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For Want of a Horseshoe Nail

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Sep. 9th, 2014 | 06:49 pm

This is an intersection for LJIdol with kathrynrose, whose companion story may be read here.



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He walked in looking like a toff. Waistcoat, school tie, hair carefully parted on one side and lightly pomaded. Not at all the usual sort.

“Welcome, Seeker,” I said, using my most mysterious tone of voice. I’ll solve the mystery for you—it’s a persistent bronchial infection. Moving from place to place in caravans, not enough sleep, setting up the tent on whatever wet, nasty bit of ground is next to the Ten In One, hence, otherworldly voice.

He looked around the tent, his eyes resting on my little tree, a fir Oswald had dug up for me and planted in a tin. I’d draped three strands of tinsel and cut a shiny paper star for the top. It was still pathetic. It still suited me.

“Is all this…well…you know, real?”

I’m never offended. It’s a fair question. “Sit before me and discover, friend. If I do not see the future you’ll have only spent sixpence and a few minutes. And if I do, you’ll have more than your time and money’s worth.”

He settled awkwardly onto the stool and I held out my hand. He dug in his pocket and ‘crossed my palm’—sixpences were real silver then. I took the cloth off my crystal and frowned into it.

It hit me like a drunkard’s fist. (There’s a reason I’ll never marry and it’s spelt D-A-D).

“The spirits are cloudy today…” I stalled for time, whilst trying to put the vision into acceptable words. To start, I didn’t know the names of half the things in my head (the ball is a prop, it’s just to focus on while looking in). The corners of his mouth turned up in amusement. He didn’t believe. Out of all the times I’d recited in a soothing monotone, You have a deep spirit that no-one around you sees, you have a special gift to share with those around you, all those earnestly nodding heads, this was the one that turned out genuine. And felt like a fake.

I looked him in the eye. “There’s a darkness in your future. All those tricksy paths you’ve negotiated—all the numbers—it’s matters of the heart that slay you.”

He smiled a half-smile. “You know about the numbers?”

Might as well be honest. “I see it but I don’t understand it. They’re coming in by some sort of wireless? You’ve a machine—no, you built a machine that understands the numbers coming in.”

The toff blanched and stood up so fast he toppled the stool. “That’s—it’s secret.”

I looked him in the eye. “And I’m real.”

He backed out of the tent, and evidently into someone, someone who shouted and threw a punch. I found out later from Oswald that it was a country farmer who’d had a few, but that moment I was too busy backing out of the other side of the tent, crystal ball wrapped in my skirt. Oswald found someone to take the toff to hospital, patch him up and send him off, and a few moments later I forgot his name was Alan Turing.

* * *

He walked in looking like a toff. Waistcoat, school tie, hair carefully parted on one side and lightly pomaded. Not at all the usual sort.

“Welcome, Seeker,” I said, using my most mysterious tone of voice. “Sit before me and discover, friend.” I remembered the school tie. I remembered the sixpence. I remembered to slow down and take a deeper breath before looking in.

The vision still came like a punch. “Stay by me, friend…I’m looking through some darkness…” Darkness, indeed—all I wanted to do was put my head between my knees and have a nice cuppa, plenty of sugar, plenty strong.

I groped for words. Strangely enough, my rote speech fit just fine. “You have a special gift to share with those around you, a gift that no-one sees…” With a few additions to the usual. “A gift that no-one is allowed to see, you’re not allowed to tell.”

His eyes widened a little.

“Someone is trying to stop you.”

He leaned in a bit. “Someone I know?”

“Someone no-one knows. He’s not here yet.”

He shook his head, puzzled. I took the plunge.

“Your name is Alan Turing. You do something with numbers—I’m sorry, I can see the machine, it’s black, it’s got lots of moving bits, but I’m not a scientist or a mathematician or whatever you are—you know the thing I mean, right?”

He nodded as I hurried on.

“You love your country. You love the flag. And you love…you love people…you love those you’re not supposed to love.”

