Raymond awoke, as he had each morning all week, in the stranglehold of despair. After repeated, time-consuming failures to comfort him, Asher lost patience.
“You wanted to experience something authentic? Well you got it. Stop placing the poor and downtrodden masses on a pedestal; they’re just like everyone else, Raymond. You think the MBs are bad? Well they aren’t horrible because they’re privileged; they’re horrible because they’re normal human beings. The privilege just amplifies how intolerable they are because it projects over a wider range. The crack fiends, the prostitutes, the child laborers and soldiers; the suffering and the oppressed you’re so fond of idealizing are only human beings. You’re delusional if you think these people possess some special knowledge or insight as a result of their suffering. Sorry to break it to you, but they’re just as horrible as the MBs. The only way we’re going to make the world better is by creating a system that can minimize the impact of the horribleness the average human inflicts on everything they touch. So I’m sorry you lost your sacred cow, but you need to move on.”
Raymond noted the change in Asher’s tone. Gone was the joviality and inspiring confidence; supplanted by hard-nosed pragmatic realism. The shift frightened him. Was Asher utilitarian now? If so, Raymond worried what he could justify in pursuit of restructuring humanity in his image. What could be sacrificed in the name of pragmatism and The Greater Good?
Raymond fretted silently over this divergence in Asher’s normal outlook while putting on a brave façade for his harried companions.
Each member of the collective entered a state of hyper-productive activity, and in doing so withdrew emotionally. Chandra set up a lab in the perennially empty Red Roof Inn Grande Ballroom, providing plenty of space to continue the NFVS experiments. Asher regained a measure of his former vigor, albeit with a new fuel feeding his passions. His mind was bent on finding a political system capable of coping with and accounting for humanity’s fatal flaws. Working without sleep for days, he informed the others he was crafting a new treatise that would revolutionize human civilization. Nico was engrossed in an intensive training regimen to prepare for her upcoming performance at APACT, which would serve as the ribbon cutting for her entire venture.
Nico was more proud of “The Anacostia Ballet Company Presents: An Off-Season Nutcracker” than anything she’d ever created. It was the fulfillment of her long-suppressed aspirations. She’d always done what she thought was the right thing to do, which was usually not the thing she desired for herself. Those desires had been consumed by her commitment to only use her privilege for worthwhile causes. The success of those causes, however, had never truly fulfilled her. Here, with the opening of this theater and revitalization of this neighborhood, her desires and what she understood to be the morally righteous course dovetailed.
Raymond’s depression weighed on Nico as she peered over the precipice of her triumph, but she believed he was strong enough to find his own way if she was with him as support. She told herself that in these volatile times a new cause or project was bound to come along that would jar his psyche out of its torpor.
As part of the promotion campaign for the show, Nico scheduled an interview on a popular morning talk show. She scheduled herself to appear the day before the performance as a final injection of media buzz. The host of the program, noted puff-piece enabler Barbara O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith, was known for her passive demeanor and unique ability to make any authority figure look their best. She was the go-to media personality for public-relations rehabilitation campaigns for recently-sober actors, post-scandal politicians, and contrite, ego-maniacal dictators. This juicy line-up made Wake Up! With Babs! essential viewing for the average office worker.
Nico arrived on set for the live interview early. She made a regular habit of showing up to her television appearances with plenty of time to ease into her surroundings.
The pre-television enhancement process began with Nico being shunted from station to station preparing her look to match what a human appearing on television is supposed to look like. Nico thought about Dr. Demasters’ thoughts on the subject of image tailoring, but even a brief glimpse of the man in her mind left her feeling bitter. She’d ignored the sage wisdom of older men telling her what she could or could not do for most of her life, but this felt different. Dr. Demasters was a man she’d grown up reading and respecting. It was of little consequence; Nico thought as a stylist rearranged her hair, she’d change his mind through successful results. Let his inaction be his shame.
Mrs. O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith emerged from her dressing room to greet Nico five minutes before air time and informed her that the show had started a new segment in which they took questions through calls and tweets from the audience. The host insisted that the segment had proved immensely popular. Nico agreed to the segment, but also made it clear she had no intention of answering personal questions.
