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LaPorte Caves – Chapter 21

Written by circes_cup :: [Sunday, 16 April 2017 00:17] Last updated by :: [Monday, 17 April 2017 01:28]

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CHAPTER 21


DISCLAIMER

This story contains adult sexual content, and violence. If you are not of age to read this stuff, don’t. No resemblance between these characters and real people on Earth is implied or intended.


Honey, are you OK?”

“I’m fine, I guess.” Howard continued to stare at the ceiling. The cool night air spilled into the room through a crack in the window, carrying the WHOOSH-WHOOSH of the waves with it.

“Your skin has lost all of its color. And your mind seems somewhere else. What’s going on in that head of yours?”

“Not as much as what’s going on in yours.” He replied in the direction of the ceiling. “Everything I’m thinking, everything I’m capable of thinking, probably seems so trivial to you.”

“That’s not true honey.” Her heart ached to watch the machinations of his feeble brain. “What you think is very important to me.”

“But you’re so much more evolved than me,” he told the ceiling, seemingly unable to look at her. “Your brain is ten times faster than mine.”

Far more than ten times, Julia wanted to remind him. He had heard the facts before, but his limited male memory had clearly not retained the specifics. “Faster doesn’t mean more evolved. It’s true that I can read a book faster than you. But decision-making, discipline, maturity – none of those things are affected by Nourishment. If I see a candy bar in the checkout line at the store, I’m just as likely to buy it on impulse as I used to be.”

“So what if you do buy it?” he asked, finally facing her. “You don’t need the discipline or maturity. All the candy bars in the world and your thighs will still be hard as iron.”

“Actually, they’re harder than iron,” Julia blurted, before thinking better of it. She watched him react with befuddlement. She brushed her fingers through his hair. “I’m sorry honey, it’s just true. That’s why you need to make sure never to hit me when my muscles are tensed. You could shatter your hand.”

“Yet another nugget of reassuring wisdom,” he sighed.

“It pains me to see you so down on yourself. I don’t care how your body compares to mine. I love you.”

He didn’t react. His eyelids sagged has his gaze shifted back to the ceiling.

“Did you find the trip to the atoll restful?”

“It was nice to have the privacy.”

You never had it, she thought. Male eyes pack 150,000 photoreceptor cells into a square millimeter of retina, whereas the female Nourished eye had almost a billion. Her eyes could see at hundreds of times the resolution of his: it was like walking around with two high-powered telescopes hard-wired into her brain, always in focus, capable of revealing the world’s secrets in an instant. And she could see a far wider band of the radio spectrum, too. Even after the sun had gone down, Howard’s movements had been obvious – the way he had sat listlessly, head cradled in his arms, rocking back and forth. The tear that had rolled down his cheek. Even Mindy had been touched by the pain of his moment.

“You said you could tear my arms off.”

“I’m sorry I said that. I was just using it as an example, but it was a stupid choice. I wasn’t trying to threaten you.”

“Simply saying the words was a threat in itself. You’re the same woman that tied a bar around me like I was a turkey about to be carved.”

“You already know I’m sorry about that. I was under the influence of some super heavy hormones at the time. And I’ve learned to regulate myself better since then. It’s confusing to be in this new body. And I’m sure it’s confusing for you to be around all these changes, too. You’ll feel better after you get some sleep.”

“I’m not in the mood to sleep,” he informed the ceiling.

“I’m concerned about you. If you’re feeling down, a lack of sleep is just going to make it worse.” Diet, sleep and exercise, if handled poorly, can greatly increase the risk of suicide. But Julia didn’t say that. She just excused herself from the room and returned a few minutes later with a steaming mug of hot chocolate in her hand. It was his favorite thing to drink when he felt like shit.

“Ha. You know me too well.” He sat up and took a sip. “And this … tastes great. Where does the cocoa come from? Do they grow cocoa here?”

“Yup. Locally sourced. No sugar added.”

He took another sip. “It’s very rich.”

You forgot to ask where the milk came from, she thought. The chemistry of her body hit him like a right hook in a boxing match.

“Whhhaa …” Howard protested as his head lolled to the side. His eyes closed, shot open again, and then slowly began to droop down again.

For a man to resist her Lethargy serum was like a dandelion trying to stop a steam roller. He had no chance. In fact, it was adorable to watch him even try. Howard’s eyelids fluttered open. He struggled, valiantly, to say something. But his eyelids slammed shut again, too heavy for his milk-addled brain to handle, and his words became unintelligible. His body slumped to the side, losing control of the mug. The hot liquid began to spill onto the carpet. Julia spirited the mug out of his hands and guided his body onto the mattress.

