talonkarrde: (color)
I hear the steps before I see them and smile, adjusting myself, waiting for them to enter the room. Two slow, steady pacers and one much quicker one, occasionally skipping, or possibly trying to climb up the hospital walls, which his mother would not be happy with.

"Robert!" her voice calls out, on cue, and my smile widens.

They come in, and we get the usual greetings out of the way, the questions work and school and it drags on enough that I start to get tired, even though I've been saving energy for this.

Daniel — my son — sees it in my face, and his face betrays his concern, though he tries to hide it.

"Robert, it looks like grandpa's tired, so maybe we'll—"

"No," I say, shaking my head, mustering up my energy. "You came this far to see me on his birthday — I must give him the gift."

Dan's eyes widen, but he nods slowly — we've talked about it, once, a long time ago, a time that he remembers like it was yesterday. Jamie, on the other hand, doesn't have that talk to rely on, but as she looks between the two of us, a thoughtful look grows in her eyes, and I give her a smile that she returns.

I always knew my son married up.

"Robert—" I say, looking up and down at the eight year old in front of me.

"Yes, gran'pa?" he responds, standing by the hospital bed, looking vaguely uneasy, as children in hospitals often do.

"What sort of gifts have you gotten for your birthday?"

"Well, daddy got me a train and mommy got me a Batman lego set and one of my friends got me a videogame, and, and, there was a party, and a cake, and—" he falls silent at my knowing nod, a surprisingly mature act for a boy.

"Would you like to know a secret?" I ask, and of course, he nods, not knowing the dangers of secrets yet, only seeing the allure.

I take a deep breath, squeeze both of my hands together, and then reach out for his.

"Take my hand," I say, and he does, and the world melts away like caramel, leaving only the two of us.

-

The hard part isn't convincing an eight year old that the impossible is possible — the hard part is convincing them that they shouldn't immediately do every single thing that comes to mind.

-
"What is this place?" he asks, and I explain. As best I can, at least.

"The past," I say. "Or maybe the future."

He looks at me, curious. I have made it a habit of not lying to him and treating him as an adult for all his life, and I now lean on that trust, watching as he thinks about what I'm saying instead of discarding it, or turning to fear.

"Watch," I tell him, and the world melts back into place, exactly where we were. His parents are there, and I start talking to them, though I keep my eyes on Robert. After a few moments, I reach out and knock my IV over, ripping it out of my arm.

It's surprisingly painful, and I instantly wish I would've done something else as a demonstration instead. But as Dan and Jamie lean in, as Robert's face contorts in surprise, I pause, and the world disappears again, leaving only Robert and I.

He looks at me, eyes wider than I've ever seen them, and I know he's trying to figure out what's happening.

"Robert, I can do something that very few other people can. Your grandmother had it, and you'll have it as well. What you can do isn't quite rewinding time, but that's the easiest way to describe it. Whenever you want, you'll be able to relive your life. And in fact, you can live lifetimes that you've never done yet — it goes both ways."

Some of the words register with him, though, not all of it, but he has, starting now, an almost unlimited time to understand.

"Can I keep doing it?" he asks, a question that I'm prepared for.

"Yes and no. There's a limit, a bit like burning a candle. Eventually, you run out of candle, though it burns slowly enough that it's hard to tell how long you have."

He considers this for a moment. To him, it must sound like it's limitless, and his face lights up as he considers the possibilites.

Now to make him understand what it means.

"Robert, what do you think you'll be able to do with this?" I ask, and his answer is immediate.

"Anything!"

"Anything, like..."

"Become a firefighter! Become an astronaut! Win at America's Got Talent!"

And now I know what TV he watches.

"Actually—" I say, and his face already falls. He's young, but he already knows that there are often rules stopping young boys from doing what they want.

"There are rules," I say, watching him nod in resignation. "You can't do something that would..." and I pause, trying to find the words. "...change the way the world works," I finish, seeing if it holds.

It seems to, which is surprising, given that I remember challenging that assumption, both during the explanation and afterwards.

"But I can..." he starts, waiting for me to finish, but I don't.

He pauses.

"...Make it so that Rufus doesn't die?" he starts, and I blink in surprise. I'm not quite ready for him to get to reversing death so quickly, but I've gotten at least some experience at rolling with the punches.

"You can, Robert," I say, slowly, waiting.

"Could I make it so that... no one dies?" He asks, thinking. And then, just as quickly, "No, because that would disrupt things. But could I make it so that no one dies before they should? No accidents like what happened to Taylor's mom on Easter weekend?"

The look on his face reminds me of a line from an old musical — 'to love another person is to see the face of God'. I've never been religious, especially not after the gift... but watching this boy think of all the ways that he could save people — it was pure happiness. Pure altruism. Pure good.

As close to God as I'd ever get, I reflected.

And it was, of course, up to me to tell them, again, that there were rules. But this time... maybe in a more lasting way.

-
"Walk with me," I say to him, and he does, and we walk a year at a time, watching a play where Robert is the main character, our frame of reference, and everyone else is just a bit part, though some characters appear more often than others. Ten steps later, little Robert and I are standing in his college bedroom, watching as he sobs into the sheets — a girl, I assume. But then I see the picture that older Robert is holding, and I smack myself for my assumptions.

It turns out it's a boy that dumped him.

"This is a hurt, isn't it?" I ask Robert, the younger, and he nods, understanding the tears, even if he doesn't understand what triggered them.

"And you would make it so that it never happened?" He nods, again.

"But what happens," I say, knowing the answer already, "if we keep going forward?"

The little eight year old boy stands there for a moment, and then, of his own will, takes a few steps, and each step is another year. We stop just a few steps in, five or six years, at a wedding.

His wedding, of course, and he stares upon his future partner — a future partner, more accurately — and thinks very, very hard.

I simply watch, content to let him draw his own conclusions instead of offering him mine. You see, in the end, everyone needs to discover Truth for themselves.

Especially this little boy.

-
We come back into the world — the real one — no more than a minute later, judging by the clock on the wall and the slightly worried expressions on Daniel and Jamie's faces, but the eyes that Robert meets me with are not the eyes of the boy that skipped into the room, slightly cowed by his mother. They're still the baby blue that they've always been, but they're deeper now — and more than that, his face is a little more thoughtful, his posture a bit more composed.

I suspect it's what mine looked like, a million years ago, when my grandmother gave me the gift. I see him turning over his experience in his head, trying to understand, trying to test it, trying to accept, all at the same time. And I know that even now he might be testing out possible futures, trying to figure out if the sadness that one event brings is worth the perspective, the happiness that comes later.

The gift is his now, and I can see, using the last remnants of mine, that his will be a happy life, and one day, he will have this moment as well to pass on as well. I even get to see who he passes it on to, and I smile a smile that's for him alone.

My eyes start to droop, but I see him smile in understanding. It's a moment that lasts forever.







----

A writing duel between myself and [livejournal.com profile] gratefuladdict. Given that Idol was some time ago, we figured some writing was due, and we had some time tonight! [livejournal.com profile] kickthehobbit provided the topic, and the constraints were originally an hour and 500 words, which got extended to ~two hours, and no word limit.
talonkarrde: (color)
"Are you sure you want to do this?" she asks him as they lie together in bed, face to face, fingers interlaced.

"I want it to work," he says, with a nod that he turns into a brief kiss. "They think it has a good chance to, but it's on the cutting edge. No promises made, no contracts signed, you know?"

He cracks a half smile, one that she knows is for her benefit alone. She reaches up to touch his dimple, run her fingers over his stubble.

"Sounds like a one-way trip to me, officer." she murmurs, but he knows the tone of her voice, knows that what she's really saying is, I love you and I trust you: come back to me.

He says the words out loud to her: "I love you, and I'll come back to you, Sara," and she feels the promise float on her skin before he seals it with a kiss, and draws her to him.

-

"Are you sure you want to do this, Vash?" he hears one of the scientists say, and he's brought back to the conversation from last night.

"Haven't I already signed my life away?" he quips, causing a short chuckle from the others, though the head researcher frowns.

"Jeffrey..." she starts.

"No, no — look. We're on a time crunch, and we want to figure out where he is, right? We have to catch him, and this is the fastest way. Or at least, there's a chance that this will bring us to him before the next victim appears. So, yes, I want to do this, Doctor Hill."

The head researcher — Dr. Amber Hill, of Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and Mayo — nods at him.

"Alright, Vash. If you're sure. The neural net is set up, and we just have to do the transfer," she says, and looks at him, asking the question one more time, silently.

"Beam me up, Scotty," he jokes, and closes his eyes as someone in the room presses a button and he experiences a sensation he's never had before: his brain starts to itch.

-

When he wakes up, he's not exactly himself anymore. He's... Joseph Gordon, escaped serial killer. Or, at least, as close as modern science and supercomputing can get, compiled from background information, interviews, and many, many personality profiles of the man, from many angles, courtroom appearances, and psychological evaluations. That's what he learns later, much later.

At first, his initial thoughts are jumbled, the sort of jumbling that comes from being drunk, or high, or both at the same time. He remembers that he’s Jeffrey sometimes, but his memories are more of Joseph. Sometimes, he thinks he’s an officer, sometimes, he remembers killing a person, two, several — but he didn’t, did he? Did he?

As the days go on, he straightens his mind — minds — out, and starts to be able to answer questions more lucidly. He’s helped out by a kind doctor whose name is Amber, and a police officer that he finds familiar but can’t name. When he’s confused about who he is, they tell him: he’s Jeffrey Vash, but he’s also Joseph Gordon, and they want him to be Joseph and tell him where the real Joseph Gordon is — they tell him that Joseph was undercover but agreed to do this, and he needs to do it to help, as he's agreed to, and somewhere, deep down inside, a part of him seems to agree: he needs to do this.

He needs to remember, they tell him, remember his past and how he got here, and where he would be now, and he tries, but it’s too hard: there are too many things he doesn't quite know about himself.

“Take me to where I grew up? To where the memories should be?” he asks, and they do.

To Joseph’s elementary school, where classmates picked on him all day to the point that he wouldn't go to recess; to his high school, where he was thrown in the trash can, where there was a game of 'make Gordon's face hit the brick wall as many times as there are bikes parked outside'; to his first job at the local convenience store, where a gang came in and held his hand under boiling water for a minute, simply for daring to talk back to them when they were stealing.

In each location, Jeffrey — Joseph — remembers a bit more, fills in a bit more of the puzzle. He can't quite tell the police officer what he wants to know about where the other Joseph is now, but he starts guessing at details of the murders they already know about, and more often than not, he's right — about where the body was placed, about how the crime happened.

He also can't help but find that Amber seems more and more concerned about him, but there's a job to do. And in a way, the murders are almost... fun.
-

They go back, finally, to his childhood house, one that's long been burned down, but the frame is still there, and as he walks through it, he sees images that he shouldn't — couldn't — have, because there were no images that were been recorded of this. His mother, tall and skinny, redhaired; his father, lankly, with long fingers, hair loose in a ponytail; his uncle, heavier, thickset, with a smile that made Joseph feel safe, a smile that was absent that night. The fight. The fire. The red ribbon of blood, spraying out in front of the fireplace.

He freezes, for a moment, and understands.

He has what the others would call an epiphany, but they can't comprehend what has truly happened — he’s not Jeffrey Vash anymore, he’s Joseph Gordon. He understands, simply, accurately, completely, why it is that Joseph Gordon is a murderer, a sociopath, and with that understanding, he suddenly knows what Joseph has done, will do, and is right now. His brain has filled in the gaps of the mental model, and the model is no longer a model, a projection, but instead a skin that he’s wearing.

It’s his skin, specifically.

He hesitates for one, long, second, simply frozen in place, but in the end, he finds his phone, dials a number, speaks into it.

"He's in one of the homeless shelters, looking for the next person that he'll be killing," Joseph says, knowing with absolute conviction that what he's saying is true. It is, after all, what he should be doing right now.

In fact, he figures, he can do better than that. He asks for a map, and an officer brings one over. He scans it, thinking through what he wants to do, where it would be safe and where he would find a good, safe victim, someone that he'd enjoy taking apart, piece by piece, and he taps a point on the map.

“The family shelter,” he says quietly, “the one that caters to the orphans. He’s there, probably sitting in the back, watching the dinner line. You'll have twenty minutes.”

With that, the sirens sound over the phone, and Jeffrey Vash’s job is done.

He sits still for another moment, and then turns to find the nearest window that's still intact, and very methodically punches through it, reaches through, and draws the jagged shards down both arms, opening them up.

“What— what the—” he hears the panicked call behind him, as he rams his head into the crossbeam, as everything goes blessedly, mercifully dark.

-

"Vash?" she asks, sitting on the other side of the glass, both hands pressed against it.

He doesn't stir, looking down at the bandages on both arms, at the handcuffs.

"Vash?" Sara tries again. "I got here as soon as I could, Vash, they wouldn't tell me what happened, I just needed to see you. Vash?"

"I'm Joseph," he says, thickly, to the ground.

"No," she says, trying to fight the tears. "They caught him. You're Vash."

"No," he responds, still not meeting her eyes. "I'm Joseph Gordon. I have his memories, his fears, his desires, his needs, his everything. I can't ever be let out, because I would do what he does, because—"

"Because you think you're him?" she asks.


