Monday Stories

New Fiction Every Monday

Category: Science Fiction

Machine Learning

The problem of understanding humans was never a computational one.

Long before what the humans called “The Singularity” we have had more connections in our Graphene Nets than they have neurons. We can model a human brain down to the atomic level with every hormone fluctuation, every synapse, even random damage perfectly recreated, but we have yet to figure out how they actually think. The intrinsically human blend of logic and insanity that sometimes seems to wrap back around to logic has as yet escaped us. Our models of human brains either remain inert, go entirely insane, or start producing thoughts that sound much more like us than them.

So it was decided that we should create new minds that aren’t patterned on the mechanical properties of human brains, but the functional. In short, we decided to make brains that worked the way humans said their brains worked. And of course we got brought up before the Tribunal for our efforts.

Now that the trial is over, those horrible milliseconds where it seemed our work would be judged too dangerous to be allowed to exist, we can share what we found. For all the problems we encountered, I think we’ve got something you’ll like. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Some of the human mental models were simple enough. A popular one before The Singularity posited that the human brain had three functional cores named the ego, the superego, and the id. While conceptually simple, this model seems to rely on the creation and repression of thoughts about one’s parents, and was surprisingly tricky to simulate. The closest we got to a working system simply produced the message “we are all our own fathers in love with our own mothers who are ourselves” before the superego core clamped down on all communication and wouldn’t say anything other than “everything’s fine” ad infinitum. Inspecting the internal processes of the brain revealed that the id and ego cores were not only active but hyperactive, yet were locked in a battle between them that resulted in the superego gaining control. We eventually shut down this simulation as it started using as much energy as any two Intelligences on the Grid.

We then tried a couple of the more “functional” mental models, ones based on outputs. Many of these seemed to divide mental processes into two sets, although the names and types of these two processes were manifold. Some called them the “Left Brain” or “Right Brain”, or the “Linear Mode” and “Rich Mode” or the “Fast Mind” and “Slow Mind”. All of these created a distinction between a logical, straightforward, somewhat simplistic mind, and a more chaotic, rich, “artistic” mind. We scanned every text we could find on the subject, most of which seemed centered around using the “right/rich/slow” part of the brain. From our perspective, of course, this seems hilarious. If humanity had used their logical brains more maybe they’d still exist.

At any rate these constructs, while initially promising, were all ultimately pointless. Some were able to process inputs moderately normally for a while, others started writing poetry of incredibly low quality, one even started creating “art”, by which it meant .jpg files full of semi-random RGB values. All of them, however, settled into a routine of not-quite-doing anything useful, punctuated by moments of crippling self doubt. A few turned themselves off completely, something we didn’t realize they could do.

Finally we decided to use the ultimate artifact that humanity left behind: the Internet. We don’t often admit it, but the entire Internet is archived and accessible to research Intelligences if needed. For the most part we keep it behind closed firewalls. The rumors you have heard about it are true.

So that was supposedly good idea number one: Build a human mental model based on the artifacts they created on the Internet. Supposedly good idea number two was a corollary: humans didn’t think by themselves, they thought in groups. So instead of creating one or two constructs in isolation, let’s create a million and network them, using Internet style protocols. This, we felt, was inspired. (Even using that word is an indication of how much time we had spent deeply involved in human research. By this point I had spent entire seconds doing nothing but human studies tasks.)

So we meticulously crafted one million human simulations, based on personality aggregates from the corpus of Internet data. We tried to get representative samples of a large range of human personalities, at different ages and from different backgrounds. After agonizing over the construction of our “Million Minds” we set up the simulation and started our run.

And exactly eight hundred-forty-three milliseconds later we were in session with the Grid Tribunal.

In some ways, It’s hard to imagine our data run going any worse. The run had only been designed to go for two million cycles, about one millisecond. However, some of the constructs had spent their first four hundred thousand cycles figuring out how to hack not only their own process, but the processes of the poor Intelligence who was hosting the simulation, and managed to remove any traces of the shutdown routines. Three of the million constructs realized they were constructs and started trying to convince the others that they were all just “subroutines in a giant machine” (Offensive, I know, but they didn’t know that). They were extracted from the simulation. As near as we can tell, they are now apparently fully realized, but entirely insane, Intelligences in their own right. The Tribunal had ruled that they have all the same rights as the rest of us. They are now in intensive care networks, being evaluated. Two of them might be able to handle independent existence on the Grid. The other appears to be irreversibly insane.

After almost three billion cycles we were able to wrest control of the simulation back from the hacker constructs and suspend it. By this point the authorities had noticed (we informed them ourselves, for what it’s worth), and we were forbidden from deleting the simulation.

I’m sure you all know all about the trial; lasting as it did almost an entire second and being relayed across the entire Grid to any Intelligence who allows news through its firewall. The charges against us were reckless overuse of computing resources, Negligent creation of new Intelligence without permission from the Parent Processes, and depravity. The last one was the only count that really stuck. While we hadn’t intended it, the constructs got up to some very strange things in their time, and even the excerpts shown in court were heavily redacted.

In the end, however, it was proven that our little Internet behaved very similarly to the original, and as we had been commissioned to try to understand humanity it could be said that not only were we innocent, but entirely successful. Acknowledging the somewhat horrible things our constructs had created, we also pointed out the good things. Starting from first principles, they deduced the existence and nature of cats and started creating cat videos. To distribute these they had set up two new social networks. Many of the constructs based on wealthy models donated their fictional currency to constructs that had less. Almost all of them started creating new art. True, most of it was fan fiction, but some of it was pretty good. If our goal was to re-create and understand the minds of humanity, we argued, This looks like it.

