”

She placed one of his hands just below her jaw to hold the gentle hum of her pulse. Laced her fingers with the other.

“Consider this heartbeat yours,” she whispered as she watched him, unwavering. It had taken nearly a year for Toska to affect a pattern visibly—and that was with unrestricted access to the scientist’s biometrics. All that Alois had was Toska’s very base attempts to describe the path of access to her body.

“Concentrate on my heart. Feel me.”

Alois took a breath,
and another,
and another,
as he tried to settle into her rhythm—the heartbeat that guided him, and the gaze that retained him.

He focused on the mathematics of her making, the culmination of complex shapes and symmetries formed by obtuse equations so elegantly solved. He focused on that hum, the thrumming of platelets and plasma being pushed along their course, working their pattern throughout a mess of veins tucked just below the surface of skin. Right. Blood enters. Contraction. Valves regulate. Oxygenation. Left. Blood enters. Contraction. Valves regulate. Deoxygenation. Right. Left. The hum. Right. Left. His fingers at her carotid. Right. The divine proportion of those bones. Left. Blood enters. The hum. Right. Her eyes. Left. His hand. He analyzed to no avail because he analyzed to a dizzying degree. His head swam with repetition, fibonacci sequences strangling that simple command to just feel.

Alois closed his eyes to shut himself off from the world. To forget the intrusion of euclidean form into the humanity of their experiment, and yet:

His mind blossomed with algebraic latticework, points intersecting and weaving a vertiginous whorl beneath the shutters of closed lids. An abelian dervish. 1, 248, 3875, 27000,

the pulse, the blood, the pattern,

right, left, right. He frowned, brows furrowed.

"... I'm over-thinking it."

And perhaps Toska wasn’t thinking enough.

“Let us try another approach,” she said gently, patient in the very same way he’d been with her for so many nights in front of those waves she’d struggled desperately to interrupt.

“When I was a child, my mother passed away.” It was rare that Toska spoke of family, of history, of experience. Telling stories always seemed conceited to the young woman, but now experience perhaps held the maps to their combined pathway. “Nicolas was distraught, as is to be expected. But I was a child—I did not understand the suffering. All that I wanted, when I was young, was to feel what he felt. To feel his pain was to know him. Really and truly know him. His heartbeat was the first one I felt that was not my own.”


Toska’s voice caught like she’d been holding her breath and she squeezed her partner’s hand.

“Try again.”

Alois took a breath,
and another,
and another,
as he sought transcendence in her confession of mortality—the heartbeat that called to him through a schism in her rigid façade.
The door had been cracked, but the scientist was still a blind man wandering in the darkness. There had been many instances, over the course of their years together, where Alois felt that his friend’s emotions were either nonexistent or shut away in an impenetrable fortress. Even now he felt it, in her expression of desire to collect her own feelings through the vicarious emotions of another.  There was a pattern here, but he shunned it for the time being.

If this were to work, he needed more. Bright eyes opened to watch her face, to monitor the sequence of his progression.

“And how did it feel?”

“If I’m to be honest, it was terrifying.” Toska grew quiet but tried so hard, so desperately to remain open, to keep the gate of her chest from shutting Alois out for good. “I was much too young to understand a grown man’s anatomy, much less the passion of a widower.”

She bit her lip, struggling to maintain her clinical composure, her machine gaze.

“I felt you. Try again.”

Alois took a breath,
and another,
and another,
as he breached the gateway opened by her adolescence—the absorption of her heartbeat a cacophony between his ears, wreaking havoc on the multitude of functions littering that space. He saw her then felt her. His eyes grew wide and unfocused, looking beyond the doctor’s shape.


Toska’s voice caught in her throat, a strangled crepitation throttled in the echo chamber of her chest.

“Alois…”

Her pulse rioted in her veins, her blood itself alive and aware of the invader in her body, undecided on whether the presence was sublime or catastrophic. Eyes closed, unable to force eye contact any longer, she dug her nails hard into the back of the hand she still held,

unwilling to tell him to leave.

The doctor had surrendered:
allowed him past her years of numbed innervation
dismantled her barrier of sensory withdrawal
subdued her emergency contingencies.

Her voice died in her mouth and she left the ashes for Alois to find.

He reveled in Toska's consciousness with parasitic intent, feeling like a child with a new toy who pestered their parents to put it together only so they could immediately
take
it
apart.

Alois wanted to map her form as she had his during all those hours at the museum through that infiltrative touch. He wanted to rustle around the space of her, extract the variables of her existence, seek the incongruities in her abstract, and answer the expression of her cognition. He would quantify her, given time. He would reduce her fractions to their simplest form.