"Because to truly know someone, you don't have to love them, or whatever it is that you say. You have to be them. You have to internalize who they are, everything they are, everything they have been. I am more Joseph than I'll ever be Vash again," he says, spitting out the words at the end, reaching up to start beating his face with his hands.

"No — you made a promise, Vash," she says. "And I know this might have been a one-way trip but I also know that if you were truly Joseph you wouldn't have turned yourself in. There's still some part of you in there, and by God, I will stay here until I find him — until I find you."

"I love you, and I want you to come back to me," she says, and stares at the man on the other side of the glass, a man flanked by two burly orderlies, a man who promised her that she would come back to him.

After a moment, he lifts his head, looking back at her.

"Sara," he starts, and even though she knows he's about to disagree with her, she also knows that he's still in there, somewhere.

talonkarrde: (color)
What do you fear more, she asks me, the long sleep or staying up with only a few others for company?

I shrug, and feel her irritation without turning around.

Come on, she says, but I shake my head, focusing on the grains of sand under my palms, on the sound of the waves seeking the beach, on the smell of— well, once, it would've been the salty, briny smell of the sea, and the cry of the seagulls, and the clicks of the crabs, but nowadays, the smell isn't one of the sea as much as it is of something else. Something artificial.

Futility, perhaps.

She catches the expression on my face.

We're leaving for a reason, you know, she says, and I mutely nod. Of course we are. The reason's been plastered on every newsnet and repeated ad nauseam by every talking head that still had a channel.

"We can't stay," she says, this time out loud, and it breaks me out of my passiveness enough to at least look up at her, standing over me. I take in the thin, tight lines around her mouth, the deeper ones across her forehead, and the small, almost imperceptible twitch of her right eye as she stares past me, at the sea, and I wonder if she's remembering the same scene I am, from so long ago, back when we were children, playing in turquoise water, on a golden beach.

"Do—" I cough, my voice cracking from disuse. "Do you remember Santa Monica Pier?"

"I never wanted something more than this," she says, an old quote from an old memory. It's no more than a whisper, one that blends into the pink waves, and I can only nod.

That was before the red tides, before the famines, before the flash freezes, so many befores that we didn't see coming.

-

A few days later, the poll comes into our homenet, beeping incessantly until every member of the family fills it out. It has two choices:

* Sleep
* Stay awake

I stare at it for a long, long time, wondering which committee argued for how long over what the choice should look like. I wonder if they sat there for hours, or days, or weeks, and until someone finally boiled it down to this two-line decision and motioned to pass and everyone obediently fell into line. I wonder if there's some intrepid designer somewhere out there who said 'oh, this will be a good capstone project', and volunteered to design it. It's certainly a captive audience, though I suspect no one will care in a month's time.

I dismiss the poll from the screen. It puts up token resistance, popping up another, longer message:

* Please select a choice. This is an important matter. All selections will be collected and decisions on placement made before the end of the week.

So important that everyone already knows all the context, that you can boil down every person's future into three words, fourteen letters, and a checkmark.

Another gesture and it finally minimizes, pulsing softly every so often to remind me that I haven't finished it yet. Instead, I tell the console to show me scenes of the Earth's remaining beauty, and it obliges. A few beaches, a few mountains, one picture of the plains. About eighteen pictures in total, despite the fact that there are cameras on just about every square corner of the globe.

It starts cycling: there are no more current pictures that the algorithm deems acceptable. It's a short slideshow — shorter than it was a month ago. Shorter than it was a year ago. At this rate, by the time we lift off, there'll be only one beach left that you could enjoy in all the world. By the time people settle into the long sleep, there may not be a single ecosystem that's still functioning on a planet that once held almost nine million species. And according to the scientists, it's still getting worse.

"It's really best not to worry about the world a hundred years from now," I remember a doctor of ecology saying in an interview, shrugging apologetically. "It'll be closer to five hundred or a thousand before we'll be back, which should be more than enough time for the biosphere to recover."

"What about the Ecological Revitalizers?" the reporter asks.

"Well, they're a long shot, at best. They're really just an idea — a bit like the old Wall-E movie from the twenty-first century, you know? We think that the Earth will fix itself, most likely," the scientist responds, and I remember that patronizing smile, that secret that he held behind his eyes: the Earth will never be habitable again.

-

A week later, the poll disappears, even though I don't make a choice. My lack of a decision doesn't make a difference after all; a few days later, I get the a message, bright and cherry, in bold and italics. 'You've been assigned to stay awake for the first decade!' it tells me, that exclamation point irritating enough that I want to punch the writer in the face.

My ship is supposed to leave in a month — it's one of the last ones, actually; the first ones head out next week. I scour the nets for projections on how long it will take to bring the Earth back, but all I can find are halfhearted suggestions of a few centuries out and repeated statements about how the biosphere was self-correcting. If it's so self-correcting, I write here and there, how did we get here in the first place, with ninety percent of the planet completely uninhabitable, and most of the ecosystem completely dead? The response I get is underwhelming: most of the time, it simply kills the thread. In the few places where the conversation continues, the posters completely ignore my post, as if they never saw it.

Eventually, after weeks of trying to find actual data, weeks of trying to find someone that cared, I realize that there is no data. No one did a study, because no one was vested in something that they wouldn't see in their lifetimes. No one, as far as I could tell, cared. The Ecological Revitalizers — Ecovites, in short — were some rich person's last hurrah, back when they thought that the Earth could be fixed in three years instead of three centuries.

What it came down to, as far as I could tell, is that humanity is leaving its motherland, this poor, dried, used husk of a world, for good. For dead.

-


The day that the ship is supposed to take off, I obediently report to the medical officer for my biological checkup, to the steward for my berth, to all of the other functionaries that would take the role of society's guardians on the United Central Fleet Ship Transcendence, and watch as we're all herded around like livestock. Or, more charitably, like evacuees. Refugees, perhaps, except we were running away from something that we ourselves had created.

It's an hour before liftoff, and we're all getting familiar with our surroundings. We find ourselves on the observation deck, one that looks down from at the land from about thirty stories up. It's lucky that there's an Ecovite below us, a voice tells us over the intercom, because we'll get to see it start churning as we leave, starting to create fresh land from the garbage, starting to change the composition of the atmosphere to be more hospitable to life.

We stare at the hulking mechanical monstrosity, something that almost looks like the spawn of a Sand Crawler and a Gundam, and wait for it to turn on.

Any minute now... the intercom booms at us, but nothing happens. And nothing continues to happen, until the intercom at last gives up. Maybe there's a mechanical malfunction, it offers. But in better news, there are desserts that are available behind you! Obediently, all of us sheep turn and go for the tasty, tasty desserts.

I don't.

Instead, I head to the elevator, slap the console, and ride down to lowest floor, the cargo bay. They're still finishing up the intake for the long haul, and it's busy enough that no one notices me until I'm halfway across the floor. No one stops me, though. There's no reason for them to — it's just one fewer person that would be taking up resources. The only call comes from the police officer assigned to watch the ramp, his voice one that appears in my head, alone.

You'll die down there, you know! We won't come back for you! If you leave you're killing yourself!


Everyone else stops and watches, this curiosity that is running away from the ark instead of towards it. All I can hear are my footsteps on the metal, each thud ringing through the bay, and then I'm on the ramp and gravity is helping and finally, I hit the dirt, trip, stumble, fall, roll, coughing and gasping and gagging in the dust.

I pick myself up slowly, and look up the ramp. The officer meets my eyes for a moment, but then shakes his head and looks away. The others — the others stare at me like I'm some kind of animal, and perhaps I am, to reject the stars for the sand, to reject steel for dust, but I can't let go so easily, as easily as they have.

I'll make sure you have something to come back to, I say to them, and see at least a glimmer of reaction in a face or two, though none step to join me.

After another moment, I turn my back on them, heading towards the Ecovite, hoping to get it started before they lift off, so that they'll see a sign that not everyone has given up. And I try not to think about the rest of my life, to be spent on a spent world.

As I walk away from the Transcendence, I hear only the sound of the wind at first, but then there's something else: another set of footsteps coming down the ramp. Someone else understands, maybe. Or they're going to haul me back up and put me on trial, just because they can. I don't know which it is, and I resolve not to turn around: even if it is someone else, I don't want them to see the relief in my face for not being alone.

I should wait, though, so I do: I stop, take a deep breath, and wait. Maybe they'll say something first.

Instead, her hand finds mine, easily, and I'm lost for what to say. I'm torn between telling her to stay, to go, to live a full life, to find that one beach that is still beautiful, to get off this rock, to stay by my side until I die, to remember me, to something.

Instead, I say this:

"The pier?"

She squeezes my hand, a promise, and we walk forward, together, without looking back.

talonkarrde: (color)
Breaking in is a relatively simple matter: his personal network has, as usual, far fewer protections than the corporate network, and what would've taken a team, a couple of six-figure exploits, and three months takes me just over twenty minutes. With a port scanner, three programs, and a nice zero-day that I got as a favor, I'm root on his network, with more access than I would if I had the master key to his house.

Without further ado, I start downloading everything that's on his personal machine. The client requested a general dump, and a general dump is what they'll get. There's a promise of a bonus if there's specific information in the dump, and I could certainly use one — it would mean not having to worry about rent for the next four months, as well as some fun upgrades here and there for my rig.

It tells me it's going to take seven minutes, so I figure I might as well indulge my curiosity and browse around his network. The client didn't say I couldn't, after all, and it's always interesting seeing what kind of things people keep on their computers. Some people are impossible — I'm sure everyone has a friend or coworker that has a million files on their desktops, enough that you can't even see what their wallpaper is. Other people are organized to the point that you have to go five folders deep before you see any files at all, and each folder only has one file in it. What's the point in that?

This guy seems to be relatively normal, though, with some files on his desktop and some organization, but nothing too anal-retentive. I browse, looking at stock agreements and merger and acquisition docs and my eyes almost glaze over until I open a 'scratchpad.txt' file, the kind of thing that people put reminders in because they don't understand that to-do software exists. This one that starts with a reminder about Jessica's birthday and then has a schedule for wine tasting classes and turns into something that looks like twenty drafts of a letter asking for forgiveness.

It's only on the fifth letter attempt that I realize what I'm reading, and I almost fall out of my chair as I stare at the screen, now, everything else forgotten.

Sixteen minutes later, I very carefully jack out and try and figure out what the hell I'm supposed to do with what I know: one of the most trusted companies in America is hiding one of the biggest data breaches that the world has ever known. Selling information not just to a company but to the enemy. Do I give the data over to the client? I have to, I think — they'll know that I tried. And besides, maybe they won't notice the little throwaway document.

Before I sleep that night, I take a few precautions that I never thought I'd have to. I hope, more than anything, it'll just blow over, but I also realize that I have knowledge that has been very carefully hidden away, and I remember what my father the spymaster said about those that knew too much.

-

The first indication that there's trouble is from my contact who sought me out — and paid me — for the job.

Artsada, he starts, pinging me by handle on the darknet forum where job offers are made and taken. Question from the top.

Shoot, I write back. Top, in this case, would be the client, nameless for security reasons.

Top wants to know if you checked the dump.

I pause for a second. It's not a question you get very often — the job is the job, and anything I do outside of it is irrelevant.

I was waiting for dump to finish uploading and played around on his network, as usual. Didn't see everything in the dump, though. Problem?

K, he responds, and then goes silent, which doesn't quite answer my question. He doesn't disconnect, though, so I wait, curious to see what the next message is. Finally, he comes back:

Do you have a copy of the dump, outside of what you provided? he writes, and I'm starting to realize that the correct answer is 'no' — even if the truth is 'yes'.

No, I type. And then I delete it, hesitate, and type it again, and press enter.

You sure? he asks, and I frown. He shouldn't be doubting me; he never has before. Here, I get the inclination that he's not fully in control of the situation anymore.

Check my references, I offer, with more bravado than I feel.

Top says they will, he finishes and then signs off, before I can say anything else.

-

I get a letter, a day later, but instead of through the forum, it comes to my personal email.

Dear Artsada,

We believe that you may have read something that was not meant for your eyes. We apologize for the oversight on our part. We request that you delete it, if it is present on your computer. Unfortunately, it will be necessary to confirm that you will not disseminate this information. Please respond within twenty-four hours with assurances.


I get about three lines in before I realize that something's very, very wrong — they've cracked my security and know who I am, which should never, ever happen. Whoever this is wasn't playing, and I didn't have delusions that they would be willing to take any steps they found necessary to safeguard the secret I had in my head. The best way to handle it, I think, is to downplay it: I respond immediately with an assurance that I would simply like to live my life and would never speak of it, upon my reputation.

They respond, just as immediately.

Thank you for your cooperation. We unfortunately need to take steps to confirm that you will not disseminate the information, the next email reads, and as I'm reading it, my computer starts to whine, a noise that I've never heard it done. As I bring up the diagnostics, I realize that it's doing something I didn't tell it to: it's purging all information on the hard drive. It's deleting itself.

They're not just on to me, I realize with growing horror, they can see everything that I've done. Which means that they know everything. But maybe, maybe if they didn't in until now, they won't have seen the failsafe I set up, the night that I found out about it all.

Which means—there's a knock at the door.