Nico and Mrs. O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith settled into their bright-red half-egg chairs modestly tilted towards one another on the periwinkle carpeting of the set. At the two minute warning, the crew scurried around making their final adjustments to create their intentional projection of reality. The show’s older-than-you’d-think host was coifed in a well-tailored pink pantsuit complete with white gloves, a pearl necklace, and a pink pillbox hat. The outfit could have been considered staunchly conservative if not for the extremely low-cut neckline on the pantsuit, revealing what felt like an oddly high percentage of the woman’s sternum. Nico quietly thought she looked like a caricature artist’s rendering of a nouvelle-vague Phyllis Schlafly. The large digital clock near the camera reached zero and Mrs. O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith transformed into a television host.
“Good evening, lovely viewers! I am your host Barbara O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith and this is Wake Up! With Babs! Today we’re privileged to have with us Ms. Nico Leftiè, founder of Leftiè’s Luxury Suites for the Temporarily Monetarily Disinclined and sole heir to the Leftie Empire. She joins us to discuss her most recent project, the revitalization of one of the most dangerous urban areas in America, the Anacostia district of Washington D.C. Ms. Leftiè, welcome to the program. I have to start by asking, why did you decide to move forward with this project?”
“Well, Barbara,” Nico said through the filter of her elegant public persona, “As with my LLS initiative, I believe in helping people help themselves. Sometimes however, we need to first demonstrate that help is even possible. It’s our responsibility to remove barriers blocking progress so that people have more opportunities to be the person they want to be and contribute to the world in the way they want to contribute. That’s what this project will do.”
“Oh that sounds simply splendid! It’s so refreshing to see the leaders of our communities taking an interest in charity work that helps the less fortunate! There are those who say your charity projects hurt your quarterly earnings reports. How would you respond to this charge?”
Nico smiled charmingly, “These rumors are flat-out wrong in the same way they were wrong when the same people predicted a net loss after the LLS campaign. Our investments continue to excel, despite the dire warnings of the doomsayers. If they spent half the time they spend fear mongering and shorting stocks creating their own projects, we might not be in the economic mess we’re in today.”
“Oh my! Strong words from Nico Leftiè! Before we turn the questioning over to our lovely viewers, I want to ask about your love life. You’ve always been notoriously secretive, but you’ve also been linked to a few famous names over the years. We’ve heard scattered rumors of some mystery man you’ve been seen with over the past few months. Who is this handsome new beau?”
Nico, shocked the banal host was violating a basic tenant of her non-confrontational program, struggled to maintain her assumed composure, “I’m not particularly interested in discussing my private life. But thank you for asking. Now if we could turn back to the Anacostia project…”
“Not even a hint?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think this is a relevant subject, let’s move on, shall we?”
Looking to her producers, who were apoplectic at her ad-lib probing, Mrs. O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith changed tact, “Oh well. Let’s go to the phones then! We’re getting a lot of interest in your project, Ms. Leftiè. Here’s Joe from Denver with a question on investing. Joe, you’re on the air! Go ahead!”
A crackling, tinny voice filled the studio, “Hello? Should I talk now?”
“Yes Joe,” the hostess replied, “You’re talking to us now. Please ask your question.”
“Okay, thanks. Ms. Leftiè, I understand you invest in worthy projects around the world. I currently run a small knife sales company based out of Denver and we’re looking to expand our sales area down to Colorado Springs and Pueblo. All we need is around $100,000 to set up a basic…”
“Joe, do you have a question?” Mrs. O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith asked in a noticeably harsher tone.
“Yeah, hold on, sweetheart. Anyways, we just need $100,000 for movement costs and an increased…” The phone abruptly cut off
“Rats! We seem to have lost Joe there. While we try to get him back we’ll move on to the next caller! This is Diane from Massachusetts with a question about investment.”
Nico looked peevishly from the serene hostess to the panicked producers, now curled into fetal positions just off camera.
After four mysteriously disconnected calls discussing exciting investment opportunities, the hostess finally announced, “Our next caller is Christian from right here in D.C. with a question on your dance career and future plans, Christian?”
“I’m here, Barbara.” A pleasant voice responded and Nico smiled with relief.
Mrs. O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith continued, “Please go ahead with your question.”
“Happily,” the voice responded, “Ms. Leftiè, how are you?”
“I suppose I’m doing fine, how are you?”
