Spoiler(s): “The Abduction” (S2-10) and “A Higher Echelon” (S2-11). This story takes place before “Phase One” (S2-13).
Genre: Character exploration
Length: 2,618 words
Dedication: to Yahtzee, whose stories in many fandoms — including the recent foray into Alias — have brought me pleasure for many years
Disclaimer: Characters from Alias are property of J.J. Abrams, Bad Robot Productions, and Touchstone Television.
Marshall Flinkman is an untestable genius. The scope of his intellect can’t be mapped, because there simply aren’t any measurement tools adequate for the task. The basic IQ test (discredited a long time ago, but people keep trying to sneak in new versions of it, they just call them by different names) poses questions of increasing difficulty, with “normal” set somewhere in the middle and assigned a value of 100. Sort of like proof values in potable alcohol: 100-proof actually means 50% alcohol, which, whoa! that’s pretty heavy saturation as far as alcohol goes, but still 50% doesn’t sound anywhere near as cool. Einstein supposedly had an IQ of 160, which means his raw score would have been, like, 80%.
Every time Marshall takes a test of that type, he makes 100%.
Okay, not every time. Twice he missed a question, or at least the test said he did. The first time, it bugged him so bad (how could he have been wrong? how could he correct himself if he didn’t know where he had messed up?), and he pestered the test authorities so relentlessly, they finally let him see the single wrong answer. But he still couldn’t figure out the source of his mistake, and he went back to them with pages of dense calculations, begging to be shown where he had gone wrong, and they brought in a team to study the pages, and it went back and forth and then they changed the test because he’d been right all along.
The second time it happened, they came to him, asking if he could show them their error. That one was resolved a lot faster.
The point is, 100% score doesn’t mean 200 IQ, it means the test isn’t hard enough. If a car’s speedometer only goes to 120MPH, and the car tops out every time you open it up, then you need a higher speedometer to see how much faster you’re going than 120. If a scale only goes to 300 pounds, and a 400-pound man steps on them, well, the most they can tell is that he weighs at least 300.
They’re still working on a scale for Marshall. He’s in no hurry.
Marshall is in a good place, doing good work, surrounded by good people. He’s the happiest he’s ever been. Every day brings new problems, new challenges, impossible expectations and ridiculous deadlines and the ever-present necessity of designing for people who just don’t see what he sees. He’s in heaven. Even his mother, who has worried herself to a shadow for the majority of his life, has come to cautiously accept that her baby boy may at last have found that rarified sphere where someone of his unique construction can flourish.
Marshall sees things, and understands them, and that is why he is so successful, and fulfilled, and valued. In fact, he sees far more than anyone realizes, and long since gave up trying to explain it all to them. They have — believe they have — better, more important things to do.
Like there is anything more important. Marshall is firmly committed to reality, and reality unfolds around him in an endless, self-replenishing stream of data and inferences.
Marshall knows Arvin Sloane is not a good man. A great man, hey, absolutely, but his mannerisms are out of sync with the image, there’s just nothing beneath the surface warmth, and with each day Marshall is ever more glad that fate put Sloane working for the government instead of against it. Sloane is good at his job (Jack Bristow could probably do as well, but then Sloane could never substitute for Bristow in the field), so Marshall is willing to accept the man’s flaws. Everyone has them, after all, and Sloane’s — though way unsettling — are under better control than most.
Jack Bristow, on the other hand, is like the Antimatter Sloane. The man is deeply scary, but somehow Marshall doesn’t fear him. He knows without question that Bristow would kill him in a heartbeat if he thought it necessary, and knows with equal clarity that Bristow’s definition of “necessary” is so different from Sloane’s that it’s not right even to use the same word. Sloane’s gentle cordiality is a bubble skin over a total absence of humanity; Bristow’s glacial self-control is a shield for deep, inestimable passions. They’re both hard, ruthless men, and you definitely want both on your side, but Bristow is the one you’d trust at your back.
(There’s also the matter of Sydney. It’s obvious that Sloane believes, or allows himself to believe, that Sydney might actually be his daughter, but this is a thought so disturbing that Marshall chokes it off whenever it arises.)
