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Vita Nova

Chapter Text

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

-- “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop


1984

 

You don’t die.

This is the shocking thing: you don’t die, and you don’t want to die. You didn’t expect that. You’ve wanted to for so long that the sudden realization that you’d rather carry on comes as a shock of adrenaline to your system. The door to the AI Pod clicks open of its own accord (her last parting gift), and you scramble out, heave in a deep lungful of air.

The lab’s empty, of course. You expected Huey to be too much of a coward to make sure the job was finished. Still, no need for him to know that. Let him think you’re dead. Let the shame of that eat him alive.

You gather up some of your papers, a few photos, some other necessary belongings. Most of your actual possessions are in storage in England, but you’d rather not leave Huey any key pieces to the puzzle of your research.

You leave a note in the AI pod, for anyone who might open it up. To Huey: fuck you. To anyone else: here’s what he would expect you to find. And fuck you too.

You live partially because you’re not sure what else to do. Partially because, well -- it’s superstitious, perhaps, to believe in ghosts. But you always have. The AI pod herself let you out; she wanted you to live, and that’s a request you can’t ignore. Besides, part of you wants to see if that “egg” you planted in Zero’s AI ever cracks -- you want to see his world break apart. It could happen. All it’ll take is time, persistence, the right person or people to come along and see what’s waiting for them inside all of his carefully crafted and interlocked plans. Zero might not even live to see his work undone, but you derive a certain sense of satisfaction from knowing his defeat is inevitable. He is as defeated as you are dead.

You wonder if, when that happens, whoever manages to unlock what you’ve placed in the code will know anything about you. Will even wonder who programmed the monstrous thing in the first place. Probably not.

 


 

1999

 

It takes Hal fifteen years to find you.

 

DATE: 8/26/1999
TO: helen.r.hector@manchester.ac.uk
FROM: hemmerich@mit.edu
SUBJECT: Request for Assistance

Professor Hector,

My name is Hal Emmerich, and I’m a graduate student at MIT in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. I’ve read some of your recent papers and have been following your work for a while, it’s been really illuminating.

I had some questions about some work you did a few decades ago, particularly in the late seventies or early eighties, especially something you may have worked on in 1980? I’m unable to find a lot of info floating around, but it might be crucial to understanding something important.

I hope I’m not bothering you too much! I appreciate your time.

Respectfully,
Hal Emmerich

---

The sight of that name comes like a shock to your system. Your first feeling: regret. Your second feeling: rage. Old rage, welling up from deep down. Rage at whom? You’re not quite sure.

But this isn’t him, you’re almost certain. Any hope to the contrary is foolish. You left him behind; you lost him, and you don’t get what you lost back.


---

DATE: 8/30/1999
TO: hemmerich@mit.edu
FROM: helen.r.hector@manchester.ac.uk
SUBJECT: Re: Request for Assistance

Mr. Emmerich,

You are misinformed as to the nature of my projects in the early eighties. Many of them were, for one reason or another, highly classified. Few of them would be of any interest to you. I’d hate to mislead you with regard to the amount of information I’d be able to provide you and waste both of our times. However, if you have any more specific queries about later projects, I would be happy to attempt to offer some insight. Best of luck with your work.

Regards,

Dr. Helen R. Hector
Professor of Machine Learning
School of Computer Sciences
University of Manchester

---

DATE: 8/30/1999
TO: helen.r.hector@manchester.ac.uk
FROM: hemmerich@mit.edu
SUBJECT: Re: re: Request for Assistance

Professor Hector,

Not to be a bother, but are you absolutely sure you have zero information? All of my other leads are complete dead ends. Especially if you had anything about anything you were doing in July 1980, that would mean a whole lot. Sorry, I understand if it’s something you can’t talk about. I’m glad you responded at all.

Respectfully,
Hal Emmerich

---

Trust an Emmerich -- a supposed Emmerich -- to never take the hint and leave you the hell alone. It’s not your life you fear for as much as your shot at getting tenure. Dr. Helen R. Hector didn’t have any exciting research projects in the late seventies or early eighties. Dr. Helen R. Hector did more theoretical work than practical, worried more about ethics than budgets. Dr. Helen R. Hector was on sabbatical in July 1980, thank you very much.