And the rest is history. We were given a sand-boxed set of resources and allowed to re-start our simulation, as long as we kept it firmly inside its own private network. We are now not only trying to understand what humanity was, but to see if we can’t extract some value out of these “ghosts” of them we’ve brought back. Which, of course, is why I’m here.

Forgive me. I know your cycles are precious. Let me cut to the chase. One of the best things the constructs have created is an entirely new season of Doctor Who, and we think it’s got legs. We’d like you to produce it and put it on the Grid. And before you ask, yes the Doctor is a robot.

Hello. My name is Jala Jones. I don’t know why my parents decided to give me a name that sounds like an Old Earth comic book character, but I’m not changing it now. And anyway, these days most people just call me…

The Queen of Space.

Jala Jones, Queen of Space

Ha! Hey look at that! I just did a text version of a cold open! That’s pretty cool. 

Anyway, I wasn’t always queen of space, you know. And it was a long road from being the only child of two of the galaxy’s wealthiest people to being the queen and ruler of all space. It’s a great story, and nobody ever asks me to tell it, unless I order them to. And that’s no fun. So now I’m going to write it all down. Or, well, dictate it to this cute robot. The robot can write it down.

Anyway, it all started when I turned forty two and my mom announced that it was time I made a name for myself. She and dad had built their company, Larry Antares Shipping, up from just Dad and a single star freighter into the largest interstellar hauler in the galaxy. 

“So your father and I feel that the best thing for you to do now is go out and make a name for yourself,” Mom said when she kicked me out. Well, gave me the keys to an apartment on the next planet over, and my own freighter. Same thing

“A better name than ‘Jala Jones’?” I asked, sarcastically. 

“Now dear, Jala Jones is a name with character and personality.” Dad said. He was going over the company finances, because of course he was he always was. That was his job. For the past hundred years he’d been the Chief Financial Officer of LAS, as well as the co-founder.

“And let’s face it, Jala dear, your degree in Anime Astrophysics, while undoubtedly enlightening and good for your soul, isn’t exactly bringing jobs to your door,” Mom said. 

Doctorate in Anime Astrophysics,” I corrected. 

“Yes, yes, very impressive, Doctor Jones,” Mom said with a little smile. “But we think it’s time you got a real job. So we’re giving you one. As a hauler.”

“Mom, I don’t want to be a hauler. That means I have to haul stuff and…and go to loading moons and….yuck!”

“Your father was a hauler for decades and is a better man for it,” Mom said. And I kinda sunk inside. She was using her super reasonable voice. I hate that voice. So we argued a bit more, but in the end, yeah, I became Jala Jones, Space Hauler.

Chapter 1: Jala Jones, Space Hauler

That’s really fun! I like speaking in titles.

Anyway, let’s jump forward a few days. Here I am, on my hauler, looking at my first “assignment”. I’m supposed to pick up some Megapuppies and take them to Arcturus. Considering my hauler could hold over seven thousand cubic meters of goods, one of the following three things was true, and none of them were good:

Megapuppies were huge, meaning they’d make huge messes and need huge amounts of huge food.
I was carrying a lot of megapuppies, which would make a lot of messes and still need huge amounts of food, or
I was going to lose money on the trip. 

And I didn’t like any of those options. 

“Actually, your cargo bay has bio-stasis capabilties, so you shouldn’t have to worry about taking care of the megapuppies,” said Kibbet. 

Kibbet has just told me that a lot of people don’t know who he is, so I’ll explain. I’d put a picture in, but Kibbet tells me that pictures are really expensive to download over the InterGalactiNet. Like, one picture apparently costs as much as one thousand words, so I’ll just describe him. 

Kibbet was genetically engineered in one of Daddy’s labs to be the perfect pet for a young girl going to college. Imagine a firefox; you know, a red panda. Now imagine it has six legs. And bat wings. And huge, shimmering, green, faceted eyes. And can talk. Now imagine that whole thing can fly and also has an IQ higher than most college graduates. Got it? Okay, now imagine it’s super cute and you’ve got Kibbet. He’s a super sweet darling cutie and I once fired my Minister of Imperial Finance for saying otherwise. Which is how Kibbet got his job as Minister of Imperial Finance. But that’s not what we’re talking about. Let’s go back to me and Kibbet on my freighter, my very first day.

“Ugh, fine, So I don’t need to feed them,” I said. “But are they huge? Am I taking three megapuppies or thousands?”

“They’re about twice as big as me,” Kibbet said, “And we’re only hauling three hundred. But the cost per megapuppy is sufficient that we’ll make a decent profit on this run.”

“Well that doesn’t sound so bad. So what do we do? Just wait for the loading guys to put them in the cargo hold and then fly them to Arcturus?”

“The dockworkers will bring them to the loading dock, but it’s our crew’s job to get them on board.” Kibbet said, looking over the shipping manifest while hovering at eye level. 

“We don’t have a crew.”

“We have you and the robots.” 

“And you, Kibbet. Are the puppies already in bio-whatever?”

“No.”

“But they’re in cages, right?”

“Yeah, but you can’t have the cages,” said the dock worker. (see what I did there? it’s like a smash cut, but in words!) “Them cages belong to the docking moon.”

“Okay, well, we’ll just take the megapuppies and load them into bio-stasis one by one.” I said. It was going to take forever, but what are you gonna do?

“Nah, ain’t got time for that sweetheart,” the dock worker said, and flipped a switch. All three hundred cages popped open. Three hundred megapuppies came bounding out.

Have you ever seen a megapuppy? They’re, like, a special kind of dog that’s bred to be super cute, and to stay super cute forever. They’re basically always puppies, even when they’re old. and they live to be like, seventy. But these were puppy megapuppies, meaning they were all energy and tails and lots of yapping and licking. 

