George wasn’t always a chronicler. It’s true that, from a young age, he watched the people, the places and the events of his life with intensity. But it’s also true that he never thought to record them.
That changed when he scavenged an abandoned notebook from his family’s dining room “stuff” drawer. In his squashed, near-geometric handwriting, a young George began to impart his immediate experience and, soon after that, his doubts, fears, hopes and questions.
George’s mother, pleased at the transformation in her solitary, reserved child, encouraged the habit. She smuggled notebook after notebook into George’s possession throughout his early years. His father remained indifferent to his youngest son’s behaviour. George’s older brother—the protege of the household—imitated his dad, but when feeling particularly vindictive he mocked the tendencies of George, a.k.a. “the runt”.
Late one Saturday evening, George’s brother tumbled into the house. Just eighteen, he was high on the popularity his athletic prowess won him and drunk on the liquor doled out at the latest house party everyone begged him to be at. The rest of the family were in the kitchen. George’s mother slaved away, completing the post-dinner cleanup. George’s father, half-empty bourbon tumbler in hand, hovered behind, berating her for an imagined sin. George was at the table, hunched over a new notebook.
He glanced up at his brother’s entrance and clocked the nasty grin on the Neanderthal-square face. George was used to such dumb malice, however, so he broke eye contact with his ox of a brother and went back to his task. In his mind, George issued the silent hope that the ox stumble on his way upstairs and break his neck.
George heard slams and bangs from above but ignored them. Minutes later, his brother thumped his way into the kitchen. A savage smile had cleaved his face apart. In his hand he clutched several of George’s notebooks. In the haste to begin a new one, George had forgotten to replace the drawers behind which all his of old notebooks were stashed. He could do nothing but sit there, nauseous with a dirty pint of embarrassment and horror, as his brother began to read aloud.
His father cackled at George’s attempts to untangle his outsider status at school. His brother howled with glee at the revelation of George’s misery during winters trapped indoors. Both father and son snorted when they learnt that George despised the family protege’s social standing and athletic prowess. But the fun ended when George’s wish that his mother flee and find a worthy, loving partner was recited.
George’s mother recoiled, as if one of her husband’s raised and threatening hands had finally struck. His brother glared, drunken glee morphing into a venomous hate. His father descended into a raging silence.
George fled. He stayed away and waited for sleep to snare his family before he crept into his brother’s room and stole back the notebooks. After collecting the rest of his archive, he went to the end of the yard, chucked the hoard in an old wheelbarrow, doused it in gasoline and set it aflame. George stood close to the blaze. Its heat eviscerated his tears and cauterised the bleeding wounds of anger and sorrow within.
After the episode, George evolved his method. He utilised a custom cipher, paired it with illegible handwriting and committed thought to page only when others were absent—often early in the morning and late at night.
The change was abrupt and it required discipline to preserve thoughts in suspended animation until a period of transcription began, but George was young. His mind was more malleable than most, his memory was formidable, and he was more stubborn than all of his peers combined. A few years later, when he became the recipient of a hand-me-down phone and laptop his practice left the analog realm and entered the digital.
The notation practice came with George to BAIL. At night, in the mornings, and during lunch, he would do what the other students did in class and in each other’s company—he added to documents, researched, archived, created, and recorded the flashes of his mind.
His room served a different purpose because of this practice. Fellow student’s rooms were homely and comfortable, a place for rest and recuperation. George’s was a command centre.
Three short shelves housed the multitude of books he’d brought with him—ordered first thematically and then in descending height order. His wardrobe and drawers hid his few folded clothes. The walls remained bare. The bed, when not being slept in, was shrink-wrapped in its duvet. His desk was the domain of his laptop. The multi-kilo hunk of metal was raised on a transportable metal stand and pushed back against the wall. A wireless mouse and keyboard were arrayed before it. His phone lay flat and on charge on the desk’s left side.