In only moments, he was sleeping soundly. She wanted nothing more than to lay on the bed and pull him over her, like a blanket, to nestle his soft body into the safety of her curves.

But that look of defeat in his eyes – it cut into her chest in a way that knives no longer could. She had to do something to buttress his spirits.

Julia’s eyes wandered to an ornament of cut glass that hung in the window. It cast two splotches of light across the room, a bright indigo light from one of the Weald’s moons and a deeper indigo light from the other. The rich air currents of the evening made the ornament sway back and forth in the breeze, causing the two splotches of light to roam across the walls, the furniture, the door. The splotches of light approached each other, then separated, then came back together and switched places – almost as if they were in a dance.

A dance.

Julia knew what she needed to do.

==========

She slipped out from under him, stood, and pulled the blankets over his exhausted body. She marched into the kitchen with quick and heavy steps, relieved to see that the coffee pot was still on.

Caffeine had little value to her anymore, but to Julia, coffee was about more than caffeine. She had always liked the rich and nutty smell of a good cup. And now, her Nourishment-enhanced senses made the experience many times better: aromas and flavors of which she had previously been unaware now came to life, like flowers opening their petals. The first time she had smelled coffee in this land, she had wondered whether The Weald simply had superior beans. But then she found even the crap in Tony’s coffee maker had brought her senses to life. The pleasures of being Nourished indeed seemed too great to number.

Steaming mug in hand, Julia sat down at the computer in the office. A touch of her fingers set the computer to female mode, the massive, table-sized screen dividing into sixteen sections. The screen filled with text as she read several hundred pages of books, articles, and reviews on various programming languages and coding engines. Finally selecting one, she brought up a thousand page tutorial on it and read that as well.

Julia’s fingers moved over the keyboard so quickly, their sound could have been mistaken for the flutter of a hummingbird’s wings. She had been employed as a programmer back home – albeit a lackluster one – so the basic framework of the task was already well familiar to her. When combined with her new, turbocharged aptitude, the lines of code exploded across the screen. An un-Nourished human would have found the movement on the screen to be dizzying: Julia was adding twenty lines of code per second.

She would create for him a language learning program, she had decided. It would use a flashcard format, showing the native text and then a picture. Once the basic framework was in place, populating the flashcards was easy. She started with five thousand, pulling many of the images from public image repositories. With each image, she labeled it with the appropriate text and tagged its attributes so that the program could pull and sort the cards in any number of ways based upon his preferences and learning needs. Then, she wrapped it all in a slick, visually appealing format.

The creation of the software had been so engrossing, she had lost track of time. How many hours had she spent developing and refining this thing, she wondered? Julia took another sip from her mug and had her answer.

The coffee was still hot. A process that would take a normal human many days had taken her only minutes. It’s nice to be superhuman, she reminded herself.

Her mind drifted back to the light of the moon that had danced across the bedroom walls. She wasn’t done yet.

All men here get easily discouraged, Julia knew. The extreme gulf between men and women could easily intimidate the weaker sex, and Howard was no exception. Julia took a pause from the programming and helped herself to a college level class on human psychology, blazing through a dozens scholarly articles at a time. The research contained some good insights on how to structure an environment for optimal male self esteem. Howard would be most motivated if the program provided diagnostic assessments, to provide clear feedback on his learning progress. Moreover, his motivation would be optimized if his performance on those assessments observed a stair-step pattern: 70% correct on the first diagnostic test, followed by 73%, then a dip to 65%, then shooting up to 76%, and on and on. That pattern offered enough progress to keep a mans spirits high, but enough defeat to convince him that the results were genuine.

The screen erupted with more code as its superhuman operator created more than a hundred diagnostic assessments and quizzes. Then, she built the back-end architecture: a sub-program that would learn the patterns of Howard’s successes and mistakes and then adjust the difficulty of the next question accordingly. When Howard got too many answers wrong, the program would subtlety ease up on him, feeding him easier and easier questions until his score recovered. When he got too many answers right, the program would gradually get harder until he began to struggle again. In the end, his performance would always wind up at the level she had pre-determined.

With the core of the program complete, she then added a few embellishments – grammatical tutorials and other comprehension exercises – all presented with spoken word or imagery so as to avoid the use of written English.

Pausing, she took another sip of her coffee, savoring the nutty aroma. Then, she took the new program through its paces. She had created tens of thousands of lines of code, thousands of flashcards, a sophisticated back-end program to track and control his progress, dozens of grammatical tutorials, reading comprehension exercises, and more than a hundred diagnostic tests – enough to keep him busy for weeks. It was all working flawlessly.