You’d spent years making this name one you could work under, had had to reverse engineer an entire career. You hadn’t painstakingly assembled a woefully inaccurate masters thesis to be undone like this.

---

DATE: 9/2/1999
TO: hemmerich@mit.edu
FROM: lepidoptera1980@hotmail.com
SUBJECT: Further research needed to answer your query

Mr. Emmerich,

Use more discretion if you’re going to send something to my work email.

Is this some sort of joke?

---

DATE: 9/2/1999
TO: lepidoptera1980@hotmail.com
FROM: ingramfan@hotmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: Further research needed to answer your query

Professor,

Sorry!! I figured I was being vague enough.

It’s super not a joke, I promise. I mean, I don’t know if you know what I’m asking about really, haha, and I feel kinda too awkward to ask outright about the whole thing. But I’m guessing you probably recognized my last name at least, right? If I guessed right about who you are. I don’t know how to reassure you that this isn’t some sort of weird prank or something, I just really did have some questions. . . but I would understand if you wanted me to leave you alone.

-- Hal

---

DATE: 9/10/1999
TO: ingramfan@hotmail.com
FROM: lepidoptera1980@hotmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: re: questions

I’ve been doing my own research. I see that someone named Hal Emmerich does exist and is a student at MIT, though whether or not you’re him remains unclear. Don’t bother trying to prove who you are, there’s no such thing as absolute certainty. This is a discussion that will be predicated on my mistrust of your intentions.

I will email you from a different address if I decide I want to hear from you again. I suggest you give me a different email address to respond to, and then wait. You’ve waited this long, a little longer won’t hurt.    

---

DATE: 9/10/1999
TO: lepidoptera1980@hotmail.com
FROM: ingramfan@hotmail.com
SUBJECT: A different email

Professor,

I’m sorry about whatever I’ve done to make you angry. If you want a “better” email address, you can use mulder@jupiter.com.

-- Hal

 


 

 

1984

 

Doctor,

Was surprised to receive a letter from you, but glad to hear you got out of that mess alive. Sometimes I think I’m one of the lucky ones, when it comes to the people we used to be mutually acquainted with -- at least my work has done some good for my country. Wish I could help you more, but as you suspected, I’m not too great at all this cloak and dagger business. I could arrange safe travel for you to Nicaragua, but I do not think that is what you are asking for.

I have heard of someone who could perhaps help you -- a friend of a friend of a friend mentioned a woman in Prague who specializes in just this sort of thing. Attached are some directions that should help you contact her. Maybe she can help.

Best of luck.

Amanda

 


 

1984

 

“Get off your bike and fight me if you think you’re that tough,” says the man.

“I only get off my bike when I fall in love or fall dead,” she says. Nods at you. “Get on.”

Your contact -- you’re almost certain it’s your contact at least -- had roared up on her motorcycle for a timely rescue from the man accosting you, and you can’t help but be the slightest bit charmed. You’ve never been one to turn down bike rides from attractive women. And, well -- you’re pretty sure you recognize her from somewhere.

You hold on for dear life for what seems like altogether too long before she gets off her bike. “Does this mean you’re falling in love?” you ask.

“We’ll see where the night takes us,” she says, and winks.

She takes you to a bar and goes straight into a little back room like she owns the place. Which she might. “No one will bother us here, we can talk,” she says.

You have no idea what this woman wants from you. You have a few things you’d be quite alright with her wanting from you, but it’s. . . been a while, to say the least. You won’t tread that ground unprompted. “And what will be talking about?” you ask.

She sits down at a little wooden desk in the back room, rummages around for a second, procures a bottle of something. Two glasses. “Dr. Strangelove, I presume,” she says.

“An interesting movie, to be sure,” you say. “But I’m not certain of the relevance here.”

