Freedom

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The afternoon was cold and foggy – a typical summer day in San Francisco – and Gary was glad he’d grabbed his heavy jacket on the way out the door.  Traffic was a mess, as usual, and he shivered a bit as he carefully wound his way between the lanes of traffic.  Lane splitting downtown struck him as having more than a passing similarity with riding a motorcycle through a mine field, except the mines moved unpredictably and would occasionally vent their frustration by trying to swerve into him to block his progress.

On the one hand, he felt like he should be shocked and dismayed that people would attempt to murder a complete stranger because they perceived him as “cutting in line” even though lane splitting was perfectly legal.  On the other hand, Gary’s opinion of humanity as a whole was low enough that he couldn’t work up anything approaching genuine surprise.  Sure, he thought, most people are decent enough most of the time if they can connect with another human one to one.  But the moment they stop thinking of you as a person and start thinking of you as a “car” or “motorcycle” or “internet comment” the claws and fangs come out and we’re right back in the jungle.  We may claim to value kindness and empathy, but most people just want to get theirs most of the time.

He squeezed his brake to slow down abruptly and avoid crashing into the idiot talking on the phone while making a left turn into oncoming traffic, and let out a sustained blast on his horn as he wove around them and up onto the on-ramp towards the bridge.

To ride a motorcycle well requires being aware of not only ones self, but of everyone around you – the teenager having a screaming argument with her boyfriend on her cell phone and moving erratically.  The trucker who is bigger than anything else on the road and lets his size compensate for the fact that he’s been up for 20 hours straight and is driving like crap.  The middle aged man texting with his mistress while he steers his luxury sedan with his knees, lost in a fantasy that doesn’t involve a grouchy wife and 3 mouthy kids who stubbornly refuse to shut up and do what they’re told.  Bubba in his lifted oversize pickup who might ride dirtbikes on the weekend and let you by with a wave and a smile… or might take out his frustration with his dead end job by casually swerving in front of you.

The whole thing was just ever so slightly terrifying. And since fear can help keep one alert, he figured that was a good thing. Still, if there was an undercurrent of fear the dominant emotion was unbridled joy and exhileration.

As he wove through traffic, Gary couldn’t help smiling as the stress of the day fell away. The rush of acceleration, the subtle dance as he scanned for hazards and deftly avoided them, and – most of all – the knowledge that she was waiting for him at the other end of the ride.

The Peter Principle

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There are managers who you like and even learn from, people who make you feel motivated and excited to be part of a team and who lead by example instead of relying on threats and bribes.  And then there are managers like Roy.  He’s not a bad guy and was a decent engineer, but some people should never be promoted to management!

Robin was trying very hard to be diplomatic and failing miserably.  Roy had been a great programmer and when their boss had retired everyone assumed Roy would be the obvious guy to take over as Team lead, but his skill as an engineer had completely failed to translate into skill leading a group of engineers and he was floundering.  Everyone knew it, including Roy, and his panic at suddenly being bad at his job had made him defensive, which of course only made things worse.

She wasn’t trying to be critical, but things were quickly turning toxic and she wasn’t thrilled to have to contemplate looking for a new job.

Have you ever heard of the Peter Principle?

Jeanine had briefly studied organizational theory before dropping out of her grad program when she had her first child.  Having a career and building a human was all the stress she could handle.  She’d been talking about going back for most of the decade since.  In the meantime, she kept up with the field as best she could by reading on her own and finding excuses to talk over the ideas with friends.

Ok, so basically this guy Lawrence Peter argued that in most human organizations people get promoted based on their competence at the job they were doing previously, not based on how they’d perform in the job they’re getting promoted into.  Which means that over time, everyone who climbs the ladder will eventually get promoted to their position of incompetence where their inability to perform prevents them from advancing further and every large organization that doesn’t actively take steps to prevent it will end up being run by incompetent people.  It’s a side effect of the fact that our brains haven’t adjusted to moving out of a hunter gatherer society where it made sense to have the best hunter lead the hunt.

“So what you’re saying is it’s not Roy’s fault that he sucks at his job and I should just blame biology?”  Robin was obviously skeptical and her laugh dripped with sarcasm.  “Roy doesn’t need my pity, what he needs is a crash course in basic management skills.”

Robin stopped to take a sip of her beer.  It had been a long week and even without an incompetent and defensive manager she’d have been tired.  Her relief at it finally being Friday night was palpable and, as much as she enjoyed spending time with Jeanine, what she really wanted more than anything was to curl up in a comfy chair and read a book.  She started to make an excuse and stood up without looking behind her, and bumped into a couple guys who were walking past.  Robin apologized reflexively as she turned around and was surprised to find herself looking up into a face she recognized.  It took a second to click and then

John!

He laughed at her surprise and she tried not to let the way the crinkles around his smile made her feel register on her face.  They had talked a bit on skype after that first initial meeting, mostly work stuff but occasionally veering off into personal lives, music, sports.  All the standard  small talk.  She thought he’d wanted to ask her out but he never seemed to work up the courage so bumping into him here was as unexpected at it was pleasant.  He’d come out to Oakland from the city to meet a friend, Charles, who he promptly introduced.

