The Butterfly Dragon: The Two Butterflies - Episode 10 (Updated February 15, 2024 10:20 AM EST)


This is a heavily updated post of Episode 10. There have been many additions throughout the existing chapters and an overhaul of the order in which they're presented to go along with the timeline of the story that connects them all. If you started reading The Butterfly Dragon: The Two Butterflies - Episode 10 before February 12, then I highly suggest you reread the episode in its entirety as it finally has a narrative that connects everything together, not to mention one that connects it with Episode 9 instead of just dropping you into the story with no explanation. Please do enjoy. Brian Joseph Johns

The new artwork pipeline is working wonderfully so far, not to mention that all the same tools are still involved, meaning the applications like Daz3D have only increased in importance and relevance in the face of AI rendered characters.

Artists should regard AI the same way that keyboardists and drummers regarded the arrival of synthesizers and drum machines back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Those musicians who embraced those new tools and found a way to integrate them into studio and live performances prospered greatly, while those who opposed them mostly opened a different branch of music, more in the purist and traditional sense. No one really lost per se, but in embracing new tools, you open many new avenues for content creation and creativity. More importantly in the case of AI, they become a great part of the artist's and content developer's feedback loop. The play that occurs between an artist and their tools, often expanding the realm of possibility.

I'm really hoping that NVidia integrates face and figure generation AI into the next version of their iRay rendering suite and plugin renderer, utilizing geometry as an input to the process, with their AI renderer being more like a post process tool in the final stage of rendering. 

That would solidify 3D geometry based design pipelines as the tool of choice for AI where it involves character, prop and environment design foundation, posing and animation.

Chapters (As of February 12, 2024)

  • Prologue (February 12, 2024)
  • The Two As They Are (February 12, 2024)
  • Privacy And Privilege (February 12, 2024)
  • Studio Nights, Lights Out (February 12, 2024)
  • Discretion And Divulgence (February 12, 2024)
  • The Spark Of Everything (February 12, 2024)
  • Alicia's First Card (February 14, 2024 In progress)

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The Butterfly Dragon: The Two Butterflies - Episode 10


Prologue


A little girl of nine years with long black hair and a pink play dress finished clipping the last of the garden plants her mother had asked her to preen.

"A garden needs care. Clip the dead branches and leaves and gather them up into the compost," she said to her little daughter.

"But won't that hurt the plants?" asked Ai Yuanlin Ying of her mother.

"Are you hurt when you clip your fingernails?" asked her mother, and Ai understood, though it seemed a bit harsh nonetheless.

"No. I'm not hurt, but won't it hurt the plant to take their limbs? The dead branches will fall off by themselves if we leave them long enough, won't they?" responded Ai, already mostly through her first years under Sensei Morgan Hind, and near the top of her class at school in every subject except math and the sciences.

Ai was an artist, and she had no patience for numbers and facts. She truly lusted for colours, shades, abstract ideas and the flutters that one gets in their belly riding a Ferris wheel. The spark of life and wonder. She wanted colourful candy and tasty sweets, absent of all salt and sour. Her mother knew this of her, and sometimes worried that she might not graduate or attend post secondary education if she didn't learn to understand that life has another side. It wasn't all flowers, candy, sweets and joy.

"They will, but that's not the point. Perhaps we should do the same with your fingernails?" Ai's mother stepped away from her ledger and extended her fingers like a monster, causing Ai to giggle at her antics.

"Its not about the cutting, but if you neglect to do it, the garden will cease to be healthy much the same if you didn't clip your nails. You're helping the garden by the fact that you're spending your time and care attending to it," Ai's mother returned to her Real Estate ledger.

Ai from that point had taken the clippers (the ones with safety edges so that she couldn't hurt herself with them) and began pruning and preening the plants of the backyard garden of their sizeable home. Removing the dead branches and leaves so that the plants could grow.

As she clipped them, she noticed that the Butterflies, had arrived at the flowers and were busy going from pistil to pistil, drinking nectar while accumulating pollen on their furry legs. As they went from one flower of the same or similar species to the next, they pollenated the other flowers along their path.

Ai realized this as she watched them, working feverishly alongside the Bees, who were also very busy doing much the same thing. This had been a lesson in Ai's recent biology class in public school and she realized that she was witnessing the origins of the births of the next generation of plants to inhabit their family garden. It was at that point that she spied a cocoon hiding under one of the leaves of a flowing Dragon Lily.

At that moment, she recalled her dreams from the field and how the fauna living there had worked together to give life and essence to the cocoon that would eventually become her Dragon Mentor. The Butterflies and the Bees, amongst other insects in the garden were doing much the same for all the flowering plants. As much so as they'd been doing for most of eternity on the planet, in gardens everywhere, with or without property lines. With or without us to tend them and it was at that point that she understood her mother's lesson.

Ai shook her head as the epiphany arrived on the doorstep of her comprehension, and all at once her understanding of the world grew exponentially. The realization opened the door to ever further artistic and abstract possibilities, but it had one caveat.

It also raised just as many, if not more questions. Where did she come from? Where did all the human children come from and how did they get here?

Ai turned and ran with her nine year old legs back in through the sliding doors of the kitchen and to the main floor office where her mother now filed her ledger.

"How did I get here?" asked Ai of her mother.

The ledger hit the floor and after a moment of startled pause, Ai's mother bent over to pick it up.

Ai's mother smiled ever so amorously, yet concealing something within the pupils of her eyes.

"I've answered you on your questions of the garden. Why don't you speak with your father?" asked Ai's mother of the little nine year old girl.

"He's very busy with his drawings, isn't he?" asked Ai of her mother.

"Yes, but he might benefit from your questions as much as you'll benefit from his answers don't you think?" asked Ai's mother.

"Like tending the garden is about the time and care I give?" asked Ai, already knowing the answer in her heart.

"Go talk to him. Knock first. I'm sure he'd love to see you," Ai's mother filed the ledger, turning again to her daughter.

Ai nodded and cautiously walked over to the stairs, ascending them to the third floor attic loft where Ai's father had crafted his design office.

She approached the door, knocking on it for the first time for any other reason than to notify her father that dinner was ready.

"The door is unlocked," her father responded from the other side.

Ai opened the door, stepping into a very unfamiliar room to her, for she'd never actually seen it as she was forbidden from ever entering the room as all of her father's work lay within.

He looked up from the drafting table, to which a rather expensive looking CRT monitor was fastened, running a materials fracture point simulation in the background.

A smile arose on his face, though he was still looking at his drafting table and Ai couldn't tell if he was joyed at his progress or with her presence. He put his precision graphic pencil on the tray of the drafting table and turned in his chair to face his daughter. His smile only grew upon seeing her and she knew at that point that it was for her.

"What is it by which I am graced with your presence, my little Gem?" he asked her.

She blushed, still in a very unfamiliar place to herself.

She twisted from side to side nervously, looking around the room at his Architecture and Engineering books which lined his bookshelves. The numerous drawings and charts that lined the walls. And to a poster by an artist of whom she'd never heard, who'd painted a large set of butterfly wings within the center of which a heart lay. Within that heart, a family picture was centered of Ai's mother, her father, and herself between them. A tear found its way onto her lashes, but Ai kept her composure as Kyoshi Hind had taught her a week earlier. Her father deserved her mind, emotion and heart, and none in excess of the others and so Ai blinked the tear away, and faced her father with a similar smile to his own.

"Where do we come from?" asked Ai of her father.

For the first time in Ai's recollection, she witnessed her father suddenly distraught, possibly confused by such a question, and she all at once felt at home that neither of her parents knew. Then, his face changed from one of startled confusion to sudden realization.

He got up and off of his swivel chair, and walked over to his daughter and brought himself to her eye level so they could speak as equals.

"You see this room, Ai?" he asked her.

She nodded affirmatively to him.

"On the walls, is written a story. All of it, every single bit of it leads to this very moment and why we... that is you and I are here, talking about this. That poster there is the very marketing poster I first saw back in GuangZhou, advertising that the company that employs me now, was looking for Civil Architectural Engineers for various projects around the globe," he smiled as he looked to the poster himself and then back to her.

"That is where our journey together started... however, there was another journey before that between your mother and I.  It too was part of a thread that connected us together, the same way that the buttons on your day dress there are connected to the material. Its all woven together in one big weave of this thread. So that same thread that brought your mother and I together, is also connected to the thread that brought me to apply as a recently graduated Civil Architectural Engineer for that company. As it so happened, they hired me, and three years later, a few months after you were born, we were offered the opportunity to transfer globally to anywhere in the world, for this company has branch offices just about everywhere. Your mother and I, we discussed this for two months before we finally came to a decision and every consideration was about ensuring that our daughter had the best life we could afford her," he explained to her as he looked to the walls, which were lined with the projects he'd finished for GuangZhou, China before moving to Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

"But where did we come from? I mean how were we born?" asked Ai, somewhat confused as how to ask the question.

He smiled at her, sitting cross legged on the floor before her.

"My little Gem. Don't you see? Its all a thread. All of it! It weaves us all together, just like from here where we live now, to back home in GuangZhou, there's a thread. Before that, there was a thread that wove us to you. Even before you were born, somewhere in the essence your fate - your destiny was to be our child. Our little girl, and we've been joyed by your presence ever since. You see Ai, all of this, everything out there outside of the window. Through all of the chaos that arises from order, and the order that arises from chaos. All of it into the sky and stars and space... Its all part of a great thread that brought us together and to this very moment. We don't know how. But we do know that it happened. For here you are right before my very eyes. To your mother and I. You're our Gem," her father said to her, and young Ai Yuanlin Ying realized her destiny in her parent's words.

Her destiny as it turns out, was bound in a universal thread. Much like the thread that led her to ask her mother about tending the garden. The thread that led to her asking her mother about their origins. The thread that led to her mother answering that she should speak with her father. The thread that led to her conversation with him.

The thread that led to his answer and her ultimate understanding of her own future career and her destiny as the Butterfly Dragon.

