Writing > Code

Chapter 21


Chapter 21

This time when Toby got on the bus, he was holding his phone and looking at it intently. He nodded to Ray and sat next to him.

"What's going on?" Ray glanced at the screen. It showed an empty podium with skyscrapers in the background.

"Vicky Brandt is about to give a speech in Miami," Toby explained, looking tense. "I'm sure it's about the fight last week in Indianapolis. I hope it goes well. There's a lot riding on public response to this."

"Why is that? Those Humanity First nutjobs have been yakking about that video for days now, but people get into bar fights all the time."

"Not coded people," Toby responded sadly. "We still don't know what went wrong, but we have to keep the public's trust. We got a message from Scheria just after this happened. All of us had to be examined to make sure our codes were fine. They sent a doctor out here and I had mine looked at just yesterday. It's important, though. If uncoded people start to see us as a threat, I might have to leave. We all might."

Ray hadn't been expecting anything this severe. Toby had to see a doctor, just because of some bar fight seven states away? "Leave? Where would you go?"

"No idea. Scheria is full up already. We'd have to find someplace safe, though. I wonder what's delaying her. Is she all right?" He stared even more intensely at the screen.

He had to distract his friend somehow. Ray tapped him on the shoulder. "Hey, say you had a kid. A son, maybe. How would you discipline him when he messed up? My dad was big into spankings. 'Nothing learns a kid like a good whacking,' he used to say."

Toby gave him a disbelieving look. "I.. don't think the code would let me spank anyone, even my own kid. My dad spanked me when I was little, and it worked fine. My brother barely noticed it, though. He just kept on doing whatever it was that got him in trouble. My dad had to fine him to keep him in line."

"Wait, fine? As in money?"

"Yup. Losing his allowance, even just once, was a really big motivator for him. Every kid is different, you know? There's no need to smack your kid around when there are so many other options. Have you heard of the Silent Treatment?"

Ray shook his head.

"I read about it years ago. All kids need rules and if they break those rules they should be punished. But all kids also want attention and love. If my 'son' were to mess up and I told him, 'I'm not going to speak to you, or even notice you're there, for two full days because you're being punished,' I bet it would leave a pretty lasting impression. Of course I couldn't starve him or anything; I'd have to make sure that he could eat and such, but no contact outside of that." He sighed. "I know a lot of parents connect corporal punishment (hitting people) with discipline and order, but kids may not understand that. To a little boy, that could send all sorts of messed up messages."

Ray had never thought about that. Growing up, getting the occasional spanking had been normal to him, and he'd done the same to his daughters when they were little. Maybe that had been a mistake.

"What about you? Can you break the rules with a code in your head? Like, you're always on time to work. Could you be late if you wanted? Or if you're at work. Could you put down the wrong time on your timesheet, to get a little bigger paycheck?"

Toby looked surprised by the question. "I haven't really thought about it. If I didn't want to go into work, I guess I could stay home. The code can't force you to do anything- only prevent you from doing things. But it might keep me from doing anything else but work. As for the timesheet, lying and stealing are wrong. But corporations steal from workers all the time. Wage theft is a huge problem in almost every state and in other countries. I suppose.. if I was absolutely sure that writing in the wrong time wouldn't hurt anyone, I could do it. Never tried, though."

He smiled slightly over at Ray. "I don't have many friends here to try it on, but from what I heard in Scheria, I can only lie to someone if I'm sure they won't believe it. Otherwise, I can't even finish the sentence. It's pretty weird."

Up ahead, Ray could see his stop approaching. He looked back at the phone. "Damn. I gotta go, but I wanted to see what she says."

"Well, reporters said she is there in Miami near the podium. She should get up there soon. I was going to record it anyway. If you want, I can show it to you tomorrow."

"Thanks." As he stood, Ray gave him a comforting look. "Whatever happens, I'm sure things will be fine. It was just a drunken fight that got out of hand. Could have happened to anyone."

Toby nodded as Ray left, but he could tell his friend was still concerned.


Vicky was already on camera before even approaching the stage, so she was careful to keep her expression calm. This whole situation was a barely manageable disaster.

After she'd been back in Scheria for a few days, Vicky had attended an emergency townhall meeting, which had been packed full and overflowing. Despite the risk of illness from all the people traveling in and out, there hadn't been an empty square inch in that auditorium. Just to be safe, Vicky and Andy had worn masks and kept their distance.

Her suggestion to hold this press conference had been met with skepticism and resistance at first. Even Andy had objected, on the grounds that they simply didn't know enough yet. There had been a mad scramble to examine every coded person worldwide inside a week, and it had barely been possible. Vicky was certain that without the organizational skills of the Servant and Allocators, they would still be examining codes today, and nowhere near being done. Another advantage of living in a wholly coded society was dramatically increased efficiency. They'd had doctors on planes heading out across the world in a matter of hours!