“Very well, thank you. It’s nice to talk to you again, by the way.”
“Again? I’m very sorry, but I don’t remember meeting anyone named Christian recently. I apologize. Where did we meet?” Nico spoke with a growing unease as she looked at the leering face across from her.
“Yes, Christian, where did you meet Ms. Leftiè? Please tell us,” Mrs. O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith trilled.
“I’m surprised you don’t remember your humble waiter from Busboys and Poets. It was such an eventful meal.”
Nico stood up in shock, but quickly regained her senses and retook her seat. In the calmest voice her terrified mind could muster, she responded, “Yes, I’ve eaten at Busboys multiple times. It’s a great spot. I’m sorry I didn’t remember you. Now, unfortunately I have to be going to…”
Christian cut in, “You’re right; you’ve eaten there, which is nice to know. But even more interesting is who you were there with. Now if I remember correctly on that specific occasion you were in the company of my former coworker, Raymond Clock.”
Nico maintained a stoic, inscrutable countenance. Mrs. O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith did not follow suit, but rather exclaimed in a faux-shocked, high-decibel tone, “Oh my! Is that known SVC terrorist, Raymond Clock?”
“The very same! When I knew him he was serving at Busboys. Something always seemed a bit odd about him, but I had no idea of the true depths of his perversion.”
“That’s enough! I’ll not sit here and listen to this nonsense. I came here to discuss an important project with the potential to help develop our most in-need communities, not gossip about someone I barely knew with some random people!”
“Ms. Leftiè!” the WASP-y host was hyperventilating with sudden outrage, her face contorting into the universal grotesque of vehement moral certitude, “The SVC threat is real! And we here at Wake Up! With Babs! have confirmation from another source who saw you in the company of both Raymond Clock AND Asher Rose, illicit lover of THE Chandra Sen.” When she used Chandra’s name, the host spat on the periwinkle carpeting.
With surreal calm, Nico looked to the producers and said, “I need you to remedy this situation right now.”
The frantic men cut the feed and tossed up a rerun of Mrs. O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith interviewing a pack of ocelots.
“You’re fired.” Nico informed the disturbingly gleeful Barbara O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith.
With that, Nico stormed out of the building with half-a-dozen network executives executing an impotent mobile kowtow behind her.
She entered her car in a fury, but after the door closed her mind turned inward.
As her driver navigated the complicated, meandering route to the first safe house/vehicle transfer site, Nico’s consciousness berated itself for its naiveté. She’d been so focused on the success of her project she’d lost sight of other events swirling around her.
This had always been her weakness, she admitted to herself in the backseat. Whenever she pursued a project her mind was so intensely bent towards the triumph of completion that she disregarded parts of the unique contexts she found herself within. Nico justified her exclusionary mindset with a truth; her projects had the end goal of systemic change, however eventual or gradual that change might be. The scale of the work, coupled with its social development roots, allowed her to feel satisfied that she was doing everything in her power to fulfill her obligations to humanity.
“Now, but now, what does this mean?” her mind asked. If DeMasters was correct, and if exposure led to the devastation of Anacostia by the anti-SVC hordes, she’d failed and, in fact, acted as a destructive force within the march of human progress.
Nico had made a mistake. She’d been warned by a demonstrably intelligent person, a person she respected, and chose to ignore the advice. The blame lay with her, and she must accept the consequences.
However, Nico thought as her vehicle sat idling in midday D.C. traffic, if she took this defeat as the end of her career and retreated from her attempts to improve the world, she’d be an even greater failure. While it was her initial impulse to give up on the world, withdrawing in wounded and aggrieved bitterness, she couldn’t accept this as the best course of action. Even if each of her projects failed spectacularly, she couldn’t justify ceasing their creation. Instead of failure serving as a stimulus for the cessation of activity, she thought to herself happily, her failures should act as a stimulus to try harder. Mistakes only increased her debt to society.
This is where DeMasters is wrong, Nico thought. Failing and giving up on your society as hopeless was foolish. Society may be hopeless, but it was their society and they, each and every human being, had an absolute and unquestionable obligation to improve it as much as was within their power.