That night, she dreamt of the spark of life itself, born from the throes of the intensity of two extremes, and yet in the most creative way. In her dreams she visited the field once again, and the whimsical dragon she'd met there spoke with her about it, though when she woke up, she'd forgotten everything it had said to her, except for one thing:

"My little Ai Yuanlin Ying. It cannot be written. It cannot be told. It can not be known, and is for none to behold, for it can only be lived," the serpentine dragon with the butterflies wings had said to her.

...

Heylyn returned from her memory, recalling her father's words as she looked upon Warai, who was now seated on the corner of the sofa beside Kori and Braden. Norler and Alicia beside them and curled up in the love seat were Valerie and Trey.

Monique and Aikiko were like bookends, one sitting on the armrest of the sofa, while the other sat on the armrest of the love seat.

They each had just revealed something of great importance, some of it of great personal importance, while some of it of importance to their investigation of Mentis and his Millions Of Minds followers.

For the first time in a long time, she'd been caught without an answer and this was a woman who'd had nothing but since graduating from the tutelage of Sifu Jinn Hua. She was a woman of advice, nurturing and solutions, and yet in this instance she had found nothing but an absence of words.

The room remained quiet, except for the ambient electronic music that played in the background, while the  twenty-four hour news station played silently on mute on her fifty inch television behind her.

Heylyn looked to Alicia and Norler first, about to say something when she suddenly put her hand over her mouth as if to stop herself. She instead raised her index finger to her friends, prompting them to wait patiently as she turned to face Monique and Aikiko.

"How long?" asked Heylyn, looking first to Monique and then to Aikiko.

"About three weeks..." Aikiko started as she was interrupted by Monique.

"Two weeks..." Monique said at the same time.

"So which one is it? Two or three?" Heylyn asked them with a concerned look on her face.

Monique looked to Aikiko, smirking at her friend for not coinciding on their alibi.

"Almost a month," Monique finally answered more correctly.

"And you didn't think this was something you should discuss with me?!!!" Heylyn challenged her accusingly.

"I have my own boundaries, thank you very much! I have my own place and my own life, and its only a convenience that they're so close to yours!" Monique responded, offended that she had to justify her private life to her friend and employer.

"This isn't about your private life. This is about Mentis and your being directly involved with someone linked to his case. Considering the responsibility that you and I have taken on as heroes of our own, that makes it very relevant!" Heylyn once again challenged her friend.

"Just the part about who he is... or might be! We don't even know if he's the same Habus Macill!!!" Monique responded, raising her voice defensively.

"Looks like the adults are playing loud," Kori joked, pulling Warai a little closer as she helped the little girl to finish her meal.

Heylyn caught notice out of the corner of her eye, and gestured to Monique to keep her voice down.

"Why don't you take Warai into the den and help her finish her dinner?" Heylyn suggested to Kori.

"...Alright, but you've got to tell me all the juicy stuff later," Kori said jokingly, receiving a smirk from Monique as she grabbed Warai's hand and urged her to follow to the den.

When the two were clear from the living room Heylyn returned to their conversation.

"Shhhh! Now, where were we? Oh yeah, how many other people do you think there are with that same name? I'll give you a clue, there's none listed in any directory in any Canadian city," Heylyn reminded Monique.

"Monique..." Aikiko urged her friend.

"This just feels... wrong. I shouldn't have to answer to you for anything involving my love life," Monique replied, her voice much quieter this time.

"Have you had him here?" asked Heylyn.

"What? Here? In your place? No!" she quickly responded.

"That's not what I meant!" Heylyn replied impatiently.

"Well... I..." Monique thought back three and a half weeks, recalling the first night she'd brought him home with her.

The night they brought them home.

The Two As They Are

Three and a half weeks before the meeting at Heylyn's condominium residence.


Aikiko stepped through the front door to the condominium entrance, almost tripping as she did, spurring laughter from Monique who followed behind her, their two men bracketed between them.

"Walk much?" asked Monique, very typsy and barely able to contain herself.

"I missed that class... too busy with kata," Aikiko responded, spurring Sterling to laugh along with her.

His hand found her waist, embracing it gently. Her hand quickly found that which was violating her body, and actually encouraged him to further explore her in a tasteful manner.

Monique caught sight of this and moved in closer to Habus, drawing his arm over her shoulders as they walked side by side.

The man at the security desk immediately recognized Aikiko and Monique (upon whom he had a crush).

"Good evening," he smiled at them as they approached.

"Ooops... just a minute... Monique made a scene, stumbling herself as she fiddled through her purse, trying to find her condo card.

In all truth, Monique was very observant and had been her entire life. She had known that the man most frequently at the security desk had something of an obsession for her, and she often liked to play with him in that regard. After all, in a sense, they both had something to gain from it, and she rather liked that a strange man, one who'd been tasked with protecting her, was  going a little bit beyond their professional familiarity. She found him to be cute in this manner and felt no threat by it.

"Let me see..." she said as she fished through her purse purposely drawing her admirer out.

"Its alright. I definitely recognize you," the man at the desk said to her admiringly.

Aikiko rolled her eyes, already reading Monique like an open book.

"Its alright, I have an elevator card..." Aikiko pulled Sterling, coaxing her to continue with her as Monique toyed with her fanboy at the front desk.

"We're falling behind," Habus' hand tightened around Monique's, drawing her along as he tried to keep up with his own friend, Sterling.

By the time the couple continued their pursuit of Aikiko and Sterling, their quarry had disappeared beyond the corner on their way to the elevator.

It was there, hidden and up against the wall that Sterling pinned Aikiko thereupon the relief work of the decorative brick wall in the elevator foyer.

They embraced in a kiss, Aikiko's back against the wall and she suddenly found herself in a very unfamiliar situation and one that was making her uncomfortable. As chance would have it, Monique and Habus happened upon Aikiko and Sterling from around the corner.

"Getting familiar are you?" Monique giggled, a private joke between her and Habus, who for all intense purposes went along with it.

She stumbled slightly as she stepped, catching her balancing frighteningly quickly as she pressed the elevator button.

Aikiko caught Monique's slip and acted quickly to cover for her friend.

"She's a model. She practices catching her falls like all the time...  It amazes me," Aikiko responded quickly.

Fortunately, neither of the men caught on, though Sterling used her own words to flirt.

"I'm amazed with you," he said to her, moving inwards once again to press her against the wall.

Aikiko held him back forcibly, though she kept an inviting smile on her face, letting him know that he was still earning her trust.

Habus and Monique by that time had become silence, except for the sound of their lips pressed together and the the motion between.

Aikiko found herself in an awkward position as the silence engulfed them. Ultimately though she was rescued when the digital elevator bell sounded, breaking their momentary solace as Monique's and Habus' lips parted.

The elevator door opened, and the two couples, both of whom were well under the influence of their earlier drinks, boarded the device, each of them finding their own side as the men attempted to pin the women. Monique fearlessly engulfed Habus' lips with her own as the two met on the elevator opposite Aikiko and Sterling.

Aikiko once again laid down the ground rules, holding her ambitious lover off as the elevator ascended.

Sterling however, wasn't having any of it. He pushed against her resistance and within herself, Aikiko could feel someone else coming to her defense. Someone who'd take charge where she herself couldn't.

"Please... don't!" Aikiko pleaded with her new found lover, perhaps trying to warn him about the danger he might face.

"Let's start with a kiss... why not?" he responded, moving in closer to her lips.

"No... you don't understand..." Aikiko resisted, which in Sterling's case only turned him on that much more, for he was interpreting her resistance as an invitation.

He moved closer to her lips and the digitally intelligent elevator suddenly accelerated with the absence of calls on its trip. Sterling's lips met with those of Aikiko, and she resisted but he continued his pursuit of her passion.

The elevator suddenly slowed its ascent, giving all the passengers butterflies in their stomach. Monique even smiled at the irony as her lips parted from those of Habus. And then, the elevator door opened on the penthouse floor.

Monique and Habus stepped out first, Monique's hand clasped around Habus' as she dragged him towards a door to the right of the elevator.

"Is this yours?" Habus asked her.

"No. Its a friend's place. Just checking if she's up..." Monique pressed her face against Heylyn's door and when she heard nothing, she pulled her man in the direction of her condo.

Monique stumbled again, though this time she remained within the realm of believability with her response.

On the elevator however, Aikiko had exited and Dragon Aikiko had entered through her.

Sterling pushed against her once again, and Dragon Aikiko grabbed his wrist, twisting it in such a way that he was quickly helpless. She then forced him out of the elevator and to the wall opposite the door, slamming him against it aggressively.

"Is this what you wanted?" she asked him, holding his wrist firm in her hand, perhaps waiting for his submission.

He groaned as he resisted her grip.

"I just thought maybe you were..." he began.

"You didn't even hear my words. I distinctly said: no... you don't understand. And you completely ignored me!" Dragon Aikiko responded, holding Sterling against the wall, her lips inches from his as she took charge.

"No... means no you mean? I mean sometimes... there's situations where..." Sterling found himself in an awkward position, trying to justify his ignorance of her words.

Aikiko moved in on his lips, kissing them fiercely, biting his lower lip as she twisted his wrist until a nerve in his elbow was pinned between the bones of his forearm and upper arm. He winced as she pushed him against the wall, barely exhaling the words:

"Please don't!" as the pain hit him.

"You surely mean please continue, don't you? I mean if what I said meant the opposite to you, then surely what you say must mean the opposite to me?" Dragon Aikiko twisted his wrist, pushing the limits of what he could endure.

"I said no..." he responded to her.

"So did I... so what's the difference? Are you saying that my request isn't as valid as yours?" she replied, easing her grip on his wrist.

"No... I meant... I find you..." Sterling replied cautiously, oblivious of his earlier disregard for her request.

"What? You find me what?!" she challenged him, suddenly throwing him against the wall opposite the door through which Monique and Habus had stepped into the condominium beyond. 

Into the darkness.

Sterling didn't respond, which Dragon Aikiko found offensive, for he was ready to thrust himself upon her, yet when she had the reigns, he could not find it in himself to speak candidly with her.

To be honest and sincere.

To be a man.

Somewhere within the open door, Monique was already undressing her man, as was he so doing with her. Their hands found the edges of their garments, each of them struggling to get them down and removed from their bodies quicker than the other. Their motion was deliberate, yet soft. An unknown choreography of lust and mystery.