The screen of George’s laptop was split into three. On the right side, he rotated between a selection of apps and programs, depending on the necessary task at a particular moment. In the bottom left corner was a comprehensive note-taking program which he operated using custom hotkeys and macros. In the top left corner was a third party app which consolidated his public and private, one-to-one and one-to-many, anonymous and real-name communication channels.
It was Monday afternoon of the second week. All of the housemates had scoffed lunch and returned to their residence, seeking a moment’s reprieve. George had retreated to his room in order to complete a periodic info dump.
With that accomplished, he rotated through the different tabs in his laptop’s messaging app. Multiple notifications had popped up in the house groupchat, probably related to a discussion downstairs. George ignored them for now and instead opened a message on one of his private, direct, anonymous channels.
Hitler time? This message came from Kissaki, the username of a long-time correspondent.
Yep. I’m excited. replied George, whose alias on this channel was “Milv”. He thought of Alex and typed, Others are sceptical.
Stupid. If I was at BAIL, that’s the series I’d want to be at. Fuck the others.
Seen the full list then? asked George.
Who hasn’t? I might watch a few. Weird mix.
Not really. Resident profs come from the tails. Guest/visiting profs do too. Plus, series/singles correct bias of the main curriculum.
Which is? asked Kissaki.
Humanities > STEM. answered George.
Like father… What’s he like IRL?
Yes, wrote Kissaki.
Intense. typed George. Hard to read.
I can’t tell what he actually thinks/believes.
No surprise. You’re just students.
George paused. “Just students”? Were they all just underlings? George had firsthand experience of the contempt with which a teacher could treat a student; BAIL wasn’t like that. At BAIL, the roles of teacher and student were different in form and function. The relationship between the two was more horizontal than vertical.
A polite knock at the door ended these thoughts.
We’ll see. wrote George. I have to go.
HMH stream upload? asked Kissaki.
George glanced at the star emoji reply then looked at the clock displayed on his screen’s taskbar. It was time.
“Come in,” said George. He punched the keyboard shortcut that triggered all programs to save, sync and back themselves up and the device to lock itself down.
He unplugged his phone, stood and turned. The door opened. Alex hovered on the threshold.
“—to head to the talk?” finished George.
“Saw the message then?” said Alex with a smirk. Before George could explain, she spoke again. “Coming?”
“Sure,” said George.
He half-turned his back on her and stabbed a key to check his laptop was locked down. Satisfied, he pocketed his phone and moved to the door. Alex stayed where she was.
“What do you do up here?”
George shrugged. “Take notes, project work. You know.”
Alex went onto her tiptoes and peered over his shoulder, into his room. She lowered herself back down. “Why not do it at the same time as everyone else, in the same place? Then you could be with us more often. We talk about a lot of things, and it would save you having to work everything out on your own. We all help each other.”
“I see everyone’s comments and additions,” said George. “I’m on the same channels as you.”
“That’s just a fragment, though. You don’t see what doesn’t make it that far, and that can be just as important.”
George paused, said nothing.
“It’s okay,” said Alex. She manoeuvred herself out of George’s path and displayed her intent to start walking. “We’ve all got our own weirds.”
“It’s not a weird,” said George as they began down the corridor. Alex glanced at him, unconvinced. “Alright, it is. I started doing it when I was younger.’
“Tell me later,” she said, as they reached the top of the stairs.
Christopher was at the bottom, perched on the first step, facing the front door and waiting for them. He heard their descent and turned. “At last,” he said. “The others have gone ahead.”
“You know, I’m still not certain about this,” said Alex as the three of them exited the house.
Both boys looked at her, faces blank.
“The series we’re going to right now.”
“It’ll be fine,” said George. “James knows what he’s doing.”
“You would say that,” said Christopher. “You worship Barker. He could strangle me and you’d still say it was an accident.”
“He’d be doing me a favour,” replied George, as the trio made their way along the trail that led to the campus. Alex laughed again as the grin slid off Christopher’s face.