It was late evening by the time Nico stumbled into this line of thinking. Her car had just reached Anacostia, having had to shake two or three tails and endure an assault by an angry motorist who decided to discharge a firearm into her windows rather than file a formal complaint as the professional car’s bumper sticker recommended.
Nico first noticed the glow of the fire as she was crossing the river. Smoke undulated across the orange sunset in graceful plumes, each column building on another as they soared and dissipated into the atmosphere. As the car crept further into the ravaged district, the sky was filled with the ashes of her work eddying around and through the blown out windows of the car. Their pace slowed to a crawl as they picked their way through the torch wielding mobs and flaming rubble.
Nico remained hidden, huddled under blankets in the backseat and quivering with a fear she told herself emanated from a concern the mob would further inconvenience her unflappable driver by igniting the vehicle. As Nico rested face up, covering everything but her sight, she witnessed the crimson flames licking the remnants of the sign outside the APACT, emblazoned with the fading words “Anacostia Ballet Presents.” She felt a moment of weakness watching the fires consume her dreams and acknowledged a resurgent desire to quit this disquieting state of caring about society.
“No, I’m not finished, and I never will be.” Nico whispered to herself.
“What’s that, Ma’am?” Her driver called back.
“Nothing, Bill. Just talking to myself. Are we almost there? I can’t tell from here.”
“Yes Ma’am, we’re here,” Bill replied, bringing the vehicle to a gentle stop, “But it looks like they got the Inn as well.”
“I see, well let’s pull around back, into the side alley there,” Nico pointed, sitting up and instructing him calmly,
“Yes Ma’am,” Bill replied again as he slid the vehicle into the opaque air of the smoke-filled alley.
High-powered beams of light hit the billowing wall of gas and disappeared into its density barely four feet from their source. The encased machine crept through the suffocating, shifting blackness, eventually finding the corner of the building where Nico ordered Bill to stop. She ran out of the car and into the burning building. There was no sign of Nooroozeleff, Jackqualenya, or any others from the sparse staff in the flame-filled lobby. The stairs, though alight, seemed stable enough to bear her weight. She vaulted up their length and rushed down the hallway to the two rooms the group occupied. Bursting through the roaring flames, Nico called Raymond’s name.
Stepping out next to her from inside a coat closet near the entrance, Asher replied placidly, “It took you long enough. Your shirt’s on fire.”
Seeing the truth of his words, Nico promptly stopped, dropped, and rolled. Unfortunately, the inferno cure-all proved ineffective on this occasion as the surface on which she was dropping and rolling was also on fire.
“Nico? What are you doing? Let’s go!” Raymond called, following Chandra and Asher out from the cramped, choking space.
The entire group, their clothing aflame, fled from the building to extinguish the remnants of their tattered and charred outerwear on the non-blazing concrete.
“Sorry, I was trying to be as discrete as possible in my route home, but I guess it didn’t really matter…” Nico apologized for her tardiness. “Why in heaven’s name were you all in that closet?”
“We were in a bit of a panic after your interview. The mobs came too quickly.” Chandra explained.
“Didn’t you have your go-bags packed? We could have just met at the safe house! I just came back here to see…”
Asher replied in annoyance, “Of course Chandra and I had our bags packed. It seems our friend Raymond, however, thought we were safe and eschewed that particular area of preparation.”
“Hey, look, I already apologized at least a dozen times back in the closet, I just thought…”
Laughing wearily, Asher cut him off, “Whatever, I’m joking and it doesn’t matter anyways. We need to go.”
They stumbled over to the idling luxury vehicle and loaded it with their charred luggage. Happy to be actively fleeing rather than passively hiding, the group set off. However the car had not moved more than five feet before a figure emerged from the obscurations, caught in their headlights like a protruding rock maliciously intent on scuttling their ship.
“Excuse us,” Bill the driver called through the shattered windshield.
“No. You are not excused,” A deep, trembling baritone called back.
Recognizing the voice, Raymond leapt out of the vehicle, “Dr. DeMasters! You need to come with us to our safe house! We need to get out of here!”
“I won’t be going anywhere and neither will you,” DeMasters answered coldly, moving closer to the vehicle, his features increasingly visible and amplified into bizarre, shifting proportions by the chaotic lighting.
“I…But we need to get out of here!” Raymond repeated in confusion, “I understand you’re most likely extremely upset and disagree with the course of action we decided to take, but we can debate that point later! We have to go before they find us!”