Dixon, now, Dixon is the best of them. You can easily see Arvin Sloane as Moriarty instead of Mr Waverly; you can even see Jack Bristow being just as dedicated to the KGB or the Wehrmacht, serving men he despises but committed to the cause they happen, for the moment, to control. Dixon, though, that man is a purely American patriot, the dream that drives him could never exist anywhere else. Not just love of country, but of an ideal that America needs to try to keep living up to. If Marshall wasn’t himself, he’d want to be Dixon.
And Sydney. Marshall doesn’t analyze Sydney, but some things are just out there to see. She hates Sloane, but she’ll never betray him because it would mean betraying her country, and that she just can’t do. She hates Sloane’s little gestures of fatherly concern, and probably hates herself for the part of her that wants to respond, that needs them because of the walls between herself and her actual father. She loves Jack Bristow deeply, and hates him at least a little, and war is always on the edge of breaking out between them. The life she leads is wearing her down, a bit at a time, and she dreams of being somewhere else.
Anywhere else, she wouldn’t really be alive. She was born for this.
* * *
Marshall knows things, and one of the things he knows is that he could do a lot more than he does. It’s all about choices, priorities, values.
The Knight Rider car, the Knight Industries 2000? Doable. Real artificial intelligence is still out of reach, but the upper boundaries of processing power have advanced so far that it’s now possible to write and access enough contingency subroutines, at a high enough speed, to accomplish everything true AI could provide except creativity and self-awareness. (The land speed, the armor, the advanced sensors and electronic pulse weapons, those are also possible, but not all in the same sedan-sized frame. There are limits.)
World domination? Piece of cake. Marshall worked up five different ways to take over the world, and run it afterward (two of them had the world not even knowing it had been conquered), before giving it up as a kid’s game. Never mind that humanity as a whole would probably be better off with him regulating and allocating; life is just more fun when it comes with surprises.
He could create the Heinleinian language designed to actually facilitate clear communication and clear thinking. He could develop a system that would track stock market changes, learn as it progressed, and predict future consequences with more than enough accuracy to guarantee stupendous wealth. He could set up a cortical-mapping program that would assess, catalogue, and systematize the various areas of the brain that can be stimulated by implanted electrodes, and design an application capable (with enough time and experimentation) of creating a Matrix-style internal reality indistinguishable from the true one.
He could, if he decided to do so, make Sydney Bristow love him.
He could. He knows how. It wouldn’t be anything as crude as mind control or hormonal manipulation, nothing like that. For all the wonderful rich complexity of the human brain, the human individual is just a very sophisticated stimulus-response engine. Push the right buttons, in the right combinations, no problem to get the desired outcome. Compared to the other tasks he carries out every day of his life, that would not be insurmountably difficult.
He knows he could, and so he doesn’t. This is one of those things that can’t be logically defined, but is still true by the deepest perceptions: the reality of Sydney is so precious that it would be ruined by being controlled. That’s really the deciding factor behind most of the projects Marshall chooses not to begin. Controlling people nullifies their value, and you wind up with nothing but the process. Just not worth it.
(Also, if he waits for the woman who wants him by her own choice, he’ll have found someone finally who recognizes and appreciates his value. Meaningless if they’re just puppets.)
And, finally, it would mean playing a role. For him to limit himself so severely, just for the sake of a single goal … well, the world has too much to offer for that ever to be a cost-effective choice.
He works with good people, and they respect and rely on his ability, but none of them ever realizes how much he talks down to them; how much he has to. He sees it all the time: he’ll be making a presentation, and start off on some wonderfully promising tangent, and spot the moment when they begin waiting for him to get to the point. Sometimes Sloane will say his name, just to indicate the need to return to the original line; the others usually sit patiently. Because they truly do care for him, and don’t want to hurt his feelings, they try to hide that they feel a little sorry for him.
Because he truly cares for them, he never gives them cause to wonder how much he might pity them.
It’s always the same thing with them: get to the point, focus on essentials, make your contribution and then move on. What they can’t see — and Marshall would mortgage his soul to make them able to understand — is that it’s all essential, the branching permutations and interlinkages are the ultimate point underlying everything. It’s all tied together, from Doppler shifting through whale songs and clear down into electron valences, with human feelings and desires having their own place and importance.