Every bit of color drained from his face.

“Be more careful. Please. Not everyone is a friend. You trust too much.”

He stood up, toppling over the stool. “You’ve no right—no right at all!”

“No, I don’t.” I started to tell him I could help him, sometimes it’s only a little tweak, sometimes you get a second chance, but he was still staring in horror as he staggered back out of the tent, and I heard the guttural shouting of a drunk countryman and the canvas wall bowed inward as Alan Turing staggered into it.


* * *

“Welcome, Seeker.” Yep, school tie, waistcoat, pomade, all check, check, check. Sometimes it’s only a little tweak. Sometimes you get a third chance.

I didn’t bother looking into the ball. I remembered well enough, now I just had to phrase it right.

“You have a deep spirit no-one around you sees, you have a special gift to share with those around you.”

His amusement was back.

Catch him, Marlene, hook your fish, my mother said in my head. It’s all about the human touch.

Of course. “You are meant to meet a special someone. Someone who fills a part of your soul that’s empty, that you feel no-one will ever truly understand. Someone who solves you like a riddle…like a cryptograph.” I worried for an instant that was one too far, but he leaned in.

“Stay away from Oxford Street. Stay away from crowded public places for a few days. You need to make a space in your spirit for the right one to come to you.”

He nodded earnestly. I went through the pictures in my mind again, the toff before me meeting a bit of rough trade outside the Regal Cinema, the rough trade setting up to rob his house, Alan Turing in all innocence declaring his homosexuality to the police—the police, my God was he a brilliant fool!—jail, doctors, but doctors whose purpose was evil. And then Alan Turing stopped, and whatever Alan Turing would do or discover that was even greater than whatever he’d done to end the war, stopped with him.

“Keep to yourself,” I told him. And please, keep going. It must be important. Please don’t come back a fourth time.

I gave him the rest of his sixpence worth—travels to far places, a long life. I hoped. And then I looked at my little tree, the gold foil star shining so sadly and small, and said,

“It’s very muddy today, and you’ve nice shoes. Why don’t you leave out the back where it’s drier?”

Like a man in a dream, he passed out through the flap of the tent behind me. Like a woman in a dream I heard a countryman’s voice passing the front of the tent, and Oswald sensing a fight about to happen, and coming in, gently, to take the drunkard away.

I looked in my ball, then, for me, for dreadful curiosity. There were numbers, numbers that somehow knew and spoke themselves and made the world. The numbers served a flag, and the flag was ours, but changed.



_______________________________________________
whipchick's first teenage self-employment was reading tarot on the street. Most of it was gentle bullshit. Most of it.



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Comments {47}

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dmousey

(no subject)

from: dmousey
date: Sep. 9th, 2014 11:03 pm (UTC)
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To say I loved this would be an understatement....

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Sep. 10th, 2014 02:20 am (UTC)
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Thank you very much!

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blink

(no subject)

from: yachiru
date: Sep. 10th, 2014 01:53 am (UTC)
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Man I wanted to grab at you like a crazy person this year for a partner but I always forget it's coming. >_>

+ Love this. So hard. I like the use of vignette and the repetition against the historical background.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Sep. 10th, 2014 02:21 am (UTC)
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Thanks! And I would LOVE to write with you when we can! Glad you like it - it's like my little apology to Turing for not being able to make it through Cryptonomicon :)

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solopolist

(no subject)

from: ceelove
date: Sep. 10th, 2014 02:28 am (UTC)
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The companion piece didn't shine for me, but this one is quite strong enough to stand on its own.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Sep. 16th, 2014 01:36 pm (UTC)
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Thanks! Sorry my partner's didn't ring for you, but I'm glad we got you halfway :)

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blahblahblah, whatever

(no subject)

from: kathrynrose
date: Sep. 10th, 2014 05:49 am (UTC)
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I love her voice. You created an inspiring character.

POM POMS :)

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Sep. 16th, 2014 01:37 pm (UTC)
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Thanks! Our long phone chat really helped me figure out what to do on this one. Love writing with you!

