Cogito Ergo (Zero) Sum


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Scene Title Cogito Ergo (Zero) Sum
Synopsis I Think Therefore I Am (Not)
Date September 19, 2020

Five years ago there were hardly any cars in the Safe Zone.

Most residents commuted on foot or by horse down the demolished streets. Wagons rumbled along like a pre industrial revolution town in rural America. Today, the Safe Zone is looking more and more like New York, rather than a shadow of what once was. That progress is felt most palpably in Red Hook, where the streets are all re-paved and filled with steady streams of traffic. The juxtaposition of 70’s and 80’s model cars that survived the EMP against cutting edge electric cars from Yamagato Industries helps accent the income disparity in the city, but also the technological divide still ongoing.

The beat up 1984 Ford pickup truck taking the ramp off of I-278 as it cuts through Red Hook sits firmly on one side of that technological disparity. It rattles and clatters as it takes the curving ramp down onto Luger street, coming to a rumbling stop at the now-functional street lights. It’s close to 100 degrees today in the Safe Zone, and it’s days like today that remind the truck’s driver of past times; of deserts both foreign and domestic. Wars fought and lost, wars fought and won. He’d seen most of them.

Avi Epstein adjusts his truck’s rear view mirror, reaching down into the gap between the seats to pluck a cigarette from a pack wedged in a coffee holder. He lights it while waiting for the traffic to move, leaning back with one arm out the window, slapping the door of his truck to the tune of the Credence Clearwater Revival beats coming out of his radio.

An observant Jew might be celebrating Rosh Hashanah today, instead of doing what Avi is planning to do. But the Epsteins haven’t been observant since his grandfather’s time. Though when you consider the biblical name for the holiday is Yom Teruah, literally "day of shouting or blasting", maybe they do in their own way.

The light turns green.

Red Hook
NYC Safe Zone

September 19th
5:27 pm

The last few notes of Fortunate Son are blasting out of the windows of Avi’s truck as he pulls up streetside to a brownstone near the Red Hook waterfront. The truck grinds noisily when he puts it in park and cranks up the emergency brake ‘just in case.’ Flicking his cigarette out of the window, Avi takes one look up at the residence, then pulls his sunglasses off of the overhead visor and slides them on before stepping out onto the street.

A bike courier whips past Avi, eliciting a, “Hey go fuck yourself too!” from Avi, followed by a quick adjustment of his sunglasses before he rounds the front of his truck. Coming up onto the curb, Avi pauses and watches a few kids no older than ten running down the street soaking wet, maybe from a local pool. He squints against the low hanging sun, then looks down to their wet, disappearing footprints on the concrete sidewalk. Something about the way he can see them slowly evaporating makes him pause in thought. But after a moment he shakes away whatever fugue that was, and jogs up the front steps.

Out front of the townhouse, Avi raps on the door with the back of his hand. It’s been a long time since he’d come a calling like this. There’s going to be a lot to catch up on.

Elliot turns off the range as the food on the cast iron spits and sputters. He slides the pan to the side and takes a moment to lift a lemon with a spatula, nodding with satisfaction. The scent of rosemary follows him across the open space between the island and the sitting area. He steals a quick look through the curtain beside the door and puts on a bemused smile.

He unlatches the door and pulls it open, quirking his head. “Sir,” he says, “This is a surprise. Is this an ‘in the neighborhood’ visit or a ‘here’s the warrant’ visit?” He steps back, gesturing to invite Avi in.

The response Avi gives back is little more than a grunt, followed by a kick of his brows up toward his hairline. “The former, with some seasoning on the latter,” he notes flatly on stepping inside. It’s evident from the moment he walks inside that something’s changed. The last time Elliot saw Avi, he walked with a pronounced limp and wore a brace on his right leg thanks to an injury sustained during the Cambridge massacre. He seems fine now, which for a man of his age seems to be an unlikely thing to naturally recover from.

“Sorry I’ve uh,” Avi scrubs one hand at the back of his neck. “Been shit at keeping in touch with people.” He scans the foyer, leaving his sunglasses on. “But honestly, I figure by the time people retire most everyone’s had enough of my bullshit.” House calls like this simply aren’t in his nature. Avi is absolutely not a people-person.

“You ah…” Avi scratches the side of his face, “got a couple beers or something?”

Elliot shuts the door and walks past Avi through the sitting room. “I’m a solitary person by nature so I wouldn’t take offense. Though,” he says, “My birthday was last month if you were looking to join the party. Everybody’s gone home by now.”

Avi can’t help but notice an uncharacteristically calm confidence in Elliot as he reenters the open kitchen, motioning toward an armchair as he passes. “I don’t have beer, but you're just in time for grilled lemonade.” He picks up a lemon half, one of many, from the griddle and begins reaming it into a glass carafe of water.