Meanwhile, Dragon Aikiko had taken charge, slamming Sterling against the interior wall of  their condominium. Pressing him full force against the wall outside of Aikiko's room. 

Sterling found himself unable to cope with his lover's aggression, yet she did not relinquish anything to the man and he found himself lost. In unfamiliar territory in the hands of the suddenly aggressive woman.

"Is this what you wanted when I so clearly said no?!!!" Dragon Aikiko forced him against the door frame of her room.

Sterling was caught off guard, unable to answer her.

She quickly spun him, throwing him against the far wall.

"Well?!" she pressed him.

"I... No..." he squeaked weakly.

She pressed herself against him, biting his lower lip viciously, almost to the point of drawing blood.

"Stop!" he demanded of her.

"Why should I? I asked you the same thing, and you kept going!" Dragon Aikiko's eyes were fierce and intense.

"I thought that you wanted..." he responded to her, completely caught off guard by her sudden ferocity.

"You don't even know me! How could you assume that my saying no meant yes? How could you assume something like that of someone you don't even know!!!" she demanded of him.

Sterling was lost for words in her sudden confrontation.

She pulled him from the wall and then turned him, literally launching him at her bed with one motion  of her arm. He landed on his back, and began retreating from her as she advanced, quickly discarding her heels and she mounted him and held him in place.

"Whenever you try to take away a woman's right to say no, you'll get me!!!" Dragon Aikiko cursed at him.

"Stop it!" he demanded of her, and she simply held him down.

"When you learn to behave like a real man, and respect my wishes, you'll get my subservient other. Until then, you've got me," Dragon Aikiko's eyes were flared like those of a serpent ready to strike.

She held Sterling in place, and had her way with him and all according to her wishes.

Though it wasn't what he initially had wanted or expected. He reluctantly and regrettingly enjoyed it.

The two couples found their passion that night, each in very different ways. Monique and Habus found mutual pleasure in each other, while Aikiko and Sterling sorted out the roles in their relationship as if the universe was educating one of them.

For all intense purposes, Dragon Aikiko had become Sterling's teacher.

Yet, the energy from the pleasure of the two couples was ultimately the same energy responsible for all life on the planet. 

It was the beginning and the end. 

It was the alpha and the omega.

All without a single life stemming from their passion, and yet the universe still grew from the burst of creative energy.

After their moment of crescendo, Monique lay in bed catching her breath, suddenly realizing that she'd slept with the enemy.

Privacy And Privilege

Monique seemed drained after having explained that night to those in the living room of Heylyn's condo.

"Does that make it better?" asked Monique, feeling like she'd poured her soul out to those listening in the room.

"Can I say something?" asked Alicia, now very nervous about interrupting.

"I'll get to you two soon enough. Where were we? The other two love birds. Valerie and Trey. It seems that you've been caught in some private movies?" Heylyn turned accusingly to them.

"Not by our choice! We secretly filmed... without our knowing...!!!" Valerie responded to Heylyn's inquiry.

"You've been doing it everywhere! It was only a matter of time!" Monique interjected, perhaps finding relief in persecuting someone else after having poured out details of her private life.

"Are you saying we deserved to have our private moments used in a blackmail scheme?!!!" Valerie became defensive, tensing for a moment as her hands tightened around the armrest of the love seat, crushing it easily under her immense strength.

The armrest suddenly broke under Aikiko's weight and she fell, rolling over her shoulders and back up onto her feet.

"That wasn't funny!" Aikiko's eyes flared at Valerie, though it was someone else looking out at her.

"Calm down Aikiko. Valerie. Alright? Just nice and calm..." Heylyn's wings momentarily grew, expanding suddenly from her back, a low hum emitted as they twisted in shape, glowing as if ready for anything between the two women should she have to intervene.

When they saw Heylyn's wings stretching into position to block them, they suddenly realized where they were and caught themselves before their tempers burst.

Aikiko bowed intuitively low, humbling herself knowing from Hanshi's, Tiger's and Jinn Hua's teachings that Dragon Butterfly would lose her hold on Aikiko's presence. As she'd learned to recognize, Dragon Butterfly immediately disappeared upon such a show of humbleness, and yet Aikiko had only gained face and much more respect from her friends in doing so.

"I'm sorry Aikiko. Its was an accident. You and I are more alike than you'll ever know... I hope," Valerie's voice decreased in volume and she spoke more softly than she had before.

"We both caught each other's fall. No apology necessary," Aikiko responded.

Heylyn's wings disappeared into her back, the droning hum they emitted now replaced by the drone of the ambient music.

"Who are these people who have this video of you?" asked Heylyn, more calmly and tactfully than before.

"We're still piecing it together, but whomever they are, they've already shared it around substantially," Trey leaned forward on the love seat, speaking for them both as he clasped Valerie's other hand.

"Where did this happen?" asked Heylyn calmly.

"At a hotel. We had a romantic escape one day. For our lunch hour, though we took an extra hour. It was kind of a special day to us, and I wanted to surprise Valerie," Trey explained to Heylyn.

"So why is it that Aikiko and I are singled out for our private lives, and he's being treated like a saint?" Monique challenged.

"You aren't singled out at all. We're gathering details connected to your involvement with Habus so we can all protect each other, including Aikiko and you," Braden interrupted, finally fed up with having remained silent for so long.

"The same goes with Valerie and Trey's situation. If we don't know how they're being affected and by whom, we can't protect them either," Heylyn added.

"But they've been treating the studio like its their own little love nest!" Monique responded, still angry that she'd been forced to share details of her private life.

"Is that true?" Heylyn asked Valerie and Trey.

Valerie looked to Trey, whose hand tightened around hers.

Valerie nodded affirmatively without saying anything.

"When? How close was this to when you suspect that you were recorded?" asked Heylyn.

"It was a week ago..." Valerie began speaking about her last encounter with Trey.

Simultaneously both confidently and regrettingly.

Studio Nights, Lights Out


Inside of Studio B the music was still crisp, the bass pounding though the photoshoot had long since finished. Those that remained considered themselves to be amongst the experienced veterans of the industry. They were Nathan, one of the most sought after directors, a true visionary when it came to the  vision, progression and pacing of a shoot.

He sat casually on a large beanbag chair, his on-again-off-again girlfriend and model Larissa lay across his lap. Both of them were wrapped around each other. Their drinks in one hand as the eclectic electronic music pumped.

"I still can't believe we got this done and so totally nailed, and its only like... nine o'clock..." Trey's words slurred as he nursed his drink from another beanbag chair.

"I know. He actually told Heylyn that we'd be here until midnight if we stuck to Nathan's vision," Larissa spoke, purposely cold and secretly for Trey's benefit.

"Naaa. Trey and I are on the level here. We've both got that eye for an ear of knowing when to listen to our models' advice," Nathan quickly responded, understanding how the business sometimes worked.

"I still can't believe how good it turned out. And the audition shots are right on the money! They practically already look like they've been through compositing and post three times. You never get that anymore unless you're working with art directors familiar with good lighting," Trey's speech slurred as he buttered up his director without kissing his arse.

"You know Trey, I watch for that all the time. Lighting is essential for still because thanks to digital, we can play all we want with film stock and ISO without spending a cent. Its like you can do it all in your head, based upon how your experience with actual analog ISO and F-Stop stuck to you..." Nathan's head swayed from side to side as he stabilized himself.

"Well, I'm not quite from those days, though I did manage to pickup an old stock 35mm Pentax K-1000 from E-bay. I've got it at home in my vintage camera collection, alongside my Canon AE-35," Trey responded.

"You bastard! You have like.. one and a half of my dream analog photo-recipe lens cams... whoa... I think we should vacate..." Nathan leaned over to Larissa, struggling to get to his feet.

Larissa arose from his lap and helped an already intoxicated Nathan to his feet.

The door to Studio B suddenly opened and Valerie strolled in, her drink still in her hand as she casually strolled over to where Trey was seated.

"Your cab just arrived. They're parked outside of the front door..." Valerie walked casually over to Trey, turning to face Larissa and Nathan as she stumbled towards the door to Studio B.

"Shoot three is going to happen here... in this studio. I don't know who is doing your set decorating since Kori was taken from us, but we're going to need a full set decoration by Friday. That's eighteen hours from now," Nathan stumbled as Larissa guided him out through Studio B's doors and towards the front of the building.

The door to Studio B slowly closed as Valerie watched, her drink still in her hand.

"I take it your schmoozing went successfully?" Valerie asked Trey, as he struggled up from his beanbag chair.

"Success my hunny, is entirely the result of the hunnies one has," Trey stumbled as he attempted to find his balance.

"And of these hunnies? Can any one of them become your one true hunny?" confirmed Valerie as she moved in on Trey.

Trey paused purposely, as if he was pondering her question. In all truth though, he'd read her game as much as she'd read his.

In the empty studio, the two hunnies embraced one another. Trey spoke before their lips met.
 
"No. Only the true hunnie can become the hunnie of another," Trey spoke the words poetically.

His eyes were truly fixated on hers.

She slowly stepped forward and on her toes, reached up to his lips. They met in a wet kiss under the red light in Studio B.

Several hours later, they awoke with an hour to spare before the rest of the day staff arrived for the fashion show rehearsal Heylyn had planned.

By the time the performers for the show had arrived, they were already gone for the day and wrapped around each other in Valerie's condo.

Over the course of that day, their bodies met several times for intimate passion and intercourse. And through their conversation of the flesh, they found solace. 

For a full day, their worries and stresses melted away and in their absence, they were left only with what they had always wanted.

Each other.

Discretion And Divulgence

The sound of ambient music permeated the absence of Valerie's voice, just having shared one of her most intimate moments.

She felt both invigorated and disgusted that she had. As if she had violated the sacred virtues of the bond of love she had with the man of that situation she'd elicited. The man seated beside her at that very moment.

Heylyn looked down at the carpeted floor, feeling her insides churning with tension.

"There! Do you feel better!" Monique spat at them, looking to Valerie then Alicia, and to Aikiko and finally Heylyn.