Too flawlessly, in fact. The performance of the program was too consistent, the visual presentation a bit too slick. If Howard became aware that she could program this well – perfectly, in fact – at these lightning speeds, the intimidation would start anew. She needed to make it look like she had found the major components on the internet and had used her own, amateur code to assemble a package for him.

Julia de-activated eighty percent of the flashcards and made the graphic design uglier. She added some dead end menus and non-working functions. As a finishing touch, she set the program to crash on certain cards, as if to underscore the amateur skills of the woman who built it.

Her work complete, she turned the lights off. Not wanting to wake Howard, Julia settled herself down on the office couch to sleep. The lights of the computer reminded her of stars, like the ones they had seen wandering in the wilderness – a wilderness filled with trees.

==========

She was again standing in a grove of the Diana trees. The ground sloshed under he feet. It was too wet. The birds that normally chirped in this grove were not chirping. The rustle of squirrels and other denizens of the area was absent.

Above, Julia could see masses of plant life – so red they resembled entrails – clinging to the high branches of the trees.

Throughout the grove a sound was emanating from the trunks of the trees. An awful sound – something like a scream. It dug into Julia’s ears, drilled into her thoughts and her sanity. She tried to cover her ears, to run away. But it was everywhere, even inside of her. The awfulness increased in volume, and Julia’s agony grew more grave. Other women were in the grove now, too, and men. They reacted the same way. The sound reached a shriek so powerful that it felt like Julia’s brain was being torn apart. She grunted in agony.

The entrails masses in the trees were growing now, consuming their hosts. The trees were suffocating. And Julia, too was running out of breath.

She awoke to the sound of her own panting. And alone in the office she felt incredibly alone. Tip-toeing back to the bedroom, she found Howard, who was still sleeping soundly. Julia slipped beneath the sheets, spooning behind him, and pulled his soft, small body into her. The smell of his skin, his hair, his sweat filled her nostrils. Her racing heart began to slow. The warmth came back to her hands, then filled her whole chest. Within moments, she, too, was in a happier sleep, the blue light of the cut glass dancing over them both.

==========

“Honey,” she sat on the edge of the mattress, rubbed his shoulder. “You’ve been asleep for ten hours. Time to get up.” She planted soft kisses on his ear. Dawn was still a dull grey on the horizon, and the rest of the house was still silent. But Julia knew how angry he would be with himself if he wasted a day by sleeping more than he already had.

“Whaaaaa …” Howard’s eyes were bleary.

Julia tried to remember what is was like to need eight hours of sleep every night. He seemed so frail to her these days.

“How did you sleep?”

“Awesomely, if that’s a word.” He had to rise to a kneeling position just to reach his lips to her cheek. “I don’t know what got into me.”

I got into you, Julia wanted to say. But instead, she wrapped her wide arm around him and snuggled him into her. “I’ve got something I want to show you. I think you’ll like it.”

It took a few minutes for Howard’s unenhanced brain to wake fully, but when it did, he was very animated.

“This … this is fantastic,” Howard said after several minutes at the computer. “Where did you find this?”

“All of the components – the quizzes, tutorials etcetera – I found on their internet,” she lied, not wanting to share that she had developed everything from scratch so quickly. “And then I cobbled them together with some of my own code. It’s pretty buggy, I know, but should be serviceable.”

Howard continued flipping through the screens. He came across a few menus that didn’t function properly – by design, of course – but Howard’s opinion remained high. “I’m impressed,” he admitted.

“I know that you like to do stuff rather than just sit around the beach. And since you like to explore, literacy is really the perfect thing. Learn their written language and everything will be accessible to you – libraries, museums, books, you name it. Even being able read a map will increase your recreational options many times over. It makes the Weald a much more interesting place to explore.”

Howard shook his head with a chuckle. “You know me too well.” The light of the computer screen etched the lines of his smile with gratifying clarity. He was already clicking through the screens, immersing himself in the activity.

“You enjoy,” Julia suggested, “and I’ll make you breakfast. Eggs ok?”

“Yea, eggs are great,” he said to the computer screen.

In the kitchen, it took Julia a while to find the skillet and whisk and such. Weald kitchens were organized differently, with most cooking essentials in the lower cabinets where men could reach them, and most womanly indulgences up high were only a woman could reach. In the latter location, she found five dozen donuts, and helped herself to ten or twelve as she cooked. Fat tasted good to her these days, and she the knowledge that her body was converting to pure hyper-enhanced muscle.

“How is it going?” she asked upon returning, placing two omelets on the desk. She had made a three-egg omelet for him, and something the size of a serving tray for herself.

“I can’t tell you,” he replied. “It’s a guy thing.”

“TELL me,” she laughed, tickling his ribs.

Howard swatted her away, laughing. “OK, OK, OK!” He spread a newspaper on the table. “I know I’m not as sharp as you, so bear with me.”