As they walked through BAIL’s woodlands, George relaxed. So far these people had set off no alarms. They hadn’t pushed him to do anything he didn’t want to do, nor compelled him to reveal anything he didn’t want to reveal. Was it time to lower his guard? To hold them off with a bent arm instead of a straight one?
Once more, they entered the largest of the barn’s rooms. It was packed. All twenty-four students were there, as were all the professors and staff, except Arty and Hendrik. A small production team milled about, making final adjustments to their equipment. Two cameras were set in the rear corners of the room, elevated to capture the speaker whilst obscuring the faces of the students.
Mary was present but not sat. She was off to the side of the room. James stood with her. After George, Alex and Christopher took the remaining seats at the rear of the room, their conversation ended and she exited.
After Mary departed, James waited, basking in the room’s anticipation. A minute later, the chatter faded. George drew out his phone and opened the necessary apps. James began to speak.
He asked the room, “When you hear the name, ‘Adolf Hitler’, what comes to mind?”
“Godwin’s law,” said a student from the front row.
“The Great Dictator,” said Isabella Bard.
“Prosperity in the present traded for prosperity in the future,” suggested Linda from the left side of the room.
“‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,’” said a boy from the front.
George heard the intake of Alex’s breath before she spoke.
“The near-extermination of the Jewish people and the desire to bleed Russia of all its resources, stealing them for the benefit of the Reich and leaving millions of people to die from the lack of basic resources in the process.”
James’ eyes lingered on her then drew away. A few more hands remained raised but he ignored them. So far, James had not moved.
“We could go on and on,” said James. He counted on his fingers. “Political agility, economic sleight-of-hand, media manipulation, unrelenting will, military audacity; we know a lot about Hitler and his life, but all these insights remain isolated. We avoid the cumulative effect.
“What is the cumulative effect? Simple. Admiration for the figure of Hitler, for what he accomplished, and pathos for the human being hidden beneath.”
George leaned forward. Alex, sat to his left, shifted back in her seat. James continued.
“In this series we’re going to change the normal order. We’re going to disregard the monster and attend to the man and his fell deeds. A tricky task, but one with consequences.”
James now began to pace. George tilted his head; only now had he realised that James used movement as a device to aid his teaching. A definite change in motion acted as a heading, the start or end of a new section of thought.
“Is anyone familiar with how historians dissect time?” asked James.
Christopher’s voice jumped into the silence. “They use eras?”
“Exactly,” said James. “Eras, ages, periods, epochs. Anything wrong with that?”
George turned to Christopher, who was oblivious to the fact that the question was for him. Christopher replied after a moment. “They’re arbitrary?”
James nodded. “You all know what I mean when I say the Renaissance. But when exactly did the Renaissance begin and the Middle Ages end? What day, what hour, what minute? As we move through the year, can we pinpoint the changeover of the seasons? Do you all know at what point you ceased being a child and became an adult?
“This is the problem with treating spacetime as a discrete process. Look close enough and its continuity reveals itself. Nevertheless, we’re forced to classify and segregate—to cut the sausage—in order to make sense of what we perceive. No different here. I’m going to refer to four caricatures of Hitler as we move through the series and its themes.
“The first caricature is Spring Hitler. This is the Adolf that was a vagrant in Vienna, a participant in the First World War, and a rabble-rouser in Bavaria. The second caricature is Summer Hitler. This is the Adolf that refactored his trial and imprisonment in the 1920s, gained control over the NSDAP, became Chancellor and took over Germany. The third caricature is Autumn Hitler. This is the Adolf that crushed the remnants of domestic opposition and unleashed a string of dazzling geopolitical and military victories that culminated in the Blitzkrieg. The fourth caricature is Winter Hitler. This is the Adolf who overextended into Russia, who saw his hold on reality slip and his dreams disintegrate.
“This first session is about the politics of the Third Reich and the manoeuvring of the man forever cemented as its figurehead. So, we’ll be focusing on Spring and Summer Hitler.” James signalled to one of the production team in the rear. “An outline of the different Hitlers should be available to you all now.”