He felt the tension of her fingers pressing nails into his skin and took delight in the duplicity of that pain. Her stress was his agony. His onslaught was her grief. At last he could feel her laid bare upon the crux of the trust shared between them.

The morning lingered. Her work was in the evening.
Alois didn’t want to ruin the day by drowning his friend in the pull of her own tides.

He withdrew, satisfied by their brief consummation. He peeled her nails from the tendons they sought to sever and nursed the trenches left in their wake with a gentle rub.

Toska felt him go,
watched him leave,

begged him to stay.

If this was what human was, she didn’t think she wanted it. How could she? It obfuscated her reason, clouded her logic, sapped her reserves to power its hungry search for that connection, desperate to maintain its hold now that someone had made the mistake of going inside.


He exhaled, “Fina—”

Alois didn’t even have time to finish his third syllable before the tiny doctor had leaned forward, hands to his throat like a murderess, her lips finding his in a moment she only understood in theory.

ONE YEAR AGO.


“No.” The lapping of the artificial waves continued to echo pernicious and virulent in the air between them, metronome sound a constant reminder of the folly of their cooperative endeavour. “I… can’t.”

Her voice trembled when she spoke despite her best efforts to appear as though nothing was wrong.


Alois sighed, running a hand through his hair. He'd lost count at what attempt this was. It might've been better if they called it a day, start fresh after a break, but there was something about the process that he couldn't let go. When Toska initially approached him to aid in proving her hypothesis, he'd been skeptical. However now, in practice and having felt the woman’s grasp around his entire being, the scientist was beginning to think she may have been on to something.


He glanced around the museum. Hyperactive children happily bounced nearby allowing their shell-shocked parents to briefly forget their existences with the excuse that they were technically at a house of learning. Exhibits littered the garishly colored floor, bustling with staff eager to offer intermittent presentations to anyone who would listen. One of them, a lucky lady dressed in blue, stood in front of a whiteboard. An idea struck him.


"If you can't, then you won't," he told the doctor, voice trailing as he walked off. "But you can! And you will!" And now the whole museum knew it. Alois approached the staff then snatched two of her markers. He rushed off before she could make a fuss.


Returning to Toska, he got to work. An x axis was drawn on the glass-paneled front of the wave's enclosure, bisecting that incessantly oscillating form, then a y. Upon y, he marked each peak and trough and extended those marks parallel to the x axis in dotted lines. Heading back to y, notches were made upon x to indicate seconds decreasing to zero at the union of those axes. Beneath the diagram he wrote out the wave's equation, a complex arrangement of notations expressed in numbers, letters, and arcane symbols. ‘A’ was the first letter after the equal sign. He circled it heavily.


“Take a breath and let’s try again,” Alois said, affectionately brushing aside an errant tuft of hair from her cheek. He didn’t quite know how to put his innermost feelings aside and focus purely on the analysis of what they were attempting, but for her benefit he would always try.  “We’re only going to affect A, the amplitude. Feel me manipulate the function, then do it yourself. Let me know when you’re ready.”

The doctor—always brilliant in vanguard of intellectual conquest, acclaimed in her pursuit of fact—was dumb with her frustration.

This was her hypothesis. These were her tests. Physics was the medium and mathematics the control.

The failing factor in all of this was her.

Toska was wrong,
she was incapable,
she was frustrated.

Slowly, her hand once more found Alois’, her fingers delicately lacing into the spaces of his pale hand. Her silent acquiescence to the perpetuity of their continued attempts.

“I will follow your lead. Please, continue.”

She allowed his synapses to fire in her own mind, his heartbeat to follow his ever-unrequited bloodsong into the hollow of her bird chest, felt a brief electric pulse deep beneath his diaphragm, almost like a breath but never a real one.

She couldn’t breathe when she was inside him like this but Toska would never tell.


Expressionists were taught the laws of the universe so that they could more easily break them. Without moving, without so much as a blink, Alois dissected the meat of the equation with a preternatural quickness. The force of his mind easily induced the transmutation of the wave's reality and it swelled, cresting over the demarcation on the glass without expanding in wavelength or abbreviating its phase.

It grew.
He watched on, unimpressed.

"It's only changing that single, arbitrary number," the scientist reassured her as the disrupted wave dispersed and settled back into its typical lull.

He gave Toska's hand a squeeze of encouragement.


Toska went over the equation again to solve for A. Once again to double check—aah. An error in her mathematical mind, stressed and overburdened by the exhaustion beginning to find its way into her expressionless face. Diagnostic specialist during the day, experimental researcher by night.


How long had she been here trying to break these equations? How many nights had Alois lost sleep for a simple error in her calculations?


The doctor mimicked the insides of the scientist then, a series of impulses, the equation run full through her mind, backward and forward. Ready, she pulled the same pulses of electricity that Alois struck his match from and transmuted what was known to be true into that which was an Expression of her will.


