PREVIOUSLY, ON DARIA: Thirteen years or so after high school, Our Heroine is a washed-up academic with a series of advanced degrees, failed relationships and irregularly successful writing efforts behind her. She left her cheating boyfriend and moved back to Boston, to live with her friend Jane Lane. Jane, now running an art shop specializing in custom movie and TV props, introduced her to a social circle featuring both old and new faces. Soon, friendship got the better of caution, and Daria found herself agreeing to cosplay Edward Elric at a science-fiction and fantasy convention.
Content note: A character recalls experiences with Pick-Up “Artistry” and blithe cissexism.
The party thrummed and pulsed and mingled with itself. It wound around furniture and up steps. It carried drinks outward from the bar, where Tom watched over the grand central room of the suite, shaking cocktail mixers and spinning bottles with his white-gloved hands. His jacket-over-tunic ensemble gave the appearance of a military uniform, worn by a man with open contempt for his nominal superiors. He took a moment now and then to slide his shades back up the bridge of his nose, so that their oval lenses caught and toyed with the light.
Daria caught sight of Morgan the fire-spinner, currently in heavy makeup as a Borg drone. Ze gave Daria a nod and saluted rather solemnly with an umbrella drink. This prompted the woman with whom Morgan was speaking—a lanky figure dressed as a brown teddy bear—to turn about with an inquiring glance. Jane waved happily and beckoned Daria to join them.
This, Daria was only too happy to do, but it required working her way through a substantial amount of the crowd. A grandiose gesture from a young man she passed nearly connected with the side of her head. He looked over and then made apologetic noises, adding, “Wicked outfit!”
“Thanks,” Daria said. “Excuse me, I have to go meet its maker.”
Every third or fourth person at the party was, Daria estimated, in cosplay to some extent. This was representative of Aletheia on the whole, judging by what she had seen over the past two days.
At last, she stood beside Jane, who hooked an arm around hers and leaned in close. “Told you it would be a hit!” A lock of Jane’s hair flopped forward. A crosscross band just above eyebrow level kept the lock constrained in a bundle.
“You win the bet,” Daria said. “Do you want quatloos or woolongs?”
* * *
Tom poured lemon-lime soda up to the halfway point of her cup, then added a stiff measure of cranberry juice and topped it off with orange and a splash of pineapple. “You look like you’re trying to find the signal in the noise.”
Daria took the cup from his hands. “Thanks. Trying to read body language, and all I get are signs that people slept with each other.”
—Is it a good thing or a bad thing that I don’t get attracted to people until emotions get involved?
“In this crowd? Yeah, the social network is pretty much a hairball.”
“One great big fun drama vortex,” Daria said.
“Is that a happy face or a sad face?”
“It’s just, you know…”
Jane appeared beside her and leaned against the bar. “Like high school all over again? Hey,” directing this to Tom, “you have fixings for a Shirley Temple?”
Tom began assembling her drink.
“Worse,” Daria said. “In high school, I could tell myself I was above it all. Now, it’s like there’s something I need at the bottom of the vortex, and I want to throw myself in.”
—Not that anyone would care to pick me up.
“If you’re serious,” Jane said, “I can point out people.”
“Too soon?” Tom asked.
Jane waved her hands placatingly, then took her drink and slurped a mouthful of it. “Too soon,” she said. Then, brightening, “So a man walks into a talent agent’s office—”
—And I couldn’t reciprocate anyone’s interest unless and until I gave them a piece of my heart, dammit.
Daria interposed: “Where’s Saavik?”
“Oh,” Tom said, “she texted me a few minutes ago. Said she’d met some people she knew down in the dance hall and she’d try to get them all up here.”
“More people,” Daria said. “Same number of escape routes.”
Tom propped himself up against the bar. “You doing OK?”
“As long as I keep telling myself I’m here to do research, yes.”
Tom’s jacket pocket began to play “Karma Police.” He read the caller ID and held the phone to his ear. “Dial-A-Sloane.” Holding it in place with his shoulder, carrying on with the construction of a Gibson. “Uh-huh. That’s from Morris himself? Yeah, well, Valley boys, what can you do? `We’re innovators who are all about disruption! You can tell by how we all look alike!’ No, but—all right. No, I think the stats we’ve got will cover it.” He looked down to scan the dial of his watch. “Hmm. I’m with you on that. Tell you what: you and Tink put what you’ve got up in the cloud, and I’ll see what I can do with it.” He handed off the cocktail glass and continued, “Jess, if we don’t sort it out now, I’ll just have it in my head to stress over, and the night will be ruined anyway. Gimme half an hour and we’ll see what I can come up with. OK. Talk to you soon.”
