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Alistair is taken aback a touch at Tyler’s comment. Of course, his thoughts immediately turn to the dark: If only they knew why… All that and I remain stuck. And then darker: Perhaps this is impassable. Perhaps the world is just… Irredeemable chaos by complexity, all cause and effect with no trace between them.

Hume. Ha.

Alistair sighs, closes his eyes, and then looks up again. For a moment, he clenches his fist, his eyes smouldering. No. The surface is barely scratched. Give up and…

You can’t. You can’t give up. You can’t.

It is in this state of mind that he listens to Tyler carefully step around discussing Mikhail – around his latent anger, his fragile self-control, his – his past… That… That could be useful. Shaking his head idly at Tyler’s question, his mind’s mechanisms suddenly slot into place, forging and throwing off ideas as a tempest throws off lightning: That implies broken processes, unintended consequences. Analysed structures alone to now, lacking context – focus on a specific case could be useful for clarity, to create and test theories, to break established patterns of thought. He raises a hand to the side of his head, fiddling with a strand of hair. Even beyond, another event akin to today would be best avoided. The ability to avoid or diffuse – could be gained through knowledge.

And thus, Alistair begins to entertain an almost heretical thought.

He looks at Tyler again, eyes flashing with worry. Do I know… Can I risk it? Do I have the right? He winces. Gah. Balancing long-term harm for short-term – but it wouldn’t be short-term, would it? Not potentially… Agh, this is dangerous! The fingers on his hand twitch, just a little.

Alistair shuts his eyes. No. No, you’re overreacting. This would be a tiny, tiny aspect of his life. It is time he is evidently spending anyway, you do not necessarily have to provide any input at all, he is even able to talk about something that concerns him. Which could also backfi- no. This will be fine. This will be fine.

Alistair breathes. Then he offers that same half-smile to Tyler.

“I’m currently walking up to Richmond Park… You can join me and talk on the way, if you’d like.”

The Sociology Corridor, Evergreen Grammar School
Friday Morning

Motion all around. A boy approaches from the right – Isn’t that that person who – and says something about him “spacing out,” tone gentle. Then another, portside, darting through in a flurry of words – “himbeinglikethathavea –” that he can hardly catch. Alistair’s head swivels back and forth, mind snatching up everything it can as it strains to analyse and assimilate everything while still reverberating from the events of moments before.

For a moment, he halts, putting a hand to his temple and rubbing it in firm, circular motions. Alistair breathes, compartmentalising.

He gives a nod and a half-smile to the blue-haired boy alongside him. Then he turns forward once more – and flees.

Wimbledon Park Tube Station, Arthur Road, Wimbledon
Friday Afternoon

Alistair emerges into an irregularly breeze from behind the station’s threshold, the clouds parted to let the golden glow of the Sun pass, shining from its home low in the sky. He lets the corners of his mouth rise, a fine mist glazing his vision as he turns down the relatively quiet street. He holds onto some level of awareness, just enough to let him perceive the lack of traffic and step quickly across the road, but lets it go thereafter.

He needs peace and contemplation, after this morning’s events. No sense in concentrating a part of his mind away from that.

His gaze wanders down the track whence he came, his feet carrying him over the bridge above it, before a line of not-quite-regular houses in reds and whites occupies it as he turns onto the helpfully marked Home Park Road. He smiles idly at that. Appropriate… Joins of the few places of this city where I can feel like it.

A few people pass him by as he ambles down the lane – someone walking their dog, a small, wiry, bouncy creature that wags more intensely as he passes by; a group of kids that rush through on scooters, far too focussed on their own games to pay him attention – and in doing so are noted by Alistair, somewhere in his subconscious. They stir his mind, its currents now melding, now separating. The same, too, can be said of the iron-spiked gates to his right as they glint in the sunshine; the wave of the trees to his left, all increasingly bare aside from the resilient pines; the slight irregularities of the pavement beneath his feet. From his subconscious, like the motions of the Earth’s ferrous core, they energise the layer above.

And as he enters Wimbledon Park, with its playground filled with eager children running this way and that, its rustling oaks, ashes and willows and the paths weaving between them, its glassy lake populated with geese, its golfers and (of course) its tennis players, there is more than enough to provide all the mental stimulation for a good couple of hours of thought.

Wimbledon Suburbs, Wimbledon
About half an hour later

…right – you’re going to have to make rules to keep those people’s preferences in check. “That means a group of people making rules…” Alistair frowns, letting out a sustained puff of air through his nostrils. And those people are obviously going to be those charismatic ones. There isn’t a stable system here.