“Honey, you’ve always been plenty sharp. I’m the one that’s changed. Go for it.”

“This ad for jeans,” he pointed. “It says … comfort … for men and women.”

“Almost,” she grinned, her lips sealed.

“Well, then TELL me.” It was Howard’s turn to do the tickling.

Julia erupted into a fit of giggles, surprised to find that she was still vulnerable to tickling. She had to be sure not to roughhouse with him like she used to, less she do some real damage. “OK OK you win!’ Her face was beet red, and she needed a moment to refocus on the paper. “It says, ‘Last Moon Jeans: comfortable enough for a man, tough enough for a woman.”

“I’m doing better than I would have yesterday.” Howard shrugged his shoulders. “I hope this doesn’t come out the wrong way, but would you mind if I spent the day in here, doing this language thing, rather than hanging out with you?”

The question was so diplomatically phrased, it was actually out-of-character. Julia realized that the must be some Obedience still lingering in his bloodstream. She slid a hand over his shoulder and rubbed some warmth into it. “No, that doesn’t bother me at all. I could imagine how some time away from us girls might do you good.”

He pulled out the weather section of the paper, and pointed to a symbol on the map. “This means ‘wind’, right?”

“Well, it actually means ‘falling temperatures’.”

“But the flashcard … had a man in a scarf, and the scarf a was being blown sideways”

“The flashcard also had snowflakes on one side and sun on the other, with the snowflakes moving into the frame. It had a thermometer in the corner next to a down arrow, suggesting that the mercury was going down. It was meant to symbolize that things were getting colder. Maybe it wasn’t such an effective flashcard.”

“Oh. You remember the flashcard pretty well.”

“I guess I do.” Julia bit her lip. She wanted to tell him the whole truth: that the thousand she had given him was only a fifth of what she had memorized, that she could recall the entire five-thousand-card set with perfect clarity. It was simply more convenient to do it that way: she could answer his questions or select new cards without the tedium of having to flip back through them. But Julia sensed that revealing all this to him now would only intimidate him.

Howard furrowed his brows in befuddlement. He seemed so vulnerable to her now, and his efforts so sincere … She wished she could just scoop him up in her arms and cuddle him. Instead, she took a deep breath, her bra-less nipples, the width of quarters, skidding across the rough surface of her wool office attire, engorging themselves to rock-like hardness. When it came to turning her on, Howard still had no equal. She only wished that he felt the same way when he say her, that her muscles didn’t weird him out so much.

Howard shifted back to the weather page. “This symbol, it’s a little bit like the symbol I saw for shoes, but it’s different.”

“Yes, it’s the symbol for ‘shoes’, but modified by these lines, which mean ‘very long’. Taken together, all of that means ‘skis’. And then those symbols are combined with the symbols for ‘locus’. Any idea what that might be?”

Howard furrowed his brows.

“Ski resort. This part of the weather page contains forecasts for the ski resorts.”

“Oh.” Howard’s shoulders slumped slightly.

“You just need a little practice, honey. And that reminds me, it might be nice to go skiing while we’re here. The resorts are excellent, I understand. The runs are three times as long as what we used to do in Colorado. Let me know when you’d like to go, and I’ll ask Ruth if we can use the helicopter.”

“Cool.” Howard seemed to brighten. He had always been a really good skier. He squeezed her hand. “Maybe after I learn to read, this vacation will start to feel like a vacation after all.”

Finally, Julia thought, Howard and I are finding our groove. It was their happiest moment in a long time – probably since the waterfall that welcomed them into this world.

Howard’s finger found another symbol weather map. “What’s this symbol?”

“Storm.”

“And this one?”

“Coming.”

==========

The ocean sky was dark with grey clouds as Julia returned the plates to the kitchen. Ruth was there, too, her mood just as dark.

Ruth wore a high-neck dress of grey wool, hemmed below the knee with no flare. It was sleeveless, leaving not only her arms bare, but also her shoulders. A simple necklace of pearls, almost short enough to be a choker, was her only jewelry. The outfit was conservative, and yet, with the full girth of her arms on display, also intimidating – office attire, Julia realized.

“I need to go into back to my company’s office today. The product launch is off track. The software is a mess.” Ruth’s husband was busy laying out breakfast on the table, but the woman didn’t partake. She stood at the kitchen counter with a large bottle of Nourishment in her hand, downing a gallon before speaking again. “I’ve got the helicopter coming for me in a few minutes. My husband can get you anything you need while I am gone.”

Julia had never seen the woman in such a somber mood before. “I was a programmer back on Earth. Is there anyway I can help?”