Vicky had eventually been able to convince them to let her speak to the world like this. It didn't matter that they didn't have all the answers yet. They had enough for a preliminary explanation, which was worlds better than just keeping quiet. Uncoded people were panicky- Vicky remembered how she used to be- especially in large groups. Radio silence just wasn't an option right now.

It seemed she'd made her case. When the vote texts came pouring in to decide whether or not to go through with the press conference, there were just over a hundred against it, and several thousand in favor. Now Vicky just had to prove them right.

She cleared her throat and stepped up to the podium, the hot sun glaring down on her from above. "Good morning everyone. Thank you for coming out here on this.. particularly muggy day." That was no understatement, and some of the reporters looked similarly miserable. She could already feel sweat on her neck and shoulders.

"I'm Vicky Brandt, and I'm here to say a few things on behalf of all coded people, about the incident in Indiana last week."

"First off: the facts. Yes, Terrell Johnson is coded. Yes, he did break William Marks' nose and send him to the hospital. No, this was not an innocent bar fight. As major news sites have already reported, William Marks was paid by members within Humanity First to attack Mr. Johnson, and others were paid to film it. This. Was. A. Setup." She punctuated each word with a light fist to the podium.

She tried to inject some sympathy into her voice, despite recently mentioning HF. "Mr. Marks is still in the hospital, facing criminal charges. Mr. Johnson was offered bail but refused, insisting that he stay behind bars until we can figure this out."

"Despite their obvious disdain for us, we coded people owe thanks to Humanity First. Yes, you heard that right," she added wryly to the reporters, who were murmuring about it. "They discovered something about the codes that we hadn't! Despite their cynical intent, they added to our knowledge, and I fully admit that. Because of your hatred for us," she looked right at the nearest camera, "you actually made us better. Thank you."

She waited a moment for that to sink in, and then relaxed a bit. "Now for the details. As some of you know, the codes prevent us from physically attacking anyone. We tested it rigorously for years, and it always held true until now. We didn't have any coded people with recent military training until a few months ago, though. They react to an attack the same way anyone else would respond to touching an open flame. They act instinctively, instantaneously! It's all muscle memory and no deliberate decision making."

Vicky sighed theatrically, but genuinely. "It seems we can physically hurt people, but only if it happens instinctively, in the blink of an eye. That's why this is the very first incident from tens of thousands of coded people worldwide. Nothing else has changed. In fact, nothing has changed at all! We're still your neighbors, your friends. We're still upstanding and law-abiding citizens. Coded people are exactly the same today as we were last week. We just know more now, that's all." She tried to convey camaraderie, or approachability, with that last statement.

"I'll take some questions now." That opened the floodgates, as reporters were waving and calling to her. They peppered her with inquiries, but despite the cacophony, Vicky felt optimistic. That had gone well enough. She'd gotten the message out there, and it seemed to be understood, at least here. There were a few heckler reporters out there as always, asking gotcha questions and trying to twist her statement into some kind of admission of guilt. There would always be a few.


As often happened, the press conference had to be cut short. If allowed, reporters would probably keep asking questions until the sun burned out. Vicky was escorted off the stage and into a van in the nearby lot. She still looked flushed, both from the heat and excitement, and didn't look around until she was inside the car and it had already started moving.


Tom laughed as she gave him an enthusiastic hug. It was limited somewhat by the car, but her grip hadn't diminished at all in the past few months. "Hey, there. It's good to see you."

"You, too!" She leaned back, and raised an arm. Abruptly, she paused and her eyes got all unfocused for a second, before looking at her clenched fist. "Gah. I was gonna punch you for scaring me." She gave him a disgruntled look. "Just don't 'test' me like that again, ok?"

"No promises," he teased.

"Anyway, I didn't expect you to get back so soon. Wait, are you actually back, back?"

"Yup. Russia and Ukraine are in the bag. That's all the major players now, except America of course." He looked outside glumly for a second. This Johnson situation could be a problem.

"Wow," she said, looking somber. "I mean, you've been going on so many trips, and for so long, I guess I thought you'd never be done. But here we are, almost at the finish line!"

"I know what you mean. You looked good up there by the way," he put in, gesturing out the window. "Ambassadorship agrees with you."

Vicky rolled her eyes. "Don't even get me started on that. I only accepted the job because I'd already been doing it. And I only did this because of the mess in Indiana. Nothing will convince those HF jerks to see things our way, but hopefully now other people will be more understanding."

"Well, I'll be meeting with the State Department in a few days. Maybe when I'm done, it'll make coded people seem more legitimate in the eyes of the American people." He paused. "Did you hear back from Nassau, though? Did they accept my latest proposal? I didn't get a firm answer from them before I left."