He sighs, that train of thought coming to an end alongside the crunch of shoes on gravel, replaced now by the low slap of those shoes against tarmac. The roads here are much like the ones on the other side of the park, a little shabby but well-built and serviceable, though the homes and driveways are larger and the pavements smaller and less frequent – like the people, in that last regard at least.

That’s the core problem with Utilitarianism… No account for human imperfections. If you try to apply it to a society you inevitably fail because the system can’t deal with the complexity. If you try to apply it to yourself, then you can’t deal with that complexity. Just too much unpredictability. He purses his lips. Though I suppose it’s more me trying to force it into doing something that the people working on it weren’t…

Huh… Case in point.

From the other side of the pavement corner comes striding a boy – the boy, the one with silver-white hair whose speech he’d barely caught in the earlier tumult at school, having apparently sighted him a few seconds before. Caught more than a little off guard, Alistair slows, then halts mid-step, seemingly frozen. There he waits.

Thus, it is the other boy who speaks first. “…Umm, hello there. You’re a student from Evergreen, yes? …My name is Tyler Blackmore, an upper sixth at Evergreen as well. I…umm, I’m sorry for coming up to you out of the blue like this, but that boy who ran into you a while ago was a friend of mine. I wanted to apologize about that incident in his stead. …I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive him. He… he wasn't always like that.”

Alistair blinks once, twice, mind unprepared and therefore sluggish to adjust to the new topic. “I… I hadn’t thought much about it yet,” he answers honestly. Finally, old channels open, long-forgotten social protocol clicking into place. “I’m Alistair, Parton – Lower Sixth. Thanks…” He considers, new knowledge melding with old knowledge and ideas, then nods. “You don’t need to apologise, though. If I judged someone for things happening to them that they didn’t see coming or doing something with results they didn’t intend…” He smiles weakly. “Well, if you work out how to predict them, I’d love to know. Otherwise, you don’t need to worry – I can carry on.”

The Sociology Corridor, Evergreen Grammar School
Friday Morning

Of course, he’s still standing stock-still in the middle of a corridor in the minutes between lessons; said corridor is very busy. It is perhaps inevitable that, at that moment, one element of that business takes the form of an unstoppable force.

At this moment, Alistair is distinctly not an immovable object.

Sent sprawling, he’s barely in time with his arms to stop his head from hitting the polished stone floor; no sooner has that happened than he freezes, his eyes widening as some great thing – a fist – stops centimetres before his face. Said fist withdraws, opening to become an up-helping hand. “Oi, babyface, I nearly socked you for a moment for bumping into me, so watch where you're going!”

Now, Alistair these days is not a person frequently found in the moment, always casting his thoughts backwards to mine the past for ideas or extrapolating towards the future to test them. What time he spends in the present is, in general, in service to these, listlessness conserving energy for his higher functions. This, though? The potent combination of reaction to perceived danger and utter confusion as to both the chain of events that has brought him to this point and what exactly this person is doing now throws him rudely out of listlessness and back towards currency.

Even so, his head is still a touch hazy, instinctually accepting the hand up. Things did happen rather quickly. Alistair shakes it, working to clear his mind, before examining the person standing before him. A little shorter but looks about my age, mid-length sand-blond hair… The boy’s appearance is tinged with familiarity but nothing more than that. Probably a year above or below.

For a moment, he grapples with what to say next; the other participant in the conversation, however, examining him curiously, jumps in first. “Why weren't you paying attention anyway? Something weighing down your mind?”

Oh, no, just grappling with how to avoid potentially triggering a societal backlash against any efforts meant to advance a given socio-political cause! Nothing major! “Sorry, just… Just working through something.” Perhaps realising that the person in front of him – who, he notes, seems unusually highly strung (if the fist didn’t support that conclusion already) – won’t accept this as a complete answer, he continues: “I’ve been stuck with something of a… An ideological dilemma over the past few years.” He breathes, offering a sad, quiet smile. “Sorry it got in your way.” Also, please don’t almost punch me again…

Wait, no. That would mean –

He’s already talking. “Anyway, my name is Mikhail. Mikhail Chekhov. If you want to make it up to me, go buy me some... Pie. Not rubharb, that sh - stuff is gross.”