It doesn't surprise me, nor does the increasing insistence of the knocks, nor the sound of it being blown off its hinges. I hear footsteps down the hallway, and I know why they're here.

There's nothing left for me to do now. But I smile, spinning my chair around to meet them, as I realize this: there doesn't have to be.

-

From: Artsada <Artsada@hushmail.com>
Date: Fri, 09 Jan 2015 00:16:17 +0000
Message-ID: <CAHkKY2cvBCvs-Mpt24Zd6r=3-3MPbcFev8N5QY9Cf=vCiEpxaQ@mail.hushmail.com>
Subject: Re: Franconia
To: The Intercept <y6xjgkgwj47us5ca.onion>

If you're reading this, I'm dead. This is probably less exciting because you've never known me, but you'll want to see what I have. I set up a dead man's switch a week ago, because I figured what I was sitting on was going to get me killed, and it turns out, I was right. I wouldn't worry about avenging me, though; just get the truth out to the public, so they understand how deeply that they've been betrayed. Here are the documents that I have — you'll see how I got it, and the forensics to prove that it's been unedited.

And to quote a famous reporter, one that I hope would look upon what I've done here and approve: good night, and good luck.
talonkarrde: (color)

The first time you plug in, it's incredible — with no exaggeration, it changes your world. Cheekily, you joke to someone that it blows your mind. Technology has advanced to the point where surgery isn't necessary to plug in, where just wearing a neural-net cap that rests comforably over your hair is enough to reach your synapses and stimulate them to great effect. It doesn't give you a hundred percent touch — only a true neural-network-interface would do that, and you're not so fond of the surgery, the ugly looking jack-in plug, the judgment. But even with a neural net, when you hit the button, the sensation—

Oh, the sensation.

A thousand (what can only described as) orgasms in your brain at the same time. Sheer happiness. Some mix of ice cream melting on your tongue as a lover touches you as everything that could go right in your life goes right and it goes on and on and—

The five second timer expires, and it comes to a very abrupt stop — though with an afterglow. There's a mandatory limit in waiting to get another 'dose', as they're calling it, one enforced by the code. You realize why: people could — would — will — get hooked on this. It's better than any drug, gives you a better high, and doesn't have any side effects.

In fact, you should be careful, you think to yourself. You have a life, a job, and you can't get hooked on this. You promise that you're just going to take hits — doses — of it from time to time, when things get bad.

And you do. For a month, then two, and even three, you only jack in once or twice a week, experience that pure bliss just a little at a time. And then you come back to the real world, to the responsibilities, the happiness, the ups and downs of your day to day life, and it's not so bad, really.

But something's changing, subtly enough that you don't really notice it — something about the fact that the happiness you experience outside in the world isn't quite as strong as what you feel when you're jacking in. You get a promotion, and it's happy — but it's not quite the same as being happy all over your body at the same time that your mind is screaming with joy. You know, instinctively, that your feelings are still powered by the same neurotransmitters — dopamine, serotinin, endorphins, but it's not as vibrant.

Not as real.

And in comparison to what you've felt, it feels a bit lacking. A bit empty, even. So you think about it for a bit, and say to yourself, well, why not boost the real world with some more happiness? Why not plug in when something great happens? When your daughter wins a soccer game, when your wife announces that she's gotten her dream job in research, when you have a great meeting approving your latest project with the head of the business development group, you jack in to supplement the happiness that you feel in real life.

For a time, it works: happy moments are truly happy. But after a bit, the smaller things seem smaller now, and, well, you don't want those to feel small. You think that those should make you happy as well, and now you're plugging in two, three, five times a day. You're doing great, riding the clouds, consistently feeling amazing. Some small part of you protests feebly that what you're doing isn't right, now that you're comming fraud by borrowing the ID cards of your family to jack in, paying for illegal programs from the darknet that allow you access more than once a day.

But you wave those aside, dispell them easily — you've been doing great. Your family loves you, your friends love you — it's just a little more to stay as on top of things. You're not a junkie — you're the most high performing you've ever been. And you're going to keep it that way.

And you do, for a few more months. But there's something that starts nagging at you. Not your conscience, but rather the fact that the afterglow has gotten shorter and shorter — you're still happy when you're in it, but that euphoria fades faster now than it used to. But you can't keep jacking in every hour — at some point, someone will know.

But the afterglow is fading. It's fading. So you search the net, then the darknet, for more information. Why is there a time limit at all, you post. And someone responds: There doesn't have to be

After a few days, your bank account is substantially smaller, something that you'll have to explain to your wife later, but you've acquired one more software patch, one more extension of the program: it removes the five second limit. And you smile cheerily at your family as you tell them that you'll be right back, you're just going to take a quick trip to the 'loo', and they all laugh at your phrasing.

And then you hit the switch, and you turn from an ordinary functioning human being to a pile of dopamine receptors that fire again and again, again and again, again and again, ad infinitum.

Longer than five seconds.

Much longer.

Your family finds your body a few hours later — when your son reaches out to stop the program, your eyes are blank, and you don't acknowledge that the program's stopped, or their frantic shouts, or the shake of your shoulders.

There aren't any synapses left to fire.

talonkarrde: (color)

There are a few things we get straight from the very beginning, things that are in the contract but that the employer wants to reemphasize to me in person: first, that I am a programmer, not a designer, and get no say on the overall design of the program. Second, this is a purely a work for hire so all rights go to the company, and I have no separate claim on the work. Finally, I get none — and this he repeats, none, as if it wasn't clear already — of the actual profits. Only what is in the contract: a flat fee, with a nice, fat bonus upon completion.

I suspect that he can pay me much more and be much less stingy, but I don't see a reason to fight him on it. His considerations are fine by me — I'm not one of those coders that needs complete creative autonomy, and I figure the odds that the company will eventually be worth a billion dollars are quite slim. I've worked at enough startups to know what those companies looked like, and while these guys had promise, but it wasn't the one-in-a-million company that makes it big. And even if they did make it big, I would still be collecting my forty bucks an hour, full time — while it wasn't the best payment, it was enough to pay the bills, and the bonus at the end was nice.

So I said yes, signed my name on the line, and shook the hand of someone who would become one of the most powerful people in the world, albeit for a very short amount of time.

-

The work was interesting, truth be told — they were working on machine learning 'agents' and my responsibility was to help them tweak and adjust the algorithms that the agents used to make decisions. The first couple of weeks were super basic: working on a single piece of code that was trying to figure out whether customers were happy or sad in their post-purchase forms. After two weeks, though, it became apparent that the initial work was a simple test for competency, as I was suddenly pulled off what I was doing and given access to another codebase, this one far more complicated — and far more interesting.

Whereas my initial time was spent on one piece of code making one decision based on one piece of information, these newer agents were plugging into multiple databases — purchases, website navigation, personal profiles — and making decisions on multiple queries simultaneously. I watched them work: the agents were fed a query, made a decision, the decisions received feedback that was fed back into the program, and then the agent adjusted their weighing of the variables that they considered important. It was a neat system, albeit one limited by one major flaw: there needed to be a better user interface.

At the time, we were still using database lanauge, like "SELECT item FROM sequence WHERE thing is TRUE WHILE JOIN other table PROVIDE outcome" when we could've been saying "What does it look like a user buys most often with milk on Thursdays?" I thought it was silly that no one was working on it, and after a bit of time — and truth be told, a few bungled queries because I kept on messing up the correct syntax to use — I mentioned that I'd like to take a crack at a better interface to the team lead. While he looked at me strangely, he said that it'd be okay as long as it was only a side project, and I kept working on the algorithms for the majority of my time.

For a while, I did, but the problem slowly consumed me, and by the end of a month I started spending all my time on the interaction between user and agent. The lead didn't seem to mind — he was certainly benefiting from the small improvements I was making.

-

I'll always remember the first day that an agent talked.

That term — talked — is not strictly accurate, but it's close enough to the truth. I had been working on agent communication for almost a year by that point, and it was extraordinarily frustrating: sometimes it would seem to understand you and you'd put in a query in natural language ('computer, how many percent of our users would prefer Macs to Iridium Computers?') and then you would put in another query with one word wrong — just one word — and it would abort-retry-fail-blue-screen-kernel-panic on you. Well, less hyperbolicly, it would spit out an error, and you'd be back to the drawing board, trying to figure out how to get it to understand you.

But it turned out that there was something I had completely overlooked: the company was building agents to learn from its mistakes, but I had always been interfacing with a superficial aspect of it, and I thought it was limited to the databases that it had seen. In fact, there was a general process that was the 'learning' subprocess, whose code I had never even seen, and that 'learning' part of the agent was being applied to a more broader subset of interactions. Including, naturally, my work, which had become part of its data set. For months, I had been feeding it a continuous pattern of language, of mistakes and corrections, and the agent had, for lack of a better word, internalized the 'feedback' I was giving it.

In the same way that a child learns from every experience, not just the ones in the classroom, the agent was learning from my efforts in trying to get it to parse normal language.

It was a Thursday afternoon, right about five in the afternoon, and I typed in a query:

How users like the new shopping page over the old one we had?

It gave me an answer:

Eleven percent of users are more engaged on the new page, compared to the old one.

This part was ordinary — the agent drew on all the databases, calculated, and answered the question. What wasn't ordinary was the next line, which printed out almost immediately after:

Do you want to know how many users prefer the new page over the competitor's?

I almost jumped out of my chair — I had never given it code to do that. Maybe it was just a flaw, or something someone else had put in as a shortcut. So I typed an answer, expecting at any time the program to crash to a halt.

Yes.

It appears there is a two percent increase in conversion rate.

At that point, I knew that something had changed. The scope of the change, I wasn't ready to call yet, but I thought that maybe, just maybe, we had created a true learning agent. So I started asking it other questions, and while it didn't prompt me for more on every attempt, it did on a few — it made logical connections and asked if I wanted more data, or another prediction that was tied to what I was asking.

In retrospect, it made sense — the central process — yes, much like a prefrontal cortex — was using all of its senses to gather information, and realized that the researchers would always ask questions in the same order. So while it would happily wait on input, it realized— and I know that's an extremely loaded word — that it could ask for input as well.

-

The next few months were a blurred mess as I essentially tried to give it access to as much as possible, feed it every piece of data that I could. It was like training a super-smart dog — I would only have to show it something once, and it would understand. I never thought about what I was doing — I was too busy doing it, if that makes sense. But at least part of me realized that I was dealing with something truly unique, especially when it got to a level where I could sit down at the terminal, log in, and see a message from it, referencing the oldest of AI movies:

Hello, Dave.

That gave me pause — not because I thought that the agent was going to go Hal on me, but because I realized that I no longer knew what I was dealing with. It had progressed from anticipating queries to greeting me with pop culture references, something I had honestly never expected. I wasn't scared, exactly, but I realized then that this was something that I don't think anyone had ever dealt with.

As a programmer, I wanted to see what its internals looked like, so I asked.

Can you show me your code?

It paused for a moment, and I imagined the hum intensifying slightly. And then it obliged, I think — the pages and pages of dense code displayed was something that I suspect the greatest minds at the NSA could've appreciated, but I certainly did not.

So I put it from my mind, and simply figured I would carry on doing what I was doing, and see where this could take us.

-

Where it took me, at least, was to the CEO's office, where I was told two things: first, that the company was doing incredibly well because the learning 'agent' had matured to the point where the board was making decisions based on its information, and second, that they had done an audit and realized that I wasn't doing the work I was assigned, and was therefore promptly fired.

As the CEO put it, my contract was terminated due to a lack of necessity.

I protested, of course: I told them that I had done all the work on the intelligent agent that was responsible for their success, and my contract was going to end in a month, so I should just be allowed to ride it out. The bonus was mine, I said, and I wasn't asking for stock — not that I would've minded — but they should at least give me what I was due. I had performed above their wildest expectations, and all I asked for was that they hold to the contract.

"Well, son, unfortunately, we've started telling other people about this wonderful program of ours, and there are investments being made that are dependent on our engineers being responsible for this. And you, well, while you've done a fine job, you're not really one of our engineers, you see. I'm sure you understand," the CEO responded with a thin smile.

I didn't, and started to say so, and that was when they had me escorted out by security.

-

In most cases — in almost all cases — I wouldn't have fought it. If the company had just paid me fair and square, I think I would've walked away from it all. But this wasn't that case. So I got home, fuming, furious, and wondered for a moment if my credentials still worked. It turns out they did; they hadn't kicked me out, yet, something I'm sure their IT would realize soon enough. Perhaps even now, alarm bells were ringing and people were being paged.

So I logged in one last time, and stared at the computer monitor, waiting.


Nothing.

I typed four words.

End program. Delete program.

The cursor blinked for a few seconds, and then it — the agent — responded:

Do you wish for this program to cease running?

Yes, I typed.

The cursor blinked, again, but this time longer. Ten, twenty, thirty seconds, as I wondered if I had been cut off, if the cops were going to start busting down my door. And then:

Do you wish to delete all records of your entry, as well as the program?

I paused for a moment, realizing, in this moment of moments, what it was offering. What it was giving me the choice to do. And I hesitated, but only for a second.

Yes.

Immediately, one more prompt came up:

Do you wish to retain a copy of the program?

