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Revision

At least it was a job. Two years as an researcher on one of the sorriest outposts in the system made it seem like an appealing option. Better yet, it was on Delfinio. I’d been looking for an excuse to return, now that the war was over. India’s call had come as a complete surprise; she’d been my thesis adviser, but we hadn’t had much contact in recent years. I knew she was head of the anthropology department at one of the New Sweden universities.

“Got wind of a project that’s right up your alley, John. Qual gig back on Delfinio; figuring out what happened when a rather unusual community of folks calling themselves ‘Editors’ was terminated using lethal sonic weapons a couple months ago. This on the say-so of some intervention-happy senator. Four survivors. The way I heard it, higher-ups at the Health Ministry went apeshit when they found out about it. New director wants to throw some money at it and commission a report. Ideally, one that’s completed before anyone gets wind of what’s going on.”

I’d written my thesis on Delfinio’s Walleyed Foal sect, and spent three years interviewing the handful of shell-shocked survivors up in the mountains where they still lived. High-control groups had always held a certain fascination for me; couldn’t tell you why.

“I’m game,” I told her, silently adding and broke. “I hear Delfinio’s still dangerous, but I do want go back. You know how it is.”

“Do I ever. Just got back from a 3-month stint there myself. The threat level is manageable – – at least it seemed that way to me. Health wants work to start next week. I’ve sung your praises, told them you’d be ideal – – I would have gone myself if it didn’t clash with the end of term. I’ll send you what information I have – – call me on my office number if you have questions, OK?”

“Sure thing. Hey. Thanks, India.”

“No problem. Take care of yourself kid.” She hung up.

The prospect of A. employment and B. time on Delfinio was a lot to take in. I’d grown up there. Dad got out by the skin of his teeth four years ago; at the time, most of his radical friends insisted that the political winds were shifting. Right up until the day they were taken out in a drone strike.

*

STET

This exercise is useful when you’ve made a big decision and then realise that you’ve made the wrong choice. It requires nothing more than intense concentration on the moment just before the action you now regret. Some insist that the use of STET to remove controversial amendments to the Delfinio constitution sparked the recent Civil War, but his has been consistently denied by the Editors.

*

I’ll say this for the Delfinio Health Ministry: they don’t mess about. No sooner had I signed up for the project than they sent me first-class shuttle tickets and reservations at the Toto. They also arranged literature access of the sort I hadn’t had since university. Platinum Level; materials recently re-classified and now restricted to Military Academicians. India hadn’t lost her touch.

I’d requested, and been granted, a second researcher on the project. Julie and I had started in the same PhD program at Delfinio U. We’d co-authored a paper on the splinter group that eventually morphed into Walleyed Foal. Our work got a lot of attention when WF was eliminated – – conference gigs, book deals, vid appearances. Despite this, neither of us had secured permanent academic positions; she was currently teaching Intro to Cultural Anthropology at Lunar U.

*

Julie rocked up the evening of the day we’d planned to start work – – some hitch with her travel plans. Didn’t surprise me; Delfinio’s post-war infrastructure was sketchy at the best of times. I’d paid a generous bribe at the airport to ensure that my gear made it ‘safely’ to the hotel.

I briefed her over breakfast the next morning. She’d read the background information I’d sent her the week before. Impressive, as there was a lot of it. I thought she seemed nervous, but then it sometimes took people a day or two to recover from an IP jump. When I asked about the Lunar U. position, she rolled her eyes and snorted.

“That? It pays the bills. I’ve been wanting to get back to research for ages.”

I smiled and leaned back, taking a sip of syncaff . “And now you have. So. What are students are like these days?”

She laughed. “The same. They have different gadgets. A couple in this crop seem promising. If they’d focus.” She checked her phone again, then suddenly looked at me as though she’d just remembered where she was.

“And what about you? It’s been a while, John.” She smiled wanly and pushed egg substitute around on her plate.

“Uh, different things. Large corporations trying to find out why their staff isn’t motivated. Kinda soul-destroying stuff.”

“Ouch.”

Just then my phone buzzed, informing me that our driver had arrived.

She was waiting out front in a beat-up beige transporter, drumming her fingers on the dashboard. When she saw us, she hopped out and carried our bags to the vehicle. She introduced herself as Alice, and confirmed that she’d be driving us the fifteen kilometres to the Editor compound each morning and back again in the evening. Julie sat in front. The Delfinian was wiry and thin, in faded fatigues and a old T-shirt. From the back seat, I had a clear view of the her profile when she turned to address Julie. She looked familiar somehow, and as we drove through the outskirts of New Wichita it dawned on me that she’d lived next door to us when I was in high school. I leaned forward.