He gestured to Jane. “Can you keep an eye on things for half an hour? Work calls.” This last while waving his phone a little apologetically.
“Sure. Just don’t expect those cocktail olives to be waiting for you when you return.”
“Super,” Tom replied, and with a generally harried air he squeezed his way between the party-goers until he vanished around the corner that led to the master bedroom.
And then Jane was busy attempting to mix a Manhattan with orange bitters following instructions on her phone. Daria felt herself recede into the background.
—I should strike up a conversation.
She finished the last of the concoction that Tom had made for her.
—I should join the genial chatter in which Jane is partaking right now. It will be easy and enjoyable.
Daria swung her feet a few times. Then she slid off the barstool and made her way, unhurriedly, to the door.
* * *
“Melody knew she had to file an after-action report. She knew she had to force her unease into the open, to codify and catalogue it. Otherwise, her discomfort would linger and fester. And that was bad for Company business.”
Daria was mumbling to herself, gnawing on the blunt end of a pen as she sat, alone, at a round table for six. The snack buffet, in the basement room beside the hawkers’ hall, was quiet at this hour. She turned the pages of her notebook until she found the place where her rough-draft statement of academic interests had trailed off. Then she drew a horizontal line, inscribed the date and sought within herself for the right character’s voice to recount the convention so far.
* * *
The convention began in an encouraging enough way. There I was, patiently queueing for the registration desk, looking out from the mezzanine over the hotel lobby. Taking everything in, telling myself it’s all fine, I’m here to gather material. Then, at the desk, sliding my photo ID across the Formica:
“Daria Morgendorffer, multipass.”
Equipped with my badge, I rejoined Tom and Saavik. The latter was sashaying a little, singing in a melty tenor, “`Who’s been casting devious stares in my direction?'”
Tom’s reply, plaintive: “It’s not my fault I got drunk and downloaded all those songs from high school!”
We saw Jane waving from across the lobby. The room fairly seethed with activity, most of it aimless. As we navigated through it, I tracked the coffee cups in the hands of people coming from one direction, the shopping bags carried by those going in another. I counted two Klingon warriors, the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, a genderflipped Captain America, a trio of Imperial Stormtroopers, a Faye Valentine (how was she not freezing?), Finn and Fiona and a tall woman in a dark wool overcoat and a deerstalker hat with captions attached to it by wires.
Saavik looked about. “Hey, where’d Jane get to?”
My phone buzzed. I pulled it out and read the incoming text: “Look behind you.”
This time, her flying hug-tackle lifted me from my feet.
I looked her up and down. “I get it. Serial Experiments Lane.”
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s get the three of you looking fa-aaabulous!”
On the elevator ride upwards, she explained the merchandise they were hoping to unload. Downstairs, in their booth in the hawkers’ hall, they had unpacked a crate of paintings that had been MacGuffins in a miniseries about a gentleman thief and forger. Imitations of forgeries, which made the whole show more artful than it deserved to be.
When I stepped into the entertaining suite, I quailed. I knew then how accustomed I had become, after serving my time as a grad student and an adjunct professor, to modest and respectable spending.
Tom asked, “What do you think?”
“Surprisingly tasteful,” I said.
Jane, flouncing onto a chaise: “Yeah, I had expected much more of a `walking into a SkyMall catalogue’ vibe.”
Tom and Saavik vanished into one of the bedrooms to change. I had worn much of my Fullmetal Alchemist outfit as my street clothes, just swapping my boots and pulling my parka on over the sweater. I was flexing the fingers of my prosthetic, testing my ability to unwrap a chocolate bar, when they emerged from the bedroom.
“Commander Ikari,” I greeted Tom.
“Bet you were wondering why the beard,” Jane said.