"Now you've got all of our private lives into this!" Monique was on the verge of tears.

"That's enough Monique! We need to be more..." Braden began, finally having reached the limit he could take from Monique's range of emotional extremity.

"No. She's right," Heylyn finally looked up from carpet and faced the group of friends seated around her.

"How?" asked Braden, still skeptical that maybe Habus didn't already have some hold over Monique.

"They did nothing wrong. At all. They were just living their lives, exercising the same rights everyone else has and for it, they've been put into a situation where they're forced to divulge details of their personal lives. Perhaps to exonerate themselves or to clear their own conscience, or because Mentis, Habus and whomever else has gotten their claws into Valerie and Trey is playing us against each other. On the grounds of privacy..." Heylyn said to them as she paced the room around them, pondering her words as she spoke them.

"Monique brought the enemy one door away from your living space. Valerie slept in the studio and turned it into a love nest! Ahem. Warai is in there quite often. I personally think you have every reason to be offended!" Braden spoke up, perhaps with sincerity or as the devil's advocate.

"If we weren't facing the threat of Mentis, Habus and whatever else might be out there, would these situations garner us to be judge, jury and executioner? Of each other? Would Monique and Aikiko... Valerie and Trey even have to share these intimate details of their life with us? Should they?" asked Heylyn of Braden.

"In this situation, yes. We need to know what Habus knows because the more he knows, the more his followers know and he's definitely only a step away from being another Mentis," Braden said protectively thinking of Warai as he had been all along.

"These situations though, in any other circumstance would be innocent fun at worst. Since Mentis arrived, situations like these have become weapons to turn us against each other. They're soft spots that can be used to trigger us," Heylyn spoke, looking deliberately to Valerie and then Aikiko, who immediately understood what she was saying.

"These are private moments about which I'd have never likely known in any other situation, and that leads me to believe that if we start changing to accommodate Mentis, Habus and their ways, we're letting them take away our freedom. We're folding to their pressure. We're handing them everything," Heylyn finally saw what was happening and how it was affecting them.

"What if there's other issues involved?" challenged Braden.

"Like what?" asked Heylyn.

"Complicity?" Braden responded.

"Monique. Valerie. Are there any such issues involved in either of your situations?" asked Heylyn of them.

"No. Except that Trey and I were not complicit in any way that someone would secretly record us..." Valerie tried best to quell her anger with the fact.

"Both our partners and us were complicit," Monique added.

"I certainly educated my partner as to that fact and what it truly means," Aikiko added, recalling that Dragon Aikiko had arrived when Sterling had overstepped her boundaries.

"Where does it stop?" Heylyn asked them rhetorically.

"What? Where does what stop?" asked Braden.

"Well, now we're door checking them to make sure everyone was complicit, which is alright, but how about beyond that? Are we going to start checking to make sure they did it the right way or the wrong way? Or..." Heylyn began.

"I didn't even know there was a wrong way..." Aikiko responded.

"My point exactly. Nobody should be have access to the details of your private matters like that to be able to tell you what's the right way or wrong way to enjoy your sexuality as adults," Heylyn said firmly.

"Or with who! If it involves adults..." Monique responded with an exclamation of her own.

"Then these situations are your personal lives and I'm so sorry that you were forced to divulge them. In the case of Habus however, we need to know how much he knows, though I can't apologize to you enough for your having to explain that to us," Heylyn spoke sincerely, looking first to Monique and then to Valerie.

"Braden?" Heylyn looked to the Dragon Man, who looked back at her firmly, finally comprehending what she was saying.

"I'm sorry Monique. Valerie. Aikiko. But I know Habus better than all of you, and I know just what a threat he can be. This is a serious situation, but I agree. We can't let that change us in ways that might be part of their plan to pit us against one another. Change happens, but we definitely have a say in how that affects us and from where we allow it," Braden apologized to those his words may have offended.

"That doesn't mean that you shouldn't be careful. Especially now that I've got a child running around in the Studio every so often. We're going to need to be more careful, not just for your own privacy, but for Warai's protection as well," Heylyn reminded them all.

"...Which brings us to you two..." Heylyn smiled, now looking to Alicia and Norler, both of whom returned mischievously innocent glances to her.

"Us?" Alicia responded batting her eyelashes, quickly grabbing Norler's hand.

"Yes. You. Tell us all about it..." Heylyn urged her friends.

"Hello? Warai's finished her din-din!" Kori emerged from the den with Warai as they went to the kitchen to drop off their dishes.

"Better make it the kiddie friendly version..." Heylyn said as Warai and Kori returned to their seats on the sofa beside Braden, Alicia and Norler.

"Are they going to tell us a story?" asked Warai, smiling over to Alicia and Norler.

"Yes. Kind of..." Heylyn answered her.

"What kind of story?" asked Warai, now excited that they'd be hearing a story together.

"The kind of story that ultimately begins the adventure of every little girl and boy in the world, but its the most difficult story to tell little girls and boys, so I'm going to leave it to those who are living it," Heylyn explained to Warai, as a teardrop slid down one of Alicia's eyelashes.



The Spark Of Everything

Ten weeks before the meeting at Heylyn's condominium residence.


The Mercedes-Benz cab drove south on Yonge Street, as it approached Queen Street, the Eaton's Centre visible through the tinted windows of the luxury cab, though the passengers' attention was on each other more so than anywhere else.

Alicia's head was buried in the nuzzle of Norler's neck, her nose basking in the scent of his late evening diluted aftershave and cologne. Her lips kissed his Adam's apple gently as she snuggled up to him, his arm embracing her tightly as the cab turned onto Queen.

"I haven't had such a good time since..." Alicia pondered her words, recalling the last time she'd been at the Looking Glass.

"Since...?" Norler smiled, already knowing her answer for he'd personally arranged that night for her.

 "The night Bryce was tickling the ivories. I mean that was the night I met Zheng, Doctor Briggs, Katya and Victor, not to mention, my hero - Professor Bryce Maxwell was there too. It was a perfect night except for one lacking detail," Alicia looked up at him, eyeing the curve of his jaw and cheeks from his shoulder.

"Something was missing? I thought it was perfect," Norler responded, somehow taking it personally that the night he'd arranged for her could be anything less.

"Well it was and it wasn't. I mean it was only missing one thing," Alicia rubbed his thigh with her hand.

"And what was that?" Norler asked her.

"You," she responded.

"I was there. I'm with you everywhere honey," Norler kissed her forehead, trying to make little of it.

"Funny, I thought someone was watching me..." Alicia climbed his jaw with her lips and found his, as the cab found its way to the Queen's Quay, two blocks from Heylyn's residence and on their way home.

Six minutes later, the cab pulled up in front of their condo, now several city blocks from Heylyn's and let them out under the watchful eyes of security.

The security monitor flickered as Alicia crossed its line of sight, her left hand clasped in Norler's right. The man at the security desk took little notice of the technical glitch, instead smiling and nodding to Alicia and Norler as they passed. Alicia smiled back while Norler waved as they approached the elevators, rounding the corner into the tiny foyer.

When they were out of sight around the corner, Alicia took the opportunity to thrust herself upon Norler, who in all irony had the exact same plans. Their faces closed in and their lips met passionately, and somehow through it all, Norler managed to press the elevator button.

When the elevator arrived, neither broke their kiss, instead Alicia backed into the elevator as Norler kept purchase of her lips with his. His hands guiding her hips as she stepped backwards. When they arrived at the back wall, Norler's hands found the elevator panel and the top right button, which he pressed without interrupting their intimacy.

The elevator quickly ascended to the thirty-third floor arriving just outside of their penthouse unit where it decelerated, coming to an abrupt stop, giving them each butterflies as it did.

The elevator door opened, and the locking mechanism detected their key cards without them having to retrieve them from their pockets. Norler's hand found the door handle, once again without breaking their kiss. When they were finally through the door, that's when they did away with every manner of restraint, discarding first their coats, and then their clothing onto the floor as they found their way to their bedroom.

By the time they arrived at their bed, they were both entirely wrapped around one another embraced in a perpetual kiss, Alicia's blonde hair lay spread upon the black satin pillow case. 

On that night and in the throes of their passion, the spark of life had found them and graced them with a new member of their flourishing family.

Alicia's First Card

Kori, Alicia, Monique, Aikiko, Valerie and even Heylyn by that point were clearing tears from beneath their eyes.

"I haven't gushed like this for a long time..." Heylyn remarked, wiping her eyes with one of the linens she'd brought out for her guests to do the same.

Norler's hand rubbed Alicia's back as she leaned forward to grab one for herself from the coffee table.

"So when are you expecting?" asked Braden, apparently one of the few who could speak at that moment.

"Sometime in late July mid August..." answered Norler.

"Have you had an ultrasound?" asked Kori.

"What's an ultrasound?" asked Warai, thinking that it was like a dessert.

"Its like a camera, but you can take special pictures of the inside of your belly," Heylyn explained to Warai, who seemed both amazed and disappointed by the answer.

"We'd rather keep those details for now..." Norler looked to Alicia, concerned for her.

"We'll talk more about this with all of you in the near future. There's some complications... but nothing to worry about mind you," Alicia assured her friends, though they could see a glint of worry on her brow.

"I got a card today in school! Want to see?" Warai announced proudly, her face a ball of excitement and joy which remarkably ignited the faces of everyone in the room.

"I'd love to see it!" Valerie responded first.

"Me too..." Monique smiled at the little girl.

"Why don't you go get it from the table in the front hall, where you left your school kit," Heylyn suggested to her.

Warai didn't waste a moment, getting up and running over to the front hall energetically to retrieve her little knapsack. When she returned, she handed the bag to Kori, who opened it and retrieved a little envelope from within.

"This must be it," Kori handed it to Warai, who quickly opened it, dropping the envelope and holding the card up and waving it for them all to see.

The greeting was a simple, generic and neutral message:

Happy Heart Day from your friend!

There was no signature present, but there was the school stamp with a hand drawn heart beside it, obviously put there by the teachers and staff in the interest of making sure that no students were left out.

"See?!" Warai ran to each of them in turn, and held it before them to see.