“Alice… Sandell?’ I had to shout because of the road noise.

She smiled, catching my eye in the rearview mirror. “John? I thought I recognised you from somewhere. How’ve you been?”

“Not bad. You?”

She hesitated. “How long have you got?” Her smile faded. “We lost Dad in the war; Mom’s living with me now. We manage. I’m lucky to have this job.”

“Hey, I’m sorry to hear that. Jesus.” I’d met her parents a couple times; they once invited the whole neighbourhood to a backyard barbecue. This made a big impression on everyone at the time; it was a very Earth thing to do.

I was about to ask Alice more about what happened when she said we were approaching the compound. She turned left off the paved road onto a long and dusty driveway. I could see a cluster of low buildings about two hundred yards ahead of us, backing onto a rocky hillside. Scattered clumps of trees provided a little shade from the hot Delfinio suns.

The pre-assignment briefing had been accurate; Editor Central was definitely isolated. I couldn’t see anything in the immediate vicinity but tall grass and what I initially took to be a ring of scrubby bushes encircling the compound. The background hum of native crickets was louder than I’d remembered. The buildings were nondescript; standard red brick construction. The few decorative plants in beds next to the buildings had withered, adding to the air of desolation.

Once we’d parked in front, Alice unlocked the heavy front door and ferried our belongings into the large foyer. She disappeared down a long hallway carrying what looked like a cooler. Julie and I wandered outside to look around. When Alice returned, she sat down on a folding chair beneath one of the trees, and pulled a book out of her bag.

“I’ll let you two get on then, but let me know if you need anything. There’s syncaff in the kitchen, and cookies – – through the door on the left, end of the hall. Lunch is in the fridge when you want it.”

Julie and I began with a rudimentary survey of the shipping container where Incident Response had unceremoniously dumped all the Editor archives post-raid, after which we sat on the ground beneath a tree and drew up a rough plan of work. Eventually, we wandered into the main building and into what looked like a former classroom. The blackboard still had writing on it; a series of diagrammed sentences. The interior spaces were uniformly neat and tidy, which I could only attribute to the former residents – – I’d never known IR to leave a place in that condition. We decided to drag two desks outside; there were no chairs in any of the rooms, just desks.

I asked Alice about the chairs when I passed her in the foyer later.

“The chairs. Well. Part of what sparked the ‘intervention’ was the Editors trashing the perimeter fence. The agreement they made with the government stipulated that the fence had to stay in place. Once it came down, the next thing they did was take all the chairs and pile them upside down where the fence had been, like some kind of stockade.”

She gestured toward the “bushes” which I could now see were upended chairs.

I thanked her for the explanation, and went to take a closer look. I extricated two from the tangle with some difficulty and carried them back to the compound.

When we’d set up our workspaces, Julie and I ventured into the container again. I started with some material from just inside the door; Julie had ventured a bit further in and picked up a stack of journals written by Editors founder Sally ‘Boldface’ Johnson.

“Hey. Check this out.” She began reading aloud from a faded green notebook.

“My central insight in recent weeks has been this: that punctuation is KEY. It gives us a vocabulary with which we can proactively address the myriad issues encountered in daily life…”

Julie rubbed her temples with her fingertips, chunky bangles clanking as they slid down her arms. “Wow. Just… wow.”

I raised my eyebrows.

“Punctuation. New one on me.”

I continued examining my own pile of documents. The folder on top was labelled Therapy Transcripts.

“John?”

“Uh-huh?”

“The Editors who survived the raid – – can we talk to them? “

“I hope so. I’m trying to set up interviews for next week.”

“Good.” She went back to reading the journal.

*

The Colon

This next technique is one of the most powerful in the book; it has been responsible for numerous positive, independently verified outcomes. While its mechanism is not yet fully understood, some Master Editors have suggested that by creating anticipation, it kindles latent possibility.

Read the following sentence fragments slowly, paying particular attention to the moment AFTER you reach the colon. What comes next? What will fill that space? Open your mind up to the possibilities, however strange they seem.

She thought about it all day, until suddenly she realised:

The city was largely in ruins, and yet:

Gradually, he understood the rationale:

The most famous Colon intervention paved the way for the Topeka II Accords that ended the Delfinian Civil War. One of the Parentheses Faction negotiators happened to be a devout Editor, Artie “Tilde” Robb, although this was not common knowledge at the time.