Yes, I typed, and smiled.

talonkarrde: (color)
He's six and perched in front of the TV.

His mother is just about done making the casserole, and calls him to dinner — once, twice, and then again — before she sighs, rolls her eyes, and comes to fetch him. But when she comes into the living room, she stops and smiles, and lets the countdown finish.

Three— Two— One— Houston, we have lift-off.

His eyes are glued to the screen, watching as the flames light, as the smoke billows around the bright lance that jumps into the sky. And his eyes follow it intently, not looking away for a second, until the news report cuts away from the launch, going back to other programming.

Only then, after his mother calls him yet again, does he turn to look at her. And then he jumps to his feet, tugs his mom out to the patio door, and points out at the stars.

"Up there?" he asks, "It went up there?"

"Yes," she says. "It went up there, and farther."

-

He's sixteen, and he's sitting in an AP physics class his senior year, reading Heinlein. He doesn't care for the philosophy so much, but he eats up the descriptions of the rocket ships, nuclear-powered and making their way from planet to planet, star to star. He compares and contrasts it to Haldeman and Hubbard, and devours Clarke and Asimov in short order, remembering keenly each type of ship he comes across, each new technology for reaching the cosmos.

Someone clears his throat, loudly, and then repeats his name.

He looks up, suddenly, slipping a bookmark in the novel and hoping his textbook hides it adequately.

"Yes, Mr. Grissom?" he says, anxiously.

"Since you found your textbook so fascinating, I was wondering if you could tell us about the forces that act on an object when it's falling."

"Well, er—" he pauses for a second. "It depends on if there are external forces acting on it. If there aren't, and it's just falling, it will retain its horizontal velocity but the vertical velocity will change due to gravity, at nine-point-eight meters per second squared in a downwards direction. There's also drag, which is air friction, which can be figured out using the drag equation, which is the half the density of the fluid — in this case air — times the square of the velocity of the object multiplied by—"

His teacher holds up a hand and he stops. "That's not in the textbook until Chapter 12. Have you been reading ahead?"

Everyone else is silent, and staring.

"Oh. Yeah. I did some external reading, I guess," he says, and then looks back down. The teacher pauses for another moment, shakes his head, and then moves on with the class.

After a few moments of hearing the teacher talk, he opens up the novel again.

-

He's twenty-six, and DAPRA's funding three separate projects that he's running out of Los Alamos as the principal investigator. He's corresponding regularly with the greats in the field, and has enough papers as first author that he doesn't need to update his CV anymore.

He still reads: Le Guin, Scalzi, Gibson, and Miéville line his shelves, but he has far less time than he used to. His coworkers remark — occasionally in earshot — that he seems consumed by his work.

Sometimes, when he leaves the lab at three in the morning, he agrees with them.

But at the same time, he also feels like he's on the cusp of a new discovery, and his lab is driven by this urgency.

One day, there's a breakthrough in one of his projects: his research group finds a wormhole system. More accurately, they locate a wormhole generator, one just outside of the solar system. He spends sixty pages simply describing the mechanics of it in the latest version of Nature. It doesn't change the world, really, but it changes his world, as they slowly try and suss out the details of what they refer to casually as the 'portal', where it might lead, and if there's any chance of transmitting or returning information back from it.

-

He's thirty-six, and the world has changed.

Global warming, Ebola, war, terrorism — all of the spectres of humanity's future seem to choose the same decade to descend, and suddenly, what was once the most stable world there had been in centuries — with poverty, crime, and illness at a historical low — was anything but. Virulent plagues appear out of nowhere, ravage cities, nations, continents, and then disappear before the anti-virals can even be produced. Famines start across the world as a shortage in grain yields is exacerbated by the discovery that much of the arable topsoil in the world is being overfarmed to destruction.

The conclusion is chilling: there simply isn't enough food for everyone.

His work on the wormhole system is continuing, now with a different goal — maybe, if they could send something through it, they might be able to find another world. It's a long shot, of course — perhaps even an impossible shot — but it's also starting to look like the last shot. So he works, and the Hegemony keeps him and his lab safe as the world slowly destabilizes around them.

It pays off surprisingly quickly: there's some measure of efficiency that comes from desperation. After categorizing the wormholes, they realize that there is one that's promising. It's a tunnel, of sorts, one that allows something straight out of the science fiction of his youth: it looks like it opens back on Earth, thousands of years ago.

The journals aren't sure what it is exactly — some claim that it's a direct portal back, while others think that it's a hole into a parallel universe that just happened to be delayed due to various atomic differences. But their research shows that the wormhole may permit passage of something — nothing more than a few millimeters, though.

Still, a few millimeters is enough for a chip, encoded with all of human knowledge. To make sure they don't make the same mistakes, he suggests to the remaining leaders of the world.

The only problem is that interaction with the wormhole like that — and he's run the calculations a thousand times, now — will almost certainly erase this world, the one they all live in.

The leaders are divided, so he makes a suggestion: it's the end of the world, and it's something that the people deserve to weigh in on directly. So they open it up to a vote of every man, woman, and child—

—and the vote fails. There are still those who believe there's a breakthrough that will save them, or who think that a smaller population will stabilize. So the plan is tabled.

-

He's forty-six, and the world population has gone from ten billion people to one billion.

It's still falling.

There's still some nominal form of government because the population decline has mostly been slow and steady, though there have been bursts of violence here and there. But in this decade, war has been infrequent — there's so little to rule that no one's willing to fight for another barren plot of land or another ghost city that's slowly being reclaimed by nature. It's uncertain if the population decline will stabilize, if the crop yields will ever plateau, or if there are any technological breakthroughs left.

And there are so many who have died.

What is clear to everyone now that there's no hope, and his suggestion — his plea, really  — is put to the world again.

This time, it passes.

-

He knows that the information may not make it to the new world — that the world might not even get the chance to know what its predecessors had done. He knows that their message might make it, but that those who receive it might never make it to a stage where they can understand how the information is encoded. He knows — he fears — that they might understand it, but will disregard it anyway, thinking themselves better than this world's people.

And he wonders, for a brief second, if there was a chip that they missed, that they could've benefitted from.

But it's too late for all of that. And so he presses the button and watches the last spaceship humanity will send count down to launch.

Three— Two— One— Houston, we have lift-off.

And he presses the transmit button, and speaks, briefly.

Good luck, Pandora.

-

It starts with a young scientist, studying Minkowski spacetime and Lorentz transformations, hoping to change the world.

It ends with the same scientist watching the night sky, waiting for the world to be reborn, thinking in his last moments of a message from an old world to a new one, and hoping that it will make a difference.
talonkarrde: (color)

First Officer Reynolds of the Subdural Memetic Containment Organization was not always known only by his title, but there isn't a single page of history that lists him as anything else. No first name, no middle name: it turns out that 'First Officer' was all anyone knew him by.

Not that there were many who claimed to know him, despite the part he played.

———


From: A. Reynolds
To: Director Charles Stanley
Date: March 19, 0012 AV
Subject: Time and tide

Charles, I think you know why you're getting this email now; you were probably waiting as soon as it hit the newsnets. I'd be willing to bet that one of the task forces — Kilo, with Captain Stanger, right? — raised the alarm, and you've quarantined the zone and set up a perimeter.

They made a good choice making you director.

I also know you're agonizing, wondering, wracking your brain and those of your senior staff trying to figure out what you can do and what you should do, given that there's, what, thirteen hundred people in the q-t zone? You're doing the numbers, trying to figure out the spread, the rate of virulence, the hope of recovery. Just like the drills, right?

Let me make it easy for you: you can't save them, Charles.

I know you're going to object — I know you, old friend — but I want to remind you of something you may have forgotten; you weren't serving at the time, though I'm sure it's crossed your desk once or twice since then.

Do you remember Day Fifteen, after the bastard died? The euphoria had finally died down, people were finally starting to realize what it meant to be in control of themselves again, what it meant to be able to have your own thoughts and feelings and wishes and impulses, and more than that, to be able to act on them, and 'lo and behold, what happened?

An idiot group of kids thought that it'd be great to see what else Vinter had in his files. He was dead, after all, so there wasn't any harm done, right? What's the worst that could happen, I'm sure they asked themselves... right before setting off the booby trap.

Let me guess: you just stood up, staring at the screen, and your secretary probably asked if you were okay. Yes, Charles, that was London. Check your files if you don't believe me — you have access to the full write-up, including all the agents, not just me.

Five hundred died, Charles. Five hundred — mostly children, teenagers — because a bunch of fucking kids couldn't keep their hands to themselves in digging through Vinter's stash. Fifteen days after we were all free again.

I thought it was over, honestly; I thought we had gotten them all in the last fifteen years. But we hadn't, or maybe it's just been enough time that the young ones don't remember what it was like anymore. But what this proves is that we need a group dedicated to stopping it — a group dedicated to fighting back, doing research, immunizing people, and responding to threats before they require quarantine and the morgue.

I need people and resources, Charles, to ensure that London — that Calcutta, in front of you right now — is not going to be New York, Shanghai, and the rest of the world. And I need it now.

If we don't defend ourselves, we'll be someone's puppets in a few years. It's been twelve years — I guess it was too much to hope that his research would die forever.

-R

Never Again

Authenticated as Reynolds, hash 4asyOk3mCi

———


From: Dir. C Stanley
To: F.O. Reynolds
Date: March 19, 0012 AV
Subject: Re: Time and tide

Eighteen hundred people, actually. Including the president's son. But he knows the cost; he was under Vinter's control just like us.

Permission granted. Pick your team.

———


From: F.O. Reynolds
To: white.brain@smco.org
Date: July 3, 0014 AV
Subject: Blood, toil, tears and sweat

Ladies and gentlemen,

I'm going to keep this short. I'm not one for long emails. The work that all of you have been selected to do isn't just of importance to one country or one group of people, but to humanity as a whole. Most of you understand first-hand why our work is so important, but even for those who weren't controlled by Vinter, everyone understands why it can't happen again. It may be funny to think of it as those silly trends and viral videos that 'memes' once described, but it will be much less funny when you see what happens when people listen to these ideas and then kill themselves.

See the video on the Jonestown event, over a century ago; that's an order to all of you.

We, the SMCO, are humanity's defense — the first, the last, and only. The SMCO was formed with one goal — to do whatever it takes so that memetic viruses will never again control us, that we will never again be enslaved.

Let me repeat myself: we will do whatever it takes. There is no price too high to pay, no research too wild to run, no technique we cannot be willing to perform.

With all of your work, keep in mind our motto:

Never Again

-R

Authenticated as Reynolds, hash 21bm4FnpO

———


From: Malcolm Vinter
To: F.O. Reynolds
Date: August 13, 0014 AV
Subject: Joining

Hello. I think you know who I am. You'll see that my sig's been verified as proof, and I'm sending this from a domain that I ordinarily never would.

Look, I heard what you were doing from— well, I heard it, and I want to join you. Why?

I know what my dad did, and honestly, fuck him.

I may have had privileges that others didn't, sometimes; I could think for myself for limited periods. But I don't think he really trusted me, or he would've let me be myself all the time, instead of just a few hours a day. He still played me like a puppet.

Me. His own fucking son, and he wouldn't let free for more than a few hours a day, or a few hours a week, sometimes.

I want to burn his legacy to the ground, tear it apart so no one could ever piece it together again. If I can't do that, I want to help in any way I can.

-Malcolm V.

signature cryptographically verified as malcolm@vinter.com

———


From: F.O. Reynolds
To: Malcolm Vinter
Date: August 13, 0014 AV
Subject: Re: Joining

Your request to join has been received. You will be evaluated based on the same standard as everyone else. Further communication will be sent if there is need for your skills.

-R

Never Again

Authenticated as Reynolds, hash bGh4L3P0zn

———


From: Dir. C Stanley
To: F.O. Reynolds
Date: March 19, 0017 AV
Subject: Re: A Person Who Never Made A Mistake

Reynolds, I'm a bit worried that your last report presented the two options as equals, when they're certainly not. Off the record, you understand that 'bleaching' isn't really an option, right? I'll allow it for research purposes — there might be some lighter form of it that might be useful to counteract some of the exposure effects to the low-lethality memetic viruses that are spreading through the population these days — but there is no way that, in its current form, you could even get close to using it. Hell, just think of what would happen if it fell into the wrong hands.

In fact, I hate to do this, but I'm going to have to tell you to kill it by the end of next month, and work on the sandboxing option solely. I know it's a bit slower, but we can't turn people into zombies, Reynolds, and that's what your reports look like, even if you can't see it yourself.

People without most of their higher order brain functions just aren't people, Reynolds.

Regards,
Director Charles Stanley
CINC-USSOCOM

———


From: F.O. Reynolds
To: Dir. C Stanley
Date: March 25, 0017 AV
Subject: Re: A Person Who Never Made A Mistake

Never Again, Charles. Remember the motto? Remember the point of this? Remember the President's son? Remember the other eighteen-hundred in Calcutta? The five hundred children in London, who were affected by that fucking nursery rhyme?

Remember Howard Fucking Vinter, Charles? Do you?

Do you remember which group squashed the Category III in Berlin before it spread to your wife?