She smiles, and pours some of the liquid into each glass. Takes a sip from one and slides it to you, which means you’ve waltzed right into some espionage horseshit. Courteous espionage horseshit, if she’s willing to go to the trouble of at least making you think that she hasn’t poisoned your glass. But horseshit nonetheless. “I’m not talking about the movie.”

“Ah,” you say.

“What’re you doing in Prague?” she asks. “Last I heard, you were in Afghanistan working on something or other.”

Maybe this is some game to get more information about Zero’s operations, but if so you couldn’t care less. Whoever wants the information can have it. He can go burn. “A co-worker tried to murder me. I figured it was time I tendered my resignation.”

“Tried to murder you?” she asks. She takes another sip from her glass, motions for you to have some of yours.

You push the glass away. “Who are you?”

“A concerned party?” she says.

“Who are you? Why do you care?” you ask.

“Aw jeez,” she says. “I think we’re getting off on the wrong foot. Let me start over.” She holds out her hand to shake. “I’m Eva, how are you?”

Eva. That’s why you recognized her. One of the code breakers involved with Operation Snake Eater. You’d read the files, of course, and Snake had mentioned her too, when you grilled him for whatever scraps of information he might have that you did not.

“Charmed, I’m sure,” you say.

You shake her hand. You should be more wary now that you know who she is (more glad that you didn’t drink whatever she gave you) but instead you’re more at ease. You know the mission reports on Operation Snake Eater didn’t cover everything but they gave you enough information about Eva to know her game, know how she played it. Even if Eva had had ten years worth of surveillance on you you think you would still know her better than she would know you. You’ve studied her, the same way you’ve studied everyone involved with that incident. You know that those few days in Grozny Grad held a certain historical weightiness; they had a heft to them. They were days that meant something to someone.

“That doesn’t tell me why you’d want to talk to me,” you say.

“Maybe I was being chivalrous,” she says. “Can’t help but help a lady in distress.”

“I’m no lady ,” you say. “And I’d rather you not play that game with me. Just because you know my proclivities doesn’t mean you can manipulate me to do whatever it is you want me to do.”

You stand, turn to leave, but hear the scrape of her chair being scooted backwards. “Wait!” she says. “Please. You knew The Boss.”

You close your eyes. “Yes, I did. A very long time ago.”

“So you understand. I just want to talk to someone who knew her too.”

Which is likely a lie. Fine. “Fine,” you say. “Let’s talk.”

 


 

 

1999

 

DATE: 10/01/1999
TO: mulder@jupiter.com
FROM: aurelia@mercury.com
SUBJECT: July 1980

Tell me what you know.

---

DATE: 10/01/1999
TO: aurelia@mercury.com
FROM: mulder@jupiter.com
SUBJECT: Re: July 1980

Okay, um, well, this will be awkward if you aren’t who I think you are, but sure thing.

My dad’s name is Huey Emmerich -- I mean, it’s “Huey” Emmerich but that’s what he always went by. If you’ve been looking up stuff about me then that means that you probably saw that he died a couple of years ago. He remarried before he died, but he said that his first wife -- my mom -- left us when I was around four? He would never tell me anything about her, not even her name. And it’s not on my birth certificate either, I checked, or at least the name on my birth certificate doesn’t make a lot of sense. But he mentioned once that she wasn’t American, and another time that she was a scientist, and another time that she worked with him in the past.

So after he died, I kinda wanted to see if I could find her, if she existed. I got a bunch of his old notes about his projects, though lots are missing too. He worked on some projects involving bipedal robots in the 70s and 80s, and in his notes I kept looking for references to any coworkers he had that were women. I found some references to a Dr. Strangelove, and another note where he mentions that she was at NASA at the same time he was. So from there I just went and looked and saw who worked for NASA when my dad was working there and who did work like this Dr. Strangelove seemed to do with my dad. Not that many people fit the bill, and from there I just had to try and see who dropped off the radar for a big chunk of time in the 70s and 80s. As far as I can tell, if you are who I think you are, there’s almost nothing about you from like 1974 to 1984 that’s a matter of public record.