That’s ‘rhubarb’, right? That accent sounds eastern European… And haven’t I heard the name ‘Mikhail Chekhov’ before – wasn’t there a rumour or something… Alistair considers for a moment, then dismisses the idea. Don’t know. Probably just passed someone in the hall talking – subconscious. “Alistair – Parton. I, ah…” He bites his lip, edging away as it gradually dawns on him that he’s talking to a complete stranger who nearly punched him in the face. “I don’t really know any good bakeries. Walk mostly in parks.” Alistair glances behind him. “And I need to – sorry, I think I’m already late – ah – bye.”

Away he skitters.

Just before the corner joining the Psychology Corridor to the Sociology Corridor, Evergreen Grammar School
Friday Morning

It does seem to fit… Alistair wanders through the bustling corridor to his next lesson, head resting on the unsupported pillar of his arm and hand as he does his best to keep himself from falling totally asleep. The cloud-covered sky doesn’t exactly help matters; the daylight that might supply him a touch of extra vigour is, at best, much reduced. With the world now… Feminism, populism, all the… ‘isms’. All fighting power gaps. Some more than others.

He sighs, mind too exhausted even for indignation. It… I can’t believe it. Conflict Theory’s Marx’s. He saw society having an end state – that’s not right, and if it’s not right… People can’t spread their work across humanity; they help people they care about. Enough people with good ideas, there’s a new power gap, new conflict. No room for growth past it.

On Alistair pushes; a few rays of sunlight splash in through the window. I suppose… Communications? Get the world joined up, throw those ideas arou-

And then he feels a weight.

Alistair lets go of his forehead – and then lets his hand drop to one side, falling into a slightly more regular walking position even as he shrinks, shoulders subconsciously hunching, head bowing. Along the corridor powerful, shuddering steps ring out, beating a drum of submission and order. Mr Ashcroft, Vice-Principal of Evergreen Grammar School, marches forth; his eyes flick over his charges, trapping and dissecting students caught in their burning gaze. As he strides past, Alistair feels the imprint of his aura, authoritative and judging, undeniable, unbreakable and imposing. He shrinks further, the force crushing him downwards, unresisted and irresistable.

From within his deep recesses of his mind, the tolling returns – and his conscious mind misses it, not even processing it enough to dismiss it as imagination.

Ashcroft passes. Behind him, Alistair slows, dampened.

What was I…

He comes to a standstill, expression near-blank. People shove around him; a couple grumble irritably.

He misses them, too.

The Parton Residence, Cricklewood
Thursday Evening

“Hi, Dad, I’m back.”

Alistair’s voice drifts out into the hallway of his parents’ flat. The dwelling is mid-sized, humble for someone of his father’s means (even for London) but cosy, furnished with soft carpet in an inoffensive cream that gives way to a kitchen floor of varnished floor of warm wood and adorned with bits and bobs that the Partons have collected over the years – a little clock with flowers on the face here, a plush cat from the eponymous Belgian festival (attended on a holiday a few years ago) on the mantlepiece there, a wedding photo hanging on the wall over yonder. It’s all very nice.

Alistair sighs. Looking up, he traces his hand over a framed drawing in coloured pencil. One, small, black-haired stick figure stands in a line with one taller individual and several others standing at somewhere between the two. All wear pronounced smiles.

‘back’ still works.

“Hi, Alistair!” He draws his hand away as his dad’s voice echoes, warm, comforting and, as ever, imbued with that little bit of hope, from beyond the study door as it clicks open. Out Henry steps, expression reflecting his tone, the wiry man’s movements never firm, always a little hesitant and conscientious but still revealing latent purposefulness. Approaching, he extends his arms for a hug; Alistair, smiling a little, goes to meet him. “How was your day?”

“Fine,” is the answer Alistair gives. “We looked at different household structures in Sociology, which was interesting.” Slowly, still smiling, he disentangles himself.

“Oh, good!” Henry beams. “That’s wonderful to hear… Any clubs today or anything like that?”

The smile fades; Alistair shakes his head, pressing his lips together. “No… Did some reading in the library over lunch, though.”

Henry’s own smile turns sympathetic. “Well, as long as you’re happy.”

Slowly, Alistair nods.

There is a moment’s pause.

“I’m going to get on with my homework,” he finally says, breaking the silence. He offers that same, weak smile again. “Thanks, Dad.”

“You’re more than welcome.” Henry’s mouth opens a touch, then closes again. Alistair sees little else before his bedroom door closes.

––– ⛉ –––

“…worry about him, Steven.”

The muffled voices of his parents filter through the door, intelligible even amidst the evening traffic. Alistair, pausing in his typing, swipes at his laptop’s trackpad towards the volume control for his studying music to block them out.

I need to know.

