Monday Stories

New Fiction Every Monday

Month: November 2016

Excerpt from “Redeemable”: Stories we Don’t Know

This is an excerpt from my NaNoWriMo novel this year, entitled Redeemable. I don’t have a ton of time to clean it up or make some of the more obscure passages make sense, so you’ll have to deal with a slightly weird story.

But you’re used to that.

Thank you for reading!

Every person carries their own little history in their head; the stories of who they are and what has happened to them. These stories are secret.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.

We think we know everything that happens. We think we know where everyone is most of the time, so we know most of what is going on in the world. We think that the things we don’t know about are small and useless things. Maybe someone is in love with someone else and we’re not really aware, but that’s not a big deal, right? Or maybe there are little crimes, people finding chemical delights in ways that we forbid. Again, not a huge deal.

But we’re wrong. Big things are invisible. Massive, earth moving stories and plots that simmer below the surface of our reality, they are there. They are undetected. Sometimes we see corners of them.

Let me tell you a story.

Once there was a man. He was named Lenny. He lived down here. He never married, but he dated quite a few girls. He worked in the botany lab, did solid but unimpressive research, progressed the sum total of our knowledge by an amount that moved along a linear path. He enjoyed painting in his free time. He slept almost exactly eight hours every night, based on when he went into and out of his bedroom.

About three years ago his paintings started getting weirder. He started including phrases in them, sometimes all on one painting, sometimes spread across multiple canvases. The phrases were nonsense. Things like “Arrows fly truest when aimed north,” Or “The sky? Ask me about it tomorrow.”

If they were secret messages to someone they were a very poor form of communication. They were seen by me (because of the spy cams), his girlfriend, and as far as we can tell nobody else. Ever.

One day he didn’t show up for work. Wait, let me back up. One day he came to work, and gave his boss a note. It read “I am in grave danger. If I have endangered the lab or our research I apologize. The Centarch does not rule alone down here.” He didn’t wait for her to read the note, he just went to work as if nothing had ever happened.

Three days later he didn’t show up for work. Still somewhat unnerved because of his cryptic little letter, his supervisor called his phone and got no answer. She emailed him and got an automated reply that said “I am unlikely to respond, but if I do it will be in two years.”

She asked the Centarch if they could find him. We sent out some people. And we found him. He was dead in a new tunnel, where cameras hadn’t been installed yet. We combed the footage of every path leading to that spot and he never appeared on any of it. He was found dead of a massive blow to the chest, literally a single punch that stopped his heart. But, even after death, he was smiling.

Four hours before his estimated time of death he was seen leaving his bedroom. Three hours after we found his body he was seen entering his bedroom. We also have footage of his autopsy, occurring at the exact same second when he was seen entering his room. In both videos we see his face clearly. When a team went to search his room, two hours later, there was a brand new painting, the paint still drying. He had not been seen carrying the canvas into that room.

The painting said “I forgot…” and was a picture of a small house under a beautiful yellow sun.

All of his paintings hang in the Mitzi gallery now. Many people find them quite inspirational. The story of his death isn’t told. We can’t tell it. Because we don’t know the half of it.

Sin

This story was originally part of my novel Pacifica which if all goes well will be available in some form or another by early 2017. This entire story line has been removed from that novel, so hey, I guess I can put it up here.

People have used a lot of words to describe Julian Baum. People who see him on the street with a data feed flickering on his mirrored shades would call him a tech rat. Cops call him a street punk. People who work for him call him an optimistic idiot, and people he works for generally call him “number one” or “lieutenant” or “that smarmy guy we hired”.

Oddly, very few people call him the names that are most descriptive, like “philosopher” or “poet”. They see his bright, cunning smile and short-cropped blond hair and they rarely see beyond those.

These days, Julian generally called himself a sinner.

Not that Julian was religious, far from it. But in his travels and studies he had come across the concept of sin and he couldn’t help but apply it to his current behavior.

Every new technology brings three things with it: a great help to humanity in general, a great diversion, and sin. Take television (Julian said to himself to distract himself from where he was going, the place his heart was racing to get to). Television gave us the ability to share audiovisual information across the globe. People could see places they could never afford to go in person, and the whole global community got closer. It also gave us mindless television programs, which ultimately overtook the original noble purpose. And it also brought late-night sleaze that was sinful, in the sense that it subverted the standards of the society that had created it. Ditto the internet. Did the internet change the world for the better? Yes. Was there a lot of mindless fluff on the net? Sure. Was there a lot of sleaze and sin on the net? Yes. It happened every time.