Saavik stepped out from behind Tom. She wore a snappy khaki jacket with a matching skirt that came to her knees. A short, feathery indigo wig framed her face, and a matte-gray collar curved around her neck, open at the front, with cable jacks and plugs at the two terminii flanking her throat. A leather Sam Browne belt cinched in the jacket at her waist and ran over her right shoulder. She slid a glove over her right hand, a spiffy little item that left her fingertips bare, but added some intimidating metal over her knuckles.
“Hey,” she said to me, “I think we’re technically the same rank!”
I glanced at the three rows of modest insignia just over her breast pocket. “You’re more decorated than I.”
It was roughly at this point that Morgan entered, pulling a luggage trolley laden with booze, the magnetic pull of which had ensnared several other people whom I vaguely recognized from the preparation party.
“Hey, there’s a karaoke machine in here!” Jane held up a microphone on a long cable.
Still adjusting the USB collar for a comfortable fit, Saavik darted to the cabinet and jabbed the power button. She pushed keys on the machine’s control panel to speed-scroll through its list of artists. In a moment, her face lit up.
Jane looked from the younger woman to the display panel and back again. Saavik beckoned her in to hear a whisper, and whatever she heard made her smile and surrender the microphone.
I glanced away momentarily to watch Morgan don the Borg eyepiece that ze had made the weekend before. I looked back as Saavik said, her voice now amplified through the room’s sound system, “This one goes out to a young woman who just moved here from Chicago. It’s a song about cultural appropriation. Daria, others present, I think it’s time we blow this scene. Get everybody and their stuff together. Three, two, one… Rawhide!“
She had a fine singing voice, one that gave the impression of great power under tight control. Soon, she had the room joining in on the “head ’em up”s and “ride ’em out”s. I noticed that she left the gender unchanged in the “wishin’ my gal was by my side.”
Not long after, Jane returned to the hawkers’ hall, and the rest of us went exploring.
We found the discothéque, which was trapped in Remix the Eighties mode. Next door were the subdivided function rooms, the sort rented for topical sessions of real-estate broker cabals. Tonight, the room we entered was set aside for a LARPing event of some sort. The people I was with knew people already there, and some sort of conversation appeared unavoidable.
There were signals of undercurrents: the way Morgan’s fingers adjusted zir Borg-drone monocle, the low wattage of the smiles with which both ze and Saavik greeted certain shifts in the general chatter. More than a few interactions in the room read as the cool politeness granted an ex from a relationship concluded but not yet completely resolved. However, who the pairings might have been was hard to tell. The signal, if it was there, had been obscured by the scheduled conviviality, the sense of this-time-comes-but-once-a-year. But beneath that, one felt the substratum of friends on the opposite sides of a breakup, perhaps repeated with different alignments two or three times.
Thankfully, dinnertime interrupted.
Jane/Lain reunited with us as we left the hotel. We rode the subterranean electric bus to South Station and walked to Chinatown. A dozen people squeezed into a renowned hole-in-the-wall, next to a bakery, a juice bar, a curio shop and a pornogerie. A dozen people, of whom I knew two well and another two vaguely.
And here I had one of those moments, one of those little interludes where you think, “This is totally a prototype or an archetype or a microcosm for something or other.” When life surprises you with a concrete realization of a theme you had mostly contemplated indistinctly in the abstract.
It began with the ordering of the pan-fried Peking ravioli. First, the judgment had to be made as to how many our table could collectively consume. Hands, or rather index fingers, went up all around. Some fingers were straight, the others bent. It transpired that a bent finger meant the diner wished only half a regular order. Abashed, I dropped the hand I had raised and made some kind of “never mind” gesture before turning my attention to emptying my teacup.
In the eyes of everyone I did not already know, I was an outsider, and a gauche one at that. While the food was chosen and awaited and eaten, Tom and Saavik tried a few times to bring me into the conversation. “Daria, didn’t you once write something for #SickSadWorld about that?” I made an honest attempt to rise to their leads, but the chill never quite lifted.
How odd it felt to be me, of all people, a writer for #SickSadWorld even, and to feel myself out of place at a science-fiction convention. I, who in my day had been a Love Goddess from beyond the stars.
During the midst of these thoughts, I found that Jane/Lain had snuck three pan-fried Peking ravioli onto my plate.
