016/Some Semblance of Accomplishment

Telos launches a rocket. Alois launches a relationship. … Not like that though, get out of the gutter. For shame.

Zero Sum: A Stain on the Horizon at Dusk

The clock read -00:30:37.

The meteorologists had said that the weather would hold. The head scientists from each department gathered around a station full of radars transmitting the telemetries of the various fronts that surrounded them; the silent pulses of disseminated information forced machines to print their assessments in convoluted points of data upon long, scroll-like rolls of narrow paper. Wind speed, direction, movement, probability of rain--all forces of nature were evaluated and reduced to a universally understood form: mathematics.

Telos' testing facility sat outside the city of Port Haven. On a clear night, onlookers could see the metropolis twinkling like its own localized star system, abundant and glittering with life. Today, however, the sun was sinking. Pastel hues shaded the distant skyscrapers in colors contradictory to their cold, steelform shapes. The coast had proven to be the optimal spot to build the private company's launchpad. The architecture of the facility was not so much avant garde as it was inhuman, elegant and dignified—but also strange. Alien and unorthodox like the woman to whom its corporate strings were tied. Sweeping panes of glass held seamlessly to each other, as if by some magic, to form its aberrant shape. The ever-lapping sea upon the immediate shore set a halcyonian backdrop to what all Telos employees hoped would be a successful test in a series of successful tests.

Alois had been at the facility going on nineteen hours. He broke away from the huddle, lifting the cuff of his coat to confirm the time. The control room was buzzing with communications from the various sectors stationed on the floor, each recalling to a redundant degree the numerous items on their checklists and confirming that they had been resolved.

The clock read -00:20:42.

Telos' chief scientist, the overseer of their entire space exploration division, was an incredibly capable astrophysicist that looked to be in his late fifties. His face was long, holding features that were slender and serpentine, and when light hit him, the subsequent shadows cast seemed nothing but sinister. He strode to the front of the room, passing by sleek cabinets stuffed with machinery.

“On behalf of all of us here at Telos,” he began, “We’d like to welcome you. The rocket we are launching today is carrying numerous biological samples and new, never before built systems that we will utilize for further experimentation in orbit. We have a single wright aboard, Dr. Connor Flinn, who has made it his life's work to traipse among the stars. He has been with us since week one, working alongside the engineers who built his ship and preparing his body and mind to tolerate the strains that come with existing outside of our atmosphere. He will oversee the myriad tests we have planned in a week’s time. At the conclusion of that week, the wright and the rocket will return so we may process the information they have gathered. This information is vital to the refinement of our own experiments, so that we may progress and further populate the heavens with our extraordinary presence. You will see a clock in the field,” he turned to gesture, “and one above my head. This is the amount of time you have left to wait. Please, enjoy our show.”

The clock read -00:15:03.

The room began to settle, and disorganized packs of teams—engineers, biologists, propulsion techs, and mission supervisors of all sorts—began to coalesce as they took to their seats allowing the clamor of lively chatter to fade into the cold detachment of mission control, audibly corroborating the final phases of the pre-launch sequence. Alois leaned forward in his chair to poke at a screen shared with the propulsion team gathered around him. They scratched down whatever information was there.

-00:09:54. Automation kicked in. Outputs increased. Auxiliary systems were triggered to standby. Hushed whispers were exchanged between cliques of physicists.

-00:02:03. Final checks. The farewell to the wright inside the ship. A teasing reminder to close their visor.

-00:00:00. Alabaster smoke billowed from brand-marked silos and the multi-million dollar piece of equipment—the mechanical summation of tears, dreams, and plenary effort contributed by Telos' brightest minds—sought to pierce the atmosphere. Silence persisted as instruments displaying altitude rapidly increased, and the vision of that man-made comet gradually disappeared from human sight. The clock continued counting positive minutes. It only took a handful to pass before the collective Telos staffers knew that their project would not come falling back to them in a fit of fire. Those that were easily excitable erupted into applause and cheers, but most just turned and congratulated their coworkers on a job well done. For now, they would let the astrowright get settled in their orbit under the watchful eye of mission control, then they would all return in the coming days to guide them through their honey-do lists of experiments. The scientists stood and began to mill about.

The room was littered with press. Events like these always were—and yet it was Alois who had taken it upon himself to extend an invitation to someone else; Dr. Nicolas Rickard, the director of The Bourbaki Institute, father of Toska Rickard. He found the man in the crowd.

"Dr. Rickard," the scientist called, wedging himself past a pair being interviewed, "Thank you for taking the time to come watch our launch." Alois extended his hand.

What a world they lived in; millions (if not billions) of dollars invested in fleeing a planet rather than saving it.