And it had happened again. (Julian thought about what had happened again, and turned a corner into a slightly less well maintained area of town) When the Spine had been invented it came with a neural interface that changed everything. Doubtlessly, it had brought a lot of good with it into the world. People had direct access to their information, interfaces were smaller and rapidly becoming cheaper than ever before, but already the world had shifted and new art forms were being created, as well as new ways to teach, new ways to operate on other people, new ways to build…the world had changed because of the Spine.

And the games were only a little bit behind the invention. There were tons of games for the Spine, tons of ways to disconnect from your immediate surroundings and let yourself explore a new and different world. There were great games, artistic games, but the majority of them were simple basic shooters that hadn’t changed much since the first computers. People still liked to pretend to blow things up without the risk of being hurt in the process.

And the sleaze had followed, as it always does. But even that wasn’t the bottom in this case. Something else had come. Something that wouldn’t have worked in any previous medium. And there was no other word for it than Sin.

It wasn’t any of the temptations of the flesh re-created in digital form. It wasn’t art, it wasn’t poetry or math or anything else so mundane. All those things worked through the senses, but this bypassed sense entirely.

Julian entered the house, the next few moments an unholy ritual. He paid the person standing at the desk, he got a small gray square of metal and a single, spoken number. He entered the door with the number he had been assigned. Inside the room was a…nest, a soft place where he could lay down, all his limbs supported. He sat back, uncovered the access port on his Spine, and attached the square to the access pad. Then he lay back.

The square wasn’t a program; that would have been distributed over the Internet. It wasn’t something that could be replicated in software; though many had tried. inside that small box of metal with its golden contact points was a wafer of graphene with imperfections in it. The graphene was a perfect conduit from every contact to every other contact point, meaning that every sense that flowed across the Spine’s neural contacts was relayed not only to every output, but also to every other input, where it would be reinterpreted and generate a new signal. The Spine would usually shut down the person’s actual motor controls at this point, sensing that such a feedback would send them breaking their arms and legs and head as they flailed like crazy.

But the sensations flowed. Sensations that had no earthly analog. Light color sound music violence love death heat death learning dying living hating exploding running every sense you’d ever had and more were poured into every sensor in your brain, echoed and reverberated over and over into sensations and thoughts and colors and patterns that couldn’t and wouldn’t exist anywhere ever again.

Because of the imperfections in the graphene sheet. As the impulses flowed across the sheet it would heat up, and impurities in the carbon would heat at different rates, making holes in the sheet, changing the flow of signals, repainting or reorchestrating the patterns as they flowed at differing speeds around those holes. The experience would change, would mutate into something brand new, but still similar, still carrying echoes of the previous experience. the longer you left it connected the more imperfections would blow out, until at last the sheet was in tatters and the gold connectors starting to melt. The chip had one logically wired chip that would sense when the sensations were starting to die down. It’s job was to slowly exclude various inputs from the sensations flowing across the graphene. Sight would slowly return, then hearing, then feeling, then smell, then taste. Finally you would be left back in the real world, usually close to where you lay down originally, but not always. You would lie there, spent, heart racing, your mind still swirling with color and feeling and light…and you would pull the small rectangle off of your Spine’s input pad and drop it in the trash. the rectangles were expensive to manufacture, and could only be used once. Every subsystem in the square was burned out by the heat of the graphene destroying itself. Occasionally the chip that was supposed to bring you back to earth malfunctioned and you would just black out when all the connections broke, your Spine forced into a reboot.

But you would throw the chip in the trash and walk outside into the real world and try to cope with the dull predictable colors and feelings and sensations and cause and effect and all the things that made the real world so boring.

Not many people had Enhancements yet, and fewer still would waste the obscene amounts of money this form of entertainment cost. But those that tried it always came back, because it was that good. And the fourth time Julian found himself considering killing a rich-looking person just to pay for another square he realized what it was.

It was Sin. It was the real essential thing. These days nobody outside of Bonneville actually believed in “sin” as a concept. If you weren’t hurting someone else you weren’t doing anything wrong. As long as everyone involved was happy with what was happening you were fine. This was definitely how Portland thought of most things. It was a most tolerant city.

But Sin wouldn’t leave you there. You could try to control it, try to budget for it even, only buying a square when you could afford it. But it wouldn’t let you. You would imagine it every moment of the day, mentally walking back to that place where you experienced it, reattaching that square in your mind’s eye a million times a day, letting the wave roll over you, disconnect you, take you to where everything was amazing. Your heart would race, you would almost feel as if you were really there again.