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Jenn

(no subject)

from: kickthehobbit
date: Sep. 10th, 2014 05:52 am (UTC)
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...so this is fabulous. :)

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Sep. 16th, 2014 01:37 pm (UTC)
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Thank you - I really value your opinion :)

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reckless_blues

(no subject)

from: reckless_blues
date: Sep. 10th, 2014 08:46 am (UTC)
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I get so damned miserable when I think about Alan Turing. That just wasn't fair. So this piece was a little magical and painful to me.

And, of course, it was wonderful. I always liked things with this theme, repetition, trying to get everything right, trying to save a person ... someone who's used to lying finding it all coming true, improvising, seeing which old tricks are going to work and which to discard. I like it when you see characters think on their feet.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Sep. 16th, 2014 01:37 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, Turing's situation makes me sad, too. Thanks - I'm glad you liked the repetition, I had fun writing it!

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drwex

Ugh

from: drwex
date: Sep. 10th, 2014 04:01 pm (UTC)
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OK, i want to like this. Stylistically, fine. Point of view, fine. Historically... no. It flops.

If the man had been Babbage and not Turing I'd've bought it. Babbage was doing something no one understood with numbers. OK, probably Ada got it and maybe a few others. But by the time Turing was doing his thing he was just one of many. The idea he had that was truly revolutionary - what we today call a Turing machine - was a generalization of ideas that were well known and in wide circulation. Remember that "numbers coming in over a wire" had been a common thing since the telegraph of the 1800s. If she's alluding to his cryptographic work, those were signals intercepted over the air, not wire. And again, radio was reasonably common by then so not a big mystery.

The story appears to be set after WWII, which makes me wonder about the sixpence. I'm not sure that particular coin still existed then (OK, Wikipedia says it did) and I'm pretty sure that the money wasn't silver. Metal was precious and government-issued coins were made of the cheapest possible metals. Remember that in the US we issued tin pennies during WWII. I suppose if it was an old coin, but again it's jarring me against history rather than letting me think about the story.

I think these are bits that could be smoothed out/fixed and you'd still have the same story but right now they're very in my face.

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whipchick

Re: Ugh

from: whipchick
date: Sep. 10th, 2014 04:54 pm (UTC)
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Marlene would not be aware of the exact nature of Turing's cryptographic work, as the work done at Bletchley Park was never officially declassified, and was not a matter of any public discussion until 1974. It is not unreasonable to suppose that an uneducated woman working as a carnival fortune teller would interpret a vision of intercepted radio signals as "coming in by some sort of wireless" as "wireless" was a common term for a household radio at the time this story is set. I think you may have misread that as "wire" rather than "wireless".

The last 50% silver sixpence was minted in 1946. The dates on the coins currently in my purse are 2014 2001 2013 2010 2002 1998, so 6 years from minting is probably an OK span of time to get a still-silver coin. From my research on pre-decimal sterling:

"The real silver coins were still legal tender, and we could still find them in our change (and cook them in Christmas puddings!)"
http://gwydir.demon.co.uk/jo/units/money.htm

As far as Turing having truly revolutionary ideas that affected the development of AI, that is where I leap into fiction. Certainly, Babbage's Difference Engine and Analytical Engine were instrumental, but modern opinions differ on what contributions to AI may be attributed to, rather than merely influenced by, Turing.

Working from the Turing Organization's:

"But I would say that in 1945 Alan Turing alone grasped everything that was to change computing completely after that date: above all he understood the universality inherent in the stored-program computer. He knew there could be just one machine for all tasks. He did not do so as an isolated dreamer, but as someone who knew about the practicability of large-scale electronics, with hands-on experience. From experience in codebreaking and mathematics he was also vividly aware of the scope of programs that could be run."

I chose to fictionally explore the idea that Turing, if he had lived longer, might have come up with something even more ground-breaking that advanced the development of AI.