Sorry, it looked like you were about to leave,  I didn’t mean to bump into you I should have been watching more carefully…

Oh no!  Nothing to apologize for, I walked into you.  Actually I was just going to get up and get another round.  Want to join us?

The two men looked at each other and it was Charles who spoke first.  “Actually, that would be just about perfect.”  Jeanine quickly chimed in “Well I’m glad that’s settled then!  You two go get us a pitcher” as she playfully shooed them away and motioned Charles to come sit by her.

John pushed through the crowd, Robin following after him, trying her best to not to make the fact that she was staring at his butt overly obvious.  She failed.  He didn’t mind.  It was a good night.

It’s a start

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Getting older is one of the few inevitable’s in life., and yet it’s a constant source of surprise.   I still can’t quite wrap my head around how fast the years since have gone.  9 years in a failed marriage, a house that my ex kept, a pile of songs no one sings on albums no one listens too.  And now even my career is falling apart.  I’ve failed at literally everything I’ve ever cared about.

Grant took another sip of his beer and stared straight down at the table, blank faced.  He was in one of his depressive moods and thought he was being philosophical and honest but as far as the rest of the world was concerned he was just wallowing in self-pity.  Jared looked across the table at his friend and raised his eyebrow.

Snap out of it man.  There’s a difference between failing and not having succeeded yet.  Everyone who knows you respects you – you have courage and integrity and you’re smart.  No one else would have walked into Mark (their CEO)’s office after a major product launch and told him the direction he was taking the company was wrong and would bankrupt us.  And I can’t think of anyone else who could have convinced him he was right.  That takes guts.  You should be proud of yourself, not crying into your beer.

Depression aside, Grant was one of the smartest people he knew and it hurt Jared to see his friend hurting.  If they were women they’d have probably cried it out over a bottle of wine.  Being guys, beer and hearty slap on the back would have to do.  Grant laughed bitterly in response to his friend’s attempt at comfort.

Sure, guts or a reckless disregard for my own career.  I never got the fancy title but I poured plenty of blood and sweat into that company!  And while Mark may have agreed with me and thought my ideas about how to turn things around were worth claiming as his own, that didn’t stop him from firing me for standing up to him.  That makes confronting him a pretty bonehead move for a smart guy.  And what do I have now?  I’m 36 in an industry dominated by people a decade younger than me and I spent the last 8 years so focused on work I’ve let everything else that mattered fall by the wayside. Who’s going to hire me?

He paused to take a deep breath and a long pull of his drink.  Jared wasn’t about to let him go down this road and took the opportunity to jump in.

Grant, what in the hell are you worried about getting hired for?  You’re a born leader if you’d just stand up and lead.  The valley is flooded with venture capital going to stupid ideas from inexperienced people with little or no chance of success.  It’s about time we stopped taking orders and started our own company.

We?  There’s no we here Jared, you’ve got a 2 year old daughter at home and I know Sharon isn’t going to want you leaving a reliable job to start a new company…

Yes we!  I’ve already talked to Sharon about it. I have some savings and this isn’t entirely altruistic.  You know I’ve wanted to start something of my own for ages but I don’t have a head for business.  You do.  I need you on this as much as you need me.  Besides, without you around to keep Mark in check they’ll be out of business in six months.  So are you going to sit here feeling sorry for yourself or are we going to hash out some ideas and put together a business plan?

Grant sat for a moment, thinking.  He finished his beer in one pull and pushed the glass to the side, pulled his tablet out of his bag, and opened up his notepad app.

Alright man, let’s do this.  What are you thinking?

Jared took a second to drain his beer and wave at the waiter for another round and started explaining his idea.  By the time the bar closed 5 hours later they had a solid idea of their product and where to start coding.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start.

For God and Country

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The sound of artillery was thunder, earthquakes, and every bad dream he had ever had as a child rolled into one.  A sound more felt than heard, it made his bones ache as the vibrations poured through him.  He had never particularly wanted to be a soldier, but when you are a young man with no prospects in a nation at war it’s hard to avoid the front lines.

Sy had no real conception of the enemy – he had rarely left the settlement where he grew up before joining the army and the natives were invisible behind the wall.  The land had been barren, inhospitable, and it was only when the Settlers had arrived that the desert started to bloom.  They had fled fear and persecution in a hundred lands and come here looking for peace, only to find themselves attacked and locked in an endless war.  Growing up he had heard the stories so many times he knew them all by heart.  They had won this land with their blood sweat and tears and he had no intention of letting some barely-civilized savages take it from them.