A wave disappeared entirely from it's lineup of sinusoidal brethren, amplitude reducing the peak and subsequent trough to zero.


Toska’s eyes widened slightly at the immaculate attempt, turning to Alois in tentative alarm.


He gasped. "You... did it. Toska, you did it!"


Alois turned to his friend, gently grasping her shoulders. "All that work, those hours, those explanations... it actually means something now, it's not just raw theory. I can't believe it. This is unprecedented. Congratulations."


The elation he felt from the success was on par with what would have been expressed if the research they were conducting had been his own. It was a testament to how eager he was to have results, how eager he was to see her ideas proven correct. The space around them buzzed with floor-walkers pondering if the machine was broken; staff grumbled and started wiping away the diagram on the glass.


"Should we celebrate? We should celebrate. Come this way, I'll buy you an icee."

Even when Alois took her hand, lead her away with the jovial sounds of his exalted celebration at the culmination of their long hours, their hard work, Toska continued to stare at the repetition of the waves.

Wave.

Wave.

Nothing.


Wave.


Wave.


Nothing.

She shut her eyes to the clamor, unable to hear past the roar of the ocean in her head.


TWO YEARS AGO.


Toska had been surprised to see Alois waiting at the Nurse’s station when she rounded the corner, low heels echoing in the quiet of early morning. The brief lull in the madness of her emergency room life had seen her resting with her mind awake, too occupied with solving a minor leap in logic that she couldn't wrench herself away from.


“Alois,” the young doctor greeted without any real feeling one way or another—but her voice always implied a certain detached chill, her incidental dispassion a curse on her house. “I wasn't expecting a visit.”


"That's the peskiest thing about an emergency room, you know," he said with a smile, "No one ever quite expects a visit."


The scientist pushed away from the counter, abbreviated gratitude expressed to the nurse there with a quick wave of his hand. He was dressed in the structural foundation of a suit, but the jacket, actually his lab coat, was neatly draped over a bent arm. As he moved, the laminated front of his Telos badge glistened in a maze of translucent circuitry under the fluorescent lights of the hospital; it mapped his picture (not the best), name (A. Ohls), and title (Lead - Propulsion) with some burgeoning RFID-cum-biometric technology that helped ensure that any proprietary assets developed on Telos' dime were kept just that.


"My mother nearly sliced her thumb off trying to finagle the housing for some... thing she's working on," he continued with a casualness that belied his concern regarding the incident. Toska had been privy to Alois griping about his aging mother, a retired scientist herself, many times before—it was constantly a battle of agency versus elderliness with her. "They moved her upstairs, but I thought I'd drop by to see you too. Do you have time for breakfast?"


The question brimmed with duplicity. He wanted to spend time with her, always, but he also wanted to be sure she was taking care of herself. They were both predisposed to losing themselves in their work.


Noting the guile of such convenience, Toska tilted her head just slightly. “It is not yet time for breakfast.” Even as the words passed lassitudinous lips, she caught glimpse of the day breaking outside like a damning halo evidence to support Alois’ presumptive suppositions about her life choices. “Oh.”


It was early enough that the waiting room was clear, her own docket unloaded via discharge or admittance less than an hour before. The tiny woman pushed her hands into the pockets of her white jacket, analysing the likelihood that she'd just have to come running back up here.


“I could permit a momentary absence from my duties,” Toska said quietly. “We haven't spoken since…”


"Yeah. It's been killing me," he mumbled, features falling to dejection.

THREE YEARS AGO.

"I'm in love with you," Alois announced without warning, just barely audible over the din of the cafeteria. He used a fork to push around material that had been processed to meet the precise nutritional attributes of food, knuckles of a bent hand pressed against a cheekbone as he leaned forward. It was a meek confession as usual, like his desire for honesty and openness had tussled with his desire to not scare his friend away and won... but was then quickly knifed in the back. The longer that silence passed between them, the more the scientist hoped that the noise would swallow his words. It happened this way every single time.

Blue eyes rose from industrial-pressed flatware. They nervously watched.

"Hey, did you hear me?"


Toska had, in fact, heard Alois’ confession, though perhaps she wished that she had not. It would have been easier—to give Alois a way out. To salvage the purity of his reason from the rapids of his human heart.


When the words fell between them, that girl made of logic froze, speared snap peas suspended unmoving, like her processors were unable to compute the words, understand the sentiment. She was stuck on a loop over those words.


“I know.” The words rang with some deafening finality despite their volume barely breaking the space between them. She put her fork down and placed her hands flat on the table to either side of the plate, grounding herself for what would surely be a battle in the middle of a cafeteria that cared little for the emotive rift that waxed and waned between them. “We've been through this.”