Science’ over nature, over limitation, over mortality itself was thick in the celebratory air, buzzing with every vainglorious commendation offered between these miracle workers for whom escape velocity was an assumption. The paparazzi puppet show was for the adoring masses, lured by the promise of explosions and the vague possibility of catastrophic failure. For them there was still magic in this intrepid act of exploration. They didn't see the science behind it, the calculations and endless double- and triple-checked lists statistically guaranteeing its success. It must have been a lovely thing, to be vindicated in hoping for triumph instead of knowing what was going to happen next.

Nicolas would not have come if the flight was going to fail.

He identified too clearly with Telos' scientists and employees to be awed. Like them he saw equations and calculations instead of a successful launch, knew that the importance was in the payload and not the process. He'd taught them to do it, after all, or at least the majority--their sponsor had long been a beneficiary of every form of wright labor and the Expressionists were no exception. Aicha Lysandros may have spread pulped Ossans across her pale skin to keep her alive while she reached the stars, but it was Expressionist innovation that helped them and Expressionist theory that would send her on her way. The thought brought a slim smile to Nicolas' lips: he'd always had an appreciation for grim irony.

That Alois would think to invite the director to this was actually a bit flattering, surprising in the way that only the human variables could be to Nicolas. His daughter's best--only--friend should have known better than to invite her father to meet with him, particularly after Toska had extended the slightest bridge between the two after their last dinner. Did he imagine that ingratiating himself would somehow benefit his pursuit of Toska? Nicolas imagined he would be disappointed, were that the case.

Because there was pursuit.

No--as Alois thrust himself through the crowd by way of introduction Nicolas suspected otherwise. The young man was more professional than manipulative. Dedicated, not Machiavellian. Nicolas could respect that, taking his hand and returning it with an affirming shake. Dressed well and with a congenial smile, Nicolas' ability to play off the stereotype of the autistic mathematician had always been one of his most powerful weapons.

"Please, Alois. Call me Nicolas. You're not in class anymore. Congratulations on your launch, what you and your colleagues have accomplished here is impressive work."

"Thank you. I'm very proud of our accomplishments," the younger man replied, spirited. "Bourbaki has played a huge role in our success, to which I am very appreciative. That last batch of interns and assistants my comrades picked out were quite good. If their brilliant minds are any sort of indication, the future looks bright."

Alois shifted as the commotion turned and bodies filtered out of the control room. Behind them would remain the few lonely staffers bound to watching over the starbound wright in the infancy of their orbit. Before them, the obstreperous herd seized a briefing room overlooking that same empty airfield.

Inside, whiteboards were congested with alphanumeric recollections from hermetic stargazers of long ago encroaching on parabolic trajectories scrawled around inept renditions of their global home—the art of their act was not the focus here, it was the science that mattered. A rainbow of crudités sat assembled as a relatively meager reward for a job well done.

"Do you want champagne? There's normally a couple bottles floating around here..." At the front of the room, raised coupes flaunted victory to the stars awakening to a newly conquered dusk. Alois still found it a little disorienting how private funds could beget such decadence. "Ah, yep. There they are."

There was always time for champagne, especially during a celebration.

As the direct beneficiary of a good deal of private funding himself, Nicolas knew all too well the cost of doing business with opulence. Seeing the value in finery had helped him blend in--a co-conspirator instead of employee. It never ceased to amaze him how few scientists seemed to understand how much a comparatively small expenditure on alcohol and window dressings could turn an unfunded venture into everything they'd dreamed.

"I'm glad to hear it. The Institute's efficacy is predicated on the quality of its students and the relationships they build with organizations like Telos. I'm sorry I can't say it's a subject I've focused on intently—is this to be the first occasion of a wright in orbit?"

“It is for Telos,” Alois replied. “All of our other tests have been unmanned. We’re focused on breaking new ground elsewhere currently—a new engine, fuel, suit, and some other assets that I am not at liberty to divulge just yet. The wright we have up there has been working with us for quite some time now. A scientist themselves, brilliant and... very brave.” He smiled briefly, fingers holding the glassform stem of his coupe like it were a prop.

“I forget what year they graduated from Bourbaki,” Alois added, “but it was some time ago. How is the institute anyway? My free time has not permitted me a moment to visit.”

"We'll have to fix that."

The Institute flourished, of course, as it always would. It benefited from Nicolas' fair handling, propped on calculations of risk potentials and market movements. Lurking beneath the modern understanding of all things were Bourbaki machinations. It was not unlike this place, striving under an unflinching eye to keep reaching the scheduled insights and miracles on a more accountable time table.

