Nov 27, 2022 3:10 AM
how Merrin came to the attention of Exception Handling
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Back!  Sorry, he was just checking and optimizing a thing.  Merrin can head in now.


(Merrin vaguely notices they’re headed in slightly the wrong direction, but it takes her long enough that bringing it up feels weird, and maybe it’s on purpose and actually makes sense. She doesn’t interject.)

She stands sort of blankly outside while he goes in.

The first place her eyes go is to the LCD wall screens - there are even more of them in the command center, and she’s now had her eyes off the patient for, like, an entire five minutes. It seems very unlikely that anything will have changed yet - the operating team is still getting set up for the pile of initial procedures, which need to happen before they start manipulating the patient’s core temperature at all. Still, it’s giving her an itchy feeling. 

There are actually a number of banks of extra screens that were brought in, for the people flown in and now sitting on the chairs brought in, and also for the people not brought in on-site but currently participating via videoconference. 

There are not going to be any quiet corners for Merrin to hide out of sight - 




Merrin is a face recognizer, and the Chief of Medical Oversight - not to mention probably a lot of the other involved parties - do, unlike Avarris, ever appear on TV.

Merrin, who is quite looking forward to sitting down again actually, notices the available chair first and only then notices who’s sitting NEXT to it. 

It’s probably too late to quietly slink out of this terrifying room that Merrin so incredibly doesn’t belong in??? Running away after everyone already saw her is not any less mortifying than…this…and she can’t even hide under any desks, they’re all in use. Plus she wouldn’t be able to see the lovely array of screens, then, would she. The chair is actually a pretty great placement, in addition to looking like one of Merrin’s preferred chair models.


This is now actually surreal enough again that, combined with Merrin’s sheer emotional exhaustion, she’s sliding back toward being incapable of caring. Also everything feels fake. This is a scene from a TV show, surely, not Merrin’s actual life.

She smiles nervously at the Chief of Medical Oversight, because that’s just polite, and sits down, and without particularly making a decision, logs herself into the computer console and goes to look up Avarris’ file. She has the evidence of her own eyes that HER PATIENT (Merrin gets protective) is in good hands, but confirmation will still be reassuring, right? 



This weird surreal TV show sure is making some interesting casting choices. 


People present that a face-recognizer like Merrin should easily identify:

The hospital's Fat-Tailed-Risk+One-Responsible-Person (chief of financial risk management), who is glowering at the hospital's central financial viewscreen; while getting a shoulder massage from one of the hospital's more ambitious sex workers, who's trying not to look like she's plotting any sudden career moves.

The actual CEO of the hospital.

Villar the on-duty Personnel.

The off-duty Personnel who just goes by Personnel, looking rather sleepy.


Others present in the room, who may be identifiable if Merrin watches enough news, or if Merrin is at an angle to read the large nametags clearly showing name/title/affiliation because this is serious business and nobody has time to try to remember that stuff:

The second-rank Keeper who was understudy if Merrin suddenly fell over during her first few hours.  She's wearing medical scrubs rather than standard Keeper-wear, but still bears a rank insignia in her hair.

A fourth-rank Keeper who would have taken over if Merrin had faltered during later hours and before shift handoff.  Ditto on medical scrubs, rank insignia as circlet.

A very-long-serving Representative who sometimes concerns herself with Exception Handling and with Civilization's operations excellence generally.  It's widely acknowledged by everyone including herself that she chose the wrong career track and should have gone to work for the Bureaucracy directly, but the executive branch of government is forbidden to hire anyone who's ever been in politics for obvious reasons so too late now.

The grandmother-gendertroped woman who originally spotted a body in an icy river.  She's here out of curiosity, out of compassion, and of course because her final bounty is going to depend on the final outcome.  She's already sold most of her expected gains as a bond, outcome variance here being very high; but Civilization's generally good financial practices mean that almost nobody will buy an entire risk from anyone.  It's suspicious when somebody wants to end up with zero skin in the game they're selling you.