We returned to the convention hotel to see a play, a spoof of several decades worth of science-fiction tropes, put on by a group with which the Major sometimes performs, though circumstances I didn’t know the details of had kept her from participating in this show. It was a fine show, too, one which demanded the scenery be well-chewed by story’s end. I laughed, frequently, and the merriment was general.
“It was good,” Saavik said, “but it’s just not the same without the captain’s faithful sidekick Lumpy.” Agreement was widespread on this point.
The next day, Jane was scheduled to staff the Moonbase booth all through business hours. I tried taking in some panels. There was a session of filking, spoiled by poor organization which left too many people in the room not knowing the tunes of the songs for which the comedic new lyrics had been written, thereby trampling the chances of a real sing-along. Together, Saavik and I sat in on a session about an abortive attempt to make a Doctor Who animated movie after the show was canceled in the 1980s. Roger Ebert had just given his thumbs up to Akira, and both the possibilities and the affordability of animation were intoxicating. René Laloux, fresh from his fantasy epic Gandahar, was ready to direct. A script was drafted, apparently with at least some input from Douglas Adams. Animation tests were made, voices recorded over concept art… and the whole thing went up the spout.
The session was surprisingly poorly attended. Me, I’d have thought that Sylvester McCoy regenerating into Diana Rigg would have drawn a bigger audience, but perhaps the description in the programme gave away too little. Word is, the people running the panel will be Kickstarting a documentary about the lost Doctor, so stay tuned.
Strangely enough, the only Doctors I saw around the hotel were all New Who—except for the gentleman dressed in a blazer, jeans and a long scarf, limping on a cane adorned with flame decals. His pocket of pill bottles must have been bigger on the inside.
“Would you like a jelly baby? By which I mean Vicodin.”
We lunched with the Moonbase Illyria team in the hawkers’ hall. Over my empty chili bowl, I looked over the programme once more.
“`Why does a science-fiction convention have such a strong fetish contingent?'”
Tom asked, “Well, why shouldn’t it?”
“No, that’s the name of a session, in room 2A.”
* * *
“Daria?” A young woman’s voice brought Daria out of her notebook.
“Saavik? What are you doing down here?”
“Oh, you know, just—” Whatever she had planned to say faded out. She shifted her weight and ran her fingers up underneath the blue-purple bangs of her wig. “Can I sit with you a minute?”
Saavik pulled out a chair opposite the round table from Daria and crumpled into it.
Daria asked, “Rough night?”
Saavik snorted. “Not my best.”
“You didn’t come all the way down here from the party?”
“Never made it that far. Hell, you want to hear the story?”
“I was down here, over in the dance hall. I meant to go up to Tom’s party, but it was a pretty good set, and I lost track of time, and then I kind of got swept along with some people I sort of knew who were going to another room party. And the guys I knew from college had to talk with the people they knew before they could leave, the way that happens.”
Saavik drew in a ragged breath and went on. “I got cornered by this guy. He was pleasant enough at first. That’s how they always are, right, you know? Pleasant enough at first. I was just waiting around, killing time, doing the smalltalk thing, and he starts going on about something involving medicine.”
“Portraying himself as an eligible young doctor?”
“He said he had majored in alternative medicine in college. I was trying to be polite, because, you know, party, and I thought it might make a scene if I said anything. Like, for example, the reason they call it `alternative’ is because if it worked, it would just be `medicine.’ Then he said something about Western doctors being all closed-minded and `out of tune with our bodies’ natural healing energy,’ I think was how he put it. Which just, I don’t know, sat wrong with me, can’t fucking imagine why.”
“So then you left?”
“Well, I kind of looked around and took a second to think, and I realized he had been doing that trick where you lead a girl to different parts of a room so she feels like she’s been talking with you for longer. It’s, like, some Pick-Up manual thing? Only it didn’t work, because I’d been counting the seconds until I could get out of there and up to Tom’s party. I should have left right then, dammit, but before I could decide how polite my exit should be, my college friends came over, and I thought we’d be on our way. But they got to talking with Mr. Healing Vibes, and one of them said something about me transitioning. And then it was all `I Didn’t Know You Were A Trans: Conversation Number Three.'”
Saavik slumped over the table and rested her head on her right arm, while her left hand wandered out to toy listlessly with a candy wrapper someone had discarded on the table.