George glanced at his phone and scanned the series’ folder. He opened the first of the links that appeared. The document was split into two columns.
The left column was a comprehensive, interactive timeline of Hitler’s activity in the different periods. George navigated down into Spring and Summer. Of the events listed, a few were bolded. George guessed these were the ones James would come back to in-lecture.
In the right column, alongside the timeline and its bolded entries, was a box which filled with short, sentence long annotations when a timeline entry was selected. Each annotation linked to external supporting material.
Such annotations described Hitler’s time lounging in Vienna as “the crucible for his immense oratory powers”. They suggested that Hitler’s transformation of his trial from “a crushing personal defeat” into an “absolute victory for himself and his party” was “one of the key glimmers of the psychological supremacy he would go on to display over others.” They intoned that Hitler’s Mein Kampf contained the fingerprint of “a master propagandist capable of measuring and manipulating the pulse of the populace at will.”
George looked around the room and monitored other’s reactions to the document. They were mixed.
“Questions before we continue?” asked James after a minute.
Alex had one, though she wasn’t prepared to voice it. George knew this because he noticed her body shift in its seat and her lips purse.
George glanced at the document again, this time at the annotation next to “15 September 1935: Nuremberg Laws enacted.” The annotation said: “Legal justification of implicit persecution of Jews and other undesirables by state-supported groups and a significant step towards state-sponsored extermination.”
George looked up, enjoying the discomfort. His eyes connected with Alex’s. For the rest of the talk, George’s smile remained hidden and his attention split. He followed Barker’s act with pleasure. At first, he believed it to be a high-level troll, but he soon abandoned that hypothesis. Barker spoke with enough sincerity, insight and conviction to change George’s mind about the grand intent of the series. In his peripheral vision, he monitored Alex’s reaction, this time with concern.
These two focal points converged when Barker asked a question—“What was the prime element that allowed Hitler’s political star to soar in the imagination of the people?” After getting no immediate response from the room he prompted Alex for an answer.
“I don’t know,” she said, seeking solace in non-engagement. But when Barker continued to press her for an answer, she consulted the timeline’s annotations and speculated. “He fought in the war, talked to the people and was at the front of the procession when shots were fired during the failed Putsch—even though, according to the linked material, he was the first to hit the floor and flee.”
James remained silent, waiting for Alex to conclude.
Alex scowled and continued. “Hitler painted his opposition as soft, selfish and indifferent to the problems of the people. But he passed himself off as a man of action willing to take risks and give his life for the benefit of others.”
Barker smiled and corrected her. “He didn’t just ‘pass himself off’ as a man of action prepared to take risks—he was one.” James’ focus drifted back to the room at large.
“An example,” he said. “Around that time, planes were new and dangerous. Anyone willing to climb into one was seen as courageous. Crazy even. Hitler flew often, crisscrossing Germany. He gave speech after speech in the towns and villages that were always considered too small to be worth the cost of direct campaigning. He did this for months on end during the election periods—which itself was an echo of a lanky, Southern-American politician who operated a few years later. Anyway. Hitler was everywhere, all the time, risking everything. The people saw that and it gave him an edge, an aura, that no other politician had.”
James asserted his admiration of the Fuhrer with vehemence as the talk continued and his conviction infected the audience. Questions soon changed in tone. They began as cousins of cynicism. By the end of the session, they were asked with the hope of establishing further clarity.
George himself was drawn closer and closer. By session’s end, he was hunched forward, elbows on thighs and hip on the seat’s edge.
The substance of the series wasn’t what drew him forward. He hadn’t lied to Kissaki—he’d come to realise that the membrane between James and his chosen persona was not only molecule-thin, but ever-shifting. George began to wonder. Was such talent a consequence of nature, nurture or torture? If he studied James closely, could he too learn how to be so spell-binding? So unknowable? So untouchable?
