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graceful degradation

January 24th, 2005

there’s something to be said for knowing when it’s time to go down, and for going down easily, without a fuss. but i don’t know what it is.

i wasn’t about to get yanked around for playing games in a world where there were truly dangerous people out there, doing truly dangerous and deceitful things. samuel would have to be reasoned with. “and you’re the one who’ll have to do it,” i kept telling myself as we walked through cambridge, got in a taxi, and disembarked at the train station in the morning gloom. but perhaps i was being hasty, maybe it made more sense to get hold of luddie, or professor singh? let somebody else do the talking, so i didn’t have to decide what would be said. samuel hadn’t exactly been grilling me, but he was making it pretty clear that he wanted to hear my story and until he did we’d be riding the rails, in limbo until a suitable landing could be arranged.

we got on the train near the front, walked back to the dining car, and sat down together, side by side, at a table. for a moment it struck me as peculiar that he hadn’t sat across from me, but i waved it off thinking perhaps that’s how it’s done on british trains. samuel leaned over and said, “now are you going to tell me why you were asked to work on sandstone, and why you have G9 clearances dating from 1975, and how you happen to be in the UK when there’s no record of you being active…..in any capacity…..ever?”

i leaned back, if only to breathe. he’d been less than an inch from my face. i wanted some air of my own to work with. “i’ll do my best to answer all, samuel. can we order some tea first? why don’t you take care of it and i’ll just sit here and tell you what i can, straight and quick, so you’ll know i’m not piecing something together, so you’ll know i’m being straight with you.” he nodded, but didn’t do a thing about the tea.

“i was in london for apachecon, a conference for apache users and fans, anyway, i was here with my boyfriend, or rather fiance, or rather, soon-to-be-ex coz we’re breaking up, it’s a sad story really, but tangential to the current topic which was how i came to be here doing some work for luddie.” i paused and looked around for any sign of how one might contrive to have hot tea arrive at the table.

the dining car was empty save for a man standing at one end, filling the doorway in a strangely casual way. my heart sank. there might be no tea. and that might not be the worst of it. boy i really screwed up this time and i hadn’t a clue what i’d done.

“luddie called me last wednesday, said he’d heard i was in england and wanted to know if i’d like to make some money, serious money, on my vacation…he said he needed someone who knew anything about the langauges of the Wakhan Corridor…. i remember, he kept emphasizing anything…like it would be enough to know the languages existed. i was confused by his request…a little put off that he kept saying ‘serious money’…it was cheesy.” i paused. samuel nodded. i continued.

“i told him, i know only a little Wakhi, i’m not literate in any turkic language, and i’m not an experienced translator….so, if you’re offering ‘serious money’, you better find a more serious candidate! besides, i have a job, it’s pretty strenuous, and i’m supposed to be on vacation.”

that is, word for word, nuance for nuance, exactly what i’d said to luddie. i had closed my eyes and was playing the conversation back in mind’s ear. i was being so completely faithful in my recreation of the event that i hadn’t noticed the train begin to move.

“so what did luddie say then?” asked samuel. i was relieved to hear him speak. he didn’t seem antagonistic. he seemed genial, but i mustn’t let that fool me. for some reason he thought i was dangerous and that made him dangerous. the fact that he was damned attractive made it worse. “stockholm syndrome” i tried to laugh it off. but there was no getting around it. i’d just have to factor it in as i went along.

“well, then luddie told me what they needed was someone to help out with a bunch of files that got corrupted, through some combination of faulty encryption and media storage, and that many of these were sound recordings made in the Wakhan Corridor by an ethnomusicologist in the 1980s… and that sounded interesting to me, like something i might be able to help with…. and then luddie said he’d pay me five thousand dollars just to come out to Cambridge, meet with professor singh, and spend a few hours working on their problem…….all that ego-appeal…..all that money, how could i say no?”

i waited for some sort of reaction, but there wasn’t any. not from samuel, not from the gentle blur of shubbery whirring by to my left, not from the man at the end of the car.