I always appreciate your readership, and your feedback is welcome. I realize I look like a tough cookie, but your comments are easier to receive when you phrase them less-adversarially.

Thanks :)

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lriG rorriM

(no subject)

from: lrig_rorrim
date: Sep. 10th, 2014 05:30 pm (UTC)
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I really, really enjoyed this! The iterative changes and the fortuneteller's spiel, her internal thoughts about the whole thing - it came together brilliantly, and works really well with kathrynrose's piece, too. It's obvious you two are a great team.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Sep. 16th, 2014 01:39 pm (UTC)
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Thank you! I'm hoping you and I get to write an intersection :)

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bleodswean

(no subject)

from: bleodswean
date: Sep. 10th, 2014 05:35 pm (UTC)
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What a powerful tribute to this genius. I love how you imbued humanity and compassion into this fictionalizing.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Sep. 16th, 2014 01:39 pm (UTC)
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Thank you!

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The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors

(no subject)

from: halfshellvenus
date: Sep. 10th, 2014 09:54 pm (UTC)
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I'm assuming the prompt was "CAPTCHA" here, based on Turing being the subject.

I loved the repetition, though I was uncertain if these were multiple visits by Turing or three versions of the visit as experienced by the fortuneteller, in which she finally figures out how to convey the same truth to him in the right way.

Loved it, regardless!

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Sep. 16th, 2014 01:39 pm (UTC)
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Yes, it was "Captcha the Flag" :)

I think it was three versions--I'll have to see if I can clarify that!

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Donnelle

(no subject)

from: jexia
date: Sep. 11th, 2014 09:38 am (UTC)
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AMAZING.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Sep. 16th, 2014 01:39 pm (UTC)
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Thank you!

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i_17bingo

(no subject)

from: i_17bingo
date: Sep. 11th, 2014 09:42 am (UTC)
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I'm choosing to read this--regardless of what your intention might be--as a hiccup in time that only Marlene can sense. That way, the subtle dissolving of patience with him confuses him more, and adds a little levity to his situation.

Also, it makes makes Turing's ultimate fate that much more tragic.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Sep. 16th, 2014 01:40 pm (UTC)
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Thanks! That's exactly what I intended. I'm glad you got the levity, too :)

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Laura, aka "Ro Arwen"

(no subject)

from: roina_arwen
date: Sep. 11th, 2014 03:22 pm (UTC)
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I only know the very basics about Turing, but I adored this piece and describing him as a "toff." It's such a fun word, isn't it?

I imagine she would have said much the same thing about Oscar Wilde, too.

Also, this line just totally imbued Marlene with realism from the get-go: “Welcome, Seeker,” I said, using my most mysterious tone of voice. I’ll solve the mystery for you—it’s a persistent bronchial infection.

Wonderful job with this.

One of these days I'd love to pair up with you as an Intersection partner, although I'm already spoken for for the next one (assuming there is a next one).

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Sep. 16th, 2014 01:40 pm (UTC)
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Thanks! Yeah, the bronchial infection was where suddenly her voice happened for me :)

I'm also spoken for, but fingers crossed for another time!

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Rebecca

(no subject)

from: beeker121
date: Sep. 11th, 2014 05:11 pm (UTC)
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I appreciate that Marlene is so calm as time jeeps repeating itself, and just takes advantage of the situation to try to get things right. Her voice in this is really strong, I'd like to have a fortune read by Marlene.

I also love the subtle horror at the end, that right for Alan Turing may not have been right for everyone.

This sucked me in and pulled me along, nicely done.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Sep. 16th, 2014 01:41 pm (UTC)
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Thanks! I'm so glad you enjoyed the voice.

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Jemima Pauler

(no subject)

from: jem0000000
date: Sep. 11th, 2014 09:39 pm (UTC)
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Good for her, for saving him. :) Some people just need a handful of chances....

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Sep. 16th, 2014 01:41 pm (UTC)
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I know I need more than one :) Thanks for reading!

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