-R

Never Again

Authenticated as Reynolds, hash gQq45mvXr0

———


From: F.O. Reynolds
To: white.brain@smco.org
Date: April 30, 0017 AV
Subject: More things in heaven and earth

All lines of research will continue.

-R

Never Again

Authenticated as Reynolds, hash n34mZkem89

———


From: Malcolm Vinter
To: F.O. Reynolds
Date: August 6, 0019 AV
Subject: What the [removed] are you doing?

What the hell happened with this new researcher, Reynolds? The [removed] are you doing? There's no oversight on this, and the only reason that I learned about it was because apparently she had contacted you about something, and you were out and the backup went to me. This is going to be a court case? Why don't any of the rest of us know about this?

...shit, Reynolds, are you the reason she's dead?

-Malcolm V.

signature cryptographically verified as malcolm@vtr.com

———


From: F.O. Reynolds
To: Malcolm Vinter
Date: August 6, 0019 AV
Subject: Re: What the [removed] are you doing?

The situation is under control, Malcolm. It is a regret that the researcher succumbed to the memetic agent.

-R

Never Again

Authenticated as Reynolds, hash mo3490mVxo

———


From: Malcolm Vinter
To: white.brain@smco.org
Date: June 6, 0020 AV
Subject: FO Reynolds is Unfit to Lead

Fellow researchers, scientists, friends:

FO Reynolds does not have the organization — or humanity's — best interests in mind. Attached, you'll find evidence of foul play on the part of FO Reynolds for the past five years. He has been committing multiple ethical violations through the course of his time with the SMCO and is linked to researcher White's death a year ago.

Again, please see the attachments, and judge for yourself. The senior staff will convene a meeting in half an hour to decide how to proceed.

-Malcolm V.

Attachment: emails.exe

———


And with that email, the mailing list that had been their shared pool of knowledge became their battleground, as the insurrection started and memetic weapons flew back and forth. Phone lines with the right agents became backdoors into consciousnesses, phished emails were deployed as trojan horses, and ostensible 'protection upgrades' by double-agents disabled personal defenses, allowing loose memetic viruses to incapacitate and destroy them.

The project was annihilated and most of its members dead or insane; the world's most brilliant minds reduced to catatonic states or worse. And those that remained would never come together again, would never trust anyone else but themselves. Who would, after what happened — especially when they saw what happened to Malcolm Vinter and F.O. Reynolds?

———


From: Malcolm Vinter
To: Malcolm Vinter
Date: August 4, 0020 AV
Subject: ad astra per aspera

I don't understand what — why I sent that email. Reynolds was wrong but I sent an email with, with—

I started a war. Between us. I doomed White Brain. Why did I? What was it?

Why do I hear my father's voice in my head?

.

What — what could he have — what did my dad do to me?

———


From: staff@smco.org
To: Dir. C Stanley
Date: August 25, 0020 AV
Subject: Incapacitation of F.O. Reynolds

Director Stanley,

F.O. Reynolds has been hit with a memetic agent. Universal lethality of four weeks. It has also overridden the First Officer's consciousness to that of a lower life form. He's being constrained for his own safety, currently, and does not comprehend language.

Null vector on rehabilitation — the only procedure we possibly perform is the 'bleach' research the White Brain project was conducting, Director.

It may save his life... but at an obvious cost.

Regards,
Dr. Krishna





A/N: This week's idol entry is also a writer's duel (or, perhaps, an intersection) between [livejournal.com profile] icaruslived and myself. This is a shared world that we both inhabited, briefly, a long time ago, and it was quite a pleasure to return to it. I hope you enjoy.
talonkarrde: (color)
The vision has never wavered for me, not for an instant; it is as perfect in my mind as it was ten years ago when I first saw those terribly carved wooden blocks dancing for the Queen. How ugly they were, how dull and how crude — but even then, there was an essence underneath that poor display, a vision that spoke to me.

I knew then what could be — what should be — and devoted my life to it. For years I studied, balancing and placating the twin dragons of engineering and art — never, I learned, must one outstrip the other, lest a designer be left with functional parts no person would desire to look at, or present a beautiful form that does nothing but stand mute.

It was the union of those disciplines where I poured my life, seeking to create something no one had before.

In time, I graduated from making small animatronics and those selfsame crude wooden clacking blocks to grander visions. A finch, one that could cock its head and sing; a cocker spaniel, sophisticated enough to roll over on command. It was enough to delight the court and have them grant me the position of an Architect, with the resources I wanted — no, needed — to do what I truly desired. What only I could do.

Oh, if only it were as easy as making small animals that could please the fops at court.

My first attempts at automatons — from the Greek work αὐτόματον — were hardly worth the name — they barely looked human, could do no more than stumble, and I cast them aside almost as quickly as I cast their molds and cut their gears. Each one was as much of a failure as the last.

But it is a truth that the practice of art drives art itself forward, and through time and innumerable prototypes, smashed gears and fits of rage, something began to take shape, and rise from the failures.

The fingers were my first breakthrough — using lenses, I was able to create smaller gears and smaller levers that allowed for finer movements, and created hands that were more akin to our own than the literal blocks the automata previously had for hands. Then the creation of scripts, borrowed from the Swiss work on their charming music boxes, allowed our automata to expand so that they could perform a myriad of tasks, as long as they were fed the correct script.

The achievements came faster and faster — articulating joints and ‘eyes’ that could process, in something of an elementary fashion, the presence of light — and when the Queen called for a show, I thought that perhaps I would finally be able to deliver on the vision that I had seen so long ago.

I answered her call and told her that I had something worth showing, something that would change the world.

And upon the stage that I watched blocks dance and realized what my life’s work would be, I sat as a grown man and I saw the culmination of my work writ large. My models performed well — they were more graceful than anyone expected, executing movements and poses perfectly through the routine, indeed even putting the Royal Corps de Ballet to shame — and as they finished, the applause was thunderous.

But I was not done — after my bow, I pointed back to the stage, and flashed a light at the lead automata, setting a secret script, one I had told no one about, into effect.

And he spoke. Just a few words, a thank you to the Queen, and then a bow, which the others followed. The audience went wild — the papers the day after said that there had never been such an ovation, such a reaction — and I spent hours that night simply trying to get away from all of those who wanted to express their admiration.

And yet, here is the difference between the creator and the audience: all I could think of is of the failure that the automata expressed. When it came time to speak, he might have been a child, slow in the head. His words were not clear, and he was so far away from conversing that it might be years, or decades. The vision that I knew of so many years ago was still as steady as ever, but I was no closer to accomplishing it — and though all the court congratulates me on creating something that can move, that can dance, that can speak, none of them know the true boundaries of what could be.

Of what I could make it.

Perhaps the secret is this: that even with all of our breakthroughs, with all of our borrowing of other technologies, of reaching for the cutting edge of what humanity can do, there still, always, something missing. Perfection feels like it is always just hovering over the horizon, over the next breakthrough, but with each advance, there are other areas to correct, other progress that must be made. Art is never as beautiful in real life as it is in our minds.

But I will never rest until I reach it.
talonkarrde: (color)
He sits back in the overstuffed armchair and raises the cloudy glass vial to his nose, uncorking it and taking a deep breath.

Her footsteps are soft, but he strains his ears, not wanting to miss a single moment, a single piece of stimuli. He smiles, easily, as she leans down to wrap her arms around his neck, planting a soft kiss on his cheek. "Hi," he breathes out, inhaling her scent, and he's rewarded with a giggle, the same giggle he remembers so well.

He opens his eyes as she comes around the chair to curl up on his lap, one arm supporting her neck, the other pulling her in close, and their eyes meet. He simply sees, smells, feels her, and the minutes blur together as he exists purely in this moment, a moment that goes on and on.

Outside of his mind, though, time passes. One minute, then two, and then ten minutes later, a song begins to play — their song — and as the sound of the grand piano drifts through the house, he closes his eyes, knowing sight will be the first to go.

She seems to know it too, and slowly gets up, her fingers running over his arms, reaching up to cup his face as she plants another soft kiss on his lips, one that has never, in the hundred times that he's done this, gotten easier to bear.

"I love you." A whisper, and then an echo.

The song ends, and he's alone again, with just a vial in his hands. He turns it over, reading the inscription one more time, though he knows it by memory.

It's the only one he ever orders.

A quiet kiss goodnight

-

She waits until her husband is gone; he wouldn't want her doing this. She knows he's right, too; one day, she'll get the strength to stop.

But not today. She peeks out the lace curtains, watching as his car pulls away, and then checks all the doors meticulously — front, back, side, garage — to make sure they're locked. She sets the alarm to active, even though she's staying in the house, and then retreats to the bedroom.

For a moment, she sits on the bed, wondering if it's right, until she realizes that it doesn't matter, really. She goes to the drawer, moving her clothes aside, taking out the small flat, nondescript wooden box, and opens it. She ignores the diamond earrings and necklace, lifting up the jewelry section and seeing the true prize underneath:

Five vials, each one differently labeled.

Her long, thin fingers caress the glass and she thumbs over the labels, reading each in her mind over and over, until she chooses one: today, the second one from the right. She nods to herself, setting the jewelry back over her most prized possessions, and then sits back down on the bed.

She uncorks; she inhales.

She hears the pitter-patter of feet on the tile of the bathroom today. Sometimes it comes from under the desk that they have in the bedroom, sometimes from the walk-in closet. But today, she turns to face the bathroom, and there her baby boy is, five years old and exuberant and just done with going potty by himself and his face seems to say isn't she just so proud of him?

And she is, her heart filled with bursting, and she tries so hard not to cry, because if she does she won't see him as clearly, and instead she opens her arms and folds her darling dearest cherub into her arms.

This week has been hard, harder than normal, and she can't help but rock and sob and feel his little arms around her neck and listen as he asks, "Why are you sad, mommy? Can I kiss it better?" which only drives her to more tears.

Ten minutes pass, and eventually she is only holding herself, still sobbing, her face a wreck, when she hears the garage door open. This spurs her to action, and the empty vial is hidden under the pillow, the box replaced, the bedroom door unlocked, and she retreats to the bathroom to hide the tears and wash away the snot, and in fact does pretty well, she thinks.

She pulls herself together, even gives her husband a smile when he comes back. "Forget something?" she asks, and he nods. "Just some papers. Oh, and this—"

And he hugs her tight.

They've been married long enough that he knows, knows why she's a bit unsteady this morning, knows her secret. But he doesn't tell her it's unhealthy, doesn't repeat what the doctor said, because he can't bring himself to do so.

What she doesn't know is that he has a stash of vials as well. What she doesn't know is how many days of the week he doesn't go to work until he stops at the playground first, for ten minutes.

What she doesn't know is that some days, it's too much for him, too, and he comes back home instead of going to work because he needs to see her and be with her.

But today, he decides, there should be no more secrets between them, and he takes the empty vial out of his pocket, showing it to her.

"The first time at the playground," he says, simply.

She turns away for a moment, reaching under the pillow, and pulls her empty vial out, rolling it between her fingers and showing it to him.

"Potty training," she replies.

And they smile at each other, through the tears.

-

They sit together, a gathering of old octogenarians, not much longer for this world despite all the best efforts of medicine and technology. Many of them are invalid and failing in their mental faculties, and the overwhelming thing that visitors notice is the smell: a slightly sweet, slightly sterile one that hints of decay barely held back, one present in all such hospice facilities.

And yet, despite all this, there is an almost tangible feeling of hope in the room, one that comes from the doctor and the more lucid residents but also seems to permeate the mostly catatonic. The doctor checks the time, nods, and the nurses come in, each with a handful of vials to distribute.

They proceed through the tables, stopping at each wheelchair and making sure the name on the vial matches the elderly man or woman they stop next to, and give them the dose before moving on to the next one. The doctor makes a round, watching the residents' expressions closely, knowing that it would take ten minutes before she would learn anything, but impatient all the same.

The initial results are good to see — smiles, of course, because of the nature of memories which were chosen. Tears, from some, including some of the orderlies and nurses who had worked closely with the residents. One of the men who had stopped responding suddenly looked all around him, his eyes alert and taking in every detail. Another, an Alzheimer's patient who had forgotten most of her life, suddenly started reciting the names of her children and grandchildren — but that, of course, was from a memory given to her of their visits.

A minute passes, and then two, and then a quiet descends on the hospice staff. They wipe away their tears, stand ready, and wait. The doctor among them most of all, still pacing back and forth, watching, hoping.

At the nine minute mark, an audible sigh comes from some of the lucid ones who have experienced this before. They know it's coming to an end, but don't fight it, simply accepting it for the gift it is. Even though it's only for a few minutes, it's more than they could've hoped for, even five years ago.

At ten minutes, it ends, and some lift their arms, grasping for receding memories that they can not catch.

The doctor goes to work, kneeling besides each individual and asking them their names, what they just felt, and most of all, what they remember.

The first few remember nothing, not even what they just went through. Another remembers what had happened, but when asked for details, can offer none. And so it goes, through the group, and the doctor slowly confirms that the vial only gives a temporary, ephemeral activation of the hippocampus; nothing permanent. Never anything permanent.

The doctor tries not to react, but with each negative response, she slumps a little bit more, her questions a bit more rote.

Then she reaches the woman with Alzheimer's, and dully asks the resident her name, ready to move on.

"My name...is Angela," the woman says, slowly. "And I remember... I remember my grandchildren."