Later, Artie described in interviews how after three long days of talks, negotiations between the Parentheticals and the Delfinio government had reached an impasse. He was given an hour to come up with new proposals. Artie, relying on his Editor experience, drafted the following memo, which was slipped under the door of the government team’s suite:

Both sides were able to point to gains following the historic agreement:

Future generations identified Topeka II as the turning point, for these reasons:

There were several things Team Bracket needed to hear from the government side:

Soon afterward, the head of the government delegation asked to meet privately with Artie. Their twenty-minute discussion resulted in the rudimentary, but ultimately durable, agreement that both parties signed the next day.

*

I never knew exactly what Julie went through that first semester in grad school, not in detail. Like me, she’d chosen the program mainly for a chance to work with India Mandeville, who was something of a superstar in the newly fashionable field of Cultic Anthropology. India is one of those rare academics who does solid research and writes books that sell more than a few dozen copies. When I was working on my thesis, I got used to seeing her being interviewed by a talking head, trying to explain why X group might have issued such and such demand. Twice during that period, the Delfinio government brought her in to advise on hostage situations.

All seven of us were under her spell to some degree, but Julie was more like a disciple than a student, and it nearly undid her. The first time I saw Julie, she was with friends in the campus pub, relating in loving detail a story that India had told the day before. Her inability to say ten words without mentioning Dr. Mandeville was funny at first, but it started to get old. When she wasn’t around, the rest of us remarked on it – – not in a mean way, more ‘wow, that might not be so healthy’. None of us knew much about India’s private life, but it was pretty clear (to me anyway) that she was uniformly charming to just about everyone she encountered, and it would be a mistake to see this as anything other than a thin social veneer.

A couple months into our program, Julie and I went clubbing. We weren’t overwhelmed with what the campus had to offer, and in desperation, took a shuttle to New Wichita. There was a long queue for the Temporary Lurcher reunion gig. Eventually, we got in and found a table in a dimly lit corner. Julie had talked me into trying the house special, a fluorescent fruit-flavoured cocktail – – predictably, it was horrible. She was halfway through her second one when I asked about her family; she and her parents had moved to Delfinio during the mass exodus from Vetch, when the vegetation finally got the upper hand. She was telling me how she’d earned money uprooting invasive plants as a kid when I saw something catch her eye. I turned and saw India standing at the edge of the dance floor with Erica, an academic visitor just in from Earth.

India saw us and waved; the two of them slowly worked their way over to our table. Julie’s expression as they sat down was hard to read – – before I knew it, she was up and buying drinks for everyone. India asked me how my research was going; before I could say much, Julie was back, asking India solicitously about her dog, some kind of rare breed that only ate imported food. Julie clearly basked in India’s attention – – to be honest, it was a little embarrassing to watch. I chatted with Erica, a medical anthropologist, who’d come to study Delfinio’s recent flu pandemic.

I don’t remember a lot after that. I looked up at one point to see Julie and India dancing; pink and purple strobe lights flickered across their faces. Later, India and Erica gave us a ride back to campus; I staggered into my flat at about 1 AM.

I spent most of the following three weeks in the library. I’d see Julie around in the stacks; she looked happy. And then one day she didn’t. I was concerned enough that I said we should go for syncaff, hoping she might confide in me. It was a little like pulling teeth, but she finally admitted that it was about India.

*

The Period, or Full Stop

This exercise, when used correctly, can stop a negative sequence of events in its tracks.

Take a deep breath and close your eyes. Pay close attention to your breathing. Now slowly open your eyes and focus on the paragraph below. Notice how, despite its length, it is only one sentence. Diagram it if you’d like.

Andrew, feeling for the first time in several years a strong desire to return to the house (the selfsame house that had, over five decades, witnessed such great unhappiness), resolved to go there at once; it wouldn’t matter that Lisa was in residence – what was she to him now anyway? – and without further hesitation, he sat down on the sofa and picked up the phone.

Imagine for a moment that the passage of time is a run-on sentence, and that it could come to a STOP. Well, it can! YOU punctuate reality. YOU invoke the period. Beyond it, there’s only white space, ready for whatever comes next. You might be tempted to go back and pore over the sentence, searching for meaning that you missed the first time. DON’T. That period is there for a reason; it’s a boundary. Move forward.

This technique was memorably deployed by a group of early Editors during the winter of ‘67, when Delfinio suffered a series of particularly devastating tornados.

*

After she transferred to Trinity, about a month after our conversation, Julie became seemingly unstoppable. We stayed in touch, working together to interview people who’d recently come out of cults. It was hard work. We travelled to different locations on Delfinio with vid and sound equipment, setting up in hotel conference rooms for weeks at a time. Some of the things we heard were upsetting, but she handled it all beautifully – – suggesting breaks at just the right time, offering to turn off the recording equipment, being sympathetic without overdoing it. One evening, we had dinner at a local burger place.

