Fixin fiction

Trying to work more on the bits about the people testing strange things in the desert. I like these people and want to get to know them better, but they’re crude right now. Maybe I need them to talk less, but the exposition voice feels too loud also.

The solution of course is just to write more. Clearly the whole crew wants it.

Fragment 2: Experiment in fiction continued

This is from the same story as the first fragment.

Bettye was a solid and stolid presence, round and brown behind a huge desk. Your first thought on seeing her was “medical office employee” and mostly she followed the stereotype. Her hair was short and cut short in the back with long bangs, what Skip called the “I need to see the manager” cut. Bettye made the place feel like a normal office sometimes.

Bettye’s verbal style was disciplined and unique. For example, if someone addressed her she would always respond with a name: “Yes, Gil?” Her vocabulary was limited, and often she would replace a word with “what-is-it.” Bettye’s Filipino accent was understandable but sing-song and sometimes comic to a native English speaker. Gil had worked in medical offices with Filipinos for years and would sometimes imitate the accent, which caused her to purse her lips and silently stare at her screen until he stopped.

Like most of us she’d learned computer skills from the bottom. She told us about coming from the Philippines at age 16 and getting a job with another immigrant running the computers in a dental practice. She knew nothing about I.T. but the owner assumed all teenagers were hackers, and she spoke Tagalog. That was enough. With some lies and panicked studying she bootstrapped and got good at tech support. A few years later she’d risen into system administration and then databases. Bettye was something of a wizard with big database systems. Skip said she lived in a flowchart.

Disdain for formal education was a shared value. Only Gil and Amelia had a college education, and neither of them had computer degrees. We would have got anywhere in government if it hadn’t been for the Program. National security projects are pragmatic. As Hatcher said, “I’d rather have freaks and get lead on the target.”

Bettye and Gil sat at opposite corners of the room which was a good thing. Forty feet wasn’t really enough. Gil poked, and Bettye more than anyone was the target. Her placid conservatism enraged him and her untrollable serenity made it worse. Amelia called him “Internet Guy.”

Gil’s fight-picking was monotonous. He’d poke at Bettye about religion, for example. “Priests!” he’d spit. “If they’re not diddling kids, they’re stealing and gaybashing.” After the fiftieth time we were all sick of his top ten, and periodically someone would tell him to shut the hell up. This satisfied him tremendously and he would sit up and do something on the computer with the expression of someone who had just won a bet.

It was a huge pain when Bettye and Gil froze each other out because they were our database people. About half our problems involved databases somehow and nobody else wanted to touch the damn things. Databases are the third rail of I.T. Gil had a manic genius for debugging and would throw himself into the nastiest problems for hours. If interrupted he would more than likely melt down and hold up his hands like a traffic cop, saying “STOP NOPE STOP STOP NOPE NOPE NOPE” until his supplicant left. In more serious mental states he’d do what he called the “Kermit flail”, arms flapping and tongue out like a seizure. All of us — even Bettye — had great respect for his skills and left him alone when he was submerged. Someone said he had been diagnosed with ADD but couldn’t take any of the useful meds because of an old drug conviction. Another sign that the Program wasn’t as picky as the rest of the government.

If Gil was our Kermit, Skip was the Cookie Monster. Skip sat nearest the break room and disposed of any food left longer than an hour. Bettye called him “the Vacuum” sometimes. His own diet was parasuicidal: fatty meat with hot sauce, generic cookies, Dr. Pepper. He attributed this to growing up poor in West Texas. Skip’s specialty was reporting. He had a talent for shaping data into narrative. He was also fast as hell. Skip typing sounded like hail and he wore out three keyboards in a year.

Skip’s reports were generally perfect. The Program followed Chicago style, but he rarely touched the manual. In theory Bettye was supposed to check his work, but her English wasn’t up to the task and there was no good reason to waste her time.

Skip did not react well to criticism, and in particular it was a bad idea to confront him with an error. He was always right, and if he wasn’t right he still was. One beautiful day Hatcher put his foot down over some small detail, a caption style or pagination. “You aren’t the boss, Skip. I’m the boss. If you’re going to contradict me all the time you’d better show some authority that isn’t just your opinion.”

“Chicago. Page 279. The footnote.”

Hatcher grabbed the manual and flipped to 279. After five seconds he slapped the book together, set it down, and walked out. The performance was not repeated.

Hatcher loved Gil, which everyone thought was odd. He’d call him “Boy Genius” and always asked him first if he had a technical question. It’s possible that Hatcher thought all manic rebels were geniuses. Or maybe he just liked the guy. Nobody resented this but it was at times hard not to laugh at Hatcher lauding the one person there who openly hated everything about the Program, the military, and America.

Actually Amelia might have shared Gil’s politics but she clammed up every time the subject arose. She was definitely the artsy tattooed woman with the indie music taste, but nobody ever heard her enthusing about a band’s social conscience. She focused on disliking things: making lists of bad art, explaining who’d sold out, trashing everyone’s later work. This was all very cheerful but entirely negative. Since nobody much knew or cared about her passions it was easy enough to agree or listen patiently. It’s not clear whether anyone ever saw her listening to music. She never worked with headphones on or carried a music player. If she ever enjoyed a piece of music it was in her suite and not at work. Skip speculated once that she got all of her delighted elitism from other people’s writing and hadn’t heard much music.

Like everyone else she was professionally respected. Amelia was a serious computer programmer, the kind who can write device drivers for new weird machines. Every piece of equipment with a chip in it ran her code: radars, optics, infrared sensors, even the little railroad that pulled things down the Slot. Amelia had worked at some startups but she dumped that entire scene after a few years of being treated like two-thirds of a dude, as she put it. In aerospace people were more grown-up and she’d come to the Program after writing GPS software so tight they put it in bullets. Another freak who put lead on the target. She had a tripwire temper when someone was sexist, but nobody blamed her for that. It was a bad idea to discuss her tattoos.