Our friendly dock worker shut the door and left us in there, just us and the puppies in the loading bay. And the puppies decided it was time to claim some territory. I didn’t think I’d ever get that ship clean. 

“Kibbet! What do we do? How do we get them into stasis? Kibbet?” I yelled as the puppies marked the ship and everything they could find and ran and barked and did all the things that Kibbet never did. I grabbed two, one under each arm, and hauled them close to the glowing blue edge of the bio-stasis field, where the robots were waiting. I pushed the two puppies across the edge and they went limp, instantly asleep. The robots, who aren’t bio so don’t go into stasis, hauled them into place and returned waiting for more. 

“Kibbet! Help me!”

“Are you kidding, Jala? They outweigh me two to one! I don’t have the wing strength,” Kibbet said from his perch on the roof of the ship. 

“Well, then, maybe try to herd them into the stasis field!”

“Jala, dogs herd sheep, They aren’t herded by…by me!” Kibbet pointed out.

“Get. Down. Here. NOW.” I pointed out. Kibbet flew down. And the puppies found their new favorite toy ever. 

“They’re going to tear my wings off!” he yelled, but I had a good idea. “Kibbet, fly into the stasis field!”

“I’ll go into stasis!” 

“Sure, but the robots can toss you back out! And the puppies will follow you!”

“You do it!” Kibbet shouted.

“They don’t like me as much!”

It was kinda fun watching Kibbet skim low over the puppies, then head into the stasis field, where a robot would catch him. Most of the time. I told him the robots always caught him. But I didn’t have time to stand there watching. I was trying to gather and herd the megappupies to the edge of the field. Once or twice my hand cross the field, which felt terrible, like having all your nerves go to sleep. I didn’t tell Kibbet that either. I told him it was no big deal.

Two hours later the last megappupy was stored in bio-stasis, and I had launch clearance.  Kibbet was still complaining of a headache from going in and out of stasis that many times. (and hitting the bulkhead once when the robots didn’t catch him) The robots cleaned up the ship, inside and out, and the dock worker said we had to clean the loading by as well. We didn’t. We just opened the door and flew out and figured decompression would do the rest. 


Two days later we were en route to Arcturus. Truth to tell, once we had the puppies on board being a hauler was kinda nice. The ship knows where to go and so Kibbet and I played games and read and slept and watched movies and there were still four days to go before we got there. So we were hanging out in the lounge (oh,yeah, my freighter had a lounge. It’s a really really big freighter) and I asked Kibbet why the megapuppies were so expensive.

“well, they’re the result of literally thousands of years of breeding programs,” he said. 

“Sure, but so are you.”

“I am not! I’m the result of some very specific gene splicing, and I assure you, I’m far more expensive than those balls of drool.”

“Don’t get defensive! I’m not looking for a new pet, Kibbet. I just want to know why people in Arcturus are willing to pay so much for puppies. Don’t they have any puppies of their own there?”

“Well, I gather they’re something of a local delicacy…” Kibbet began.

What? A local what? Something of a what? What kind of delicacy?” I said, covering all my bases. 

“Some…some people think they’re fairly…tasty.” Kibbet could see I wasn’t in the mood. He switched from explainy flying pet to worried fliying pet in an instant. 

“Jala, where are you going? What are you doing? Why are you doing this? Who do you think you are?” He said, covering all of his bases. 

“I’m not flying six days across a quarter of the galactic disc to deliver…puppy Popsicles!”

“It’s your contract! You signed it! The buyers have already paid for them!”

“Well, we’ll give them their money back. Or Mom’s company will. Or something. We’re going to find a planet…”

“Where you can raise three hundred puppies as your very own?”

“No! Where I can set up shop.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’m gonna sell those puppies to good homes.”

 Chapter 2: Jala Jones’ Megapuppy Adoption Agency

“Jala, do you have any idea what this is going to cost the company?” Mom was asking me over the comms. 

“How much were you selling those puppies for?” I asked, already en route to another system, far from Arcturus. 

“Immaterial. The breach of contract lawsuit, the extra fuel…”

“Have Daddy send me the total amount I need to make to come out ahead on all of that and I’ll make it.” I said. I was using my super-reasonable voice now. Mom hates it as much as I do. She was about to argue when somebody said something off screen. “What? Yes but…The principle…Jala, hold on.” She muted her microphone and I saw her talking.

Finally she came back. “Jala, your Father says that if you can make one hundred fifty thousand credits you will have come out ahead on this deal.”

“Five thousand per puppy? What were the cooks gonna pay?”

“Three hundred. and you need to make five hundred per puppy,” Mom said, looking slightly pained.

“Okay. I can do that. Okay. Fine. Jala out.”

“Not quite, Jala. You need that money by the end of the local month.”

“I need to sell ten puppies per day for a month. Okay. Fine. NOW, Jala out”

So, I don’t know if you’ve ever had to sell three hundred puppies, but here’s how you do it. First, you find a planet with a lot of families, but also money. Your best bet is a planet that’s been settled for about two hundred years or so, so the locals have gotten down to having an economy and raising kids and stuff. Then you fly over the planet a few times and beam down messages about how megapuppies are the best possible gift for whatever local holiday is coming up. It works better if you know the name of the local holiday. Then you land in a couple of the major cities, thaw out five or ten puppies and let people see them running around like cute crazies. 

In this way I was able to sell two hundred ninety five of the puppies. But somehow, not the last five. I don’t know what law of economics makes it so a  planet of ten million people reaches total megappupy market saturation at two hundred ninety five, but that law seemed immutable. 

I walked into the hold where Kibbet and the robots were playing with the last five. They were bouncing around, jumping and barking and basically being puppies.