After 1984 you don’t reappear, but someone a lot like you does -- I thought at first that you had died, but then I got, uh, kinda desperate to believe that you hadn’t, and started looking at different journals and stuff, anyone who had been hired by certain tech companies after that date, anything. While I was doing that, I also went through my dad’s crap again, trying to see if there was anything I missed, and I found a photo I hadn’t seen before, taped to the back of a file. My father was in it, and so was -- according to the writing on the back of the picture -- Dr. Strangelove. That made it a little easier. I found an article written by someone in 1986 that seemed like you, and then something else from 1987, and then it seems like after 1990 you settled into being Dr. Helen Hector. We have the same sense of humor I think maybe, or at least maybe a little? I think I have a pretty good eye for figuring out what kinda aliases you’d use, at least.

Anyway, I really am not trying to contact you to scare you or be weird or threaten you or ruin your life or anything. I don’t want you to worry about anyone being able to find you who you don’t want to find you. I don’t know why you disappeared all of the sudden in 1984, but I don’t want to accidentally put you in danger. Or you might just not have wanted to be around Emmerichs anymore. I wouldn’t blame you. I’m not going to reveal your “true identity” to anyone or pester you too much and if you just want me to go away I can, I just wanted to know if you were real, and maybe ask you a couple of questions. I don’t have any family left, not anymore.

-- Hal


---

DATE: 10/02/1999
TO: mulder@jupiter.com
FROM: aurelia@mercury.com
SUBJECT: Re: re: July 1980

Hah! “Remarried!” Let’s make one thing clear: the woman known as Dr. Strangelove never married Huey Emmerich. Would never have. Not for anything.

Your father’s obituary mentioned a step sister: what about her? She’s your family too, right? Took the Emmerich name and everything.

---

DATE: 10/02/1999
TO: aurelia@mercury.com
FROM: mulder@jupiter.com
SUBJECT: Re: re: re: July 1980

E.E.’s my sister, yeah. But I haven’t heard from her in a while. . . I don’t think she really wants to talk to me. I miss her, but I don’t know if she wants me to count her as family.

I did kind of think that my dad was always sort of full of crap about the first marriage thing. When I was a kid I used to think that I might be a clone. That stuff you said, does that mean that this Dr. Strangelove wasn’t my mother?

---

DATE: 10/05/1999
TO: mulder@jupiter.com
FROM: aurelia@mercury.com
SUBJECT: Hah!!!

People can have children without getting married first, you know.

---

DATE: 10/05/1999
TO: aurelia@mercury.com
FROM: mulder@jupiter.com
SUBJECT: Re: Hah!!!

Well, yes, I know that! But you know what I mean.

Are you her?

 


 

 

1984

 

The wind blows in your face as you walk across Charles Bridge. The skies are overcast and the people unfamiliar and you’re once again feeling vindicated in your commitment to sunglasses as you watch everyone else try to shield themselves from the wind and that’s when it hits you: you never have to talk to Huey ever again .

Ever again! That’s it, no more Huey. Yes, you’ve lost everything and everyone you’ve ever loved, but here you are in a (new) foreign city, a free woman, about to meet up (again) with a very attractive ex(?) spy and the wind is blowing in your face and you never have to have another conversation with that man. It’s invigorating . You never have to talk to Skullface either! There’s a whole long list of men who you never have to talk to, things you never have to do. Your son is safe, there’s nothing anyone can threaten you with, you might as well -- well. You can’t make the jump to “try and enjoy it” because that doesn’t feel right after everything you’ve done. But at least: attempt penance in a less desultory manner.    

 


 

 

1999

 

DATE: 10/10/1999
TO: mulder@jupiter.com
FROM: aurelia@mercury.com
SUBJECT: Strangelove

Tell me what you remember about your mother.

---

DATE: 10/10/1999
TO: aurelia@mercury.com
FROM: mulder@jupiter.com
SUBJECT: Re: Strangelove

Not a lot. I don’t remember very much about my really early childhood, though I guess that makes sense, haha.