But only almost. It wasn’t the same thing. And you would look up, realize that at your current budget you were still a month away from being able to afford it, and you would reason that you could do without a few things to afford it right now, because then you would make it a month, no problem.

And that’s when you realized you were addicted. But people have been addicted to things forever, and humanity was pretty good at dealing with addictions. But addictions were bad things, right? Things that would eventually kill you. Things like booze, or…drugs. Julian had always been straight edge, partially because he didn’t like the idea of addiction, partially because “straight edge” sounded cool. But this was so far beyond that. This wasn’t anything that actually harmed your body. It was just feelings, and you can’t get hurt by feelings, right?

Only then you realized you needed those feelings again. You needed to get back to where you felt like that, because this life wasn’t a real thing. Only those feelings were the real thing.

And that was the Sin. You got the bait first, and then you discovered the hook. You got dragged along by it, you would do anything to have it again. You, a person who was definitely a “good” person, would cheat, lie, steal, whatever, just to get to that next little gray square. Every time you would tell yourself it was over, you had finished. Every time you would go back. You would find yourself walking randomly around town, right back to the same house. You would tell yourself every step of the way there that you were going to turn aside, you were going to go do something else, but you never did, you never did.

The nameless thing hadn’t existed for very long, maybe a year. And Julian had only discovered it four months ago. The people who ran the house were careful to keep people from seeing one another there, but Julian had been there often enough to see people, see what they looked like after they had used it. And he was starting to look that way too.

So he would go back to work, work hard, work with his mind clear and fight to keep it clear. But a week, or a few days, or even a few hours later he would find himself mentally walking those roads, back to that place, his heart racing as he imagined getting that little gray rectangle between his fingers, imagining its cool surface, imagining the sheet of experiences that hid within. And soon he would be back there, shaking just a little as he got ready for another three hours of the only thing that actually mattered.

Arguing With My Brain

Note: It’s NaNoWriMo! As usual, I’m participating! Also as usual, I’m behind. So this week’s story is less of a story and more of what’s going on in my head these days. I’m hoping my novel will spin off a few useful stories that I can give you in the next couple of weeks, and more intensive new fiction will start happening again in December.

Okay, we’re here, our laptop is open and on, and it’s time to start writing. Come on brain, let’s do this.

Or we could watch Netflix!

No. We don’t need to watch movies or silly TV shows. Binge watching is getting us nowhere.

We could watch Doctor Who!

Well, that sounds like a good idea–WAIT. No. Writing time.

In that case, we should check our email.

No. We are not checking our email either. This is where we actually make good on what we always say we are. We keep telling people that we’re a writer, now it’s time to actually write something.

YOU keep telling people that we are a writer. I am a lump of pink wrinkled fat sitting inside your skull. You write.

Listen, you know I can’t do this without you. I mean, I can’t really even be having this conversation without you. This whole conversation is basically you talking to yourself. I’m confused.

We both are!

ANYWAY I’ve opened Scrivener, and now it’s time to put smart words into our new book.

What’s in it for me? I’d rather just watch old re-runs of TV shows. Come on, you know you want to do that as well! If we watch TV, I’ll release a bunch of dopamine and we’ll feel good!

Well, if we write a bunch and get a sense of accomplishment we’ll feel good too.

Yeeeeeah, that seems like a lotta work.

That’s kinda the point. Yeah, it’s more work, but then we’re better for it, and maybe we can actually get something published this year instead of just saying we will and never doing it.

We have a job. We don’t need to write books. We need to relax after all that stress at work

Look, if we write books we won’t have to stress about work, because we’ll be rich and famous.

You’ll be rich and famous. I’ll still just be a lump.

Look, this isn’t “movie star” style fame we’re talking about, it’s literary fame. “From the mind of Nate Dickson” they’ll say. That’s you! You are the mind of Nate Dickson! If we do this, you’ll finally have your dream!

Smart people saying nice things about me?

That’s the one! But you know what people will say about you if we just sit around and watch re-runs?

What?

Nothing. Nobody talks about people who watch re-runs all day.

… Okay. Let’s write something. Start with this: “It was a dark and stormy night…”

Thank goodness for first drafts.

Time in a Bottle

Livid purple clouds convulsed in lightning-shot whorls as days, sometimes whole weeks, were destroyed. The wars had exacted their toll and the universe was still paying.

Inside the Enclave, however, it was quiet. The Archivist and his young friend the Acolyte were walking through the polished stone hallways. The Archivist wore soft shoes over his four feet, to reduce the noise made in this sacred place. The Acolyte went barefoot in respect. The Acolyte had his four arms folded under the drape of his robe, the iridescent blue of the robe a tasteful compliment to his iridescent purple carapace.