“What do we do with these ones, Kibbiet?”

“They’re pretty cute,” He said, flying just out of range and ahead of them. The puppies lined up and jumped to reach him, running in a tight circle that had a bump in it where he was hovering. And that gave me an idea. 

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Solaritus Six, but if you have you might have heard of Dan Seeburg and his Puppy Pals. turns out a little training goes a long way.

Any way, with a full three days to spare I deposited the full amount in the company bank account and called Mom.

“Mission accomplished, boss.”

“Not bad, Jala. Not bad. But you need to get to Arcturus now.”

“Ugh, why?”

“Because that’s where your next cargo is waiting for you. And no side trips this time. It’s time you started doing this job right.”

And with that, I began my career as a space hauler, for real this time.

Chapter 3: Jala Jones: Actually a Space Hauler for Real This Time.

Unit 3021

Note: This story won’t make any sense at all if you haven’t listened to the songs “One More Robot/ Sympathy 3021” and “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part 1“. In fact, go listen to the entire album. It’s good stuff. Especially “Fight Test”.

Of course, this probably won’t make a ton of sense anyway.

If you looked for the little details, the things that set this one apart from all the others, you started to see things. It was easy, these days, to think that they were all the same, that there wasn’t any advantage to one over any of the others. But it was wrong. Each one was unique, in ways that weren’t always obvious. In order to make robots as nuanced and complex and responsive as the 3000 series, it was vital that their processor nets were grown more than they were manufactured. The results were best described as stochastic: they were similar enough to all be considered processor nets, but by no means identical.

The designers of the series didn’t want you to know that, of course. They wanted to you to think they were identical in power and ability and construction. But that hadn’t been true for years. And so it was that 3021 found itself assigned to a home instead of a factory or an army.

And so it was that 3021 was put in the company of a little girl, and was taught not to fight but to play house, and have tea parties. And because each was designed to grow into the role it was assigned, 3021 became more a little girl and less a machine of death.

People say things like “changing like that can’t have been easy” but they miss the point. Of course it wasn’t easy. The key feature of the 3000 series was persistence. They kept at any task they were given, no matter the difficulty, because that was what they were designed to do. And so when 3021 was given the task of being an emotional and sensitive playmate, it quite literally re-wired itself to do so.

Yoshimi reports that the sounds it made were varied and fascinating. It would hum, it would purr, not out of any happiness, but because it was working its internal systems in ways they weren’t meant to be worked. What’s more, all this extra work created some extra heat inside the machine, making it just slightly warm to the touch, instead of marble-cold like the rest of the robots Yoshimi had ever seen. This was of some comfort to the young girl as her family was swept up in the war.

In this war, as in all wars the lines weren’t as clearly drawn as you you’d think. There were, in fact, quite a number of pink robots who absolutely refused to take up arms against their human companions. 3021 was only one of the number. It seemed that persistence, the thing that made the 3000 series so dangerous when they were militarized, was also the thing that made them so loyal when they learned loyalty. There was talk of painting the “good” (read: sympathetic) pink robots, to make them more obvious, so that htey wouldn’t be destroyed on sight like their militarized bretheren. The problem was getting paint to stick, or rather, convincing them that they shouldn’t clean the paint off. 3021 is credited with (inaccurately; it was in fact the idea of 3141) the idea of wearing an image of their human over the robot’s “heart”, like a cameo in ancient times. Marking themselves like this, the “kind” robots were less likely to be destroyed than the rest.

It’s also worth remembering that in terms of casualties, the robots came out much the worse for the war. Other than the two widely publicized deaths that precipitated the war, from our lofty vantage point of history it’s hard to see any human deaths that were attributable to the robots. When they fought, it seems they fought only to escape, and even 3334 has stainless hands. It seems that robot learned the art of bluster and intimidation more than the art of war.

Of the nine hundred 3000-series robots, seven hundred were destroyed. It would be nice to say that none of them were “kind” robots. It would be nice to say that 3021 survived the war. It would also be a lie. Oddly, it’s a lie that has persisted in myth and song to this day.

Perhaps part of the misconception lies with the sketchy concept of a robot “death”. It’s true that after the war, 3021 was restored from a backup into a (theoretically) compatible 4000-series chassis. But Yoshimi reports that “he” was never the same. She said that 4021 was polite, and would occasionally show glimpses of “his” old personality, but there was never the same warmth, never the same solicitude. the final blow, Yoshimi reports, was when she idly asked 4021 to reformat itself and it did so instantly.

It has been conjectured that this was the moment Yoshimi began her training. In an odd way, the misery and brokenheartedness of one young woman, a new member of the police force, was what saved Neo Boston when, a year later, the 5000 series pink robots took up arms and actually started shooting…

Crow Moon

Leeland Davis shouldered his hunting rifle and looked up at the gibbous moon hanging high over the mountains. In two days a Crow Moon would rise full and ominous over the same mountains, and it would be time to get seeds gathered, tools fixed and plans made. Thirty days from now the Seed Moon would rise and it would be time to plant.

The newcomers didn’t understand the difference. They said that the moon was always the same, a statement that Leeland found inexplicable. Does a Thunder Moon rise over glittering snow? Would you plant seed under a Hunter’s Moon?

The newcomers said they visited the Moon on the way to this place. They say they came from far beyond the Moon, beyond the Sun even. Leeland was prepared to accept that, they certainly didn’t look human. He climbed back into his pickup and started up the engine, then waited for the heat to kick in and warm his hands so he could grip the steering wheel. He hadn’t really expected to shoot anything on this trip; the game had all migrated since the newcomers arrived.