An information-security expert from Exception Handling, to be the one person present whose job it is to keep track of all the secrecy and related practices.

One actual soldier / military police; there's enough concentrated value in this room that Civilization will actually bother to defend it against the very remote case that some criminal decides to make a move or somebody suddenly goes insane.  The fourth-rank Keeper would be a more powerful military factor, if it came to sudden conflict, but it's not his one job nor his comparative advantage.


Standout figures among the viewscreens:

Someone wearing an insignia recognizable as belonging to the Fourth Legislator of Civilization.  Her brightly sparkling hat of many-colored sequins marks her as probably the Legislator's Chief of Staff.

The Sparashki ambassador.

A dark, shadowy silhouette with a broad-brimmed hat, seated before a dark-gray monolith with red glowing letters reading "03".

A man dressed only in a bathrobe, colored in the solid purple shade of a Chronicler of History, bearing a dispassionately skeptical expression beneath massive purple-dyed eyebrows; his listening-ears have been done up as fluffy cat ears of the highest quality.



To be clear, this should all strike you as perfectly normal if you grew up in dath ilan, because high-ranking people are just like that.  They haven't come all this way to not be themselves.


(There's also an ordinary fruit bowl, oranges and bananas and grapes and the like; no apples, since those would require peeling to be eaten.  Uncomplicated nutrition-bars are scattered beside.  This minitable of Healthy Snacks is accompanied by a small purple dinosaur figurine; which is very humorous and ironical if you grew up inside of dath ilan, but which nobody there would even try to explain to aliens unless they'd run out a whole lot of better things to do with an alien's time.)


Weirdly, having like FIFTEEN scary important people (also Keepers in scrubs? why are there Keepers in scrubs?? more importantly where were they the entire last twelve hours???) is less intimidating than having ONE scary important person. Merrin’s brain is doing some sort of overflow error. 

It’s bizarrely reassuring having the Sparashki ambassador there even though Merrin is not, in fact, actually an alien.

She has the pointless, half-hysterical thought that they could just give her all the apple peels; Merrin has been the designated apple-peel-eater of her entire family since she was little, she always thought throwing them away was a waste, they have a fun chewy texture. She gets up and collects herself some grapes once it feels less like everyone is probably LOOKING at her. (As far as she can tell, everyone is busy and quite reasonably looking at their screens instead of her.)

She’s kind of jealous of the bathrobe. It takes her an embarrassing length of time before the mental voice of Mom points out that it would be completely reasonable to ask someone to get her a bathrobe, she’s earned it. Also it feels sort of rude to still be in a swimsuit. At least her cosplay, intended to last through a morning in the water, seems to have held up okay.

She’s almost not embarrassed about asking, even.

Also she should really text her mom but she has no idea what to say. Maybe she’ll just text Personnel (the regular Personnel who she knows) and ask if someone can figure that out for her. Asking out loud in a room full of busy people for someone to text your mom is a step too far even for exhausted Merrin.


A bathrobe appears very quickly, correctly ornamented for an eminent Sparashki female of Merrin's status.  This was a predictable request and people were just waiting on it; markets worried that asking Merrin if she wanted a bathrobe might make her self-conscious of her previous swimsuited status.

Information security expert has precleared asking Merrin's mom if she wants to swear grade-three secrecy about a subset of the facts, assuming Merrin wants her looped in.  Else there's a neat menu of true things that Merrin is allowed to say to Irris without looping her.


Bathrobe! Much better. Also, wow, someone is having fun with the Sparashki theme.

Merrin would rather decide whether to ask Irris about the secrecy oath later. (The fact that everything feels kind of fake is making it hard to judge whether it’s a good idea or what her mom would prefer.) She’ll go with some of the pre-selected true things in the meantime, feeling deep gratitude to whoever thought ahead and made this so seamless for her.

And then she wraps herself in the bathrobe, takes off her shoes - they’re annoying her and it won’t even stand out terribly - and tuck her feet under her in the chair, watching the screens of sensor data and the camera footage of the operating theatre being set up for the upcoming treatments.