“Spicy or mild?” he asks.

Avi laughs, awkwardly, at the solitary person comment. “Yeah you’re gonna have t’forgive me I didn’t get you shit for your birthday.” He’s not above taking a seat when invited, easing himself down into an armchair.

“What the fuck is a grilled lemonade?” Avi suddenly asks, twisting in the chair to look over the back toward Elliot in the kitchen. “What the fuck is wrong with normal lemonade, you’re sticking it on a fucking grill now? Is there a fucking piece of chicken in it?” It takes him a moment to process a second affront. “What the fuck is spicy lemonade?

Then, tongue pressed against the side of his cheek and barely a beat later. “Of course I’ll fucking have some. Just— put something stiff in it. Not spicy, god fucking knows how you quantify that.” He turns back around, sitting forward and sweeping his hand over the top of his head. “Don’t want to drink a fucking molotov cocktail,” Avi mutters to himself.

Elliot chuckles, “A fucking spicy grilled lemonade is not for the faint of palate, certainly.” in the kitchen he reams the last lemon and stirs the carafe. He muddles a sprig of rosemary in a cocktail shaker and pours the lemonade over it, shaking it briefly before straining it over ice into a pair of glasses.

He retrieves a bottle from within the island, and uses a jigger to measure the brown contents into one of the glasses. He rests a sprig of rosemary across the rim of each glass before returning to the sitting room. He sets the cocktail on the side table next to Avi, and carries the other to an opposing seat, taking a sip as he settles in.

“I’m afraid all I have in the house for something stiff is a few fingers of pre-war bourbon I may have ‘confiscated’ on assignment and only recently retrieved from a cache,” he says as Avi stares at the drink in alarmed befuddlement.

Avi makes a non-committal noise in the back of his throat, then looks down at the cocktail. “You put a piece of a fucking hedge on my glass,” he says, picking it off and setting it aside like precisely the person Elliot remembers him being. Avi is hesitant to actually drink the cocktail, swirling it around and sniffing at it like he’s an explosive ordinance dog.

“So…” Avi says without really saying anything, but that tone is unmistakable. Something isn’t good. “I really hate coming around like this. Usually when people retire, I back off. Sometimes they come back on their own, but with you I get it.” He takes a hesitant sip of the drink, expression inscrutable, then looks back to Elliot. “Family, all that shit.”

Avi sets down the drink back on the table and sits forward in his seat, resting his forearms against his knees. “That last job we took, out in California.” He presumes Elliot heard about it in the news. “We’ve got a new tech specialist, Gitelman’s…” he shakes his head, “retired.” The answer is more complicated, but he doesn’t have the wherewithal to go into it.

“Anyway, she’s been pouring over some shit we pulled out of Praxis Heavy’s systems and…” Avi makes a noise in the back of his throat and shifts in his seat, retrieving a folded sheet of paper from his back pocket. He opens it up and slides it across the table. It’s a piece of a technical dossier, unfamiliar names at the top, some Chinese-language text mixed with English. “Bottom of the page.” Avi says.

particular systems allow us a higher level of fidelity than was previously believed possible. With the research done at Sunstone lost, however, we need to fall back on older and proven systems. Project-0 remains the only other successful iteration of this design. If we are going to develop a quantum wet-network, incapable of technological hacking, we need to reopen these old project files.

Avi picks up his drink, swallows half the glass in a single go, then makes a noise in the back of his throat and looks at it like it punched him in the mouth.

Elliot reads and rereads the document, taking a sip of his drink while pinning the rosemary to the rim with one finger. He sets the drink aside as his eyes glaze over for a moment. He looks up to Avi, about to speak but interrupting himself with a chuckle. “Not a fan of Elliot’s Sour Shrub Juice? It’s better with habanero.”

“Anyway,” he says, “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I’ll have to speak to Marthe and Ames, but we’ve been anticipating this. Are you looking for a contract on this specific job or a full return to service? The latter would actually be preferable.” He drinks again, closes his eyes and swirls the glass around. “Definitely better with habanero.”

Avi squints, visible for a moment with his sunglasses slouched down the bridge of his nose. He pushes them up and takes a moment to comport a proper response. “We’re short-staffed,” is how he chooses to frame it. “We lost somebody in California, first duty casualty since the war.” He tenses, avoiding saying something. “Couple of folks retired. Things have changed.”

With a roll of his tongue across the inside of his cheek, Avi considers Elliot for a moment. “If you’re up for the work, we could use the extra hands. We aren’t all the way out in the ass-crack of Rochester anymore. Bunker’s up for sale. We have a space in Phoenix Heights now. Huruma decorated.” As if that last piece is somehow important.

“Is Wright still in the picture?” Is how Avi chooses to broach the other topic he’d intended on addressing. More delicacy, now, than before since Elliot didn’t mention her by name.