Like most people in the room, Alex had strained to remain impartial during the talk. Unlike the others, her impartiality had fled in a different direction. Once out of the confines of the space and away from the spell of James’ performance, the cauldron of her indignation began to bubble and boil.
Five of them—all the housemates barring Marcel, a snub-nosed, snobbish yet scruffy blonde—were spread in their house’s living room. Jessica, a girl with long brown hair, fair skin and no fear of honest observation, had made them all hot chocolates. George had chosen to take Alex’s advice and sit with his housemates after they’d returned from the boathouse. So far, he’d enjoyed himself.
“It was good,” said Luce, who sat opposite George, “once I ignored the moral aspect.”
“It made me think,” said Christopher.
“Like a slap in the face makes you think?” asked Jessica.
“That’s just his style,” said George. Certain users of the forums he frequented came to mind. Unknown and anonymous they may be, but dangle the right question in front of them, in the right way, and their thoughts issued forth with surprising force. It sometimes seemed that without a well-framed question or worthy opposition to concentrate their thinking, they could not—and would not—bother to communicate. Perhaps that’s why James was so upfront, outspoken and blunt all the time? He’s searching for an attack he can use to rally his defences.
George summarised this for the group. “James is beef-orientated. He’s not afraid of conflict. He thrives on it.”
He looked around. None of the others seemed willing to add to this. Least of all Alex. She’d been silent for most of the series lecture which followed James’, as well as through dinner. For the whole evening, she’d been fixated on her tablet. George had watched her facial expressions dance a subtle medley. Now, he decided to call her out.
“Alex,” he said.
Her eyes snapped on to his. There was something raw and intense in her gaze. George didn’t flinch, but he did admit to himself that perhaps this wasn’t a good idea. Too late now. “What did you think about it?”
Alex lowered her tablet, paused for a second, then let loose. “I get the premise of the course, though I still don’t agree with it. But I definitely didn’t like its delivery. Why was he so abrasive and aggressive? It’s like he was over-reacting against a threat that wasn’t there.” Alex went back to her tablet. “Kinda like Hitler and the Jews.”
“He’s trying to encourage interaction, engagement,” explained George.
Alex sneered but didn’t look up. “Are you sure he wasn’t taunting his audience for being less clever than him? And less cruel?”
This took George, and the others who had sought refuge in faked distraction as the exchange unfolded, by surprise. “Cruel?” he asked.
“James doesn’t just like to engage with people. He likes to beat them. And I think he likes to beat them in public, with as big an audience as possible. Gives him some weird kick.”
George’s surprise evaporated. He realised now why Alex had been so sullen. Why each time James selected her to answer a question she had become more cutting and scornful.
“Alex—” began Jessica, but George cut across her.
“He wasn’t picking on you.”
“I didn’t say he was picking on me, George. I said that he was being an ass and that he liked to humiliate people for pleasure.” A smug smile settled on Alex’s face. “It won’t be long before he picks on the wrong person. We all know he’s been targeted recently. But I wouldn’t be surprised if someone flags it up to VOS. Then he’ll have something more than the amateur troll to deal with.”
George’s surprise came back, bigger than ever. “VOS” stood for Voice of the Silent. George now looked at Alex with fresh eyes. He wondered at the extent of her association with them.
Christopher spoke up. “Question. What’s VOS?”
Alex was about to reply but George leaped ahead of her. “Voice of the Silent is a decentralised group of ‘cultural activists.’ Some prominent people support them, but the group itself is anonymous. They coordinate artificial protests and outrage mobs—online and in-person—and use them to bully people who say or do things that the powerful and influential don’t like.”
Alex laughed. George was reminded of the derisive laughs his father used to deflect the concerns of everyone but himself. “Where’d you read that, George?” She turned to Christopher. “It’s an organisation devoted to protecting the quality of civil discourse and everyone’s ability to participate in it. They move against people who build platforms and followings founded upon ideals of hate, bigotry, racism and other horrible things.”