When any one of them tried to accept it from her, she giggled profusely and ran away to the next person in the line of her effort to show off.

"Wow! That's a pretty awesome card!" Braden remarked at her, causing her to burst out laughing.

"I think they give them out to all the students, but they each get a different card, so there's a bit of uniqueness to it. But I still think its a very nice touch," Heylyn explained to them, obviously proud of Warai.

"I thought they still called it St. Valentine's Day?" asked Monique, suddenly feeling a bit of culture shock herself.

"Some people do and that's alright, but I think that in a public school, they're dealing with many different cultural and religious ideas. No different really than West Meet East International in a way," Heylyn responded to Monique's observation.

"Why can't she call it St. Valentine's Day?" asked Monique again, obviously referring to Warai.

"In this day and age, its unfortunate how making such a decision that implicates membership in a social clique... a sometimes exclusionary sidedness in one's core being, that somehow segregates them... how it can have far reaching implications for a person's life and eventually their career. Warai is just barely approaching the end of her sixth year of life and she hasn't encountered that social cliquiness aspect in any of her surroundings yet, or maybe she has but she doesn't understand why it exists in the first place. So do I as an adult who has been somewhat indoctrinated into that way of thinking, commit my little girl into that same paradigm by making that decision for her? Or do I help her to remain neutral and balanced when it comes to such situations until she's an adult, and old enough to understand the implications of making such a decision for herself? It would be irresponsible for me to make that decision for her. Especially as CEO of West Meet East, as we have many employees with very different religious and cultural ideas. I'm not encouraging you to throw yours away, I just want to make sure that my little girl can make that choice safely on her own and for her own reasons when she's an adult. Until then, we grace this world delicately together," Heylyn explained to Monique and all of her friends.

"But you just singled us out and away from such ideas, ahem. Mentis? Habus? How we shouldn't change for them? Remember?" Monique still feeling a bit defensive, called Heylyn out on her explanation.

"I certainly do, but that was about our privacy as individuals and the biases we show in our private lives. Habus doesn't have any right to those details about you any more than I do, and I'm a lot closer to you don't you think? Meaning that there's a line each of us have regardless, that defines our own boundaries, that nobody should be allowed to cross, whether that person is an enigmatic and dangerous cult leader, or a person's employer and best friend," Heylyn confirmed that Monique and herself were on the same ground.

"Makes perfect sense to me, both what you were speaking of with regard to Warai, and the issues of personal boundaries you're defending now," Alicia agreed wholeheartedly with Heylyn.

"Does our having differences in opinion on this matter mean that we're suddenly at odds with each other?" asked Heylyn of Monique, intending her question rhetorically rather than offensively.

"...no... I suppose... It does however feel like you've just defined another division between us in the room. Those who stand by their traditional values, and those who prefer a neutrality," Monique suddenly felt like she was somehow losing Heylyn, not realizing that she in fact was discovering herself.

"So lets make another division between. Whose for wine, who's for beer, and who's for cocktails?" asked Norler standing up and offering himself to fetch their drinks.

"I'll have what Warai's having," Alicia replied to Norler, patting her tummy.

"Yeay! Can I have some orange juice? Is that ok?" Warai cheered for Alicia, confirming that Alicia wanted the orange juice too.

"That would be perfect," Alicia nodded in agreement with Warai's suggestion.

"Wine for me," Monique replied, somewhat flustered over the conversation.

"For me as well, please..." Aikiko smiled, truly wanting a cocktail but instead choosing to side with her friend.

"A cocktail please?" Valerie added her order.

"Something light, I'll be driving later. One of those strawberry kiwi cocktails preferably?" asked Kori.

"A beer please, Norler," Braden responded.

"Alright. I'll join Braden with a beer," he said gathering up the booty from the fridge and lining them up with wine, cocktail and beer glasses after which he poured them.

"See Alicia!" Warai showed Alicia the card again, handing it directly to her.

Alicia accepted the card and began to imagine their own child in a similar situation, when Warai's card triggered a distant memory from her own past. Time seemed suspended as she relived her experiences from that year of her life.

...

Heylyn sat across from Alicia in the cafeteria, which was mostly empty except for the few students like them who had a spare class at that time. Their books were opened before each of them, with a text book off to one side and their writing paper and instrument before them.

Heylyn worked in a charcoal pencil, drawing an elaborately stylish trench coat, drawn onto a figure that looked remarkably like Alicia. The same blonde hair crowned the figure's head, her blue eyes and red lips punctuated as charcoal shapes. The coat flowed much like a cape, and in some ways caused Alicia to resemble a superhero of some kind.

The first written workbook laying in front of Alicia was her notebook for her Accounting class. That class had been one that her parents had encouraged her to take, as they wanted her to explore the avenue of becoming a Certified Accountant. She did very much enjoy the subject as she loved to work with numbers and functions, but it lacked something that she found enticing about biology and physics.

Her parents had also encouraged her to explore the idea of becoming a teacher, as she was very good at dealing with people, despite being very shy and often afraid of them. She humoured her parents in both avenues, first by taking the Accounting classes they'd suggested she study, and then by becoming a registered math and sciences tutor, which fed her parent's armchair ambitions to see their daughter become a teacher. She enjoyed tutoring, but it somehow lacked what inspired her to stay up late at night reading science and biology texts long after the rest of the house was asleep.

She had already finished her Accounting homework for the next day's class and was already working on the homework of one of her favourite classes. Alicia's current workbook was filled with an organized series of chemical formulas derived from elements of the periodic table, based on the Rutherford model. She was busy calculating isotopes of various radioactive elements when she looked up from her own notes and saw Heylyn's drawing.

"Is that me? That's like so awesome!" Alicia smiled excitedly seeing herself drawn as fashion model or possibly even a superhero.

In all truth though, Alicia never saw herself with the potential to become either. She still carried a little weight with her, which her mother often referred to as her "baby fat", insisting to her daughter that it would be gone by the time she was nineteen. Alicia was already sixteen and though much of it had disappeared, the rest of it didn't seem to be in a hurry to vacate the sanctity of her body. In all truth though, the only person who really noticed it was her. When it came to the moving target concept of ideal self-image, she was in fact just like the rest of us. Perfectly imperfect.

"Let me see...?" Alicia asked for Heylyn's art book.

Heylyn looked up at her best friend, a menacing look on her face much like that of a mad scientist at first. Then her face shifted to a friendly smile, punctuated by her own laughter.

"Its still in the early stages. Maybe when I can afford the material I'll make one for you..." Heylyn slid the ark book over to Alicia, who picked it up and turned it around to face her.

"That's sooo good! You should be like an artist!" Alicia remarked, turning the page of her art book to reveal a full colour drawing of a woman looking much like Heylyn, but in a red and yellow scaly outfit with giant butterfly wings on her back.

"Not quite an artist, but a fashion designer... maybe... if I manage to pass my mandatory classes that is," Heylyn responded, shrugging off her friend's compliments.

"If I ever could fit into this trench coat you're designing, then anything is possible. The most likely of those possibilities from what I can see is that you're going to be a famous fashion designer!" Alicia flipped the page to the next drawing, revealing an intricately detailed Eastern dragon, once again with similar butterfly wings as the woman from the previous page.

"Well when that happens, I'll come visit you in your scientific lab, 'cause you're definitely going to be a famous scientist," Heylyn smiled once again, taking notice of a boy whose eyes seemed obsessively fixated on Alicia.

"Looks like someone has an admirer..." the boy immediately noticed that Heylyn had caught him eyeing Alicia.

He turned and ran out through a nearby door before Alicia could get a look at him. Alicia only saw the door slowly closing after him, as he disappeared down one of the other school corridors.

"A guy checking me out? Was he blind?" Alicia responded, still very much stumbling with her own self-esteem.

"Blind? No. He got through that door like he knew where he was going. I'd say he has good eyesight, not to mention he was very cute," Heylyn remarked of Alicia's admirer.

Alicia suddenly blushed, and then the panic hit her. She immediately began to feel the fear of her heart being precariously at risk of being broken. Of taking a chance on something that she might think she'd have wanted, only to find out that it would end in the pain of her breaking heart.

Anything she'd ever learned to hope for, had by some misfortune been taken from her and this pattern seemed to emerge again and again in her young life. So much so, that whenever opportunity presented itself, she immediately felt nothing but panic and fear. She didn't show it in her behaviour, but when Heylyn saw that she'd become even more pale than she already was, she became concerned for her friend.

"Are you alright?" asked Heylyn, who by that point was wondering if Alicia might not already be in shock.

Alicia's eyes blinked momentarily and then moved to take in the clock on the far wall. She suddenly shook her head quickly, as if waking herself up. She then handed Heylyn's art book back to her.

"Oh my gosh! I've gotta go! I'm going to be late!" Alicia stood from the cafeteria table and began piling her school texts into her backpack.

"We already did our last class today..." Heylyn reminded her.

"No. I totally forgot. I have to get to the Retirement Home. I forgot I had an early shift today!" Alicia exclaimed, quickly throwing her backpack over her shoulder.

"Need a hand getting there?" Heylyn asked out of concern for her friend.

"I'll be alright. I was just a little anxious... having a guy check me out and all," Alicia smiled to her friend.

"Do me a favour? If you see that boy again, point him out to me. If I'm going to be single for the rest of my life, I'd at least like to know about the kind of guy that found me worth looking at," Alicia said almost jokingly, but Heylyn's heart felt a sense of tragedy for her poor friend's absence of confidence.

"I'll do that. Just keep on being the smartest girl in the school, alright?" Heylyn reminded her best friend.

"Smartest girl? You mean the smartest person!" Alicia replied with a fresh smile on her face, suddenly having found confidence thanks to Heylyn's help in reminding her about a quality she had in abundance.

"That's the spirit! See you tomorrow!" Heylyn returned her smile, waving bye with her fingers and from there, they parted ways.

Alicia made her way out of the doors at the far end of the cafeteria and out into the lane that connected to the side street along which she'd have to walk for three quarters of her journey to the Retirement Residence where she'd been a volunteer for nearly a year.