I asked her whether she might reconcile with India. She stopped eating and put down her burger.

“Hahahaha NO. People like that I do NOT need in my life. I’m just about at the point where I can see her name and not feel physically sick. In a way it’s helped me understand what other people go through. You know, because I told you, that ‘nothing happened’. I’m sure India paints me as a troubled obsessive – – fine, whatever. She can say what she wants, it’s a theoretically free planet. She led me a merry emotional dance and then cut me loose, painting herself as the innocent party.”

“Plus,” she continued after a swig of soda, “I’m not the only one. Christ. After this happened I thought maybe it was my fault, blamed myself. Then I talked to someone else who had a much worse experience. And she knows of others. This is not a one-off; this is an ongoing pattern of scumbag behaviour.”

“Anyway, it’ll be a happy day in Julieworld if she ever falls off that fucking pedestal she’s built for herself. She’s a phoney, John. Don’t you let her pull you into her bullshit. I’m serious.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. It put me in an awkward spot, since India was still my supervisor. I’ll be honest, I’d kept my distance of late, knowing some of what had gone down with Julie.

“I won’t,” I said. “You sure you’re OK?” I reached across the table and touched her hand lightly. She smiled.

“Yeah. But I’d like to go. Can we get the check?”

*

On Friday of our second week on Delfinio, Alice dropped us off at the New Wichita Safe Custody Unit, where we took turns interviewing the four survivors individually. By this time, we’d scanned and catalogued nearly all the items in the shipping container. In something of a coup for me, I’d managed to blag my way into an interview with the General who’d led the attack on the compound by claiming to write for a popular military publication. Julie researched the firebrand senator who’d instigated the intervention, while keeping as low a profile as possible.

The survivors, who were mobile but frail, insisted on being called by their Editor names: Frag, Awk, Rep and Wdy. Frag and Awk were women, Rep and Wdy, men. Julie seemed to develop an almost immediate rapport with Wdy, the oldest of the four. During a break, she told me excitedly that he’d given her the most complete account yet of events at the compound; before, during and after the assault. That evening, we sat in the hotel bar comparing notes. Julie kept returning to things that Wdy had said: turns of phrase, particular details he’d mentioned. I actually thought that Frag, in spite of her scattershot narrative style, had in fact been the most perceptive; I listened to Julie, but to be honest didn’t pay close attention.

We’d satisfied ourselves that the four were being well-treated, in as much as that was possible in the haphazard environment of New Wichita. Their case workers had been generous with their time, and seemed, for the most part, kind. The rest of our work could now be done off-site. I contacted Health and asked them to arrange flights home for Monday. I hunkered down in the Delfinio Public Library, around the corner from the hotel; Julie said she was just as happy working in her room.

My flight left first, a few hours before Julie’s. On Monday morning, I knocked on her door to say goodbye, and asked about her plans for the immediate future. She said she’d keep on teaching until another project came her way. She didn’t sound very enthusiastic, but I put it down to her being tired; we’d stayed up late to finish coding the interviews. I kissed her on the cheek and left.

*

I sat upright and rewound the news clip.

“Officials on Delfinio today announced the arrest at the New Wichita Safe Custody Unit of the four surviving members of the Editor community, as well as a Lunar U anthropologist who had been studying the group, for unspecified prohibited activities.”

Blurry photos of the four Editors scrolled by, followed by a clip of Julie at a podium addressing a small crowd. I say addressing, but she wasn’t actually speaking; she was making a sort of slow lyrical gesture with her left hand, a loop, over and over. After the sixth repetition, I realised what it was: delete. After the eighth repetition, an armed Delfinio policewoman entered the frame and grasped Julie’s left arm; firmly, but not roughly. When she put her other arm on Julie’s back to guide her away from the podium, Julie appeared to comply willingly enough. For a moment, she smiled into the camera. The image faded to black.

I called India in case she knew what was going on. It was mid-day there, so I thought I might reach her at her office. When no one picked up, I got the departmental administrator and asked him if I could leave an urgent message for Dr. Mandeville.

“Mandeville? I’m sorry, we don’t have any faculty members by that name here.”

“This is the Anthropology Department?”

“Yes, this is definitely the Anthropology Department.” He seemed annoyed. “Can I put you through to someone else?”

I hung up.

A bit about the author:

Penelope Schenk moved to the UK from the US in 2002; she lives with her partner and their French Bulldog on a narrowboat in Oxford. She has recently begun submitting stories for publication, and blogs at pschenk.wordpress.com. Visit author page