Ruth spread her hands on the counter, palms down, as if she were having difficulty supporting herself. “You are our guests. The best thing you can do is stay here and enjoy yourself. I’d like to know that at least I am fulfilling my duty as a host, even if I am struggling with my duties as a CEO.”

“Come on Ruth,” Julia laid her hand on top of Ruth’s. “We embarrassed you deeply the other day in front of your neighbors. My boyfriend and I have been imposing upon your hospitality for many days. I would prefer knowing that I had, to some small degree, returned the favor. Let me at least try to be helpful to you.”

“What about Howard? Will he be OK? Can he stay out of trouble?”

“Yes. He’s got something to keep him busy.”

Ruth’s face seemed to search for other objections to Julia’s proposal, but Julia sensed the time for objections had passed. She could already hear the THUMP-THUMP of a helicopter in the distance.

==========

As the helicopter sped over the land, Julia became lost in thought.

“If the storm is bad enough, the helicopter will stay grounded until it passes. When you’re ready to return to the house, it’s only a forty-mile trip, so you can jog it if need be. But if the weather is clear, I prefer the helicopter. Flying over everything somehow clears my head.”

Julia nodded.

“Thank you for coming,” Ruth continued. “You had no obligation to help us.”

Julia felt herself return a weak smile. “It remains to be seen how much help I can be.”

That was all too true. Julia had been a mediocre programmer back home. A mediocre sculptor. A mediocre student. She had never been the leader of such much as a book club, set aside a multi-million dollar project. Surely, Nourishment gave her new aptitude. But it gave that to all the women here. What made her think that she could right a ship that other Nourished women could not?

She watched the world speed by through the windows of the helicopter. The swamp was about to give way to foothills. Sallan was down there somewhere, stuffing rags and t-shirts into holes in his ramshackle roof as the storm rolled in, hoping that the coming rains did not wash away the blood of the shadow serpents, as that was the one thing that kept the serpents away. Julia wished he was up in that helicopter with her right now. She missed his wisdom.

And he was not the only once she missed. Bendjimon, too, had been on her mind recently. She had learned the correct pronunciation of his name only through reading local histories. It meant “Passionate One,” and the searing lovemaking they had committed during their only night together had attested to the accuracy of that meaning. Julia fingered the conch shell that nestled between her breasts, opening her mind to the latest tidings of his well being.

When she had first worn the conch, she had thought it was a connection only to Howard. But Sallan had actually said that it was a connection to “those we hold dearest”. And indeed, both Sallan and Benjamin, in addition to Howard and Julia’s family, were present in the shell’s tidings – like she was listening to the music of a chamber ensemble, with the contribution of each individual instrument easy to discern.

The shell tugged at her chest with a dull ache, as it had been for for several days now. Bendjimon was not doing well.

What sort of obligation do women have to the men they casually enjoy? Anything? Would it be customary to let him struggle in life, after making me feel so special, after bringing me orgasms that lit my night on fire? And regardless of what is customary for other women, what is customary for me? Am I letting him down?

And then there was Howard, struggling away at learning the written language. Was he doing it to impress her, to return her devotion solely to him? Does he realize that I will be enjoying the attentions of dozens of men while I am here, that monogamy has no meaning to my superhuman body? Is he on his way to a realization more demoralizing that all the other demoralizing moments he has had so far?

But there was no more time for these thoughts. The grey of a modern office complex was coming into view, under the grey of an ominous sky. They would be expecting her to help solve their multi-million dollar problem in there, she thought. Ruth, her employees, Sallan, Benjamin, Howard – the opportunities to let people down seemed endless.

==========

Julia followed Ruth as the older woman traversed her company’s hallways at a quick no-nonsense stomp. The older woman had lent Julia some clothes for the day: a mahogany-colored pencil skirt and a collared button-down shirt.

In fact, ‘Collared button-down’ was probably the wrong term. It indeed had a collar, and buttons too. But the buttons were on the end of four-inch-long strips of fabric. The result was a shirt that didn’t close, but instead had a four-inch-wide opening running from navel to neck, with the strips of fabric periodically bridging the gap from left to right, like bridges across a chasm.

Julia had to admit, the open slot was more than a glimpse of her generous cleavage and abdominal musculature. But she reminded herself that this was all for a reason: no rational man could keep his wits entirely under his control when faced with an upper body like this. It reinforced the corporate hierarchy.

Ruth and Julia marched down the center of the hallway, men clearing a path for them on either side. There was not a woman to be found.

“We have only six female employees out of a staff of 320,” Ruth explained as they walked, a cadre of male assistants jogging to keep up.

1.875 percent, Julia thought. “Is that typical?”