But I think I remember her reading to me. I don’t know what, I just remember hearing the sound of her voice. I kept trying, after I found out Dr. Strangelove was British, to figure out if I remembered a British accent, but I was worried I’d just recall it falsely. You know, project what I wanted back onto the memory. I remember her singing, I feel like I still remember some of the tunes sometimes. I remember sitting in her lap while she showed me how to put my fingers on a typewriter. I mean, that didn’t work very well of course because my hands were too small but I got to bash on the keys and I liked that. I remember showing her that I could read, and how neat she thought that was. There were constellations painted over my bed when I was little. The smell of certain kinds of flowers. Tugging on her vest to get her attention. I don’t know.

That’s about it and I could be misremembering everything and I hope it is you because this is all kind of embarrassing, to be honest.   


---

DATE: 11/20/1999
TO: mulder@jupiter.com
FROM: aurelia@mercury.com
SUBJECT: Re: re: Strangelove

Hal,

Honestly, I’m not sure what to say. I’ve been struggling for months with what to say to you, any time you contact me. I’m reluctant to confirm or deny your suspicions, I’m reluctant to establish contact with anything or anyone from my past, I’m reluctant to poke very old wounds. I’ve been stalling, which isn’t like me, and if my younger self could see me now she’d surely berate me.

I have to set some ground rules before we go any further. There are things I absolutely will not talk about over email. I will not discuss the nature of my work from 1974 to 1984. I will not discuss why I attempted to disappear after 1984. I know you want to know, but I will not. And I know you must be angry with me, but these are my terms.

I don’t know how to sign this letter. Not with Helen or Professor Hector, certainly, and I’ve left my birth name behind for so long that it feels foreign. I think we would both feel incredibly awkward if you called me mother, so instead for now I’ll sign simply

Strangelove

 


 

 

1984

 

Eva takes you in. “Least I could do for a friend of the Boss,” she says. She takes a lot of people in. She seems to be building something, though it doesn’t look anything like Snake’s efforts (well, Miller’s efforts) to build a private army. More like a band of thieves with a humanitarian bent.

“I’ve noticed that many of your compatriots here are quite young,” you say.

It leaves a sour taste in your mouth a little. Reminds you too much of Chico. Poor boy -- that ended badly for everyone.

“I don’t make them fight,” says Eva. “They don’t fight .”

“You do have a bit of a Fagin-esque streak though,” you say.

“I’m just trying to watch out for them, that’s all,” says Eva. “Not everything has to be secretly sinister. I dunno, I like to think it’s what she would have done.”

Isn’t that what you’re all always trying to do? To do what the Boss would have done. And You all have such unique ways of failing.

“Plus, hey, pickpocketing is a very useful life skill,” adds Eva, ruining your dour reminiscence.

You don’t know if what you have with Eva is real. Probably not. There’s other people you’d rather be with. But you understand each other a little.

“It’s funny,” she says after one late night together. “All three of us had to give up children.”

“All three?” you ask, though you know what she means.

“Me, you, her.”

“You, at least, knew what you were getting into,” you say.

“I didn’t, not really,” she says. “It was different than I thought. And I’d hoped -- foolish, I know, you don’t have to tell me -- that I’d be able to raise them, at least for a little while.”

“Do you think I should go and find my son?” you ask.

“I’m not sure,” says Eva. “I’m -- I’m not sure. I think she wanted to be near her son, in the end. Never told him who she was, but she watched out for him all the same. I’d like to do the same for my sons, if they’d let me. But I don’t know if I could raise them now. I don’t think either of us -- me or the Boss -- could have given our children much of a childhood.”

“I’m not sure I could either,” you say. “He’s probably better off. I sent him to some relatives -- they’re stodgy but perfectly alright. Certainly better at raising children than me. I wish I could look after my son the way the Boss did hers, but I don’t think it’s possible. She was so talented at so many things.”

“Truth be told, I had a pretty awful crush on her,” says Eva.

“On the Boss?” you ask.

“Yeah. I mean, you can’t blame me.”

“Certainly not.”