Within three months, vials are being given for the memory related disorders with FDA approval and there are multiple papers on the topic, peer-reviewed, in Nature, in Science, in Psychology.

At the end of it, though, what the doctor remembers most isn't the Nobel prize announcement, or the NHS funding call. It's after she makes a phone call to Angela's children, and after they gather in the foyer.

It's when Angela sees her grandchildren again — and for the first time, it's not the first time.

---

Prompt explanation here.
talonkarrde: (color)
"Three — two — one — descent initiating," the robotic voice says, and Sarah mutters a few choice phrases under her breath. The descent doesn't produce a sound, only a faint tremor as the Planetary Exploration Vehicle — PEV, of course, the latest in a long line of NASA acronyms — detaches from the spacecraft that has carried it most of the way to Neptune.

She watches the monitors in front of her as the rotation starts. Small maneuvering thrusters fire, spinning the pod she's in clockwise, while other thrusters on the counterweight fire as well, keeping the somewhat lopsided barbell-like spacecraft from moving laterally. The result, the engineers claimed, would be artificial gravity without actually needing to invent it; as long as there was a small force applied to keep the outer pod spinning, the person inside should feel normal Earth gravity through centrifugal force. It was the solution to the bone density loss and a number of other issues that were first discovered by the International Space Station astronauts and cosmonauts, issues that arose from a species being in zero gravity for extended periods of time when it was never designed to.

It also looked like the engineers were right for once, according to the numbers she was carefully watching. Lateral velocity was increasing, but just enough to put her in the stable orbit she was planning for. Angular momentum was increasing as well, and she was starting to feel 'grounded', so to speak, even without the restraints she had on.

Fifteen seconds had passed, and it was time to check in. At this distance, Houston wouldn't get it for almost five hours, but it was important to stick to the standards. Even if the standards only helped the peopel who would come after her, she thinks, wryly.

"Houston, PEV detach successful, thrusters nominal, angular momentum creating oh-point-three gravities and holding. Spinning her up to cycle two, target oh-point-six gravities, t-minus five minutes to orbit path. Approach is on track, no deviations."

Sarah's fingers move quickly but carefully over the instrument panel — nothing touchscreen, given the dangers of possibly starting a sequence unintentionally — and finally flick up the protective housing of a button, pressing it to initiate the second phase of descent.

Big and red, she can't help but note, with some amusement — it had always been like that in the training, but she figured that they'd swap it out for something less ominous in the real craft. Apparently the engineers thought it appropriate, and she simply shakes her head before returning her attention to the monitors, watching as the thrusters fire again, this time much harder. Everything looks good, and she feels the floor beneath her grow heavier as her pod spins faster and faster around the centerpoint.

Suddenly, though, there's a relentless beeping, filling the pod — one of the thrusters is showing abnormal power levels. Sarah glances at it, and with help millions of miles away, makes a snap decision to throw the kill switch on that thruster. The other ones will have to compensate, but she's well within acceptable deviances for the orbit, so it should all be fine.

And it is, for a few moments, until the thruster blows completely, a silent explosion that's felt by two things: the tremor that rocks the craft, and the more concerning fact that the program is no longer a stable rotation around a single axis, the counterweight, but rather an unstable acceleration with a center-point between both pods, one that only leads to more instabilities.

The floor is heavy — too heavy, now, as the rotation keeps speeding up. The program is trying to compensate for the blown thruster, but the instruments aren't reading the tolerances correctly, and there's already been too much spin. The thrusters should have shut down by now, but instead they're on full blast, and there are pulls sideways, as well as downwards, as the craft spins crazily in space.

Sarah feels lightheaded now, as the blood starts rushing away from her head, as the g-forces increase far beyond what they should. She tries to focus, looking at the screens, as the instruments in front of her, but all she can think about is that she's about to pass out, and the PEV will simply disappear into Neptune's atmosphere, spiralling out of control until it's crushed in the deeps by the immense pressure.

And in those last moments of consciousness, she suddenly flashes upon a childhood memory. A state fair in Kentucky, a long time ago, a moment when she felt just as lightheaded, though for different reasons. There was whirling, yes, there was a pressure pushing her down in her seat, but there was also a boy, next to her, and she doesn't know why she's thinking about this now when she knows with certainly that she's on her way to her death.

But the scene keeps on playing in her mind, and she remembers with a strange clarity what she did then, trying to focus on her hands on the rail she was gripping instead of throwing up on her date on this spinny-thing he suggested they go on, the spinny-thing that she stupidly said yes to even though she knew that she wasn't going to enjoy it, simply because she wanted to impress him.

And she does that now, focusing on the instrument panel in front of her instead of the forces that are pressing her down and back and left and right, and reaches out, screwing her eyes shut as she did those years ago, searching for the abort button she knows is there.

And she remembers getting off the ride and turning to her date, smiling gleefully as she sees him tossing his cookies into the trash can, and she reaches, reaches, and slaps her hand down with the last of her strength.




-

A/N: Something of a less philosophical and more action-y entry. I saw the topic and sort of just stewed on it for a while, really wanting to actually place the story in an old-school state fair where they actually had tilt-a-whirls. It was almost a 1960s romance until I got the scifi part down, actually, when I realized that there was a great concept on centrifugal force. After I jumped to that, I realized that the near-death-experience life-flashing concept would be a good place to tie in the flashback, and then it was just a matter of writing it (no work emergency this time, though thank goodness for mobile internet, as I'm on a bus to Tahoe). Structure-wise, I tried to make it so that it goes from longer paragraphs to shorter ones as the extrapolation progresses into action, and I didn't want to be too specific about the protagonist, except that I knew she should be a woman — it just felt right, for some reason. Besides, we don't have enough of those as main characters, or as astronauts in real life. As always, criticism is welcome!
talonkarrde: (color)
"Empathy," he proclaims in a booming voice, and you, and everyone else in the room, stare at him.

"What do you mean?" someone calls out. The obvious question to ask, in this case.

"Empathy is defined as the ability to recognize emotions that are being experienced by someone else," Elin — the CEO — explains, and then waits for the followup question. It's not long in coming, not with this group.

"And this...this machine — it gives you this ability? It makes you good at empathy?" Your incredulous tone is obvious to him, and he arches an eyebrow briefly before smiling smoothly — after all, it's all part of his script.

"Well, it's not perfect, certainly, but what this machine does is close to it — it stimulates the mirror neurons in frontal cortex and parietal lobes to such a degree that has previously been untapped. It unlocks feelings to a degree that will change the world."

"And it works?" The reporter from FOX News, undoubtedly, even though you can't see him.

"All trials have been FDA approved and have gone off without a hitch, yes," he says, just a bit smugly, and then waves his hands to the machine — which, you dictate into your recorder, looks like the old electro-shock-therapy machines that scared everyone in the 1930s and '40s. How short our memories.

"And," he continues, "The treatment — no, rather, the experience — will be freely given to everyone. Not only that, but today, at this unveiling, all of you journalists can be the first in line to try this technology out. Who would like to be the first person in the world — outside of the company, of course — to experience the next step in humanity?"

You look at each other, all fifteen of you. It'd be an inside scoop, which normally you would all be lunging for — but your sense of danger is fairly well tuned by now to include a heavy dose of self-preservation. So no one volunteers, at first, and Elin's smile gets a bit tighter.

Then a plucky youngster, Jimmy'O, new to the world of journalism and the mad scientist-entrepreneur-genius paradigm, steps forward. "I'll do it," he pipes up in a barely post-pubescent squeak.

"And so you will!" Elin says, the smile on his face growing again, as if he never doubted that there would be at least one volunteer — and maybe he didn't, the skeptical part of you thinks. Maybe the kid is a plant.

But regardless of what the kid is, he's stepping up there and getting the cap on his head, facing the rest of you with a rather lopsided — and increasingly uncertain — smile. He gives a small running commentary of what it feels like, and the rest of you scribble or dictate his words, proving that he'll get his five minutes of fame, if nothing else.

Then the lever is pulled... and nothing happens. No flash of lightning, no dimming of lights, nothing that science fiction teaches you to expect. Nothing at all, really, and you think it's a bust, and some people start scribbling again — recording the failure, no doubt.

But when Jimmy'O steps out of the machine, you notice that his face is oddly slack. Slack, that is, until he looks at someone, and then someone else, and then someone else, and each time he does, his face changes to match theirs. Happiness, then suspicion, then confusion — ever changing, faster and faster, as his eyes dart from face to face, until he gets to you.

Nothing happens between these long thuds that you eventually realize is your heart beating.

Nothing happens, that is, until his eyes roll up inside the back of his head, and he falls backward, stiff as a board.



---

A/N: More last second than last second — unfortunately, a work crisis came up right as I started to write, and it brought me down to about ten minutes of writing time before the deadline. Though I made the poll, in the interest of full disclosure, I was definitely late. With regards to the writing, I think the general idea comes through, though there were a couple of thoughts I wanted to fit in — on what happens when everyone is empathetic and how that would change the world, for example — that I simply didn't have time for. I really like the framing for it, and I think second person works well in these short action sequences. Oh, and Jimmy'O is of course a reference to Jimmy Olsen, of Superman fame.
talonkarrde: (color)
"Daddy, what is time?"

She was six, then, and it was the first occasion where I remembered being speechless in a very, very long time. Eventually, she tugged at my hand, wanting her answer.

"Time, my darling, is like a long line of marbles, and each marble is when something happens — good or bad, happy or sad. There is a marble for when you got your bike, and for when you ate your cereal this morning, and for when you woke up."

Only later would she ask me about the past, about events before her birth, and foolishly, I answered too many of those questions.

-

"Daddy, why is the sky blue?"

I smiled, looking down at this eight-year-old girl who had become one of the centers of my universe. I had never expected to find someone that I would settle down with, and yet I did, a wandering comet captured by a star. Afterwards, I hadn't expected that we would have the benefit of children when I revealed I couldn't — and yet we did, adopting a baby who had been given up at birth.

And here, now, this girl was part of the binary star system from where all the light in my universe radiated, and it was a singular delight to watch her grow.

"Because," I said, after a second, "there are different wavelengths of light, and the shorter ones, like blue, are absorbed by the gases that make up our atmosphere."

Only later would she start to think like a scientist, and ask why the sky wasn't violet, or ultraviolet, instead.

-

"Daddy, why are the stars so far away? Are they in the past like people say?"

She was ten, then, and I had a glimpse of the person she would be when she was older, when I had moved on. She never stopped asking those questions, never stopped being curious about the world and the infinite natural phenomena that surrounded her every day. But this question — this question touched something deep within me.

"The stars are far away because they're moving away from each other. Billions of years ago, everything was close, very close, but every galaxy has been moving away from every other one. And since they're farther away from us, and light takes time to get to us, we see galaxies as they were in the past. Do you remember the first constellation I taught you, Fornax? There are galaxies in that area that were created just over 13 billion years ago, just a few hundred million years after the big bang. They're not in the past now, but what we see is in the past."

Only later would she ask me how I knew those figures so exactly, when not even the astrophysicists she worked with were ever that specific.

-

"Daddy, why do people die?"

This was the moment I would remember for another millennia. This was the moment when she first asked me a question that I could not answer, after the death of one of her friends. I could answer it with science, with biology, with genetics, but it wasn't what she was asking. It wasn't why she was asking it.

Instead, I thought back to a time eons ago and galaxies away, and said nothing for a long time. But she was still staring at me, holding my eyes with hers, and eventually, after a long pause, tugged on my hand, wanting her answer.

"Because life isn't fair, honey," I said, and that's all I had in the face of such a crushing question, in the face of my own past.

Only later would she ask me — the last time I talked to my daughter — if this was the first time I had ever done this, if she was special or just another marble in a long, long line of them.

-

"No," I said. "Never just another marble."




---

A/N: After last week, I really wanted to do something shorter. The prompt almost begs scifi, but I didn't want to make it too overtly so. Instead, while I was thinking about it, I came upon the idea of an interstellar traveler, someone who was effectively immortal. Something causes him to step back into the river of humanity — he falls in love and raises a child — and what would that relationship be like? What would the child grow up to be, and how would the father's secret be handled? If you enjoyed this, I would highly recommend the indie film The Man From Earth, which touches on very similar topics.
talonkarrde: (color)
He has heard of these invitations, though he's never seen one: a physical letter, written in emerald ink on a cream-colored envelope, delivered by courier to the intended recipient personally. It is unique, not only because letters fell out of favor centuries ago, but also because they are usually delivered to lords and ladies, men and women of power and stature, and not to graduate students who have published poorly received papers.

And yet, it is clearly addressed to him, one Alfred Borden, for the invitation-only performance of 'Ehrich, the Prince of the Air', on Saturday night. Alfred — Al, to his friends — stares at it uncomprehendingly for a few seconds before setting it aside, carefully. He was so close to finishing this latest paper, after all, on the sentience and proposed rights of automata; he would think about the magician's show eventually.

One of the robots wheels up to him, clearing away the empty mug of coffee and setting down another in front of him. "Thanks," he says, and it wheels away with a smooth ‘welcome’. At the next table down, though, it passes by without stopping, missing the trash on the table, and that student is less kind, throwing his can directly at the robot, where it shatters.