As the school disappeared behind her, she found her way through the last part of her journey and onto the nearby main road. After crossing the street at a traffic light, she was making her way along the front walk and in through the front doors of the building.

...

A couple of hours later and Alicia was well into her shift. She'd helped some of the lower mobility seniors make it to the cafeteria so they could eat, as dinner was served in three different stages according to the mobility of seniors there within. The first stage were the most mobile and quickly in and out. The second stage were those in motorized wheelchairs and scooters. Those who could easily wheel in, eat and then wheel out again after their meal. The third stage involved those who each had their own specialized mobility issues, and in most cases they each required special attention and care.

Alicia had been assisting one of the seniors in getting back to their room when she encountered an old friend of hers. One that had become a mentor of sorts. A lady by the name of Sylvia Upadhaya.

Sylvia, immediately upon having recognized Alicia, made her way over to the blonde haired girl.

"I didn't know if you'd be coming tonight. How are you young lady?" asked Sylvia of one of her few true friends.

"I'm fine Mrs. Upadhaya. How are you?" Alicia asked Sylvia as she carefully guided Matt, who required two canes for his own mobility, towards the elevator foyer.

"Please. Call me Sylvia, or Sylvie if you'd like. Anyway, the reason I'm pestering you is because I have a guest coming tonight for a cup of coffee and a game of bridge. The thing is, that I need a table setup in the event room upstairs for four players. Would it be possible for your to setup such a table for me, before say... 7PM tonight?" asked Sylvia of Alicia as they arrived at the elevator.

"Thank you Alicia. I should be fine from here," Matt leaned on the railing just outside of the elevator.

"Not a problem Mr. Peebles," Alicia made sure he was safely standing before she let him go.

She then turned to face Sylvia and addressed her.

"A table with four settings, and a table cloth I take it?" asked Alicia.

"Could you? that would be perfect," Sylvia confirmed with Alicia.

"Sure. I can do that. Just let me check with Dora first and we should be fine. Do you need a deck of cards?" asked Alicia of Sylvia, who adjusted her bifocal glasses to better take in the young woman.

"I could always use another deck, but if you can't get them I should be fine. Did you get a chance to read that book I loaned you?" asked Sylvia of Alicia.

"Funny you should mention because I actually finished it last night. It was one of the most amazing science books I've ever read. So that's the sort of thing you used to work on?" asked Alicia of Sylvia, her eyes sparkling with attentive wonder.

"Not exactly, but close. I was working in a field related to biology. We were categorizing broad DNA sections and statistically analyzing their information content for grammatical probabilistic segments. It was a field that combined biology and information sciences, though my goals were to create a hypothetical framework for Quantum effects in the chemistry encoding of DNA and its counterpart, RNA messengers," Sylvia explained to Alicia.

"So, when you say grammatical, are you referring to DNA as a language?" asked Alicia, not quite having a handle on the concept.

"In a sense, you could say that DNA encoding is a language and that it has a grammatical syllabus, but we were looking at it in the sense of raw information rather than as a language. Much simpler in terms of the math, especially where it involves measuring the possible entropy of segments of a given length, which you'd recognize by the formula given by the second law: S = K log W," Sylvia explained to Alicia, who quickly grasped the concept when Sylvia had explained it.

"So you're saying that because DNA has four different fields in the form of guanine, cytosine, adenine and thymine, that taking a segment length of one hundred and twenty eight, could have a possible entropy of around eight? Maybe eight and a half?" Alicia quickly did the math in her head using a little trick she'd learned about Newton's square finding algorithm.

"Eight point four, but close enough. Impressive young lady! That's exactly what we were doing, however, grammar when applied to information science, relates to specialized rules that directly affect the plausible entropy of a segment, further encoding its variation making it a superb form of error checking. Kind of like redunancy, but more efficient overall at the cost of context. Language essentially evolved the efficiency of error checking in the form of grammar by more and more communication, while DNA evolved grammar as an error checking mechanism through its expression in surviving generations. Hence, grammar in DNA can be measured by calculating the total entropy of a segment, and then statistically comparing it to actual segments in nature, in current generations and previous generations of the same segment by averaging on the basis of the standard deviation of all segment samples compared, which would give you a range of possible constraints imposed by the hidden grammar of DNA," Sylvia smiled as she surmised a good portion of her career where it involved experimentation in genetics.

Alicia suddenly had an epiphany of understanding as Sylvia explained the concept to her, and another door opened revealing a much bigger world of possibility to her curious mind.

"Oh my! I've got to get back upstairs! I've got a kettle on right this very instant!" Sylvia exclaimed, chasing Matt into the elevator which he'd just safely ventured on his two canes.

"Uhhh... thanks. Bye?" Alicia said as the elevator doors closed.

"You wouldn't happen to be going upstairs later would you?" asked Henri as he walked up to Alicia, his bushy eye brows shaking feverishly as he kept the young woman visible to his squinting eyes.

"To the event room, yes. Why? What can I do for you Henri?" she asked one of the more mischievous lot on her shift.

"You can help me out by giving me the poker table. Me and the chaps want to play a few rounds of midnight hold 'em, but none of us have a table. You'd be doing us a favour, but you've gotta keep it quiet," Henri urged Alicia, who at once became skeptical of the man.

"I don't think it would be a good idea to go behind Dora's back on this," Alicia explained to Henri, who already knew what Dora's answer would be if she was asked.

"Look, can you just give the girl a break Henri?! She's already running around in circles for the rest of us, so don't get her into trouble by your lack of respect for the rules!" Jolly, an old Korean war veteran overheard their conversation and quickly came to her rescue.

"Its a chance to win some extra money between pension cheques you know. Something you old war vets wouldn't know about, struggling between payments..." Henri griped at Jolly, who folded his arms across his chest.

"Actually, its something I would know about, but your solution lies in the fact that you learn to manage your money, and if you need a few dollars to hold you over, then just ask one of your friends instead of trying to make everyone else broke in one of your poker games! Yer darn tootin' I earned that extra veteran's support cheque I get every month. I've got a few scars to prove it, so don't you ever put one of us down just because you're having trouble getting from cheque to cheque!" Jolly was quick to come back at Henri, however he did so without being beligerent.

Henri's brows furrowed up in frustration for he disliked being out of money and still with a week to go. However, Jolly certainly wasn't one to lack a heart, and he pulled a crisp twenty from his pocket, and handed it to Henri.

"Give it back to me when you get yer next cheque, and don't pester this one into breaking the rules again!" Jolly was firm with the man, but fair nonetheless.

"Thanks Jolly. I don't care what they say about ya, you're alright," Henri accepted the twenty dollar bill from the old veteran.

"Now scram! Sorry about that Alicia. So how have you been doing since the last time we had a good talk? I think it was back around last March if I'm not mistaken?" asked Jolly of Alicia.

"It was! You remembered! I'm doing well, thank you! You're looking energetic today?" Alicia remarked, amazed to see Jolly up and about as he'd often struggled with joint problems in years previous.

"Well, you could say there were goats in my oats, but after a good walk this afternoon, I'm feeling much better thank you. I saw you speaking with Sylvia so I assume you'll be the one setting up our bridge table for us?" Jolly asked Alicia in a friendly and gentle voice.

"That I will. Who are you playing with if you don't mind me asking?" Alicia inquired of Jolly.

"Well there's Sylvia as you already know, and there's me, but I'm no card sharp, least of all at bridge. I think that Leslie is going to sit in for a game or two and then Sylvia has some company coming for a visit. A real big shot from what I understand..." Jolly smiled at Alicia.

"A big shot eh? Regardless, I'll be getting the seats with the new padding for you all. I don't think that those hard ones would quite cut it for my favourite crew," Alicia smiled at Jolly.

"Well aren't you a sweetheart. Thank you very much young lady. Now if you get a moment between now and then and you'd like to come up for a tea, my door's always open for you honey," Jolly gave her a genuine smile, which she returned as he made his way back around her and towards the elevators.

"Bye Jolly. See you in a bit. I'll have that table setup in about half an hour," Alicia bid Jolly farewell and then made her way to Dora's office.

She stepped into the administrative office, which was empty except for Dora who was seated behind the counter and in a meeting with a boy around her age.

"...you should show up about five to ten minutes before your shift, just to get settled in. Now you can't have friends come meet you and hang out here with you, but you can receive up to three phone calls a shift, but none for more than five minutes. The only exception is an emergency of course... Oh... here's the young lady you'll be working with most often. Alicia, this is our new volunteer Bert," Dora introduced the two of them, and Bert rose from his seat to greet Alicia.

He was a thin fellow, with clean short cut hair. His blue eyes were nearly as penetrating as hers, and the only red on his face were the scattered remnants of his adolescent acne. His clothing was kind of stylish and Alicia figured him for the kind of guy who was somewhere between prioritizing academia and peer pressure, with neither of the two gaining ground over the other.

"Nice to meet you. You're from the high school around the corner, aren't you?" asked Bert, in a clear and somewhat puberty pocked voice.

"Last I checked I was. You too?" she figured out for herself.

"Sure am. Uhhh, so do you have some time to show me the ropes?" Bert asked her politely.

"I could do that. Did you have anything specific in mind, Dora?" she asked her supervisor.

"Start with the kitchen area first, as he'll be dealing with snack-time tonight, under your supervision of course," Dora suggested to her.

"That sounds great but I'll have to strike a table from the event room around that time. Sylvia and Jolly are hosting a game of bridge tonight, so is it alright if they use the event room and a table?" asked Alicia for her friends in the senior's home.

"Sure. So that's why she's got a guest in the registry for tonight. Good for them. You know where the keys are, but could you show Bert here the kitchen area and get him started cleaning the tables and helping Eileen with the dishwasher?" asked Dora of her star volunteer.

"You good with that Bert?" asked Alicia of the younger man.

"Sure," Bert agreed, keeping his hands nervously in his pockets.

"We're good to go, Dora. Thanks for the bridge table," Alicia gestured to Bert and they left the administrative office.

"So, can we like grab snacks here too?" he asked her.

"Where I'm taking you, there's a fridge in the back. Not the big one, but a regular apartment sized fridge. That's ours. Anything they put in there, we can eat or drink at our own leisure, but only during breaks," Alicia explained to Bert.