(It’s probably a good thing for Merrin’s mental state that she isn’t actually enough of a hardcore Sparashki aficionado to know off the top of her head exactly what status markers they’re assigning her.)


Avarris was brought in at the optimal balance time between "get some feel for the patient under the previous semi-equilibrium state being maintained, before starting complicated new processes" and "preserve stamina for operating the new protocol".  She's still maintaining essentially Merrin's equilibrium, and isn't making large mistakes that Merrin can spot while monitoring at this remove.


Shortly before the rewarming protocol is set to start, a new viewscreen lights with a figure that even most dath ilani could identify on sight: the Chief of Exception Handling, probably the third most famous supervillain-gendertroped person in Civilization, insofar as you can distinguish fine gradients of fame among people who everyone knows.

It's not that everyone could recognize his face, obviously, but that everyone would recognize that ominous spiked steel gauntlet he wears.  The prediction market on what, if anything, his gauntlet actually does, has over a million labor-hours bet on it; and isn't set to resolve-by-default until another hundred years have passed, by which point the truth ought to be fully declassified.

He is one of the only people in Civilization to own a cat.



It’s probably fine and nothing to do with her at all but Merrin is having trouble shaking the feeling that she’s someone in trouble and about to get told off. Maybe about failing to smoothly handle the incident when they switched to the new liver machine? The ECMO setup went fine once they’d actually prepared for it. What if the literal Chief of Exception Handling is about to yell at her for falling short of Exception Handling standards for contingency planning???


"Good evening," says Catchall in his usual doomvoice.  "I've come to share with you some of my opinions upon our general, collective performance."

(The Chief of Exception Handling is another fan of the general concept that people should be named after what they do; but the same philosophy holds that at Civilization's Chief-level it's okay to ask people to remember a 'cape name', as the fanon terminology goes, so long as that name is easy to derive mnemonically from someone's role rather than being a completely arbitrary fact.)

(Also it's not evening, either in the hospital or where Catchall happens to be.  But Catchall is in the habit of just always saying "Good evening" in that dark grim voice to everyone, as it obviates having to worry about what time zone he or anybody else is in.)


AAAAHH it turns out Merrin is not going to get to find out if the patent survives because the Chief of Exception Handling is about to villain-monologue in front of literally the entire room about all of her (to be fair, numerous) shortcomings as a person and then demand what the hospital could possibly have been thinking keeping her on the case. And then she is going to die of embarrassment. 


"It is of course the appropriate time for such a review," Catchall continues, in the low, rough-edged, ominous voice that has occasionally given rise to mild speculation about exotic forms of asthma or lung damage, since he literally never seems to break character about it.  "Prediction markets give our patient a 20% chance of survival.  Hard-won as that chance was, it might be in poor taste to share some of my frank thoughts after he is suspended.  And if we hit on our one chance in five, the subsequent atmosphere of cheerfulness might conflict with some of what I have to say."

"It is a truism that you do not know what a system really does while it is being fed only a narrow range of inputs.  If you only ever feed two and two into a binaryfunction whose output always seems to be four, you don't know if it's performing addition, multiplication, exponentiation, or some other and entirely nonstandard operation."

"The actual correctness of Civilization's code, I would say, is only really tested when Civilization encounters some relatively unaccustomed circumstance."

"Today, Civilization encountered a slightly unusual - very slightly unusual - set of circumstances.  Somebody valuable fell into cold water."

"And I can characterize Civilization's overall performance and response, to this microscopic digression from the ordinary, in two words, if you'll pardon the otherwise incomplete sentence fragment."


"Miserable.  Failure."





…On the one hand, like, it’s not false. Merrin is already very aware of her various failures spread over those twelve hours, not to mention how slow and stupid she felt compared to Avarris?