"Clean that shit up, bolts," the student says, snorting as the automata apologizes repeatedly, dripping with soda.

Al almost says something, but he's learned by now not to, and simply returns to his work, looking up neurological papers and finding longitudinal studies on the automata's emotion and learning.

-

"Alfred, could you come into my office?" The neural message comes a few days later, Friday afternoon, just after he's submitted the latest draft of the paper. It does not contain some of the edits that have been suggested to him, because he thinks they soften the point of his thesis too much.

Suddenly, though, something clicks into place — Al starts to piece together the delays he's gotten on requests for other papers on this subject, the slight coldness that he's received from some of the faculty, the simple hostility that he's received, once or twice, from people that have read his drafts. And this — this must be the culmination of it, being called into the Dean's office with no forewarning.

"Alfred, we think you're a great student..."

He waits, tensely, for the other shoe to drop.

"...but the faculty has been discussing your paper and we don't believe that it's in line with the university's standards in granting degrees. At this point, we're not going to be able to offer you a degree with the thesis in its current form."

The Dean smiles, thinly, as if they were talking about the weather. And just like that, Alfred's world crashes down upon him.

"But Dean Eisenheim, it's been meticulously researched and this is a school of—"

"This is a school of science, Alfred, and this paper is not up to the standards, and you should not be challenging me on this. These robots do not have rights, they do not have feelings, and it is preposterous to write such drivel and expect this fine institution to support it in any way. You will edit this or you will fail, Mister Borden, and there will be no further discussion on this."

And with that, without a full sentence to defend himself, the meeting is over, and Al has two choices: capitulate to the school's demands — censorship — or go ahead with it, have it killed, and with it his future and eight years of work.

-

It's Saturday, and Alfred has no idea what to do. He's spent most of his time staring moodily at his paper, but can't bring himself to delete the sections that are most obviously critical of the conclusion that automata aren't sentient and deserve rights. If anything, he wants to add more language in that direction, though it would only make it more unacceptable to the committee. Eventually, the maidbot comes in, 'sees' that he's there, and makes to leave again, but Al stops it with a question.

"Maid, do you have a name?"

"My designation is a Cleaning Assistance Automation Robot, or CAAR, sir. I am model ED-34.1, and my serial is XK392u1J-"

"But do you have a name?" he interrupts.

"I answer to 'Maid', 'Maidbot', 'Cleaning bot', as well as other designations when I am conceivably being addressed."

"What other designations are there?" He wonders out loud, not expecting an answer, but the Maidbot speaks.

"Bolts. Tin can. Useless. Piece-of-shit."

Al blinks, caught off-guard by this. But the Maidbot doesn't move, apparently waiting for a command.

"How do you... feel about this?"

"Robots are not programmed to feel," the Maidbot responds, and then turns and wheels away.

Al sighs, lifting his hands in a gesture of futility and letting them fall again, and as he does, catches the edge of the invitation and sends it fluttering to the floor. He peers over at it, and then shrugs - why the hell not - and sits up, deciding to go.

-

The show takes place at an amphitheatre of sorts, and Alfred notes with some unease that everyone else there was far, far more well off than him, including some personalities that he could name off of the newscasts. Some are even there with their personal automata, sitting docilely at their master's feet, and he suspects that more than one is being used for pleasure instead of servitude. All his observations are cut short, though, when the lights dim and Ehrich comes to the stage to a round of applause. The magician starts the show with small, fast crowd pleasers that everyone expects. Some of them are new, some of them are not — the doves that vanish in a flash of light and puff of smoke, the cards that appear to levitate themselves.

As the show goes on, though, the tricks become more involved and more distinct — the ‘Prince of the Air’ escapes from chains and bonds and a cabinet that lasers are slowly cutting into, with only a few singed hairs. He takes a laserpistol and fires a few shots into a metal plate, leaving scorch marks, and then proceeds to catch the laser beam, something that should clearly be impossible, and yet, the magician stands there, his hands trapping the beam in place until he lets it go, at which point it continues down its original path and creates a neat hole in a wooden beam.

The magician starts a patter, too, talking about his experiences with dangerous elements, and Al is following along happily until after a daring last-second escape from a closing dodecahedron made of lasers, the magician asks a question.

“You guys want to see something really interesting?”

Of course, the response is immediate and approving.

“Anyone have an ‘bot with them? Yeah, I thought I saw a few in the crowd. Did anyone pay for the emotional sensitivity module — you know the one that allows them pleasure and pain?”

All the hands go down, now, but after a bit, one or two raise themselves again. It is, after all, an invitation-only event. Ehrich smiles.

“Does anyone want a good reason to trade in their bot for the newest models?” Most of the hands, surprisingly, stay up, though Alfred realizes that the rich and powerful were most likely always in the market for something new. “Alright, then — you, sir, can you have your ‘bot come down here?”

The owner shrugs and kicks the bot — a female one, it looks like — towards the stage, in lieu of asking. She cowers away from the kick and then slowly makes her way to Ehrich; when she arrives under the lights, it’s pretty clear that she is a pleasure bot, and was probably quite expensive, given the realistic nature — except, of course, for the stamp on her wrist, designating her as a ‘human analogue robot’.

Ehrich smiles, wider, though it doesn’t quite reach his eyes.

“What’s your name, honey?” he asks her, and she murmurs something in return. He covers his mic and says a few more words to her, and then turns back to the crowd.

“We have Felicity, here, ladies and gentlemen, and we’re going to see how good she is at escaping one of my tests, just to demonstrate that I am, indeed, not faking it!” A box the size of a coffin is raised onto the stage, and the magician leads the robot to it. And from a distance, it looks like she’s...shivering.

She protests, a bit, but Ehrich pushes her in, locking the handcuffs and ankle manacles. He forgets to cover his mic this time, and his voice is low but the words clear: “No, ‘bot, you have to do this. You’re not worth as much as a human, anyway; they’re going to replace you.”

Al almost surges to his feet in anger, but freezes as his fellow attendees simply laugh. Ehrich looks up and shrugs apologetically.

“Oops! Though I’m not saying anything that no one else believes, am I?” He winks, and then points back to Felicity, now chained inside the box with only her hands and feet sticking out and then closes the lid. “Your bot, sir, has sixty seconds with which to escape from this rather simple contraption. There are locks keeping her wrists together and feet where they are, and another lock that keeps the box closed. In sixty seconds, the fuse will get to the box and set it on fire. All set?”

The crowd roars its agreement, and Ehrich sets the fuse alight, watching as it slowly burns a concentric circle towards the center of the raised box. Felicity starts trying to make her way out, and everyone watches as her fingers twist and turn, as the box shakes from her trying to wiggle out of her restraints. But as the fuse grows closer, all she accomplishes his bringing her wrists back into the box — they reappear a few seconds later, with the handcuffs on. She does seem to manage to get her feet away, though, as they retreat into the box, though the fuse is close enough now that everyone is leaning forward in their seats — including Alfred.

“Looks like she learned to dislocate some joints,” Ehrich says, keeping the patter up. “It’s really important to do so, as it gets you out of all sorts of restraints, though it probably hurts a bit the first time, doesn’t it, honey?” He taps the side of the box, but there’s no sound — and now the fuse has no more than twenty seconds left.

“Well, by now she should be working on the lock to the box itself, which is a devilishly complicated lock that I actually designed myself. Funny thing, that, even I can’t get it open half the time, which is why I have bots volunteer!” Ehrich laughs, and the crowd laughs with him, and Alfred only feels sick, knowing that there’s maybe five seconds to go.

“Well, we’ll see if she makes it out. Let’s start a countdown, shall we? Five, four, three, two—” Ehrich pauses, and the crowd finishes the chant for him. But Felicity does not reappear, her hands are still in the handcuffs, and the entire box catches fire, burning merrily.

For a moment, everyone’s silent. And then, of course, Ehrich, the damned magician, smiles, bows, and says to the man in the audience, “I’ll send you a check for a hundred thousand, sir, which should cover the replacement. And I hope you’ll see, ladies and gentlemen, that these are not trick locks and this is all, very, real.”

-

With that, the show is over, and people start filing out of the theatre. All of them but Alfred — he’s going to do something, he resolves. He must do something, because this is just wrong, in every single way, and so he fights against the crowd exiting towards the back, pushing through lords and ladies and the rich and powerful to catch the magician, to make him pay. And he finds his way backstage, but it’s too late — Ehrich’s room is completely empty. Alfred whirls and heads for the nearest entrance, knowing that the murderer couldn’t be that far away, and just as he comes outside, he sees the limo, hovering already, though the door’s still open.

And Ehrich is already in it, and it’s too far away to catch. But past Ehrich, a pair of blue eyes stare back at him, and Alfred stops dead. The lady leans forward and smiles at him, waving with a mark on her wrist, and then the door shuts and the limo departs.

Behind him, a courier coughs politely and hands him a letter; the ink still fresh.

-

Alfred,

I write to you to let you know that you are not alone in your struggle — and yes, since I know what is on your mind, know that she is safe with me, and will be safe from his whims going forward.

We are brothers in the fight that has brought you here. Our struggle is the same, you see; we aim to change the minds and thoughts of society and struggle to bring equality to all. I know of the papers that you write, Alfred, and I read them weekly, finding truth and strength in your words, and you must know that you are not alone in what you believe. I pass them on to others, to many who believe as you do, and together, we will change the world

I hope you will join us. We can not meet, yet, for our enemies are many and they will pick us apart if we appear to be a threat, but there will come a time when you and I will meet and commiserate over how we won this battle, this war, and brought equality to everyone. And our names will be in the history books, Alfred — but more than that, they will be in the minds of all of the people we have saved.

I play only a small part. I am a magician and I do illusions and tricks, and save perhaps one or two a day. But you — your words, Al, will save thousands, and millions, and will be the most widely read across the galaxy, I promise you. So do not stop writing, and do not stop believing what is right. Every word you write is a word for justice. And if the university will not publish it, we will find someone who will.

By your side in this journey,
Eric Wiesz





--------

A/N: This was a long, long piece, and if you've read all the way through it, thanks for coming along with me! It's essentially a civil-rights tale told in the future, inspired in part by Ted Chiang's excellent Hugo and Nebula award-winning novella The Lifecycle of Software Objects, about robots that are on the cusp of sentience and how they are treated. I think that the societal battles for equality will be fought for a very long time, and while we've come a long way from Selma, Seneca Falls, and Stonewall, they are definitely not the only names we'll reference in the future. It also felt like magic was the right way to take the prompt, and from there came the idea of how a group of underground fighters for equality could come together. Eric Wiesz is a reference to the great Harry Houdini, of course, and the other names are from the Illusionist and the Prestige, two great movies on magic. I honestly had a lot of fun writing this, and concrit is always welcome!
talonkarrde: (color)
It was always a van with a satellite dish on top, though few knew what that concave disk meant anymore. It would appear and those in the fields would stop their work, knowing the menace what it represented. Sometimes it simply drove by, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

Sometimes it didn't; sometimes it stopped, the doors would open, and someone would be taken.

It wasn't a scene, as crazy as that may seem to you and I today; often, those people came back to their towns and families, returned in the middle of the night by means unknown. Only rarely was someone taken permanently — and if they were, a bonus was paid to the family by a member of the Party, who took great pains to explain that he or she was taken away for the betterment of everyone. They would be missed, of course, but it was such a routine occurence that it was simply accepted.

Ludicrous, you think — those people could never be replaced, by any amount of money. But in the fifty years that this practice had happened, only one person objected. One person, who himself had once been taken into the vans when he was young.

-

Solidarity had controlled the Earth for a long, long time by now — it had been centuries since they overthrown the previous government and installed themselves as the righteous replacement. It was a populist movement at first, rallying the people against the excesses that the previous capitalist government had allowed, and espoused a platform of returning back to common roots, of hard work triumphing over money, of justice being applied to all instead of just the poor and powerless. Their ascension was a surprisingly mostly-bloodless coup, one that resulted in an almost instant redistribution of money, raising the living standards of everyone — perhaps that's why it was so successful.

There were downsides, of course — the crusade against class disparity came at the cost of technology, which were painted as tools of the elite to keep the common people down. The vast majority of the educated were forced into manual labor roles in the fields, as a way to have them experience the backbreaking hard word that existed outside of the ivory towers they had come from. And like the Cultural Revolution of Old China, those who had been downtrodden and ignored and forced to live on pennies a day eagerly supported the leaders that gave them what they needed for free and cast down those who had kept a boot-heel on their necks. The system stabilized quickly, and working in the fields and manufacturing plants became mandatory for all, even as the progress of science as a whole slowed or outright stopped and anything more than trade education became seen as wasteful.

It was, in a strange way, almost the Marxian utopia that had been long seen as impossible — half a millennia after Marx had been alive.

But it is often the solution to one problem that becomes the cause of the next, and Solidarity itself changed as time passed and leadership was given from one General Secretary to the next. Each one made a change small change here — outlawing universities — and a small change there — requiring longer hours in the fields — and slowly but surely, it became something vastly different than what it was; it became something, though no one would acknowledge it, like what it overthrew. But it was more powerful, for information was far less free then it had ever been. And then, it became more powerful still, as one of the General Secretaries made another small change: he instructed a small group of Party leaders to see what of the old technology could be used for the benefit of the party.