"That's cool," Bert smiled, trying to get a look at her from the side.

"Literally. The fridge I mean," Alicia agreed, drawing a bit of a chuckle from Bert.

They continued to walk, but in uncomfortable silence before Alicia finally worked up the confidence to say something.

"So you're roughly in balance I see," Alicia remarked to Bert.

"I beg your pardon?" he responded, somewhat confused.

"Between your academics and sense of fashion," she replied, a smile on her face.

He checked his clothing to make sure his shirt was tucked in and his fly up, when he suddenly caught on to what Alicia was trying to say.

"Oh, you mean...? Ohhh. Ha! I've never heard it put that way before. I guess we're all walking to the tune of peer pressure when we're not walking to the tune of our books," Bert responded, caught off guard by her swift wit.

"Well, in all truth I'm hopelessly devoted to mine. My textbooks I mean. The fashion part is still having to run to keep up," Alicia added, never realizing that she was inadvertently presenting an opening for him to complement her.

In all truth Bert considered it, but then at the last moment withheld his words, and consciously so.

There was another awkward silence between them, and then he spoke up as if fixing a sudden leak on a gasket.

"You look ok to me," he said to her in a way that sounded more drawn from him than put forth by him.

She accepted it anyway, as it was more than any other compliment she'd ever received.

"Thank you. Well this is it. The kitchen. There's the fridge I was talking about. You can grab something but only on breaks. During mealtime, this place is always busy, so unless you're in the kitchen to help, its best to stay away. After each meal, the tables out here..." Alicia led him to the cafeteria.

"You'll be first clearing and then cleaning them. Hello Eileen!" Alicia waved to a lady in her forties, who waved back to her without saying a word.

"This is Bert. He's going to be helping you tonight," Alicia introduced them, and Eileen shook his hand with her gloved hands as she swept behind the counter.

"You'll be helping her, but most of the time you'll be clearing tables, cleaning them, and then doing the sweep and mop of the cafeteria floors," Alicia explained to Bert, who nodded, his hands still in his pockets.

Eileen stopped and leaned her broom carefully in a corner and then grabbed a bucket filled with warm soapy water and cleaning cloths, handing it to Bert.

He jumped back, suddenly caught off guard, his hands quickly and defensively jumping out of his pockets to accept the bucket by its handle.

"So work with Eileen and I'll be back in about an hour to check up on you. Bye for now," Alicia left him with Eileen and ventured back to the administrative office to grab the keys for the event room.

She then ventured upstairs to the event room and began setting up the table for Sylvia and Jolly's game of bridge.

...

The rental car was a newer model Audi, about a year old and in such good condition that the interior still smelled like it had just been manufactured. The driver's posture was very different than what he was used to in his own General Motors sedan, which he'd left parked back in Waterloo at the train station. His wife was out of town at a Sales Summit Conference, and he essentially had the rest of the week and the upcoming weekend all by his lonesome.

Being the mover and shaker that he was, he tended not grab any opportunity when it presented itself. The time he had during his wife's attendance to the conference was no different, and he quickly booked all of his time with a variety of endeavors that complemented each one of his interests in just the right way. After all, in his mid forties and still only having been an accomplished Professor for ten years, this man was one of the most successful if not most celebrated scientists of his time, though he'd be the first to admit that he was on the shoulders of giants, and truly in their shadows most of the time. It was however his love of science, music and people that got him to where he was as the scientist often lauded as Quantum Physics' own Public Relations Department, and all of this nearly fifteen years before the arrival of YouTube and VideoSpice.

Social networking was a term applied to salesforce pep talks and territory sales rather than technology, while the smart phone's closest ancestor was dubbed the Apple Newton, and it didn't even have any cellular network capabilities. The world was a very different place, poised on the precipice of flight into the future and technology or descending into the disaster of despair. These possibilities were familiar territory for the driver of this particular Audi, because the science that was his trade, was built on these ideas. Of duality. Of the this and the that.

All of existence had arisen from the Quantum foam on the boundaries of primordial event horizons in the early universe, where matter rather than its counterpart anti-matter had won the war of dominance in our universe to become the building blocks of all matter, leaving us with a universe forever leaning towards one of its few asymmetries.

"I guess it was flight..." remarked Professor Bryce Maxwell with a smile, as he pondered the concept while pulling into the parking lot of the senior's residence, his sunglasses comfortable on his face.

...

Henri was seated beside Lena, on the benches in the front foyer, the two of them relaxing after their dinner, much like another twenty seniors who preferred to be alone together as it were. Each of them sat as they had every night after dinner, few of them talking, for over the years they'd gone over everything there was to say, and so their moments were often spent thinking and observing. Sometimes noticing things that would have completely gone unnoticed had they not been there to see them.

Like the time two cardinals had managed to sneak in through the front doors, and began making their homes in nests they hastily crafted by breaking pieces of straw from one of Eileen's brooms while everyone was asleep. By the a day's time, the two of them literally had their own secret little love nest, and had further gone unnoticed for an entire week before someone finally spotted them. By that point, they were already in the process of starting a family, in a nest that housed two cardinal eggs.

It was Lena who first noticed the love birds as they were quickly dubbed, and though word spread quickly amongst the residents, they kept it hidden as long as they possibly could from Mrs. Whethers  (the administrator) and Dora. The birds somehow knew to remain inactive during the day and during Mrs. Whethers' and Dora's shifts, they were literally unheard. At night and after eleven post meridiem however, the two immediately came to life, and were graced with an audience in the senior's home that grew to adore them.

Unfortunately, the learned adaptation of strategic silence was neither genetic nor hereditary, and their children upon hatching, held no pause over their constant chirping, always hungry for their parents to feed them. Despite the best effort of the seniors to keep their little wonderous secret, Dora soon found out, and Mrs. Whethers soon thereafter.

There were many tears that hit the floor that day when the Animal Conservationists arrived and removed the birds from their nest in the foyer. The love birds were put in a cage and whisked off to a conservation area, where they were rather well looked after. After all, both the parents and the children had come to survive in the unnatural habitat of the foyer, which despite not having much to offer, did have a nearby kitchen, and many handouts from the grateful seniors who adored them as the building's mascots.

Lena sat next to Henri, who noticed a tear creeping down her cheek.

"Oh Lena. Must be the love birds again," Henri tried his best shot at empathy, but he just didn't quite get it.

"You know Henri. Sometimes some moments are better left in silence, and others expressed in joy. Something I think you just haven't learned," Lena shook her head despite the fact that Henri had hit the nail right on the head.

However, as Lena had said, some tears aren't meant to draw sympathy, but rather were a quiet expression of gratitude between oneself and their maker, whatever one assumed that to be. Lena's frustration with Henri lie in the fact that he'd imposed his own ideas rather than just letting it be a moment.

Ironically, it was something that Lena had been observing more and more in the world. While some passively enjoyed the world around them, others seemed to prey upon this passivity, enforcing or imposing some concept upon others, in the moments of their silent observation and those who made such impositions didn't always use words or even sounds to achieve such goals.

Sometimes, it came to her through her senses. Her nerves. She could just feel it. Like a sudden pinching of one of her nerves, or a twitch in her calf she often referred to as dancing leg. Then there were the sudden onset of excruciating headaches, often disappearing within minutes. Matters she'd discussed with her Geriatric Physician, who himself was also up there in years. She trusted him enough to speak with him on just about any matter, for he had in droves what a man like Henri lacked in any good sense at all.

When she explained to him what she was experiencing, he looked at her carefully, something on his mind with the intensity of daunting consideration. He then placed the pen in his hand in the center of his notebook, and closed it up, placing it on the desk beside him.

"You know Lena, I've been doing this for a lot of years. Twenty years ago, if you'd have come into this same office and told me of these same symptoms, I'd have likely written you off as having some kind of symptomatic psychosis. Possibly even thyroid disease, which can do some pretty nasty numbers on your hormones and lead to mood disorders. Especially just before menopause..." Doctor Ellis said to her, once again pausing to contemplate how to address what he had to say on the matter.

"Now, after nearly forty years of practicing medicine and with a side degree in psychology I might add, you aren't the first patient to come to me with similar... no. Exactly the same symptoms, and these patients were all very credible people. One of them was a chart topper in her IQ. Another, had raised a family of six kids, while taking care of her own husband who'd lost a limb in a workplace accident. One was the Managing Director Of Operations for an Airline company. Many others too. I initially diagnosed them as having stress induced psychosis. Being a smart cookie, or having all of your time spent tending to others, with nobody to reciprocate, can accumulate pretty quickly and turn into all sorts of illnesses, given the stress factor. But then I started noticing these symptoms in others with far less stressful lives and lifestyles. Let me ask you this, Lena, and please do answer me honestly and I promise you I'll give you the best I have to offer on the matter," Doctor Ellis looked over the top of his glasses at her, just to see her with his own eyes.

"Alright. I've known you for a long time Neil. Ask away," Lena responded to him.

"Lena. Do you ever feel persecuted?" asked Doctor Ellis of her, still looking at her beyond the lens of his glasses.

"In what way? You mean by the people around me? When we're sitting around talking?" she asked him.

"You tell me, and I promise you I won't up and have you locked away in a rubber room or whatever nightmare scenario you imagine if you don't say what you think I want to hear," Doctor Ellis assured her.

"You know, its the strangest thing, but at night, sometimes I head a chorus of chattering voices. Just before I fall asleep. A few tingles here and there, often uncomfortable or even painful, and then just a chorus of ungrateful and miserable voices. I can't tell if they're persecuting me or themselves, but I can say they don't have any remorse or even any signs of a conscience," Lena admitted to Doctor Ellis.

Doctor Ellis nodded, placing his hand on his chin and considering Lena's case carefully.