Marshall has seen the connections, followed them further and deeper than all but a handful of minds in human history, and he is still dazzled by the vistas opening up, knowing he’ll never reach their end. “For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see; / Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonders that would be …”
Tennyson, “Locksley Hall”. Poetry is one of the few (non-physical) tasks of which Marshall is incapable; he can produce technically correct verse, intricate and ingenious, but it lacks any spark of life or originality. He loves poetry all the same, delighting each time he discovers something he wanted to say, but for which he could never find the right words, to have been said perfectly by another mind centuries before him. These things move him in a way that Rambaldi’s artifacts, for all the impossible genius behind them, have never done.
Marshall, very simply, is living his dream. The first time he ever saw a James Bond movie, he wanted Q’s job. Sure, Bond was cool — the looks, the style, the way women gravitated in his direction — but even at the age of 10, Marshall had known instantly that he could be Q. Now he is, and working with people miles more incredible than any chauvinistic Scotsman with an (admittedly excellent) hairpiece.
One time, though — just once — he got to stand briefly in 007’s shoes.
Not the break-in and the data heist; that was Sydney’s job, and Marshall only had to concern himself with following where she led. And not when the sadistic Asian torturer saw that Marshall had stalled him for days recreating the “Pong” schematics; there had been satisfaction there but no smugness, Marshall had been convinced he was going to die regardless, and had just been stubbornly determined that he wouldn’t reward his killers.
No, the real moment was when he was rescued, when Sydney launched herself against his captors and destroyed them … and then it all fell apart, the both of them trapped, and it was he — he, Marshall Flinkman — who, with his skill and foresight and quick thinking (and caring, because even in the grip of pre-flight paranoia he’d not forgotten to design a parachute system for two), had seized control of the situation and saved both himself and the most glorious woman ever created by a God who loved beauty and purity of spirit.
… starve, scourge, deride me; I am dumb, I keep my secret still.
Fools! for I also had my hour, one far fierce hour and sweet …
G.K. Chesterton, “the Donkey”. Of course, by ‘dumb’ Chesterton meant ‘mute’; and Marshall has never starved, and any scourging (whipping) he’s ever undergone was strictly grade-school stuff. That was definitely his hour, though, his moment in the sun, more triumph and fierce joy than he’s felt at any other point in his life.
Not sweetness, though. It would have been, but the prize for sweet had already been taken.
He knows exactly what it was about. Muzzy from the partial tranquilizer dose, he was fading out at the keyboard, and Sydney had needed to jolt him to alertness, and so she did it quickly and effectively. She kissed him from necessity, not passion; but she knew it would work because she knew what she meant to him, and — being who she was — she would have found a different tactic if the kiss had been a total lie. So, yes, Sydney loves him a little. She loves a lot of people, and Marshall can be happy that he’s one of them, without being more than the tiniest bit sad that he’s not foremost among them.
Marshall sees things, and understands them, and this understanding made the wonderful thing possible. He could have made her love him … but because he didn’t, the kiss that will never be repeated was a true sign of something precious, and he absolutely would not trade that for anything.
It all ties together. The small love she revealed to him wouldn’t have been meaningful or even possible if he hadn’t chosen not to engineer her feelings and responses. In the same way, the sense of duty that keeps her in a life that makes her unhappy, will ultimately lead her to happiness. She’s doing what matters most to her, she’s following her heart, and a heart as good as hers just can’t lead her wrong.
She’ll find what she needs, and he’ll take care of her until she does. She’s the star, and deserves to be; he’s the one who looks after her, gives her every edge and advantage that his versatile mind can produce. Before, he did it out of pride, and maybe some worship. Now it’s gratitude, and a ferocious determination to keep her safe.
It all connects, and even Sydney doesn’t realize just how many threads of destiny connect to her. Marshall sees the traces of it, the faint ghostly framework, and Marshall is content — no, fulfilled — in subordinating his destiny to Sydney’s.
Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
jumping from the chair she sat in.
Time, you thief, who love to get
sweets into your list, put that in.
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
say that health and wealth have miss’d me;
Say I’m growing old, but add
Jenny kiss’d me.
— Leigh Hunt
As always, commentary is welcomed.
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