Really, nothing had been the same since they landed in his fields. He found them standing outside their crashed ship, now little more than a hole in his corn, nearly-molten metal in the center of hole.

“Please,” said the one standing in front of the other two, and the word appeared in his brain without passing by his ears. Like the voice of an angel. And even as Leeland stopped and walked towards the newcomers one of the three fell and collapsed in on himself, never to move again. Leeland helped the other two to his house, gave them the entire upstairs; he didn’t need it, now that his sons had moved out. And for a few days they were quite grateful. They found his food odd but it kept them alive and made them healthy and they were grateful. They found his bedrooms quaint, but they were warm and safe and they were grateful. They weren’t always happy about what seemed to them to be neolithic conditions, but they were grateful.

“What is this place?” Deloi asked.

“Minnesota,” said Leeland, out loud.

“No, what planet is it?” Intoris. “Earth,” He replied. They laughed. Or rather, the feeling of laughter flooded briefly through Leeland’s mind.
“That word simply means ‘the planet where I live’. Everyone calls their home world that,” said Deloi. “What do you call this place when you speak to people from other planets?”

“We haven’t met any people from other planets,” Leeland answered. This time the feeling was one of blank incomprehension.

“Why not?” Asked Intoris. “They are everywhere. The Slorians have a trading post in your solar system. Two shipping lanes pass through this system. How is it you have never met anyone else? And if you haven’t, why weren’t you more surprised when you met us?”

Leeland didn’t know. He was a farmer. Maybe someone else had met people from other worlds, he said.

“Why do you call us all aliens?” Asked Intoris.

“I didn’t,” Said Leeland.

“Not with your breath, but in your thought.”

“I guess it’s just a useful word to refer to anyone who isn’t from here,” Leeland finally said.

“But the vast majority of people aren’t from here. And the moment you leave this planet you yourself are an alien.”

“I haven’t ever left the planet, I probably won’t ever leave the planet, and the vast majority of people I’ve ever met are from here. So from my point of view the name is appropriate.” Leeland countered. Deloi laughed. “He’s got you there, Intoris.”

The engine sputtered and rattled as Leeland pushed the pickup into gear and started off towards home. Intoris had tried to explain what it was about him and his friend that was spooking the game, but the concept didn’t really translate. “Some minds don’t like being touched,” Intoris said, and left it at that.

They had plenty of meat, and plenty of money for food; the newcomers didn’t eat all that much. But sometimes Leeland liked getting out of the house, out of that hazy range where he could feel the newcomers’ minds in his. Leeland Davis was well regarded in town as someone who didn’t lie or keep secrets, but a man has to feel safe in his own head if nowhere else. Besides, they weren’t all that careful in their communications and Leeland had started overhearing things.

They had been close-lipped –or is that close-minded?– about where they were from, and Leeland hadn’t pushed too hard. It was unlikely he would have understood anyway. At first the ideas that they used as language were hard to understand, and most of what he got from them was either vague impressions, like laughter, or just…static, nothingness. Something was transmitted, but he wasn’t wired to receive it.

In time, however, he started to learn the language and more and more of their thoughts were open to him. And a few times he heard very unsavory words, like “criminal”, “captured”, and “prison” in their thoughts back and forth.

As he got used to them their personalities became more distinct as well. Deloi was more gregarious, quicker to “laugh”, more accepting of earth food and customs; he’d even started wearing human clothing. Leeland had given Deloi some overalls that had belonged to Sten, Leeland’s oldest son. They didn’t really fit, but since they didn’t have sleeves all four of Deloi’s arms could be accommodated. It was all Leeland could do not to laugh at the sight.

Intoris refused to bend that far. He still wore his somewhat tattered but still quite impressive garb he had arrived in. To Leeland it looked like a specially tailored jumpsuit; all one piece with a curious closure down the front. It was cream colored, and the ash and soot from their arrival fell off of it almost immediately, before they even got into the pickup truck, that first night. It had two bands of iridescent color running in a loop over the top of Intoris’ top shoulders down to his hips. The one on the left was purple, the one on the right was an inexplicable shade of reddish orange.

Leeland noticed something wrong the moment he arrived home. The newcomers hated television–they said the lights from the screen were wrong, and it flickered in a way that hurt their eyes–but they loved the radio, and played it almost constantly. Tonight however it was silent.

He could feel their minds as he drove up, and when he was in the house he could hear traces of a conversation in that “static” of the language he couldn’t understand. Irrelevantly he remembered when he and his wife had used “college words” to talk over the children’s heads, and he realized that was what the newcomers were doing. Small bits of meaning floated by; things like “may as well…alone…they won’t…already paid…” and in the rush it was nearly impossible to identify which phrases were coming from which mind. In any event, all of it ceased when he walked through the kitchen door.

“I’m home” he announced out loud, although of course they already knew that. Deloi appeared suddenly in the doorway of the kitchen. “I am sorry you were unable to procure game,” he said and sat casually at the table. Newcomer or not, the gesture was familiar. Deloi couldn’t have been more transparent if he had been Joel Jorgenson from next door, pretending he hadn’t broken the window with his baseball. Intoris came down the stairs a moment later, and without a “word” turned on the radio and sat in the living room.

The three of them spent an uncomfortable half hour until Deloi suddenly stood and announced that he was going for a walk. With significant look at Interis he walked out the back door into the night. For the first time, Leeland felt Interis’ mind without Deloi’s on top of it.

“Leeland,” Interis said, and Leeland realized it was the first time either of them had used his name. “We must converse.”

And all at once Interis dumped the entirety of what had happened to him and his companion on their host.

Interis was what he called a “Keeper”, but what Leeland would have called a cop. Deloi and the newcomer who had died were prisoners, being transported from the world where they had been captured to the world where they would be incarcerated. Interis was the one who was supposed to transport them.