On the other hand, Merrin is feeling kind of defensive now! She’s not actually sure what she could realistically have done differently in advance, once you exclude totally non-actionable options like “be smarter” or “have passed the ICU certs sooner so she had more non-sim experience.” She could have done somewhat more sims if she spent less time flopped in bed watching medical TV, but she couldn’t have done twice as much. 

Honestly, she almost feels like Catchall is being unfairly harsh right now.


(Merrin is trying not to react visibility, and doesn’t make a sound, but does look noticeably miserable.)


"This episode began when somebody spotted a body in the river, fifteen minutes before that body would have reached an outflow bottleneck with a sensor that would have otherwise had even a chance of spotting that anomaly.  Setting up the first notes of today's grand, overarching theme where the only reason we now have the slightest chance of succeeding is due to randomly fortunate events and contributions from individual heroes that we, as a Civilization, did not earn by anything remotely resembling any slight form of advance planning."

"We then go on to the next step of ambulance response, where, despite the oddity of the unidentifiable patient and the abraded fingers, nobody calls Exception Handling and tells them about that.  No, we don't want the citizens of Civilization to conceptualize themselves as unable to handle any anomalies without Exception Handling, we don't want Exception Handling becoming the parents of children who can't handle any exceptional circumstances on their own.  But we could maybe at least be the excited little sister who gets told about interesting anomalies like this, without it automatically becoming our responsibility?  Is Civilization fundamentally unable to strike a compromise this simple?  Yes.  Yes it is."


…None of that is actually yelling at her, but oddly Merrin finds herself almost more defensive at someone being hard on other people she knows. What were they supposed to do, carpet the riverbed in sensors? Is he aware the river in winter is full of ICE?


"And then... we encounter the event of the hospital's retinal machine failing to connect to the network when plugged in.  As was in fact the actual reason why Exception Handling was first notified of this event at all."

"Usually, as I understand it, one identifies unconscious patients through their fingerprints and their electronic devices.  What that means, my fellow citizens of Civilization, is that a retinal scanner at a hospital is itself a kind of exception handler.  A hospital retinal scanner gets invoked when circumstances are anomalous, ordinary means have failed.  This means that when you plug it in and turn it on, it should work correctly on the first try, absolutely shitting period.  When a program tries to throw an exception inside an exception, the correct compiler behavior is to immediately dump memory and quit the program with a message saying that the programmer was an idiot and ought to be fired."

"It didn't have to be like that, is the thing.  If you'll pardon something of an angry sub-rant, so long as I'm ranting anyways about these fascinating events that I will not be allowed to write up in a newspaper.  Hospitals could leave emergency machines like that plugged in to a row of outlets, and have them turn themselves on and run self-tests every day.  Maybe then there'd be a reasonable chance that they'd work the first time, when people tried to use them during ongoing exceptions."

"So why did we build the system this way?  To save on electricity, instead of building an additional three percent of a nuclear power plant to serve all the self-testing hospital devices on the planet?"

"No.  We did it that way because somebody thought for fifteen seconds about how the system ought to work and then decided that a policy of turning on the device once a month and testing it had taken care of the part of the system labeled 'testing'.  Somebody actually thought that and, apparently, the rest of Civilization just nodded along and thought it was a great idea."

"Why is our planet like this?  Why do we choose to live like this?  Isn't the whole design aim of a democracy to end up with a society that's smarter than its median voter?  Isn't that the point of having a voting system more complicated than selecting one random voter to be dictator?  Have we just given up on that important social goal?  Every part of dath ilan reads like it was built by some person of strictly average intelligence who'd read about education in a book but never actually gone to school, who spent ten minutes designing all our civilizational systems via a series of fifteen-second casual decisions about how things intuitively 'ought to work' that they made without ever seeing the consequences in action.  We have the illusion that Civilization works only because it's not on fire most of the time, and mostly doesn't kill us, and we think deep in our limbic system that this must mean that everything is fine.  The entirety of dath ilan is one gigantic failure fractal."


Okay but how much monologue about the entire entity of Civilization's various flaws is he planning to cover before he tells her how she specifically screwed up, the suspense is killing her here

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