“Almost. Women are nine percent of the overall population. But many women amass great wealth early on in life, and therefore retire early. Also, daughters receive an outsized share of any inheritance from their mothers, which means that many women never enter the workforce to begin with. So, even though women are nine percent of the overall population, they are just five percent of the workforce.”

“But you have even less than that. Why?”

“A few reasons, I suppose. For one, women dislike programming careers. It’s the irony of having a powerful mind: you can become almost too good at something. More than a few women have found themselves in jobs where they are replacing large departments of men. They become responsible for developing and proofing thousands upon thousands of lines of code, with no variety in their workload and no social interaction. No matter how much money those jobs pay, not matter how nice an office she gets, a woman will often succumb to boredom within only a few weeks.”

“On Earth, I was always bored in my job, Julia replied. “I never thought they were supposed to be interesting. Perhaps women here expect more than they should.”

“They have options,” Ruth shrugged. “But those aren’t the only reasons you see very few women in these halls. Unemployment among men is high. Some of us Nourished consider it a civic duty to offer men a chance at gainful employment. So, perhaps you could call me generous in that way.”

The women approached an elevator that was already packed full with men. Upon seeing Ruth and Julia arrive, the men quickly emptied the elevator and held the doors open for the ladies. Ruth did not react or explain, which suggested to Julia that such deference was normal.

“Another reason I hire so many men is their sincerity. There is a selflessness to them that is hard to find among women, and it makes up for some of the gap in aptitude and skill.”

A man in a suit wheeled around the corner as she spoke, attention downward on some paperwork, and walked right into Ruth. The collision flattened him against the wall.

Ruth stopped and extended him a hand, hoisting the apologetic man back onto his feet. That set of an appreciative murmur in the crowd, as if such courtesies were not universal.

“Are you OK?” she asked.

“I’m sorry,” he replied, eyes wide.

“That wasn’t what I asked,” she prodded, the edge of her lips curling to a smile.

“He’s just a little bit flustered.” one of the men volunteered. “He knows he has inconvenienced the CEO. We’ll make sure nothing is broken.”

“Please do so.” After delivering the wobbly man into the arms of his colleagues, Ruth strode away at her usual quick pace. “I wish they weren’t so fragile,” she noted over her shoulder.

“It seems your employees find your concern for their welfare to be inspiring.”

“I suppose you could call me a believer in men. But this product is such a disaster, some of my beliefs are being tested.”

==========

The hallway led Ruth and Julia to a large room with rows of computers and busy men scuttling between them. Other men gathered around large screens on the front wall, discussing the lines of text that were displayed there.

“The product we’re creating is a video game, the first of its kind,” Ruth explained. “Up to this point, video games have always been designed for women, with all of the speed, precision and complexity that women enjoy. And then, as an afterthought, a version is made for men, slower and simpler. We think that’s a mistake. Our focus groups have shown that men find such a product to be unappealing – like taking my orange sportscar and replacing the engine with sometime much slower, the steering with something less responsive. Men are not intelligent per se, but they know a fake when they see one. And the male user audience is ten times bigger than the female audience. It’s a huge untapped market. If we could develop the right product for that market, and sell it effectively, it would be an astronomical money maker.”

“Why has none done that before?”

“Bias, I suppose. All major businesses are run by women, and these female business executives have a natural inclination to develop products that they themselves would find appealing. Sometimes, businesses will justify their female orientation by saying that it’s the women that control the household purse strings. That may be true. But if we market to men correctly, get them asking their mistresses for the product, then the men will open the household purse strings for us.”

“And what is your plan, then, for marketing something to men ‘correctly’, as you say?”

“We intend this new game to be different than everything that came before it. It is designed specifically for men, built for their lower speed and aptitude. But that’s not all …”

Ruth paused her walk and turned to face Julia.

“… and this is where I really went out on a limb, where I put my career on the line with my Board of Directors. The game is not just designed for men. It’s designed by them.”

The bustle in the room became only white noise as the implications of Ruth’s comment became clear. Men are more in tune with their own needs than women would ever be: having men design the game greatly increased the chances that the game would be fun for the target audience. Moreover, a game designed by men for their own gender would the imprimatur of authenticity, allowing the game to be marketed in a way that no other game could be.

But as inspiring as the strategy may have been, it was a huge risk, Julia knew. The literacy program she wrote for Howard last night would have taken a man many days to construct, and it would have needed a beta phase to flush out all the errors his relatively feeble brain would allow. For software companies that had experienced the benefits a female workforce, it would surely be hard to imagine any alternative.