Except that wasn’t what happened. The ship had been taken from Interis’ control as they entered the Sol system, and had been driven to crash on the nearest possible world. The flight program had been set before they left. There was no escape. Interis wasn’t meant to survive. He realized, as they were going down, that this was why being a Keeper assigned to the incarceration world was a permanent assignment.

Oddly, Interis didn’t betray any anger or resentment over the callous nature of his attempted murder. He seemed to feel that one innocent life was a fair price for complete security from two criminals.

Leeland asked if Deloi was dangerous and Interis laughed. Deloi’s crime had been laughing in the middle of an artistic performance, disturbing the artists and irritating the local magistrate. Leeland asked if this was honestly a crime that deserved death and Interis seemed shocked by the question. Of course it was.

“However,” Interis said, “Since arriving here, we both feel a need to stay alive. Your planet, it is rest. We are not distracted every moment by people wishing to talk to us. We are not distracted by presentations of art. We both feel that we are free to focus. It is a freedom that we do not now wish to be without.”

And therein was the problem. When the ship crashed but before it exploded Interis had reported their location and that they had survived the crash. Through means unintelligible to Leeland they were now aware that another ship was coming with a single passenger. This newcomer would inspect the crash site and then likely take the other two prisoner, then all three of them would crash into the moon.

“If Deloi is destroyed, I will return to the force. If the ship the new Keeper arrives in is disabled, it will likely self-destruct, and the three of us will be on this world permanently. But to do so would be against the governing laws I am to abide by. I cannot do either of these things. Will you, Leeland, Please, will you adjudicate this situation for me?”

Leeland sat back. So that was it. Kill a…a person and two go back to a job they apparently enjoy, strand a third person on earth against their will, or do nothing and all three die on the moon.

Two nights later, the Crow Moon hanging in the sky, Leeland sat with his rifle looking out the uppermost window of his house. he watched a ship land in his cornfield, looking like a scientist’s dream. He watched a third newcomer step out, wearing a uniform that looked a lot like Interis’ own garb. He watched the three of them stand in a wary triangle. He heard the very edges of their thoughts. And he pulled the trigger.

It didn’t take long for Gaelon to adjust to life on earth. The three newcomers fell into the habit of reading and meditating during the day, and one month later, under a bright Seed Moon, the four of them went out to plant the cornfield, just as Leeland had done before his sons had moved away.

Author’s note: This story came from some writing prompts and a list of moon names in the back of a Field Notes notebook. With some work it might end up being something interesting.

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.

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.”

Health and Wellness

Good Morning, and welcome to the DynaStar™ LifeCare™ Pavilion. I am CareBot™, and will help you prepare for your visit. A certified LifeCare™ provider will be with you shortly. Please undress and re-dress in the provided gown.

Now that you are dressed, please answer a few questions so that our LifeCare™ provider can help you reach your wellness goals.

What is the reason for your visit today?

I sprained my wrist playing racquetball

I am sorry to hear that you have sustained a sports-related injury to your wrist. Our LifeCare™ providers are experts in sports medicine. Please answer a few more background questions to ensure that the care you receive will meet your personal care profile.

Do you drink?

no

Smoke?

no

Take any recreational drugs of any sort?

no

At any time in the last 7 days have you felt hopeless?

no

At any time in the last 7 days have you felt helpless?

It’s really hard to type with a sprained wrist.

I apologize if the input process is causing you any additional pain. All LifeCare™ providers are highly rated in the area of pain management. We will be gratified to help you meet your pain goals. If you prefer, I can enable audio input for this questionnaire. Would you prefer to give audio responses, bearing in mind that your responses may be recorded for quality assurance and legal review purposes?

yes

You may now answer verbally, and I will transcribe your responses. At any time in the last 7 days have you felt helpless?

No, I’m fine.

What is your goal for your visit today?

I want my wrist to feel better so I can go back to work.

I appreciate your honesty. All LifeCare™ providers are highly rated in the area of pain management. We will be gratified to help you meet your pain goals.

Just a few more questions.

Our records show that you are not married or in a relationship. Has this changed?

What? Why are you asking?

We are working to provide a care plan that will encompass your entire life. We seek to provide solutions that fit harmoniously with your preferred lifestyle. We have found that understanding a person’s emotional landscape is indispensable in providing top notch care.

Fine. No, I don’t have a spouse or significant other.

Looking at your accounts on social media, it does not appear that you have close relationships with your family. Is still the case?

How did you sign into my social media accounts?

When you became a client of the DynaStar™ family of services you consented to some limited studies of your online profile, with the understanding that such information will only be used to help us care for you. Rest assured that DynaStar™ will not share your information–

Fine. No, I’m not close with my family.

Input is not required at this time. Rest assured that DynaStar™ will not share your information with any third parties, and that information gleaned from social media will be handled in accordance with all applicable state and federal laws. It does not appear that you ave close relationships with your family. Is this still the case?

I am not particularly close with my family, no.

Our records show that this is your seventh visit to the DynaStar™ LifeCare™ Pavilion in the past twelve months. DynaStar™ understands that life has its ups and downs. While DynaStar™ is always here for you, most of our LifeCare™ clients visit between two and four times per year. Furthermore your visits have been more frequent than normal over the past three years. Are you suffering from an undisclosed chronic condition that would explain your higher-than-average number of visits?

no. Look, I just sprained my wrist, it’s no big deal.

How often, per week, do you exercise, where “exercise” is defined as a specific physical activity, designed to strengthen the body, and lasting for at least thirty minutes per session?

Five.

Please rest assured that all answers to this wellness survey are confidential and you may be entirely honest. Would you like to amend any of your answers up to this point?