“I think Christopher needs an example,” said Luce. “I mean, look at his face.”
George turned to Christopher. His face resembled a Gordian knot.
George glanced at Alex, to see if she would be the one to cut it. She looked right back, daring him to continue in the same dismissive tone.
Perhaps he’d been wrong to be such a sceptic? Alex hadn’t said that she was a participant in VOS’ campaigns, only that she knew of them. And hadn’t James suggested, just this morning, that removing the sense of self from dialogues like this was a way to lessen intra- and inter-personal discord? James had also talked about abandoning impartiality and entrenching the sense of self in order to increase conflict and generate light. But that didn’t seem helpful right now.
George breathed out and relaxed his shoulders, which had worked their way towards his ears. He began to speak.
“Imagine that someone doesn’t like James’ course on Hitler. They think it’s sending the wrong message, promoting fascism, whatever. What can they do? Well, the first thing they can do is say that to him, and hope he takes the message and adjusts his behaviour. But say they do that and he ignores them, or tells them to do one. What next?”
George glanced at the group. All were looking at him with interest but none were about to assist. “They could try appealing to governmental authorities, in public or in private. But free speech goes both ways. If he’s only teaching and talking and not violating any actual laws, noone will waste their time taking action.
“The person could appeal to the services James hosts his talks on. Flag his content as inappropriate, claim it violates their terms of service or policies of conduct. People have started doing that. Sometimes it works and results in a deplatform. Most of the time, it doesn’t. They’re private companies, after all, and it gets messy when they try to police their platform’s content.
“However, they’re not bound by federal law to permit anyone to say anything they want. They have the right detox their assets. But if the person is smart enough, deplatforming won’t work. They’ll have gamed the system and only bent the rules.”
Alex no longer looked at George with scorn. She now regarded him with something akin to admiration. Was she impressed with his emotional or intellectual flexibility? George looked away and continued explaining, if only to avoid dwelling on the thought.
“Or they’ll have put down their own roots and planted seeds outside the platforms that enabled their ascent. They’ll have made a play for the hearts of the fervent minority, not the eyeballs of the passive majority. And if they possess a number above a certain critical mass? Deplatforming on the major channels will be ineffective—unless it’s simultaneous and coordinated, which it usually isn’t.
“Attempts to deplatform can be weaponised by the intended target, too. An audience might decrease as a result, but evidence of the attempt can inspire an audience to become more ferocious and devoted. So their reach will probably be equivalent to—or even surpass that of—a strong presence on the normal, ubiquitous platforms. Power laws and all that.
“But that’s just a bonus. If they’ve reached a point where they can sustain their own independent platform atop a sworn-neutral provider then it can’t be taken away by an executive team of a company that either finds their ideas abhorrent or is pressured by an outside force.
George took a breath. On the exhale, he wondered at his own satisfaction. Is this how James felt when he had an audience’s attention in the palm of his hand. Is this how James felt when he talked of something he knew inside and out?
He continued. “This is what James has done with his rise on all the streaming sites and the funnelling of his audience to his own channels. And to here, at BAIL. But say our person is still dissatisfied and determined to do something about James. Then what?
“The final step—aside from giving up, or using cryptocurrency to hire a squad of hitmen—is to tender a contract to VOS. It’ll be reviewed, and if passed, posted. Then, depending on the level of interest, and depending on the funding that comes from that interest—taken anonymously—they’ll develop a campaign.
“If there’s minimal interest in the contract, there’ll be either a short and intense burst of opposition across all social media platforms, or a low level, long duration, retaliatory buzz.
“If there’s significant interest, it could be that plus a covert, hostile attack on that person’s actual assets—attempts to seize their domains, disrupt their hosting services, bring down their servers.