Was the wright brave or desperate, to leave all this behind? Though of course he hadn’t, not really. Aicha's rocket meant Aicha's politics in the void, where the only voices that mattered were the ones that had gotten there first.

"It's doing well,” Nicolas nodded. “The quarter has met projections. We've just had a thruster simulation installed in the engineering department, which they've been asking about for some time now. Telos has done wonders for cultivating interest."

Recruiters. Funding. Internship programs. The benefit of making a deal with the devil was establishing a secure currency. Better an employee than a slave, cried the scientists beneath chattel-powered light bulbs.

"Come see it--it would be good for the students to see an alum in the field and it gives me an excuse to invite you to dinner,” the director smiled. “Its seems odd that we haven't talked more considering how much I hear about you."

A grin and a nod was Alois' simple acceptance of the invitation, even though he found himself minutely disarmed by the thought of being mentioned by a withheld source. Quite unlike the director's daughter, the scientist's moods were easy to read, sweeping expressions passing over the topography of his features in shades of doubt and contrition.

"I suppose I never really had a reason to reach out before," Alois said in explanation, "But now that we have something to show for all the work we've done, it seemed only logical that you—and by extension the Bourbaki Institute—be included in what you helped cultivate and grow. I've been searching for the perfect moment between being too forward and too reserved. If I have made a miscalculation, I sincerely apologize." Truly, Alois had no way of knowing if Nicolas was insinuating that the talk of himself was from Toska or some sciencefolk at the institute, but if there was blame in either aspect, he would gladly bear its burden. Nicolas Rickard was, arguably, the most powerful Expressionist in Amstead and beyond; Alois believed that it would be an impossible task to keep him segregated from the successes of his community.

Alois was a smart man.

It was charming to watch him play through social graces, obsequious as he'd been taught to be. A wright was safest when they were at their most useful and least threatening, and certainly among the Expressionists the egos that came alongside brilliance often jeopardized that simple dynamic. The most successful of their kind quickly learned manners, often in excess.

"You can relax, Alois. No offense taken." Nicolas smiled, at ease being the guiding hand in their interaction. "It's an exciting time for Telos, I'm glad to be a part of it. I'll send you an invitation for next week, we'll see if I can't figure out a proper time?"

Nicolas didn't send invitations that couldn't be accepted. The benefits of foresight.

“Great, thank you.” Alois returned the director’s smile. The environment and the company he was surrounded with ensured that the conference room they had all gathered in was, in fact, no place the scientist could truly relax. He appreciated Nicolas playing along, however.

He turned, guided them to the wide window overlooking the gem-specked ridges of the ever-shifting sea. “I often find myself wishing that this facility could be my permanent workplace, but my work is too tethered to the lab. Are you fond of the ocean?”

"I've admired it now and then, of course, but I can't say I've done much with it. Not my department." While the Bourbaki Institute had certainly marine sciences available for pursuit, they were rarely focused on the ocean itself. Nicolas was largely more concerned with onshore events. Following along, a willing tourist, he looked out to the expanse of it and gestured with his glass. "You look invested. Waves, if I recall, wasn't that your initial point of contact with it?"

"With Bourbaki?" Alois shook his head. "Not specifically. They are, however, what Toska and I spent so much time working with back when she was in the initial testing stages of her theories. I didn't want to overwhelm her with having to dissect a function that is overly complicated for what she was trying to do, so we kept it simple. Kid's stuff." He exhaled a dubious laugh. For fear of making a fault in some wall—the height, width, and density of which he was not privy to—built between father and daughter, Alois then changed the subject.

"With me and the ocean, it's hypnotization more than an active investment. The vacillations of form are that much more interesting on a dearth of sleep." Alois looked at his watch again; he looked at his watch a lot. "Which reminds me, I should turn it in. Please feel free to socialize with my colleagues—I'm sure they'd love to have a chat—or I can call a car for you, if needed. I have to call one for myself, anyway."

"You'll have to tell me all about it later this week. I could do with more 'kid's stuff' in my life."

Years of gently questioning his daughter about her clandestine relations outdone by a single sentence. Like all research it had been about patience and arranging himself for success. Alois might have been a windfall, but Toska would have amputated had she sensed any infection into the rest of her life. She was less than tolerant of anything that might make her less her own woman… or more his daughter than she needed to be. She got it from him.

"I'll make my own way, but thank you," Nicolas smiled and extended as a token goodbye. "It was a pleasure, Alois. Please keep me informed of your successes, I look forward to more of them."

“Likewise, Nicolas,” the scientist replied, reciprocal. “Thank you again for coming. See you next week.”

Alois, Nicolas, Liz, SalNen Chang