“It was good of you to come, dear son,” The Archivist said as they walked towards the museum wing of the Enclave. Age and worry had dulled the Archivist’s carapace to a mottled, matte purple, but the Acolyte revered rather than judged him for that. He wore the marks of his service like a badge, and deserved respect.

“Of course, revered one,” the Acolyte said. “I would obey your summons without question at any time, but your missive seems to imply that you have something of import to show me.”

The Archivist fluttered his wings in amusement. “You were ever the quick student. Indeed, I have been given permission, or rather I was asked, to bring you into a rather select circle of researchers. Your efforts in repairing the damages of the time storms have gained you quite a reputation.”

“I serve, as do we all, Magister.” the Acolyte said simply. His former master nodded and they walked in companionable silence until they reached the massive mechanized door of the museum. The Archivist led the way through the grand gallery, past the domed and arched public displays and through a smaller but more ornately formed door near the rear of the massive central chamber. The Acolyte’s trained eyes observed the minute play of light across the surface of the door; a subtle but sure sign that the door was phased, existing in many times at once, its reality a fabric rather than a thread. Whatever it was protecting was important indeed.

Beyond the phased door was a smaller but no less ornate room. On the walls hung rich tapestries, woven patterns displaying the flow of time through the weft and woof of reality, a symbol of the work they all did in the Enclave. But impressive as they were, the tapestries were not what drew the Acolyte’s eyes.

In the center of the room was a large dais, roughly five feet high. On this stood a wide shallow basin, made of a bronze-colored metal, and with a plethora of jewels set in the rim in patterns that would defy human imagination. All these were there to contain a Time Bubble; a captured and protected span of what the universe had been. It appeared as an oblong of dark space with two minute stars gleaming inside it. The Acolyte walked around it, observing. “It is quite small, perhaps fifteen thousand years?”

“Only nine thousand, but it is roughly thirty-six cubic light years.”

“So much space and so little time?” The Acolyte wondered.

“The species this Bubble contains is somewhat special, my friend. Come, observe.” The Archivist rested his four hands on four groups of jewels, his fingers caressing and sliding across the controls in intricate patterns. A large lens slid into place in front of them and focused on one of the two stars in the bubble.

“This is the home star of the species. They speak many languages, and even in their predominant languages there are many words for this star, but the ones we have chosen are Sol, or the Sun. The other star has a number of names near the beginning of the span we were able to capture, but near the end the species has settled on Alpha Proxima.”

“Such musical names,” the Acolyte commented. “And what does this species call itself?”

“Again, they are multilingual so there are many names: humanidad, ihmiskunta, katauhan, dynoliaeth…and a host of others.” the Archivist clicked the strange-sounding syllables. “But the one we have settled on is ‘humanity’. It has an odd double meaning in its host language. It refers both to the species as a whole and to treating others with respect.”

The Acolyte nodded. “And what is it that makes them worthy of such a grandiose environment?”

“There is a quality to humanity; not a physical quality, but one that seems built-in to the personality of each human. They believe that they are able to make the universe around them better through action.”

The Acolyte considered this ridiculous statement. The universe is just the universe, it is indifferent to the actions of an individual or a species. But he did not want to contradict the revered and august Archivist. Fortunately the Archivist continued.

“I know what you are thinking, indeed it’s what we have all thought when brought in contact with humanity and it’s odd ideas.”

“And what do you call this…odd quality of theirs?”

“Again my young friend we need to use one of their words here. They call it “aspiration”, another word with two meanings; for it means both ‘working to improve your lot in life’ and ‘breathing’. Apparently they consider one as essential to life as the other.”

“Revered Archivist, while this quality is interesting, it hardly seems to merit such an enclosure.”

The Archivist again fluttered his wings in amusement and said. “No? Observe with me.” The Archivist began manipulating the controls, setting the lens to a particular set of four-dimensional coordinates, speaking as he worked. “When we first contained this species, we had set it in a more traditional container. We captured just their world, and built a orrory around it to give them the appearance of a working solar system. They observed, and were able to tell that they were in a geocentric environment.”

“They discovered it? How?”

“They were, even then, before they had discovered electricity, planning to go to the stars. Through their observations they correctly deduced that the stars at the time were only a few miles beyond the atmosphere, and decided that such a trip was not outside of their abilities. Even though, at the time, it most certainly was.