His face takes on a pained expression. But it’s a betrayal of trust – but if it can help me – I – Alistair screws his eyes shut, focussing his mind towards the obliteration of his internal debate.

Of course, that means that he doesn’t turn the volume up.

“I get that but – Henry, he’s growing up. It’s around this time that you need to be doing this sort of thinking. We can’t solve this for him – he has to figure out who he is.” There’s a pause. “Or maybe it’s just that I can’t solve it and I’m projecting. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be hard on yourself, love… I just think that – yes, he does need to be doing that but he can’t do it if he doesn’t have any support. I remember how happy Alistair was with everyone else at the club and now… That’s not your fault – that’s not your fault, I’m sure there are lovely people at Evergreen for him to be friends with. He just seems so much more withdrawn now…”

“Could it be that he just needs a push?”

“I’ve tried… I… I don’t know, Ste-”

Alistair turns the music up.

I can’t.

I’m sorry.

––– ⛉ –––

That night, Alistair dreams – dreams of a shadowy bird on the wing, of beings half-formed and ethereal, of a tolling bell.

His eyes flash open, breath stolen from him; for a moment, he is grasped by terror’s claws. Then, slowly, he takes in his surroundings: an empty room, dim lights playing above the curtain, all silent but for the traffic outside. His body untenses and, as he fades back to sleep, he forgets.

After all, they are only dreams.

Room P3, Evergreen Grammar School
Monday Afternoon

“Yesterday we looked at Jeremy Bentham and Act Utilitarianism and discussed its advantages and disadvantages – I think most of us concluded that it was well-intentioned but had some fundamental problems to it. Yes, Farina, I know you think differently – you’ll get the chance to debate later, don’t worry! So, today we’re going to go over Bentham’s successor, John Stuart Mill, and his attempt to fix some of those problems.”

Evergreen Grammar School’s Lower Sixth Monday afternoon Philosophy class is fundamentally divided. Among the students there, about half of them are slouching, elbows on desks, eyes half-lidded – waiting for the first day of the week to be over so they can reclaim what semblance of weekend remained back at home. These are those who took Philosophy under the impression that it would be an easy, if slightly boring, subject. Working on Natural Law at the start of the year put paid to that idea.

The other half, on the other hand, listen closely, some nodding and many taking notes.

Alistair Parton is a part of the latter group.

Dr Brower walks to the side, tapping at his spacebar to advance to the new black-text-on-yellow-background-with-accompanying-photo slide. “Mill was born not far from here in Middlesex. His father was a friend of Bentham’s and agreed with his views on Utilitarianism, so he decided to raise Mill as a genius who’d be able to think his way through the Hedonic Calculus as Bentham set out.” Dr Brower grimaces. “Basically, Mill was hot-housed – he learned Greek and Latin before his teens and his father actually had him teach his older siblings himself, among other things. This brought him close to suicide before he was twenty.”

Brower’s face takes on a more open expression, looking out across the room. “It was this experience that made Mill realise that a person just can’t figure out the right and wrong thing to do in every circumstance – or, well, I suppose that they could, with enough work, but it wouldn’t be practical or desirable to make everyone go through that work.”

Alistair purses his lips, considering. That’s basically… He presses his pen to his notepad a little more firmly.

Dr Brower steps back towards his computer, smiling. “Mill put forward his own version of Bentham’s principle of utility, which modern philosophers see as the first form of ‘Rule Utilitarianism’.” With a flourish, he presses the spacebar again. “Instead of taking actions that maximise pleasure and minimise pain, he argued that people should follow the set of rules that maximise pleasure and minimise pain; that way, they have a guide to make those decisions. The mental burden is laid on coming up with the rules beforehand and tweaking them every so often, not on working out every action in the moment, meaning that a Rule Utilitarian won’t get overwhelmed like an Act Utilitarian would. Mill compared it to the idea of a ship’s captain taking an almanac with him, which held information about the night sky that allowed him to navigate, rather than trying to work out all of those details in the middle of a storm.” He looks up. “Yes, Jeremy?”

Okay, good start, but… That’s not enough, right?

A tallish, boy with blond hair and glasses speaks from the middle of the class. “Sir, wouldn’t that just become Act Utilitarianism again after a while? A set of rules that really maximised utility would be so… So huge and complicated that someone wouldn’t be able to follow it, right?”

Brower nods. “You could argue that, yes. Alternatively, you could make the case that that set of rules wouldn’t maximise utility for that reason – that a system of rules would have to be useable to do so in the first place.” He grins. “Keep thinking that way, though; it’ll be useful in the debate.” He glances around the class again. “Alistair?”