Watching the shells fly overhead and slam one after another into the wreckage of the city ahead, Sy felt himself growing more and more certain that he was doing the right thing.  The alternative was not even worth considering – no matter what those softhearted fools in the Korridge party said.  How could they preach disarmament in the middle of a world that wanted nothing more than to drive them all back into the cold dark of space to wander for who knows how many years until they found a new home?   And while the war might be messy, it was nothing compared to the damage humans had inflicted on this world in the centuries before the Jorn had arrived – it would take decades to undo the damage these primitives had done to the ecology.  They didn’t deserve a planet like Earth, their actions had proven it.   This world would be a new homeland for the Jornish people, and if the Humans didn’t like it they could go somewhere else!

Outside the walls, Caleb huddled in the wreckage of a hospital and watched the shells come down, pounding the remnants of the city into rubble.  Houston had never had the most hospitable climate, but with those alien bloodsuckers sucking all the water into their settlements and poisoning everything else, farming was impossible and the travel restrictions on human movement made trade almost impossible.  In order to eat, humanity was left scavenging from the wreckage of human cities or from the waste of the Jornish settlements that had displaced them.

America had first welcomed the refugees – those damn liberals had insisted that it didn’t matter whether they were human, they were sentient beings in need of shelter and their technology and know-how could only make the nation stronger.  But the refugees kept coming, and when congress had tried to limit the influx they had ignored the rules.  Worse, there was no way to stop them coming – how can you stop immigrants who can simply drop from the sky and land anywhere they like at any time?  The air force had gotten involved and – after one too many confrontations – someone had opened fire at a Jornin dropship.  The response was instantaneous.

Within an hour every capital city in the world was in ruins, bombarded from space by the warship no one knew was waiting there.  Within six hours the governments had fallen apart, military installations turned to rubble.  Within six days the Jornin militias, armed with weapons from their ship, had wiped out all organized resistance.  Still, the human spirit is strong and in the 60 years since, the disorganized resistance had never yet let up.

They had no real hope of winning.  What can guns and improvised rockets do against plasma cannons and artillery that can level entire city blocks?  But they were going to keep fighting anyway, make the monsters pay for every inch.  Maybe if they made them bleed enough, made it hard enough, they’d eventually give up and go back wherever the hell they’d come from and let humanity rebuild.  It was a ridiculous notion, no one seriously believed it, but “Drive them back into Space” had been the rallying cry of the resistance since long before Caleb had been born and he wasn’t about to try and change it.  He was too busy killing Jorns.

Caleb leaned into the scope of his rifle and took aim.  It was a strange sort of weapon, cobbled together from salvaged Jornish tech and human ingenuity but it worked well enough.  They were preparing for another ground offensive, lured out from behind that damned wall by the humans home made rockets.  The rockets couldn’t do much harm – nearly all of them were intercepted before they could hit anything, but it made the bastards angry and when they got angry they swarmed.  He signaled his men to take up positions around the bluff and waited for the enemy patrol to approach.

They were silent.  Hours passed.  Finally, the Jorns moved into range and the trap was sprung.  Rifle fire picked off the two rearmost in the column before their friends realized they were even under attack.  As the second body fell with a thud, they realized they were under fire and rushed deeper into the ravine to escape the enemy they thought was firing from outside. Caleb hit the  detonator and a home-made mortar pointing out from the back of the ravine ripped through the enemy squad as his snipers rained fire down on the enemy below.  It was a bloodbath, perfectly executed.  As they last Jornin soldier fell and his men cheered and rose from their positions, Caleb took a moment to reflect on a job well done.

The enemy artillery shell took him entirely by surprise.

Sy looked down at the human trooper, pinned unconscious under the rubble and kicked it in the head.  How could anyone seek peace with monsters like this?  These humans had no empathy, no souls, they deserved no mercy.  Captain Mek had been a hard ass but he was a good man, a soldier of Jorn, and he had helped Sy pull it together when he was a new recruit who didn’t know his cleck from his blaster.  And now this good man lay dead, surrounded by the bodies of his men.  And this human – the sole survivor of the shelling that had followed the rapid extinction of A squadrons life monitors, was responsible.

Sy kicked him again, and again, first in the groin and then in the face.  The savage stirred.

The world was black, no light, no sound, only pain and the deafening ringing of his burst eardrums.  Caleb had the faint idea that he was being kicked, but that couldn’t be right.  No one can kick you when you’re dead, or at least if they do you’re not supposed to be able to feel it.  The blow to his face sent ripples of pain through his wrecked body, and he decided he must somehow still be alive.  He looked up at the alien raining blows down on him and cursing in that weird clicking language of theirs.  If his jaw hadn’t been shattered he might have smiled.

“For god and country, for earth” – he’d decided on the last words years ago but couldn’t form them with his face in tatters.  Instead he settled for extending a single middle finger on his unbroken left hand and activated the explosives in his vest.

The explosion ignited the vests on his squadmates corpses, leveling the canyon and every Jorn in it.  If he’d still been alive to hear it, Caleb might have smiled.

The cold silence of the desert rang out across the blasted ravine, with no one and nothing left alive to hear it.  A defeat,  a victory, a moment of peace.