When she had arrived here, all the women seemed the same to her – oversexed, over-muscled, overconfident giants. But now, differences were coming to light. Some of the women she had seen on TV came off as selfish or lacking empathy. But Ruth was different. She understood, in ways that Julia was only now appreciating, how difficult it must be to live life in a man’s body in the Weald. She seemed to be a good wife, never upbraiding or threatening her husband despite the fact that she was the undisputed master of him. And here she was in the workplace, staking her career on an initiative that seemed to turn on its head the relationship between the genders.

The was something impressive about her, Julia realized. The fact that Julia’s first day in the Weald had led to a collision with Ruth and not some less mature women was, in retrospect, a huge stroke of good luck.

Julia watched the frenetic activity in the room and on the large overhead screens. She had seen this before: collective panic leading to rushed work, leading an accumulation of mistakes and buggy code, and then attempts to correct all those mistakes leading to still more mistakes.

“We’ve delayed the launch a number of times trying to get the software right, and our funding gets pulled if the launch is delayed again. But final product tests have shown that the software is still full of flaws. It’s not ready for the market. And the more fixes we implement, the more problems we create.”

Julia scanned the men’s eyes and saw that many were bloodshot. Some had disheveled hair. “Have they been here all night?”

“Probably.”

“Order them onto a coffee break. I want to take a look.”

Ruth did so, the power of her voice filling the room. The activity in the room ground to a halt and the room began to clear. A conference room in the back was opened up and Julia could hear coffee machines whirring in the office kitchen.

Julia sat at a one of the consoles and began manipulating the keyboard. She wanted to read everything the men had written so far. The eight large screens at the front of the room went dark, and then filled with text. The text became a blur as her superhuman neurons processed the data at speeds far faster than the male brain. Clumsy, inelegant, buggy – these were the adjectives that came to mind as Julia reviewed what had been done so far. The men seemed earnest enough, but the work product was lacking.

Julia closed the code files and opened up the administrative documentation – coding assignments, timelines, team dialogue histories and worklogs.

What she found shocked her. The assignments were far too complex for the male brain to follow: pages and pages of dense text, intricate concepts, obtuse vocabulary.

Julia pulled one of the men aside. He had horn-rimmed glasses, and a thinner build than Howard. His classy shirt and slacks showed a desire to be professional; the fact that they did not match suggested that he was perhaps not keenly aware of others’ opinions. Julia had concluded that he was a good prospect for providing some honest answers.

She asked him to sit and show her his role description and assignment specifics. It was just as over-complicated as the others she had read.

“Do you understand what you’ve been asked to do here?”

She watched him take in the swell of her muscles, especially the ones visible through the opening in her shirt. Even though she purposefully kept herself relaxed, the mere presence of her body seemed to intimidate him. He looked like a man that had been locked in a closet with a pit bull. “I don’t know what you are asking,” he said, carefully. “The instructions were written by a woman. As such, they are without error. The only error can be in my own execution of those instructions.”

“That’s not true,” Julia ran a hand over his forearm. “What is your name?”

“Jofri.” He viewed her fingers warily, as if five vipers were resting on his forearm.

“Well then, Jofri, I want you to know that I’m here to help. But I need to know what’s going on.”

She watched his gaze wander to an unfamiliar woman who had entered the room. The woman was average height, perhaps seven-foot-seven, pale of complexion, strawberry blond hair done up in a tight french braid, and eyes so dark, they were almost black. She saw the tendons on the back of Jofri’s neck stand out. He was scared.

“Jofri, don’t look at her, look at me. You can trust me.”

The man turned back to Julia.

“OK, whoever you were worried about just left the room.” Julia allowed her voice to deepen and bore her gaze directly into him. “I want the truth, Jofri.”

He seemed to hesitate.

She sat up straight and took a breath, flaring her pectoral and shoulder muscles. “Now,” she commanded.

She watched the small man’s resistance buckle.

The man looked at his knuckles. “None of us really understand what we are supposed to do. Other companies rarely give men this level of responsibility, so many of us are reluctant to ask questions. It just makes us appear unable to fulfill the role. To make matters worse, the woman in charge, Kylia, the one you just saw – she gets impatient when we ask too many questions. Some of us are making up our tasks as we go. Others have already admitted defeat, in which case they are reassigned to the more menial coding tasks – ones even more menial than what men get at other companies. But those guys are underperforming on even the menial tasks: the tasks are so repetitive and boring that the men could not force themselves to finish them.”

“And when men get re-assigned, what happens to their original tasks?”

“Those are queued up for Kylia to handle herself. But she doesn’t do that much programming herself anymore. She’s a Nourished woman with five years tenure at the firm, so day-to-day programming is below here. The outstanding tasks just pile up.”

It was regular a Tower of Babel in there, Julia realized. People weren’t communicating with each other, and what they had built was falling apart under its own weight. Julia kissed the man’s forehead as she rose. “Thank you.”