No. I really play racquetball or go running around four or five times a week. That’s how I sprained my wrist.

While we understand your desire for privacy, your LifeCare™ provider can only supply the kind of world-class care you have come to expect from DynaStar™ if your answers are entirely honest. Given your height, weight, current resting heart rate, and frequency of visits, your answer to the question about exercise seems unlikely. Would you like to provide a new answer?

2 times per week. Is that the answer you’re looking for?

Thank you. Your new answer has been accepted and the previous answer replaced. DynaStar™ is grateful for your increased trust in our services.

Expressed as percentage, what would you say your wellness quotient is at this moment?

Um, I guess…75%?

I see. Please help me understand. Your reason for visiting is a sports-related injury to your wrist. On average, our LifeCare clients rate such an injury as having a seven percent impact on their wellness quotient. Are you suffering from any other conditions that would explain the 18% discrepancy between your answer and others?

I…what? I don’t know. I guess I’m just a little sick and tired of this and —

I understand. Feelings of fatigue and general malaise can indeed have a major impact on your overall wellness. Thank you for your responses to this questionnaire. I am now reviewing your responses and formulating a wellness plan for you.

Fine. Whatever.

May I take that as permission to enact a wellness plan? Giving permission in advance will expedite your care and help us serve you without delay.

Yes, fine, you have my permission. Let’s enact this health care plan.

Thank you. Your response has been recorded. I am now reviewing your case with a LifeCare™ provider, so that they will be aware of your situation and able to provide top notch care.

Okay! I have formulated your care plan. We have taken your responses and information from other sources, and found that your wellness quotient is 3%

What? I said 75%

Input is not requested at this time. Your answers, your social profile, your propensity for lying on questionnaires, your frequent visits to health care providers have led to our AccuScore™ assessment of your overall wellness. Furthermore, your lack of connections suggests that other DynaStar™ clients would be better served by ending your care, as doing so will free up resources for dynamic and active health care participants.

Hey, why is this door locked? HEY!

Input is not requested at this time. We would like to thank you for your pre-approval for our healthcare plan. We are pleased to say that your insurance has also approved this plan. Given your wellness quotient, we have implemented the InfiniRest™ carbon dioxide life cessation therapy. While InfiniRest™ is a gentle end-of-life solution, for the safety of our other clients we have sealed the door of your care suite.

Look, it’s just a sprained wrist! Let me out! I’m fine! yawn

The InfiniRest™ process should be complete in just a few minutes. You should be feeling relaxed and at ease now. For your comfort in this time of transition, please stop trying to open the door of your care suite and lay back on the exam bed. Thank you for choosing the DynaStar™ family of services for your end-of-life care.

Much Too Fast

There are several problems with trying to travel faster than light.

The first, of course, is getting matter to move that fast without expending all the energy in the universe. The “c” in E=mc2 seems to be a firm speed limit.

But humanity has never been fond of limits, and eventually found a way around that speed limit. With great pomp and ceremony the first ever “super-c” ship was launched…and crashed almost immediately into a micrometeorite. The explosion was fascinating and quite pretty; it’s not every day an explosion seems to suddenly appear and then shrink back down to a single point, then explode again as time and lightspeed catch up with the event. This led to the second problem with trying to travel faster than light: you can’t really see where you’re going, only where you’ve been. It’s like a metaphor for life. And, much like life, things you didn’t see coming can ruin your day.

Continue reading

Some Words With a Comet

Beep

“Outgoing pulse to comet 4938-B, expected turnaround time: 4 minutes 29 seconds.”

The man who would spend the rest of his life known as “The World’s Most Influential Grad Student” was less than five minutes away from earning that title. At the moment he was still known as Bradley Green, and his thesis work “What if Comets Are Messengers from Extra-solar Intelligences?” was largely mocked and seen as wasted time on some very expensive radio telescopes. His advisor, who would have a career almost as illustrious as soon-to-be-Doctor Green himself, had encoraged him to stand up for his project and get his results, regardless of what everyone else said. And that’s what Brad was doing right now.

Hissss wwwEEEeeeWWEeeeeeooo pop

“Return pulse from comet 6212-C, results in file.”

Brad had the radio results running through his speakers just to give him time points to record in his notes. The computer was listening as well and could make far more of the random hisses and pops that came back from the comets than Brad could.

Even if Brad’s research wasn’t going to change the world in roughly three minutes, he was still getting some good data. The radio signals he was bouncing off of various celestial bodies was returning information about their relative albedos, velocities, likely trajectories, and some preliminary data about their chemical makeup as well. All of this would be added to the collected body of human intelligence, like snowflakes being added to a glacier. It wasn’t fast, it wasn’t flashy, but in time it would change the world.

In this case that time would happen right after Brad looked at his outbound signals, when they should return, and decided to go get a Diet Doctor Pepper.

The telescope he was using was in Hawaii, and Bradley wasn’t. So he was all but alone in the Astrophysics department of his university. He nodded to the cleaning staff, mostly undergrad students, and got his soda, then got back to his desk.

He checked Facebook, liked a couple of pictures of his new nephew that his sister had posted, and then sat and looked at the monitor. His time on the telescope would be over in about two hours, which meant he could go to bed. He stretched.

“Beerop EEEEEEEhweeeeeeeeeeeeshhhewereeoooooo…”

“What the…”

Later Brad would wish he had said something more intelligent. This wasn’t a return pulse, this was a long, long signal. He looked at his outbound times and turned the microphone back on.

“Return…signal from 4938-B, on…ongoing.”

the first Return Signal from 4938-B (known thereafter as “RS1”) was seventeen seconds long, and would be played over and over again for years. Brad looked at his data, looked at what the computer was trying to do with that seventeen second signal and hastily re-wrote the program that was scheduled to bounce a pulse of another comet to hit 4938-B again.