DeMasters roared back, “Sometimes I wish violence still existed so I could rip you apart myself. You’re filth! You’re do-gooder filth destroying lives without regrets, justifying your mistakes, and then moving on to the next ‘worthwhile’ project. You don’t care the people you left behind are real. Real, breathing, living people who you’ve destroyed with your mistakes and experiments. You don’t understand that when you miscalculate on this scale, people suffer. This isn’t just some philosophical discussion in a classroom. But you don’t care, because all you’re really after is a way to justify an increase in the size of your own ego.”
Nico stepped out of the vehicle, “Now, look, I understand we made a mistake, but if we stop trying now…”
“You!” Dr. Francis DeMasters screamed, overcome with a blood rage, overwhelming his senses as he lunged forward; reverting to mankind’s natural state.
Raymond, who, intellectually, knew nothing could come from this; whose brain understood, mechanically, that Dr. DeMasters could not inflict any sort of violence on Nico whatsoever, and who, even in a world in which violence existed, decried its use and proclaimed himself a devout pacifist, responded with his own primordial instinct and moved to intercept the rampaging social justice warrior.
“No!” Raymond called as he repelled DeMasters’ assault, shoving the intellectual backwards. Surprised by the unexpected force slamming into his chest, the great thinker stumbled backwards, off balance, tripped over the curb, and split open his skull as it accelerated with gravity and encountered the pavement.
Raymond stared at his work. He looked back to Nico, who appeared terrified. Asher and Chandra now left the vehicle, with Chandra moving over to the fallen form of DeMasters.
“He is dead,” Chandra pronounced.
“He’s dead? He is dead? Raymond…how is he dead?” Asher asked, looking around in confusion.
“I…how did that happen? I don’t understand. It shouldn’t…but…how?” Raymond was collapsing.
Chandra seized the situation, “There’s no time. Get his body to the trunk and let’s go.”
“…Yes. Yes. Okay.” Asher, still shaking, dragged the limp body containing the pre-eminent mind of their time to the back of the vehicle and tossed it in the trunk with their burnt luggage.
They loaded back into the car and departed for their designated safe-house in silence.
Raymond sat in the back of the car, driven by Nico’s loyal executive assistant, as it left behind the frenzied crowds and swelling fires. Raymond’s mind raced through justifications, but one thought dominated his mind; he’d done something irrefutably real.
 Though the performance explored the human experience with visceral, existential fear, it would be advertised as an out of season performance of The Nutcracker. With assistance from her team of world-renowned choreographers, Nico had carefully constructed her masterpiece; a work that would usher in an au courant dance movement that reflected the heartbeat of the world. The performance would begin with three spotlights centered on a closed, heavy blue velvet curtain. Then, fifteen minutes of deafening analog industrial-electronic drone music pumped out of the new, custom-made Transmission Audio Ultimate speaker system. The music would suddenly stop and Nico, dressed in a skin-tight skin-tone lycra suit that stretched from the peak of her skull to the termination of her toes, would step from behind the curtain and face the audience. She’d freeze in place for two minutes of silence, at which point a piercing, pre-recorded scream would play through the new, custom-made Transmission Audio Ultimate speaker system. The screech would act as a signal to the lycra-ensconced Nico to leap from the stage into the center aisle of the theater. From there, she would sprint out the back doors of the hall where the tech crew would be waiting to slam all entrances closed and lock them as soon as she was through. Once the exits were secured, the lights would go out and the audience would be subjected to three hours of increasingly loud harsh noise compilations in complete darkness. Cell phone collection points set up in the name of “respect for the arts” outside the hall before the show would ensure each guest who elected to participate would be as helpless and hopeless as possible. At the end of three hours of what the creative team hoped would be increasing panic and desperation, the music would stop, the lights would come on, and Nico would step out to take what was sure to be an astounding ovation from the transformed patrons.
 With violence and terror no longer an option to keep their populations in check, this last class had been an especially popular breed of guest over the past six months.
 Also putting her mind at ease on this occasion was the fact that she owned a significant stake in the building and everything in it.
 The focus groups responded more positively to the random, disjointed, often inappropriate or awkward questions asked by their peers than the prepared and researched questions asked by the professional host.