“so that answers two of your questions, but maybe raises some more? as for the clearances, that’s completely unrelated, as far as i know, except you never know with luddie, he’s active in so many circles.” i tried to laugh, but it came out more like a cough. “that has to do with my father, he was a prisoner of the Patet Lao sometime before i was born, and later in ’75….” i trailed off.

“and so, did you meet with professor singh? tell me about that,” he coaxed.

“you know i did, first thing friday morning, you probably know the time, what train i took, and all that better than i do, so i’ll focus on what i think you don’t know….okay?”

no response.

“we met at professor singh’s lab, luddie, this fellow eric, and i. eric walked me through what they had, but it wasn’t much, just a list of files, mostly, and some gibberish they’d tried unsuccessfully to extract. eric quizzed me to see what i knew about sound file formats, then professor singh came in to test my langauge skills. he had me listen to a bunch of recordings, like sentences from a language lesson, and i remember thinking he must be trying to test my hearing at the same time, because the volume was very low, and some of the speakers barely discernable. after thirty minutes or so the professor excused himself, eric followed him out and came back several minutes later saying that he was looking forward to working together and would be sending a set of recordings to me in london the next day. that was it. it around lunchtime on friday and i thought i was done for the day, so i decided to look up simon schaeffer, who was my friend lisa’s professor when she was at Cambridge for her masters in the history of science, i think it was.” samuel interrrupted.

“yes, and he met you, gave you a lovely tour of the colleges, showed you the classroom where your great uncle harrie used to teach, and left you at king’s college only to meet you an hour later at the eagle.” he seemed to know it at least as well as i did at that point. it had been a busy weekend with little sleep and far too little tea.

“okay, so you know luddie tracked me down and eventually brought me over to the bunker, or complex, or whatever it is, and eric and i started working on this three-second loop, and after a couple hours some guys came in and told us to take a break. they showed us to the break room and said we’d have to wait there until our clearances had been checked. i had no idea what they were talking about, but luddie told me not to worry, that he’d call professor singh and work it out. so i didn’t worry. afterall, the job wouldn’t pay so well unless it were some kind of hassle, right?

besides, i was in no hurry to get back to london, my soon to be ex-fiance, and the eight by ten hotel room we were sharing.”

“and the sound loop” samuel leaned in, “what did you learn about it?”

“it was pretty interesting, actually, all that information packed in to such a short loop, parts were definitely music, other parts seemed to be speech, and other parts, neither. it was super-dense, super-saturated, we hadn’t gotten too far, but we were making progress.”

“and how is it that someone clever enough to figure out all that can’t give me any other name than luddie balmer’s at the end of the day? who did you think you were working for?”

“the university?” i was sounding rattled, but less rattled than i felt.

“and it didn’t strike you as odd that there were all these langley types hanging about the complex? or that you were held for clearances doing piecework on a university project?” he sounded a bit condescending, but not saractic. small mercies.

“yes, that was odd, but this is new to me, i’ve never done work like this for money before, so it’s all a bit odd, but i like puzzles, and eric and i were working well together, making progress faster than either of us expected, i suppose i got caught up….but, yes, in retrospect, with you shining a light on it, the whole thing seems……surreal, not just odd.”

“jennifer, jennifer” he sounded like he was talking to someone else. a child lodged deep within the tabletop he was staring in to. “isn’t there a name you can give me, someone who can explain your clearances?

i stared in to the table, too, trying to put my mind where his was, trying to answer his question. i was stumped. who, who, whom, yes that’s right, whom should i name, on whom should i call? the question went round in my brain in time with the train, both were slowing, and as they did, it seemed in the tabletop world as if we were pulling in to a familiar station (was it guildford?) and i could see the child he’d been talking to, and she was me, and all at once it came to me, just came over me like a wave, not a flash you understand, but a wave of experience containing every particle of air, light, moisture, every sonic vibration, every packet of energy in that moment of pulling to a stop on a sunny afternoon long ago, the squeal of braking wheels, of new equilibria breaking to the surface. and then we were stopped, the electricity cut out and in the silence she and i together speak one name. “Pop Yule”.