“What? Oh, yes. Sorry,” Elliot says. “Wright and family just moved to Phoenix Heights to be closer to the academy. Lottery house.” He stands, walking back into the kitchen. Pouring a finger of bourbon directly into a glass, he returns and hands it to Avi.

“Sorry to hear about California,” he says as he takes his seat, “Anyone I know?”

“After your time,” Avi says distractedly. “Most of the roster these days will be new faces to you. With Hana gone and Francois on indefinite medical leave I was left holding the fucking bag for longer than I’d like. I promoted Huruma after everything that happened out west, so she’s picking up administrative slack.”

Sighing, Avi looks awkward in his own skin. He smooths his hands over his knees, then slowly stands up for lack of feeling comfortable in the chair. He paces a little, coming to stand behind the armchair, his hands on the back. “We don’t know if there’s any more about that,” he says with a motion to the document, “than what you’ve got there. Praxis is still in a slow-motion collapse, lotta fucking litigation, but you know how corps can be. Like fucking vultures.”

Glancing over his shoulder, Avi shifts his posture. “Anyway,” he mutters, “full time or no time, I wanted you t’know we’re looking into it. But…” he dithers, straightening his sunglasses, “if Wright’s on board, two heads are better’n one. You think she’d be up for it?”

“Definitely. Do you want to talk to her yourself or should I handle that?” Elliot pauses to enjoy his drink. “I can get you her number if the former.”

Avi shakes his head. “I’m shit at this,” he admits. “You talk to her, tell her the pay scale’s gone up a little. I’ll have Huruma send you over all the paperwork and shit, and if she agrees just— Huruma’ll figure it out.”

Glancing down at his unfinished drink, Avi makes a small noise in the back of his throat. “Head over to the Bastion whenever you get a chance, make nice with the crew. It’s been a long time, and… shit’s changed, Elliot.” Avi exhales a sigh through his nose and looks back to the door. “I’m gonna take off, I just— needed to do this in person.”

Elliot nods. “Thank you for bringing it to me. I’ll stop by Bastion once I have the talk.” He stands and finishes his drink. “It’s as good to see you as that sort of thing can be. I guess I’ll be seeing you soon.”

He pauses. “This,” he gestures at the paper, “This could be really bad. Not just for me.”

Avi lingers on Elliot for a moment, then kicks his brows up and shakes his head. “Yeah,” he says in an awkward laugh. “You’re fuckin’ telling me.” That is also what amounts to a goodbye in the language of Epsteins, as Avi shows himself out.

Through the blinds over the front window, Elliot can see Avi walk down the street to his truck and get inside. The house is quiet again.

“Yes,” Elliot says. He picks up the glasses from the sitting room and moves them into the kitchen. “That is an advantage, not having to go to Rochester for work might take the edge off. Though I’m not excited to see how Huruma reacts.”

Elliot cleans the kitchen, washing and drying each thing and stowing the bottle of bourbon in the cabinet. “Do you want me to be there for it?” he asks.

Phoenix Heights
NYC Safe Zone

September 19th
5:36 pm

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“No,” Wright says, “Though, stay tapped for moral support.”

“What’s up?” Marthe asks as they clear the dinner table, “Who was it?”

Wright stacks dishes beside the sink but sets the silverware in the hot water, sighing, “Avi.”

There is a pause before Marthe says, “Oh. Not a social call then?”

Wright snickers and shakes her head “Fortunately not,” she looks over her shoulder into the living room where Ames contentedly fills her sketchbook with short, feathery bursts of color. “You know how that man is at parties. Wolfhound found something on their last mission. He’s offered me a position, apparently with a nice salary boost. On the plus side, they moved out of the Bunker to here in the heights. No need to bunk off-site.”

“When would you start?” Marthe asks, taking Wright’s hand and drawing her attention from the middle-distance to her eyes. Wright smiles reflexively.

“Soon, I imagine. Huruma will be sending some documentation to Elliot, who will ‘forward it to me’,” She leans forward, pulling Marthe into a therapeutically long hug. “You know I would do anything to protect what we have here?” Rhetorical, but still comforted by her wife’s response.

“It’s not just you anymore. It’s all of us. We’re building our way out of the dark, and when you come in the light will still be on. Always.” Marthe pulls back, locking green eyes to Wright’s blue again. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” Wright says, heaving a deep breath, “More than anything.”

“I love you too!” a shrill voice calls from the living room, “I’m out of pink though!”

Wright and Marthe chuckle, “OK, Boog, can’t have a drawing without pink,” Wright says. “I’ll see if I can find any more at the store. Elliot says hi.”

“Hi Elliot!” Ames says, holding her sketch pad up to Wright, “I’m drawing this for you but I need more pink!”

“He loves it, Boog.”

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