“It’s just, so, I don’t know, insidious. You spend year after year feeling like your body is wrong in a fundamental way. And you kind of internalize that. Like it’s a basic rule of who you are. So when you finally present in a new way, when you’re read more and more as the gender which feels right, there’s this little voice in your head. `You should be grateful,’ it says. `You should thank the man for calling you a pretty girl. That’s the validation you wanted. You can’t pass it up, can you?'”
Daria couldn’t think of anything to say. She waited in silence until Saavik pushed herself up and leaned back to stare at the ceiling. “Like I said, not my best night. Even before we got to the `So, how does sex work with you?’ part.”
“What did you do?”
“I reached into my pocket like my cell phone had just vibrated, and I pretended that my boyfriend had just texted me. Because I am just that fucking subtle. Then I threw my drink in the trash and walked out.” She paused, as a thought occurred to her. “On my way out, I heard Harry—one of my acquaintances from college—inviting everybody to his Super Bowl party. And everyone was being, I dunno, pumped about it? I got this quick taste of something that didn’t compute. Daria, why are people so proud of watching the Super Bowl? Like, contrarian proud?”
“Same reason they come out as bold supporters of Valentine’s Day. A milder form of asking why there’s no Straight Pride parade or White History Month. They like the self-righteous thrill of being an oppressed minority, without the actual risk.”
“Huh.” Saavik blinked a few times.
Daria felt a pulse of what might have been grim satisfaction, although the satisfaction part was a little lacking. Her default response to distraught people was to try drawing them out and diverting their attention, sending their thoughts down a different path. For a wonder, here was a person and a situation where that actually appeared to work, to an extent at least.
Daria asked, “You want to head up to Tom’s suite? I’m sure the party is still going on.”
“No. I don’t think so. I mean, I feel—kind of a mess.”
“If you’d rather sit in the dark and not have to talk or think, I bet there’s a movie or an anime marathon somewhere in this place.”
“You want to join me?”
“Sure.” Daria pulled out her phone and checked the Aletheia schedule. “Looks like they’re showing The Andromeda Strain in about fifteen minutes.”
“What’s that about? Is that the one with the germ from outer space?”
“From back before we discovered the greatest threat to space exploration was American indifference.”
“I’m in. God, am I in.”
* * *
They emerged into the empty hallway which linked the conference rooms with the elevator alcove beside the lobby. Faint noises came out of the anime-screening room just across from them.
“I liked it,” Saavik said, sounding surprised at herself.
“Goes to show,” Daria said, “they can’t play the genuinely bad movies at this hour, because con people want to see them.”
“It’s like, there’s a…” Saavik slipped the knuckleduster glove back onto her hand. “An appeal, you know, to seeing people at the top of their profession doing what they do best? Competence on display?”
“Yeah,” Daria said. “It’s the opposite of gawking at a disaster and saying `You had one job! One job!'”
“Right! They have one job, and they’re trained by the best to do it, and they do the right thing—”
“Even in the face of blood-clotting bugs from space, and even more horrifying, an original story by Michael Crichton. Something wrong?”
Saavik was looking down at her toes, walking with swinging kick-steps that advanced her slowly for the amount of motion involved. “Thanks for staying with me,” she said.
“I’m not much of a support system,” Daria said. “In fact, that I have anything to give after all I’ve taken seems rather implausible.”
“Psssh.” Saavik looked around the corner, past the elevators, toward the hotel lobby. “Hey, look! It’s a perfect bit of Beige Land!”
“You know, the interchangeable places. The anodyne territories. Made to look and work the same no matter how far from home you are. They function on their own logic. Catch them after closing time, and they’re empty of the people which are their reason for existing. They aren’t even haunted. The shoeshine stand in Terminal C. The beige places.”
—Been dwelling on this, turning it over in her head more than once.
“A vending machine,” Daria suggested, “beside the bathroom in a Student Union, the night after Christmas, advertising Ultra Cola to a bulletin board open to notices from clubs which haven’t met in nine months and never had more than five members when they did.”
“Damn, girlfriend, where have you been lurking?” Saavik looked over to the stairwell which led down to the basement, with the hawkers’ hall and the room set aside for the disco. “Oh hey, we’re not alone.”