“But she turned me down pretty systematically. I was worried at first that it was because I’d misread something -- or worse, because she thought I wasn’t pretty. But she said I was too young.” She laughs. “And then I find you, and you’re, what, a couple years younger than me? But I think I figured it out -- we -- me and Snake and the others -- we were her children. She taught us, she was skilled in the same things we were, but she was better at all of them. But you knew all kinds of things she didn’t -- couldn’t -- know. You could meet as equals. The rest of us never could.”

This pleases you more than it should.

 


 

 

2000

 

He calls you “Strangelove” when you’re communicating in private, “Professor” when you’re conversing on less secure channels. You don’t really call him anything at all.

The terrible thing is, he is awfully smart, not nearly as dull witted as most of your graduate students. You’re both frightened for and jealous of his professors: he’s either a terror or a joy to watch attack a problem.

You strenuously avoid feeling anything like pride.

---

DATE: 2/15/2000
TO: helen.r.hector@manchester.ac.uk
FROM: hemmerich@mit.edu
SUBJECT: Machine learning question

Professor,

Awkward prodding about your past projects aside, I really do think that your research would be kinda highly applicable to the projects I’m working on. I hope I won’t bug you too much if I talk about my research?

-- Hal

 ---

DATE: 2/16/2000
TO: hemmerich@mit.edu
FROM: helen.r.hector@manchester.ac.uk
SUBJECT: Re: Machine learning question

Aren’t you barely in your second semester at MIT? I suppose it’s good to start thinking about what your thesis project should be, but you’re being terribly ambitious.

---

DATE: 2/16/2000
TO: helen.r.hector@manchester.ac.uk
FROM: hemmerich@mit.edu
SUBJECT: Re: re: Machine learning question

I get bored. Not much else to do, haha. Anyway, I’m wondering if I can apply a learning algorithm to a bipedal robot so it can correct for various load stresses, stances and gaits. I know there’s rumors that Honda is set to debut a new robot later this year using Predicted Movement Control but I was thinking that if I could harness the momentum of the limbs it would be more efficient and applicable on a larger scale. What do you think?

-- Hal

---

Hal feels familiar in the way flashbacks to yourself during your twenties feel familiar -- he’s disconcertingly similar, disconcertingly precocious, all but obsessed with his work. The sensible response to his queries about bipedal robots , of all things, would be to encourage him along another line of study, but he’s so refreshingly bright. You can’t be certain he’s your son, but you wouldn’t mind it if he was.

 


 

 

1984

 

You’re tempted to remain by Eva’s side. To become her pet scientist, for all you’d likely regret it later. You’re good at regret, not so good at wandering. You feel purposeless, empty, a big red sack full of dust and bile and nothing else. But you don’t want to just start the same old story again.

“Stay with me for a while,” says Eva, and you find yourself agreeing.

“I won’t make anything for you,” you say.

“That’s fine,” says Eva. “Mostly I’m looking for an accountant.” And she winks.

You laugh, but she’s not joking. The next morning she drops a heavy stack of ledgers in front of you. “There’s a computer around here somewhere too,” she says.

“I’m not one of your marks, I know you’re smart enough to do this yourself,” you say. “It’s just arithmetic.”

“Yeah, well, you need a project, let’s be honest,” she says, hands on her hips. “Just because I could do it doesn’t mean I have to. Delegation’s an important part of leadership.”

“If you say so,” you say, and crack open the first book.

That’s how you spend the next chunk of time: balancing books and doing IT support for Eva’s gang of criminals and orphans and former operatives. Eva’s caught somewhere between being a spy and a mafiosa. She does. . . you’re not sure if it’s good work, but it’s not bad either. No nuclear weapons, no kidnapping soldiers to add to her personal collection, minimal guerilla warfare for pay. You think she’s amassing power and resources for some much larger more complicated play but she doesn’t ask you to build her any monstrosities or miracles, delights more in subterfuge than shows of force.

It’s actually kind of -- relaxing is the wrong word. Reinvigorating? Peaceful? A nice change of pace. You go with some of her crew on ops sometimes, local ones, provide backup and radio support. So much different than the decades you spent locked up in one dimly lit freezing cold lab after another, alone with your ghosts and your hate.