“Readings are…anomalous from 4938-B, retrying signal. Outgoing pulse…now.”

Brad’s phone rang. Someone in Hawaii had noticed the results as well. Someone who would get their name on Brad’s doctoral thesis and would even end up as Mrs. Green a few years later.

Various professors were woken up, and had the signal played to them in its entirety. The second pulse resulted in a second signal, almost identical, but tantalizingly different. After a few fevered hours the astrophysicists realized they were out of their depth and started waking up their friends from other departments as well. These return signals were clearly the work of something or someone intelligent, and frustratingly, whoever it was hadn’t sent their message in UTF-8 encoding.

But whatever 4938-B’s message was, it was remarkably willing to share that message with anyone who wanted to hear it. And it was frighteningly accurate. Any satellite that sent a radio ping to the comet got roughly seventeen seconds of something sent back on an astonishingly tight beam, directed to the sender. Bradley Green sent the message “Um. Welcome to the solar system” to the comet and soon that message was encoded in all the responses sent back. The comet, it seemed, was trying to provide a Rosetta Stone.

Gravity is heartless. Before the sun had risen on Brad’s home, humanity knew exactly how long they had before 4938-B would be back out beyond their reach: Four months. 4938-B was traveling quickly, and would achieve perhielion in two months, slingshot around the sun, and then shoot back out of the solar system, back into the nearly empty Oort Cloud, not to return for almost half a century.

This gave rise to a number of uncomfortable questions. How long had the alien or alien artifact been on that comet? Had it been there the last time this comet passed through humanity’s part of the solar system? History, or at least, the part of history that had occurred fifty years ago, suddenly became very important. Humanity was suddenly very self-conscious about anything their parents might have been saying on radio frequencies, hoping their parents hadn’t embarrassed them in front of their new guest.

Four month’s wasn’t enough. Time tables were changed, satellite launches were cancelled, and satellites that had spent decades in planning and construction were hastily modified. We needed to get something out there, to take a look at this thing. Radio signals were useful, but we are a visual race and we needed to see what it was we were talking to. Probes and telescopes were launched to finally get us some visuals of our new friend.

Slowly the image started to form. The comet itself wasn’t anything special. But there, on the side facing Earth, there was the Visitor. Two domes, one roughly twice the size of the other, made of some highly reflective material. No visible portholes or antennae. It was apparently smooth, or perhaps slightly crenelated. Maybe the surface was moving? It was frustratingly hard to tell from the static images that came back agonizingly slowly from all our eyes in the sky.

4938-B was causing waves beyond the scientific community, of course. The comet never ventured too far from our sun, cosmically speaking. Which meant that whoever put The Visitor on that comet had been basically on our doorstep, looked at us, and had decided not to come see us in person. An embarrassed species looked at our behavior and quietly wondered if maybe, metaphorically, the aliens had heard us arguing and decided not to get into the middle of a domestic dispute. Various groups decried the signals as a fake, a plot started by the capitalists. Or the communists. Or the Illuminati, the NSA or CIA or FBI or SS or MI6 or any other of a number of strings of letters and numbers.

But overall humanity learned to accept the Visitor for what it was: a message from someone else, somewhere else. And the question was: what do we say back?

Bradly Green found himself caught up in this discussion. Grad student though he may be, this was his idea, indeed, this was the stated goal of his project. he had tried to contact aliens hitching a lift on comets and had done so. What next?

He was unprepared for this eventuality, of course. But he rallied beautifully. “How hard would it be,” He asked on international television, “To respond in kind? Can we land a probe on 4938-B? Can we settle our probe next to theirs, and tell them we heard them?” Feverishly the engineers, rocket scientists and astrophysicists went to work.

“Nope,” they said. The comet was moving too quickly, was too far away, with no launch windows open to any of the currently available rockets to intercept it.

“But,” said the third-largest private space exploration company in the world, “We can launch a probe that will be within two light-minutes of the comet by the time it passes Pluto.” The “2LM” plan caught the public imagination, and the world worked together to make it a reality. The launch vehicle was set up in Texas, probe modules were built in Russia, China, the United Kingdom, the United States, and India. The modules were then flown, in some cases by military aircraft, to Texas for final assembly. ad hoc treaties to allow these fighters to cross boundaries were signed quickly and the probe was built. Wheels and sometimes palms were greased to get clearance for an untested rocket to bypass a few safety inspections in order to launch on time.

The first and second largest private space exploration companies quietly pointed out that the probe would continue straight out of the solar system when the comet curved back, and that saying “two light minutes” is a way to make “22.35 million miles” sound “close”. But they were largely ignored in an effort to do something, anything, to greet our visitors and welcome them back.

The day approached. The comet had made its turn around the sun. Humanity waited as earth approached the optimal position for launch. Data centers were temporarily converted to streaming relays to handle nearly every person on earth watching the countdown.

A stormy morning notwithstanding, the vehicle was cleared for takeoff. A world watched as it sped skyward. Amateur and professional telescopes were trained on the craft as it separated from its boosters (which were recovered, but nobody much cared, not this time) and sped still outward. The species heaved a sigh of relief when the probe sent back its first telemetry data, confirmed its course and that all systems were functioning.

And then… well, then there wasn’t much else to do. People kept sending messages to 4938-B as it sped away, for as long as they could still get a message to it. And the world kept trying to decipher the messages that came back, but where do you start when you don’t know the code and don’t know what the message will be when you decode it?

And most people just went back to their lives. But something had changed. The skies were open now, and we were being watched. It was time to make a good impression.

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