Even at this hour, a couple con people were idling on the stairs. The woman tapped her high-heel black boot against the top step as she spoke. She wore a black skirt with a considerable tendency to swirl, and a corset the color of a slightly dusty pumpkin. Over one arm, she carried a grayish raincoat. The man, sprawling like a spiky-haired Diogenes in a leather jacket, took up the other side of the stairs.
“Not the mask,” he said. “The masks are for tossers.”
Daria could not hear what the woman said in reply, but the man’s voice cut across the lobby, the voice of a public-school dropout trying to sound as tough as possible as he deferred adulthood in the orbit of London.
“The man was a bloody theocrat,” he said. “And these pimply colonial wankers have turned him into some potted spunk fantasy. `Like, dude, anarchy in the UK, bro!’ I need that like I need a zit on my foreskin. You know what their anarchy means? Each mask, ten quid in the till for Wanker Brothers, that’s what. The pause that refreshes in the corridors of power!”
The woman’s reply was a little louder than before. “Do me a favor?”
“Next, say, `I’m off to Tesco. Fancy a fry-up?'”
All through this exchange, disquiet had been welling up inside Daria. It began with the feeling that those two reminded her of something from a long time ago. Then came the memory of what in her past that was, then the sensation that the match was too exact to be funny any longer.
Daria took a step closer to them. Saavik looked at her with a concern which Daria barely registered. Then Saavik looked back to the other two, and Daria took another half-step, and the woman turned to face them.
The regulated air of the hotel lobby was now the outdoor air of a clear autumn afternoon, smelling of fresh apples and dried leaves and the unwrapping of chocolates.
“Hello, Daria. It’s been a long time.”
There was no hint in her tone of an accidental encounter, no suggestion this meeting was due to serendipity.
Daria’s voice was not quite as raspy as she expected for herself. “Hal… Halloween?”
The man rose from his sprawl, and the two of them strode the few paces to where Daria stood.
“The very same,” she said to Daria.
The last time Daria had seen this woman, the woman named Halloween, she had looked eighteen, old for eighteen, seasoned by a life a few degrees less secure than Daria’s own. She had worn much the same clothes. She had played drums in a band with Trent Lane.
And she had most decidedly not been real.
“And you remember our lead singer, of course.”
“Bonfire Night,” he introduced himself to Saavik. He offered a hand.
“Saavik Yan,” she said, grasping it briefly.
Halloween lightly touched Bonfire Night’s elbow and whispered, “I think Daria’s friend is a little on edge. How about some girl time?”
Bonfire Night nodded. “Right,” he said. “I think I’ll go see about that fry-up.” He turned with a wave, took a step back toward the stairs, and disappeared.
Halloween clucked her tongue. “Honestly, that man.”
She clasped her hands, wrung them just a little, interwove her fingers. “Well, Daria, and Saavik…”
Both of whom were standing without moving.
“Daria?” Saavik asked. “What’s happening?”
“I met them… once…”
“Fifteen years, has it been?” Halloween smiled, a little this-isn’t-easy-for-me-either smile. Perhaps she was eighteen, perhaps twenty.
“That was a dream,” Daria said. “A long, rambling dream that came in pieces when I was doped up after they pulled out my wisdom teeth.”
“Yes,” Halloween said. “You were full of Demerol and trying to explain to your father how Christmas, Halloween and some English punk had fled Holiday Island to start a band, and you had to get them back where they belonged. Which we do appreciate, by the way. Both us and the personage in charge of the boundaries.”
“The… boundaries?” Daria echoed back in a whisper.
“Of the waking world,” Halloween replied. “There was a certain confusion in those days, a kind of fallout from things gone majorly whack a few years before. We were walking the Earth, me and my friends, thanks to some `advice’ that Christmas got from… well, never mind who exactly. Point is, you got us back home, which spoiled the plans of a particularly nasty, well, not person exactly…” She clasped her hands again. “Long story short, I’m here to introduce you to someone who’d like to make a deal with you.”
Daria sought in herself for words. Saavik spoke first. “The same someone who’s in charge of… of the boundaries?”
Halloween nodded. “The Lord Shaper. The Oneiromancer. The Emerald over Terminus. Youngest and third-eldest of the seven Endless. He who rose to the aspect of King of All Night’s Dreaming.” Halloween paused for a deep breath. “Daria Morgendorffer, the Sandman would like a moment of your time.”