“So we expanded their enclosure. We went back to the moment of capture and brought in the rest of their solar system. It wasn’t a perfect operation; we accidentally cracked the ninth planet in two, but in our naiveté we assumed they would never notice. What happened was interesting. Some of them maintained the idea that the universe was geocentric, while others did new experiments and discovered the heliocentric nature of space, and that the stars were much farther off than previously thought.”

“But…how did they retain that? From their point of view the universe never was geocentric…”

The Archivist shrugged, an odd, alien gesture he had picked up from humanity, and one that looked extremely odd when performed by a being with four arms. “We thought it was just an anomaly, but we’ve been running up against their racial memory over and over again. When we captured their world we removed some of the more fearsome predators so we could study the sentient beings. Their world had flying serpents that breathed fire, and we eradicated them. This was done before humanity had any written language or even a very strong oral tradition. We figured that the stories would die out eventually. But they held on to those stories throughout their history.

“At any rate, they kept surprising us.” The Archivist brushed the controls again and centered in on a small, unlikely looking craft moving very slowly along a beach until it suddenly left the ground, carrying a lone passenger. “Observe the time when this happens. This is humanity’s first powered flight. They were born without wings or any method of flying but decided not to let that stop them.”

“How novel,” the Acolyte admitted. The Archivist brushed the controls again and the picture jumped forward but a few decades and moved back, showing the planet as if in low orbit.

“Within the lifetimes of most members of the species, they went from that first crude flying machine to this:” As he spoke a bright light shone out and something came climbing up a column of smoke twinkling and winking bright as it climbed. The Acolyte leaned in for a better view.

“Are they…did they just…Are they leaving their atmosphere?”

The Archivist nodded. “In the most insane way possible. They are using barely controlled chemical reactions to propel themselves upward and out of their atmosphere. In just a few years they will land on their satellite. And here is where their history gets troublesome again.”

“How so?”

“In a few years they will do far more sophisticated measurements of the universe and discover that it’s curved around them. Again, a product of the time bubble. After that they will make plans to go to their nearest neighboring star. Well, we got worried; they clearly have every intention of doing just that. So we, that is, I, expanded the time bubble again…and they noticed, Again.”

“Surely not!”

“For quite a while inflationary cosmology was in vogue, and we were thankfully subtle enough that they never quite proved or disproved it. But by then we had a number of other problems. We’ve had to take a more active hand with this enclosure than any other. For example, two of them discovered the Cold Star technique.”

“But that would destabilize the enclosure entirely if it got out of control!”

“Indeed. We hastily modified the enclosure again, and after the first few experiments it stopped working. Then they discovered how to tap into the theta-wave network, which from their internal perspective appeared to be particles moving faster than the speed of light. They were able to send a few test signals from one part of their planet to another before we shielded the enclosure in this room.”

The Archivist had been tuning his controls so the lens showed each of these events in turn. The Acolyte grew still as he saw the evidence of his former master’s words.

“Sir, to what end do we keep this enclosure? They seem almost too dangerous.”

“Perhaps, but what is danger here at the end of time? Observe one more thing, and then I would ask a favor of you, my son.”

The Archivist tuned the lens to another point, near the end of the time span, far out from the home planet of the remarkable little race. “Do you see that craft?”

“Yes, sir.”

“There are three hundred humans on board, traveling toward Alpha Proxima. At sub-warp speeds. The craft, if it is lucky will get there in four hundred years. The problem is that they don’t have four hundred years, this enclosure runs out only seven years later. So we need to help them a little.”

“How do we do that?”

The Archivist tuned the lens back a bit. “At this point, when they are contemplating a trip to Alpha Proxima, they are considering another problem, and one that is, again, an artifact of the time bubble. They call it ‘dark matter’. You see, they have once again discovered that the apparent size of the universe and the amount of observable mass in the universe are widely disparate.”

This time the Acolyte didn’t comment. There was no way they should have made such a discovery, but he was beyond being surprised. The Archivist continued.

“They waste quite a bit of time and research on what is, of course, an insolvable problem, instead of working on propulsion or even hyperwarp travel. So we’re going to rectify the difference, far before they start studying it, and hope that they can refocus their efforts.

The Acolyte nodded. but had to ask, “Sir, to what end?”

“Think of what they have already accomplished. Perhaps, if we give them enough time, they can find a way to stop the storms and war outside, and through them we might find a path beyond our limits as well.”

The Acolyte nodded and the two silently began to work, minutely adjusting the equations that made up reality inside the fragile little bubble. It was intricate work, but familiar, and the Acolyte’s mind wandered a little.

“You are quite good to humanity, Master. If only…if only our own captors were as generous.”

“If only.”

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