“If there’s a lot of interest, and a lot of money pledged, it’ll be the works. There’ll be activity on social media; there’ll be a disinformation and slander campaign—either passive spreading of rumours or active raiding and releasing of the communications of the person and those close to them; there’ll be an attempt at a hostile deplatform; there’ll be real-world demonstrations involving hundreds or thousands of protesters—all hired and paid anonymously—probably causing local, state or federal institutions to get involved.
“The aim of the all-out assault is to work up to maximal escalation within a given timeframe and sustain it for as long as possible, throwing up such a cloud of fear, uncertainty and doubt from so many directions that the person under siege has no choice but to shut down operations.
George shifted in his chair. “Of course, the longer the timescale, the more real the opposition can appear to be, and generally, the more effective it is. When it comes to such campaigning it takes time to bypass security and privacy mechanisms and cause disruption to normal operations. And money. A lot of it.”
Christopher’s jaw had slid down as George described all this.
George concluded. “Full-scale operations are rare, though. And not only that. They’re hard to detect and even harder to pull off. Most of what I said is theoretical, rumoured. I’m not inside one of VOS’ distributed cells so I’ve never seen copies of their doctrines, if they even exist, which I expect they don’t. Most of the time VOS’ activity is low-level and petty. Someone gets offended and lashes out. There’s some retaliation then everyone gets on with their lives.”
George had enjoyed expounding to the group, but their unwavering attention started to disturb him. The observer had become the observed, and he didn’t like it. He looked to Alex and pleaded for her to take the baton. Thankfully, she did.
“Full-scale operations are also dangerous,” she said. “Escalation equals visibility, so they can only be undertaken when the intervention is valid and its success is near-certain. Because if an operation like that goes ahead and fails, it’s free advertising. Free infamy. A badge of honour for the person under attack. It’s like chopping off every head of the Hydra without burning the stumps.”
Alex paused for thought. The pause stilled George’s elevated self-consciousness and an example campaign came to mind.
“There was rumour of a large assault a few years back,” he said. “The guy—some East Coast trustafarian using Daddy’s money to fund his save-humanity-from-itself non-profit—rubbed certain people the wrong way. But instead of backing down, he chose to keep rubbing, again and again and again because it got him attention and notoriety. It also made him a target. Two years on, Daddy’s money’s been bled dry, his family’s torn apart, his former follower’s now view him as a pariah, and he’s been reported as checking into a psych ward. Not a peep since, and worse, noone cares. Someone standing on a hill and falling on their sword is the new normal.”
“How did I not know about this?” asked Christopher.
“Unlike these two,” said Jessica, gesturing to George and Alex, “you go outside.” She rose from the sofa, collected the group’s now empty cups and wandered into the kitchen.
The conversation drifted away from VOS to their workload, their lectures, their retreats home and other things. Jessica was the first to call it a night. Christopher did the same soon after. Late in the evening, only George, Alex and Luce remained.
“Time for bed,” said Alex. “Today has been a day.”
Alex rose and George watched her leave, letting his eyes linger on the archway Alex had exited through. After a few moments he remembered where he was. He looked to his remaining companion: Luce’s chin was rested on her palm and her head was tilted to one side. There was a smirk on her face.
“Boys are so subtle,” she said.
George arranged his face into what he hoped was a mask of confused innocence. “What do you mean?”
“Alex. You like her.”
George attempted a careless shrug of the shoulders. “Well, yeah.”
Luce popped up, walked over to his chair and perched on the arm. She leaned towards him. George leaned away. “No,” she said. “You like her.”
“Don’t be stupid.” He stood and began to walk away.
“You’re the stupid one,” said Luce as she hounded him through the archway. “She knows.”
George turned to face her. “Luce, I’ve known you for a week and even I know you’re the worst keeper of secrets in the world. I am not talking about this. Not with you.” He made for the stairs.
Luce followed. “Your secret is safest with me. Promise.”
George stopped with his foot on the first step and turned. “How?”
“If each person tells me everything, and I tell everyone, how does anyone know what’s true?” Luce offered him an angelic smile.