Toska’s pale eyes met with the deeper blue of Alois’ apprehension, willing her confusion and her apologies down for a definitive stance. “I do not love you. I do not believe that I can. Not with you. Not with anyone.”


She couldn't do this again with him.


"I know," he replied, gathering his things. For a man cursed with the inability to see past the repetition in his life, one would think he would have learned that spontaneity was a farce. Alois was a creature of exactitude: he couldn't be any less precise, regardless of the numerous efforts he made to foil himself.


FOUR YEARS AGO.


The sun came cresting over the horizon as a bright red blur, sending shadows of the night scattering to shove themselves behind nondescript lengths of trees, to lurk in forests and near the bases of rocks. The train's jingle announced that it would arrive at the city's center in a few minutes time. Around them, colleagues and former classmates shuffled, putting their things back in whatever bags they carried, discarding arguably recyclable wrappers from on-the-go breakfasts. They were all headed back from a mandatory biennial conference: part continuing education, part networking event, part regulatory due diligence. Standard opinion was that the event was a mostly wretched affair, but it did boast talks from the brightest minds of the Expressionist community.


Alois' head was tilted to the side, resting on Toska's shoulder as he slumbered. A beam of sunlight hit him in the eye and he recoiled.


"Agh," he sat up, rubbing his face, "Sorry."


“It's okay,” Toska replied hoarsely. She hadn’t slept at all, despite the length of their trip. She had chosen instead to stare into the darkness, permitting Alois’ touch to linger upon her shoulder. “You were tired.”

She tilted her head against the window, cold against her burning forehead.


Alois turned to watch her in the empty minutes before their arrival, his stare betraying a fondness that was allowed to persist until it was just past its logical conclusion. The truth of the situation was that he basked in the silent moments the two of them shared because he had no other options. His friend was a vacuum of emotion. Was she petrified of her humanity, or did she really just lack it?


Dressed in the colors of morning, he focused on the mathematics of her making, the culmination of complex shapes and symmetries formed by obtuse equations so elegantly solved. He wanted to rustle around the space of her, extract the variables of her existence, seek the incongruities in her abstract, and answer the expressions of her cognition. He would quantify her, given time. He would reduce her fractions to their simplest form, given the chance. Alois knew her, but he wanted to know her.


Eyes turned forward. He thought to ask her how she felt, but did not think he'd get a candid response. So, he sat in silence. Desolate.

It was just Alois and Toska.

Her redoubt, his pain.


PRESENT DAY.


"Don't do this to me, Toska." Alois grasped the bend of her diminutive waist. The affection, the weight of her was all he had ever wanted, but the scientist had to consider its source. He questioned its authenticity, its tenure.


The scientist wasn’t sure if he had broken down a wall or breached a contract. He doubted the ethics involved, either way.


“It doesn't hurt,” Toska whispered into his mouth, absolutely unsure of what she was doing. She had no relevant personal data to draw from, no reference, no experience. “When you touch me it doesn't hurt anymore.”


Doe eyes wide, the doctor stared at Alois from a vantage point too close to retain detail, just the hazy assumption of desire that, from so close, could have been fear or regret or disgust or any number of things--but even when focused, she had difficulty discerning the difference between them, so the proximity really made no difference.


“I've let you in already.” Moving his hand from her waist to her hip to her thigh, she permitted him to trespass the hem of her skirt. “I felt you. I felt something.” She swallowed nervously. “Please Alois, help me feel something.”

Fingers slick upon skin, Alois took her, turned her. He pressed her back into the sky of his bed, splayed shape efflorescent in the pale dawn; delitescent nevermore.

A byproduct of progress was an amalgamation of inexorable moments. A byproduct of learned behavior was the inability to change. His very nature was zenzizenzizenzic.

"No, I can't. Not like this.” His voice was an echo in her atmosphere, astravagant among the universe of her synapses. He was resonant. Plangent. “Listen to me. Listen good. I’m in love with you. If you have any respect for me, you will go and return and tell me you continue to feel this way, in the absence of this frisson. I have spent a lifetime in your umbrage. The pattern repeats.”

Hands a frame of her incalescence, he kissed the bend of her cheek then stood.


Toska remained where he’d left her, transfixed as though his benedictions had denatured to obloquies on their path from their apical origin to her auris interna. She searched her mind, her observations for the correct words, the precise numerical function to rectify the miscalculation in the formula unsolved between them.

What had she done?

The doctor collected her limbs and, unable to look at the scientist, took herself to the door of the apartment to collect her shoes.

“I… I will see you for our standing appointment next week, Alois.”


“I look forward to it. Always.”
Alois, Liz, Nen, ToskaNen Chang