Alistair lowers his hand – then brushes his hair out of his steely eyes, his earlier headshaking ineffectual. Need to get that sorted soon… Where was – right. “Did Mill set out the rules he thought would maximise utility?”

Dr Brower frowns; he walks forward, then leans against his desk. “I don’t think he ever sat down and wrote out a list like Aquinas did, not really… He was an MP and a political thinker, though, and a lot of his thinking in that area is in a book called On Liberty. A lot of people don’t think it’s fully consistent with his views on Utilitarianism but it’s still a good place to look.”

Alistair nods, his gaze turning resolute even as he angles it back towards his notes.

“Now, Mill differed from Bentham in another important way: what pleasure actually was. If you remember, Bentham…”

King Henry’s Mound, Richmond Park
Monday Evening

‘…the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’

What’s ‘harm’, though?

Alistair sighs. He swings his legs from atop the metal lattice, planting his solidly-shod feet on the ground and resting his head on the pillar of his hand and arm. Down at the book he gazes. “It’s… It’s like the pleasure machine. What’s to stop someone locking people up to prevent them from getting hurt – in the most specific sense?” He growls. “Or, in the other direction, to convince people to trust no-one in academia because they think they’re part of some nonsensical conspiracy?”

He shakes his head, lying back against the metal post. It’s just too vague. You could use this to justify anything. Then he closes his fist – the one not holding the book – and shakes his head again, leaning down to drop the text into his bag and standing, picking the whole thing up in a single, fluid motion. “Need to keep reading. Probably explains later.” Still…

His thoughts trail to a halt as he looks behind him, confirming the appearance of an elderly couple waiting patiently and a little nervously off to the side. Alistair opens his mouth slightly, then shuts it, hunching over a little in guilt and walking away to allow them to use the telescope. As he does so, he looks up slightly to take in the view of London, then back to the hole through the hedges to where he knows by now St Paul’s Cathedral is, crowning the City. And it doesn’t solve the main issue, either. No matter how much thought I put into rules, or how much I think I might be protecting people…

I could still just be hurting them.

Courtyard, Evergreen Grammar School
Tuesday Morning

Alistair heads through Evergreen’s main quad towards the school library, his stride neither long nor short, energised nor trudging. His head is down, his lips pressed firmly together.

A burst of noise catches his attention; he looks over. Apparently, somebody – likely Upper Sixth, since he doesn’t recognise him (not that that’s a hugely reliable indicator these days) – has taken it upon himself to climb into the boughs of one of the school’s many trees. He’s not the only one who’s noticed, either; a small group of onlookers is gathering beneath him. Frowning incredulously, Alistair stops. Then he turns to walk over…

And an expression of sorrowful, painful conflict manifests on his face. He glances down, away.

Then he sighs and, shaking his head, walks on.
Callie nods in agreement at Ishaq’s words, a minor smile crossing her face at the first and a firm, solemn expression appearing at the last ones. Following on, she looks to the officer. “If you have the minehunting drones fan out in front of the ship, Ma’am, I’ll report to the Operations Room after this meeting and clear them as we find them.” She grins at the other two. “Don’t worry; somehow, I think I’ll be in position before the landing.”
Callie looks between Ishaq and Robert for a moment, raising an eyebrow at the implication of the former. “I did say that I’ve got attacking capabilities too.” She picks up her copy of the briefing notes, holding them up to the other two; with her other hand she plucks Charter out of the air and, with a moment’s focus, forms and then dismisses a tiny portal with either end inside the corner of the sheets, trifurcating it in an instant. Callie grins. “Specifically surgical, silent attacking capabilities. Charter’s portals can cut through anything – walls, barricades, equipment – so long as I know where it is and what it looks like. Against enemy personnel, meanwhile…” She turns to the commanding officer again. “If we have any holding cells, could I see them after this? With your permission, I’ll memorise them and drop people through – weapons disabled, obviously.”

Callie turns back to the other two. “Beyond that – jets or sheets of ultra-pressurised water from the Marianas Trench; heat and fire from Kilauea; I can even bring in lightning from Lake Maracaibo on a good day by cutting the distance from the stormclouds there to wherever I want. Path of least resistance. Charter also allows me to see as far as the Earth’s curvature and the terrain allows, so I can do all of this at range or just scout. And there’s transportation too.” She smiles to Ishaq. “If you want, you can focus on keeping us alive and I can handle moving us around. You know your Arm better than I do.”
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