George looked at her. He thought about the admirable twists in her logic and came to a decision. “Fine, Luce. You want to hear a secret? Something I haven’t told anyone?” Luce’s eyes opened wide and she nodded with vigour.
George loosed a dramatic sigh and sat on the step. He motioned for Luce to sit next to him. After she did, he continued to look straight ahead and explained. “I know what Alex thinks. But I was watching her because I was trying to figure out if she’d be upset when she discovered who I really fancy.”
“Who do you really fancy?” whispered Luce.
George tucked his chin down and slightly to the left. He clasped his hands together and looked at the floor for a second. After a momentous struggle, he raised his eyes and turned to meet Luce’s. He blinked a few times for effect and, in his softest voice, said, “You, of course.”
Luce’s face contorted. George maintained the doughy-eyed expression.
“Really?” asked Luce, in less than a whisper.
George’s doughy eyes reshaped themselves. “You’re the mistress of secrets, Luce. Work it out for yourself.”
Her brows, which had been raised, now lowered in wrath. A fist whipped out and slammed into George’s upper arm. She stood and stomped up the stairs, muttering a tirade to herself as she went.
George was still rubbing his arm as he entered his room and settled into his chair. He opened his laptop and hit the unlock sequence. He found he had a slew of notifications and messages, including one from Kissaki: How was the Hitler lecture?
HMH was good. replied George. Barker was on form. Stream hasn’t been shared with me yet. Tomorrow AM probably. Talked about VOS tonight too.
Kissaki, still awake and active, wrote back: Good to hear. Look forward to the upload. Not surprised about VOS. Barker’s on their radar.
Really? asked George.
Put it this way: there’s a chance I can be a part of in-person demo at BAIL.
George paused, uneasy. For the last few years, Kissaki had been one of the people George was in constant communication with. They shared many ideas and perspectives and were interested in the same things.
Sure, George had noticed a streak of meanness in Kissaki—he would send across certain videos or texts, or make an offhand comment that reminded George of his father and brother’s indiscriminate malice. It was never enough to make George cease communications, but it was enough to birth a shadow in the back of his mind. And it was this shadow that loomed large now.
Whilst he liked talking and thinking with Kissaki, he wasn’t sure about meeting him in person, yet alone him coming to BAIL. George liked the idea of an impermeable barrier between his online and offline life, and Kissaki was the realest threat to its integrity so far.
George replied: Great. But I doubt it’d go that far. Not enough heat.
How do you know?
Intuition? answered George.
Your intuition is wrong.
Explain? wrote George.
You’re not seeing the same streams as me. Barker is polarising his opposition. The convergence has already started.
Sceptical. typed George.
Don’t be. Barker’s smart.
I’ve met him. responded George.
To Barker, VOS = leverage.
What would he gain? asked George.
Visibility. Energy. Legitimacy. was Kissaki’s answer.
He’s not legit? asked George.
No. Still a fringe intellect.
He wants to change that?
BAIL is a means. typed Kissaki.
George wasn’t buying it. Hmm.
First they ignore you… Trust me. wrote Kissaki. Barker’s game is big.
Bigger than BAIL? asked George.
The cogs of George’s mind were beginning to whir. His endgame?
BS. typed George.
Fine. typed Kissaki. BAIL is a lamb headed for the altar.
He’d sacrifice BAIL? George wanted reassurance but he suspected it wouldn’t come.
If necessary. answered Kissaki.
For what? asked George.
Kissaki sent a shrug emoji, followed by a message: If he did, we could meet.
True. typed George. Early start. I’ll check on the upload in the AM. Night.
George powered down his laptop before a reply could come. With a sigh, he prepared for bed. On most nights, here at BAIL and at home, sleep was slow to arrive. But tonight, its arrival was delayed further: James’ actions and Kissaki’s words kept George occupied till the early hours.
George wasn’t always a chronicler. It’s true that, from a young age, he watched the people, the places and the events of his life with intensity. But it’s also true that he never thought to record them.