Vicky nodded. "They're on board too. Not that I'm surprised. We've helped them with a lot of storm relief, and their tourism trade has gone way up in the past few years. Everyone's speeding past Scheria, trying to get a look at the oh-so-exotic coded zoo." She shrugged. "I try not to take it personally when I see it."

"Yeah, you're pretty thick-skinned. Maybe that's a farm kid trait."

"Oh, Holly knows what you were doing and why, by the way. She hasn't told anyone else yet, because she thinks it's the right move."

That surprised Tom. It didn't really upset their plans at all, as long as she didn't tell any uncoded about it, but he thought he'd been discreet. "Huh. She's pretty sharp, I guess."

"More and more obviously every day. She has a natural leadership gift that was being totally wasted at that university." Vicky smiled briefly, and leaned against him as the car sped up the highway. "I don't want to jinx anything, especially with the Indiana situation, but for once everything seems to be working just fine."

Tom raised his eyebrows at that, but said nothing. In his experience, those were the times it was most important to be vigilant.


About a week later back in Scheria, they were finally let out of quarantine. Tom came across Vicky sitting on the steps outside the auditorium. She was brooding about something, he was sure. It probably wasn't the upcoming townhall either. The Terrell Johnson situation was mostly handled, and had faded from the news cycle. Tom's task had been completed, or as close as he could get, and the Servant was backing them on it. The new drone production program was in full swing by now, which should please Vicky.

"Hey," he sat next to her on the steps.

"Hey, yourself," she said listlessly, gazing out at the ocean.

"It's starting to get pretty crowded in there," he said timidly, indicating the the people moving past them into the auditorium. "We should get some seats before it fills up completely."

Vicky arched an eyebrow at him. "We're both going to be speaking in there. I'm sure they'll find seats for us."

"Then maybe you should talk about what's bothering you before it gets started. Or doesn't your code cover mental health, too?" That came out a bit more accusatory than he'd intended, so Tom went on quickly. "When you're pondering some work thing, it shows in the way you sit. You're hunched but intent. When it's personal, like now, your whole stance changes. It's like you're.. diminished somehow. Do you really want to address Scheria like that?"

She sighed. "Leon is leaving. His orientation finished yesterday, and he's moving back to Philadelphia."

So that was the reason she was so down. "Oh. That's a real shame. I never met him, but from what you've said he sounded like someone who would want to stay here."

"That's just it. He does want to stay."

"Then why-"

"He made a pass at me," Vicky interrupted, still staring out over the waters and apparently oblivious to the thinning crowd.

"He did what?! Are you ok?" For some reason, despite not knowing any of the circumstances, Tom felt the urge to find that little punk and hit him a few times.

"I'm fine," she clarified right away. "We're both coded, so nothing happened. When I told him I didn't feel that way, he said he understood, and now he's packing up to leave. I'm the reason."

That was so typical of her. "There you go again- taking all the blame on yourself. You can't control how other people think or feel, Vicky. That's all on him, and you shouldn't blame yourself for it."

"Why not? It should have been obvious. A reverse-Nightingale thing. I was taking care of him during orientation, and he fell for me. If I'd seen it earlier, I could have nipped it in the bud. I could have made it clear, early on, that I was his guide and friend and nothing more. Then he might not be leaving!"

"For all you know he has other reasons to leave. And he might come back some day." He hesitated. Vicky was one of the wisest people he knew, and this was pretty simple stuff. "You weren't coded yesterday, Vic. You know all of this already. What's really bothering you about all this?"

She gave one mirthless chuckle, and wiped at her eyes. "Nice catch. You're right. This whole thing.. just brought Amir back a bit, that's all. It even happened almost the same way. Leon kissed me, out of the blue. I couldn't kiss him back because I knew my code would stop me." She looked down at the steps. "I'm just glad it happened in private. I'm pretty well-known, and the last thing Leon needs right now is gossip spreading about him being shot down by someone famous."

Spreading gossip didn't sound like a very coded thing to do, Tom thought, but Vicky was something of an icon here. Some coded people had started following her example and keeping their heads completely shaven. Loudly and proudly declaring who and what they were to the world.

"You know it's been almost a full week since I thought about Amir?" Vicky continued almost inaudibly. "That's a personal best."

"I know the feeling. I still keep in touch with Dina, but it's nothing too elaborate. Weekly emails, just like he did. I figure it's what he'd want."

"I'm sure she appreciates it. It's just so unfair, you know? We've built so much here- started a community that loves and trusts and cooperates seamlessly! He would be here too, if that landing gear hadn't collapsed. He deserved to see what his work would create."

"Now you're playing the what-if game. Don't go there, Vicky. That way lies madness. I think he would be proud of what we all started, and I take comfort from that. All we can really do is just keep at it." Tom stood and reached out a hand and slowly, Vicky took it.

Her steps didn't seem any lighter on the way in, but at least her grip was strong.


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