Ruth was ready with more news when Julia rejoined her. “I just saw the most recent tests, and they are getting worse by the day. At this rate, we’ll never launch. I’m thinking of shutting it all down to cut our losses.”

“I think can help,” Julia said as she rejoined Ruth. “Maybe. I can try.”

Ruth shook her head. “Not like that. Not with so much self doubt. My experience as an executive has not taught me everything, but that much I do know. You should either charge into it or go back to the beach.”

Julia took a deep breath. “I can bring this to fruition,” she injected new force into her tone. “But you need to trust me. And I need the whole team.”

Ruth smiled. “OK, you’ve got them, for a few days.”

Julia watched Kylia re-enter the room. The male occupants of the room seemed to clear away from her, as if she were a bit of oil dropped into a bowl of water.

Julia grabbed a notepad and scrawled her next sentence. “And I need this Kylia woman off the project. I have no idea what her capabilities are, but the men don’t trust her and it’s destroying the team.”

Ruth nodded. “I’ll give her the day off. But Julia, before I entrust you with the entire project, I have to know why, after only a few minutes in this room, you think you found all the answers.”

“I didn’t find any of the answers, Ruth. The men already had them.”

==========

Coffee break was over. The men had been gathered in a circle, regarding her with some combination of wariness and fear. Julia had never lead anything, even a book club. So, the idea of rallying a team to develop a product – Julia could feel the tips of butterfly wings beating against the insides of her stomach. And the team was behind. And disorganized. And experienced executives like Ruth at not been able to pull it together. Julia tried to clear the nervousness out of her throat.

“You don’t know me,” Julia spoke. “And I don’t know you – yet. But what little I understand of you has stirred something inside of me.”

Some of the wariness in the room dissipated. Concentrate, Julia, she urged herself. Don’t back down.

“You have chosen to undertake an ambitious project – one that could bring much needed diversion and entertainment to millions of fellow men and, at the same time, upend the way game software is designed. In undertaking this, your ambition alone is worthy of any respect. And when I see how hard you are working, and the sincerity with which you are doing it, my respect is only furthered.”

Julia didn’t know where her poise was coming from. Maybe it has always been there, and she just had never known it.

“There are women,” she continued, “who would call your gender incapable of making the project a success, incapable of handling the workload and the complexity. I do not believe that is true.”

A murmur echoed throughout the room. She had their attention.

“Your are not lacking for intelligence, but rather, you lacking for someone who knows how to tap your potential. I once had a brain like yours. I once was weaker and more prone to exhaustion than any of you. I am not from this land, and for this reason, I appraise you in a different way than a woman whose lips have always known the taste of Nourishment. A woman can jump to the top of a one-hundred foot building in a single bound. But when she gets to the top, she relaxes, becomes lazy, mocks the weakness of the male far below her. A man with enough ladders and time can go higher than her – so long as he has the determination. And you men have that determination etched on your faces.”

If a woman had ever spoken to these men like this, one wouldn’t have known it from the surprise on their faces.

“We are going to redesign the tasks. They will be complex, but not excessively so; challenging, but not excessively so. They will be tasks that, with hard work, you can achieve.”

The murmur that went through the room this time had a glimmer of enthusiasm to it.

“You will each be responsible for an aspect of the program – something that important to the whole, for which other teams will rely upon you. If you are struggling, I refuse you the luxury of shyness: you must speak up, to me. And will be with you every step of the way, programming alongside you. There will be problems to solve and challenges to overcome, but we can overcome them together.”

The enthusiasm grew.

“Now, having established all of that, you are still men. To perform at your peak, your bodies need rest. Part of your responsibility – to the group, to me, to yourself – is to manage your own body. I want a third of you to rest for the next few hours, and then return to relieve the others after that time.” Julia turned to Ruth. “Is there spare space in the building with some soft furniture?”

“Only the Women’s Lounge,” Ruth replied. “It is plenty large, but is off limits to men.”

“How many women are in the building today?” Julia asked.

“The three of us, and two others.”

“Then today, it is off limits to the women.”

Julia saw Ruth admit a bemused smile. A tremor rolled through the crowd. The air itself felt charged with something electric and new.

Julia continued. “Any of you who is too dispirited to continue with this project may leave and I am sure we can employ you elsewhere. There, too, I refuse you the luxury of shyness. If you wish to leave, then raise your hand now.”

All the hands stayed down.

“OK, then, let’s get to work.”

“Ma’am,” one of the men piped up. “In this land, men must ask permission to clap, as it suggests the audience is holding the speaker in judgment. May we …” he made a clapping motion with his hands.

Julia smiled and shrugged her shoulders. “Whatever you like.”

The applause – it was thunderous.

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