"There are Doctors I speak with on these matters, but there's not many of us who stray beyond the guidelines that can sometimes prevent us from looking into issues like these with the full authority of our oath. Those of us that do discuss this growing problem - now don't get alarmed because its a problem in its infancy. Its not all doom and gloom... yet - Those of us that do discuss this problem feel that our best option is to help our patients cope with the problem until the tools and technology exist that will allow us to nip this problem in the bud once and for all. So what I'm suggesting is that I give you a prescription for a depressant. Given your medical history, we'll start out with a low dose first, and over the course of the next half year, we'll play with that dosage, or even try something else, until we find something that reduces or completely nullifies the effects of these problems. We can't make them stop... yet. But we can make it so they have no effect on you any more than a mischievous fly might annoy you from time to time," Doctor Ellis explained to Lena, who listened carefully to him.

"Thank you," Lena said to her Doctor.

"For what, I haven't even cured you," Doctor Ellis responded.

"For listening to me. For allowing me to explain, and then for not making me feel like I had made a big mistake for being honest with you," Lena summed up her gratitude sincerely.

"Now I don't get kickbacks for giving you prescriptions Lena, and if I did, I'd tell you and somehow put that money back in your pocket. I just feel that in this unique situation, a situation I already have with eleven other patients, that I should level with you, and that you should know that we're not on the same program as everyone else. That some Doctors if they knew about us few who noticed the anomalies in the data, might report us, in which case we'd be subject to a licence review and held to the guidelines that definitely need evaluation in light of such a developing problem. At that point, someone would likely approach you with a class action malpractice suit against me and other Doctors, who had taken it upon ourselves to deal with this problem in such a way to put our patients first, rather than to discredit them, by applying a stigmatic label to our patients with regard to the recommended diagnosis for this situation. A recipe that those of us who have taken this path feel goes against our oath as Doctors and Physicians. Its illegal for me to have you sign a waiver imploring you not to take part in a class action against us if this somehow becomes exposed, so I'm going to have to ask you not to do so in good faith. I can only hope that as your Doctor of fifteen years and a good friend for just as long, that you find it in yourself to do the right thing no matter the case. Do we have a deal?" Doctor Ellis asked Lena, once again looking over the rim of his glasses directly at her.

"We do Neil. You're a good Doctor, and an even better man. Lets proceed with this," Lena gave her verbal consent and from that moment on, she began the road to recovery.

Not cure. Not even close. But it eventually became as he stated, and her hidden persecutors had simply become less of an annoyance than were common house flies.

In a sense, the tear that had descended her cheek was as much for the love birds, as it was for her journey through the beginning of those difficult times. A silent moment of gratitude for her Doctor, and as much so for her maker, whom or whatever that might be in all the possible forms it might take.

In all of her life, Lena had lived and worked as a professional big band vocalist, and as the times had changed, so had her venues. As the frequency and demand of live music venues changed so had her options. She continued until she'd run out of options and then money, but by that time, she had reached the front doors of her retirement and by that time, she began a new life, no longer as a big band vocalist, but as a retiree, swept into a corner of the world and forgotten to the sands of time.

But, as fate would have it, when one door is about to close, another one has just opened.

Through this door stepped a Quantum Physicist still in his sunglasses. He threw his keys up in the air once, catching them with his other hand, suddenly stopping in the middle of the walkway of the retirement home when he noticed the piano.

A smile grew across his face, and he just couldn't resist.

...

A moment later, though nobody had noticed, Bryce sat himself at the black lacquer piano, opening the case to expose the keys. He looked it over once, from bottom to top, all ninety-six keys wondering if the mechanical parts of the device were in working order. He tried first with the damper pedal, giving it a good swift stomp, which simultaneously swung all of the hammers, each of them striking one of the ninety-six sets of strings (three for each note for a total of 288 strings). The sound was quick but rather quiet, but Bryce in that moment heard everything he needed to know if the piano was functioning correctly or not.

His thoughts returned to when he was pulling into the parking lot, and what he'd been thinking about duality.  About matter and anti-matter. About the this and the that. And that is when he knew exactly what he was going to play...


He began his intro, and everyone in the foyer area immediately turned their attention to the piano, several of the seniors even recognizing the song. Their feet began to tap in beat to the piano line, which Bryce played expertly though awkwardly at first, still getting comfortable with the weight, feel and response.

As he navigated the intro he swung into the first verse and then he began to sing:

If you ain't wrong, you're right
If it ain't day, it's night
If you ain't sure, you might
Gotta be this or that

When Lena had heard the piano, she immediately knew the song. Her first instinct was the sudden feeling of stage fright. Something she'd not felt since her first time on stage. She struggled with it however, and by the time Bryce had arrived at the second verse, she was on her feet and standing by his side at the side of the piano. 

As that verse arrived, she began to sing:

If it ain't dry, it's wet
If you ain''t got, you get
If it ain't gross, it's net
Gotta be this or that

Bryce then once again took over on the vocals, though they intuitively ping-ponged the last two lines between each other, and surprisingly to them and this sudden improv, it sounded great.

If it ain't sis, you can't miss
It's got to be your brother
Can't you see it's gotta be
One way or the other

They finished the song together, and much the same, throwing the lines back and forth until there were none left.

If it ain't full, it's blank
If you don't spend, you bank
If it ain't Dee, it's Frank
Gotta be this or that

Bryce hit it with a quick turnaround, wrapping the song back a couple bars (almost like DC Al Coda), and they sang the final line once again, together.

Gotta be this or that!

The entire foyer broke out in applause and Bryce was on her feet, presenting Lena and applauding for her. Lena was flushed with joy and bowed for the audience. The commotion continued for another three minutes, Bryce's face almost fully red until the room finally calmed down and he thanked Lena for her vocals.

He then made his way over to the administrative office and introduced himself to Dora, who was blushing by that time.

"Alright Mr. Maxwell..." Dora began.

"Bryce, please," he responded to her.

"...Bryce. I'm going to need your signature here, and you take this and keep it with you, on your jacket there and drop it off when you leave. That was some piano playing there. I don't think they'll soon forget that one. Are you interested in showing up once a week for a gig?" Dora asked him jokingly.

"I'm booked solid until 2000, but I can book you for January 2?" Bryce joked himself.

"We'll give your agent a call. I think that Sylvia's waiting upstairs for you," Dora reminded him.

"Alright. Can't keep a good woman waiting now, can we? Thank you so much Dora," Bryce replied, pinning the tag to his jacket as she advised.

He then quickly left the administrative office and then headed to the elevators, jumping in one just before its doors closed. As he disappeared behind into the elevator, another arrived and Alicia quickly came running out of the elevator to look for the source of the music and commotion was that she'd heard from the eighth floor.

"What was all that music?" asked Alicia, turning to Henri first, and then to Lena, who seemed to have lost a few years by the smile on her face.

"Oh, that was just one of the most meaningful coincidences in my life. And one heck of a good piano player too,"  Lena replied to Alicia, who smiled upon seeing her, but disappointed in having missed something so off the wall.

"We have entertainment for the first time in a long while and its just my luck to miss it!" Alicia said pouting, but with a humorous smile, causing those still in the foyer to laugh.

She then saw Bert, who had his walkman earphones on as he pushed the broom across the floor.

"Bert!" she put her hand on his shoulder, causing him to jump suddenly.

"Whoa! Alicia. Sorry about that. Just listening to some Nirvana," Bert responded to her.

"You didn't hear the piano?" asked Alicia, shocked that her only line of sight on the scene down here hadn't heard a thing.

"Piano? Where? Ohhhhh. Nope. I didn't hear a thing. Why, do you play?" Bert asked her, hitting pause on his walkman.

Alicia sighed heavily.

"Never mind. Alright. Let me help you with the rest down here because there's going to a break shortly and you have to have this part done before they show," Alicia advised Bert.

"And that way, if our mysterious piano player shows up again, I won't miss it," Alicia smiled, now very happy with her plan.


To be continued...



Credits and attribution:

Artwork: Amy WongWendy PuseyGhastlyBirdman, Brian Joseph Johns, Daz3DUnreal Engine...

Tools: Daz3DCorel PainterAdobe PhotoshopLightwave 3DBlender, Stable Diffusion (Easy Diffusion distribution), InstantIDSadtalkerGoogle ColaboratoryMicrosoft Copilot (Windows 11), Hitfilm, Borderline Obsession...

InstantID by: Wang, Qixun and Bai, Xu and Wang, Haofan and Qin, Zekui and Chen, Anthony. Research Paper Title: InstantID - Zero-shot Identity-Preserving Generation in Seconds.

Sadtalker by: Zhang, Wenxuan and Cun, Xiaodong and Wang, Xuan and Zhang, Yong and Shen, Xi and Guo, Yu and Shan, Ying and Wang, Fei.
Research Paper Title: SadTalker: Learning Realistic 3D Motion Coefficients for Stylized Audio-Driven Single Image Talking Face Animation.

Gratitude: Our Mentors, Senseis, Sifus, Sebomnims, lifetime inspirations, family, friends, the Nomads (ask Stanton about that one), the Music, the Movies, the Theatre, the Arts, ASMR, (both YouTube and Bilibili and the many other creators on those platforms), the Gaming and Developer communities and of course, the audience.

Martial Arts (in the words of real experts and at least one comedian): https://brucelee.com (home of the real Dragon and an entire family of inspirations), http://iwco.online International Wing Chun Organization (International presence of a very scalable intensity martial art, protected and developed by Shaolin Nun Ng Mui), https://iogkf.com International Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karatedo Federation (even Hanshi had his teachers), https://itftkd.sport International Taekwondo Federation (Here there be Taegers), https://tangsoodoworld.com Tang Soo Do World (the path of Grandmaster Chuck Norris), https://www.aikido-international.org International Aikido Federation (how else would Navy Chef Steven Seagal liberate a Nimitz Class Aircraft Carrier from a team of hijackers?), https://www.stqitoronto.com Shaolin Temple Quanfa Institute (The City Of Toronto's own Shaolin Temple), https://www.enterthedojoshow.com Master Ken's Ameri-Te-Do presence (If we can't laugh at ourselves, then we can at least laugh the loudest at others, and other Zen)

Special thanks to AitrepreneurHugging Face and the YouTube educational content producers, including those catering to the AI content production pipeline and of course AlphaSignal.

Something to give you perspective: The very first teacher had no formal education, didn't graduate and was self taught, but only because they had no other choice. We do.

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