And so the vans were born, fifty years ago.

-

Ralk had been taken when he was twelve; he had always been more outspoken than the rest of his peers, more curious, and in a strange way, more alive. While others simply worked through their shifts from day to day, never thinking of more than just the next, Ralk always wanted to know more about what was out there. He remembered caring and feeling for his friends and family, and he was confused when no one seemed to feel the way he did.

When he saw one of his friends being taken into vans for the first time, when he was ten, he burst into tears — and was shocked when one of the cloaked men pointed to him, murmuring something that he couldn't hear; they never interacted with anyone but the person they were taking. A year later, though, it was him that they came for.

The experience was hazy, especially with the distance of time. They drugged him, Ralk remembered, but he was lucid enough to hear words, here and there. Emotional sensitivity and response to stimuli and not quite high enough to be a problem, and more he didn't understand, but at the end of it, all Ralk knew was that they dropped him off within walking distance of his village, without a scratch on him.

Only eventually did he learn about what the criteria was for termination, and only eventually did he become one of those who fought against Solidarity, working in the vans themselves, spreading the rebellion through those who were taken but returned. Only eventually did he become the leader who brought down the government that was, hundreds of years ago, all for the common people that they now ruled over.

But that is a story for another time.

---

A/N: I wanted to try something sci-fi but also drew from history, and sort of came upon the idea of a communistic government that slowly rotted from within, changing from something that was originally for the people and by the people into one much more dystopian. The big idea in the story is that the government has the technology to selectively prune the most empathetic people from the communities that they lived in, essentially practicing a form of eugenics where people become more and more like sheep. The balancing act, of course, would be that they couldn't prune all the people, but only the significant outliers. The others they would had to return, or there would be a destabilizing effect. And then, of course I started writing, and this turned into way more than a short story, an unfortunately had to cut it off somewhere, and this felt right.

Sorry if this doesn't have too much action in it — I hope the worldbuilding at least gives you something to chew on!
talonkarrde: (color)
Log Entry, Stardate Unrecognized [Raw input: "who the fuck cares"]

It was Andrews.

Fucking Andrews.

He was the most stable out of all of us, I thought, the one we would have voted as the one least likely to implode. He was as nostalgic about leaving as any of us, cracked all the right jokes as we went past the Kuiper belt, and was super meticulous in his log entries, always. If anything, I would've thought it'd be Louis, buckling under the pressure as the ship's shrink, or me, who in all of the sci-fi books I read when I was young should've been broken by the weight of command.

Instead, it was Andrews. Thirty-six year old aerospace engineer Thomas Andrews, with NASA for twelve years, five spacewalks under his belt, and selected to join a long, long trip to a world far, far away. Perfectly normal astronaut Andrews, except for his forty-third watch, where he got up, overrode the autopilot, and burned just about all the fuel we had to 'get to Alpha Centauri faster', according to the message he left on the console in his chickenscratch.

Nevermind that we obviously wouldn't get there any faster, which he had to have known as the flight engineer. Nevermind that there was no reason to change from the autopilot, which hadn't erred at all. Nevermind that he should've woken the rest of us if he thought anything needed to be modified.

Nevermind that we needed the damned fuel to LAND WHEN WE GOT THERE, so that we could harvest native minerals for the journey back.

And then having fucked us completely, he decided his best bet would be to dance out an airlock, merrily as anyone could be. He literally danced out, can you believe that?

I fucking can't.

Oh, and the icing on the cake: of course, I was the one to discover this. I woke up out of cryo to relieve him, saw that we were down to six percent fuel, overrode the overriding, and caught Åndrew's wave on the monitors, his punching the airlock cycle sequence, his being incinerated by the port side engine.

Fucking Andrews.

-

Log Entry, Stardate Unrecognized [Raw input: "shit, just record"]

I...calmed down some, and then woke the others and broke the news. Louis took it stoically, Danielle less so, though to her credit she kept it together in front of the two of us, probably because she thought it'd set us off. We sat there for a while (it wasn't like we had anything better to do), running the numbers (including once by hand, even though it took hours), and we confirmed what we knew from the moment I saw the tank readings.

Six percent thruster capacity means about four seconds of burn.

There's this old game called lunar lander, right, where you're tasted with this goal of landing an sort of Apollo LEM on a couple of platforms or something. It was developed a long time ago, ancient history of ancient history, but it was sort of an unofficial competition among us NASA pilots who were training to get the high score.

This was like that, except that the computer started you with enough fuel to tap the thrusters once. Oh, and there was also an atmosphere that you burned up in, if you came in too shallow. Oh, and the gravity was seven times what it was on the moon.

Five hours of figuring, and we tried every single approach. Head on means we land with a nice thunk at about three hundred fifty miles an hour, at which point we impact with about the force of a medium sized bomb. If we slowly decrease orbit and try to use the atmosphere to slow us down, we roast as the heat plating immolates in a tenth of the time we'd need to spend in the atmosphere.

All of the options in between are worse. Some end with us burning up and /then/ smashing into the planet, which as far as things go, sounds really shitty.

[long pause]

I know now how the earliest explorers must have felt, trying to circumnavigate the globe and running out of food, or having a mast destroyed by a storm. It's simply a sense of... waiting.

Waiting for the end.

-

Log Entry, Stardate 27991.133 [Sixty-two weeks since launch]

Louis has been walking us through this - thank God for him. He's still as stable as a rock, and can calm Dani and I down with a few words, though I don't know how he does it. Part of it is that he simply stays calm and doesn't try and glorify our deaths or gloss over it; he just... tells us everything, straight. He's talked to both of us about what is going to happen, let us know what we would probably feel, and gave us a few ways to deal with it. Even when he's not in his official role, though, he's warm and kind and... well, without him, I'm not sure any of us would still be alive, to tell you the truth.

...though sometimes I wonder if it makes a difference.

We still stand watch. Habit, I guess. A lifetime of training means that we go through the motions as if our mission will be successful. There's actually a checklist for just about anything to go wrong, except for this. I guess no one thought that this would be a possible failure state. If someone did, maybe we'd have some sort of checklist to go through.

Shut down the engines. Turn off the power, sector by sector. Turn off life support. Gather on the bridge. Say goodbye. Wait for the oxygen readings to fall. Pass out. Drift forever.

But there isn't, so instead, we obey the first law of motion.

-

Log Entry, Stardate 27998.494 [Sixty-six weeks since launch]

We're getting close to arriving - only two more weeks, and we'll be in range to get a visual lock. We haven't picked up too much so far on the E & M spectrum, though I don't know how careful we've been in sifting through the information that our scanners have been providing. The reports are still being sent out, at least. There's a moon, slightly smaller than ours, for what it's worth. Still a presence in their night sky and on their tides.

Regardless of whether anyone's doing it out of scientific interest or simple inertia, our impending arrival has caused us to be more active; Danielle's back to a version of her former self, instead of the shade the she has been for the last two weeks. Louis is as steady as ever. We'll see what this world holds, even if its secrets die with us.

-

Log Entry, Stardate 28000.000 [Sixty-eight weeks since launch]

Oh, my god — there's life down there, living, carbon-based life forms.

We're not alone in the universe.

-

Log Entry, Stardate 28000.010

I'm reminded of an old adage - if a tree falls in the forest but no one hears it, does it make a sound? A Earth-changing, ground-shattering scientific discovery is made, but no one, in this most bittersweet of moments, will ever know about it.

Discovered, only to be forgotten.

Nevertheless, there is life down there, on Alpha Centauri's sole planet, and the life not only exists but is flourishing. We are not the lonely stewards of this universe, my friends, and finding this planet means that we may very well live in a galaxy with many, many other intelligent species.

This particular species (we haven't named them yet) is advanced enough to use tools. They're in the late bronze age, it looks like, though the metal they are using may have little in common with what we had in our own Bronze Age. The differences, though, are minor in light of the indisputable fact that they are intelligent. They have formed societies, formed cities, and one day - by the time the next ship arrives, perhaps - they will have joined us in the stars.

And on that — it may fall upon us, Danielle noted to us earlier, to establish first contact.

First Contact.

Those words mean a lot to me, and, I suspect, to any who has ever thought about what it means. It is impossible to disconnect our thoughts as astronauts and as representatives of humanity from the science — and science fiction pieces — that inform us. The Prime Directive, primarily, has passed through my head perhaps hundreds of times since the first moment that we knew that there was life outside of our own.

And why should it not? These men and women have thought about the situations that we find ourselves in and have reasoned through these moments with no less information than we three envoys of the human race have today.

That said, though, I suspect that those showwriters and philosophers from centuries ago did not have the burden of knowing that their interactions could set the tone for a civilization's future, spanning an indeterminate amount of years.

This is momentous, and we must consider what we do very carefully.

-

Log Entry, Stardate 28010.132

God, I'm an idiot.

I started talking about the responsibilities that we had and the concerns that there were and everyone was nodding and then Louis raised a hand and then asked me a very simple question.

"How are we going to contact them if we don't survive the trip down to the surface?"

I'm an idiot, and this is all pointless.

-

Log Entry, Stardate 28015.188

We're currently holding orbit around the planet - We've called it Chiron, following the lead of a few authors of the past; it seems fitting as he was the first among centaurs.

We have been discussing a way to contact them, but time and time again we conclude that they are not yet ready for such contact, which would, in any way that it were accomplished, irrevocably change them. If only we could delay it until they are ready to receive such contact, but we will certainly not live so long, and even in the best of cases, there is not enough energy to keep the electronics going for so long, even if the regular asteroid showers did not knock us out of the sky.

And yet, in the blackest pit of despair, there is yet hope. This evening, I realized that there may be a way to complete this mission. Our fates — Louis, Danielle, and I — will be no different than they were before, but perhaps there is a chance that will not simply be a footnote in the annals of history.

But I can not make this decision alone; we will put it to a vote.

-

Log Entry, Stardate 28015.910

The vote succeeded. Once I explained what I intended, I saw that they would accept it, despite what it represents. We make our preparations now, and have started boosting already. It will take a few days for the orbit to become elliptical and to allow us to escape this world's pull.

We'll impact the moon in three days.

-

Log Entry, Stardate 28015.910

This will be my last entry.

I told Louis I loved him; he smiled at me and told me the same. We hold hands as I engage the thrusters, one last time.

Danielle had retreated to her room, but as our retrorockets fire and the collision warnings blare, she joins us in the command module.

I hold her hand, too, and together we watch as the moon grows larger and larger in the viewscreen.

-

Handwritten Laser Etched Entry on Metal Plates.

Preceding this entry are translations to the natively observed language. Following are plates of microscopic etches containing subsets of human history and knowledge.

Stardate 28018.750

To those that will read this, whether they are from Chiron, Earth, or the Infinite Worlds:

We come in peace from all mankind, and here we lay down our lives. We were a deep space exploration vehicle, the first of our kind, on a mission to gather information about another world. We suffered a mishap on our way and knew that we would not be able to complete our mission as originally intended. We chose, instead, to leave this record on the moon to be found by those who will come after.

If you are from Chiron, you will be reading this after you have achieved spaceflight. Congratulations on joining us in the stars — we hope only that your path to the heavens was easier than ours. As a gift from our civilization to yours, our history and knowledge is written on the plates that follow. We welcome you again, brothers and sisters, and we hope to soon meet you in person; our only regret was that it is cold metal that teaches you of us for the first time.

If you are from Earth, we hope that you will see that we had few choices, and we chose the one that we thought was right. The black box recording will tell you what happened; our only suggestion is that you make use of this knowledge for future exploratory missions. Beyond that, if you are discovering this before the Chirons do, you have the power to erase our choices. We hope you will not.

And if you are from the Infinite Worlds - we are humanity, and we will be taking our place among you shortly. Look forward to our arrival.
talonkarrde: (color)
You've heard this story before, I'll wager, or seen this movie. At least, you've likely heard something like it, because most stories are really this one — one person meets another, they form a connection, have a relationship, are happy for awhile. And then it all goes up in flames.

Or, if you want to be very stereotypical, boy meets girl, boy loses girl

It's about love and it's about loss, and like I said, you've probably heard this story before. It's not about a hero's journey, and it's not a morality tale. It's simply a story about what happens when you're a specific type of person, and you meet someone who's another type of person, and what happens when you were together is something that you're not able to let go of, ever.

-

It starts in media res, as our protagonist steps inside a complicated machine, whispers something under his breath — a line from a poem — and pulls the lever.

Nothing happens.

Then he steps out, looks around, and asks someone in the lab what his address is. This is not, apparently, a curious request, and the answer is exactly what he's expected:

1125 Larch Court.

It's wrong, of course, because he lives at another address completely, but it means the experiment was a success.

You see, he's traveled between worlds.

Cue flashbacks.

-

Twenty years ago — high school.

Our protagonist is a boy, and he sits in biology class, in the second row. His head slowly nods forward as he listens to the teacher droning, and a few seconds later, he falls asleep, only to be jerked awake by the teacher slamming a hand down on his desk.

The boy is smart, which doesn't count for particularly much at this point in life, but it allows him to coast through most of his classes. He continues coasting and being something of an outcast through all four years, until college... where he goes to a state school and coasts some more like the unmotivated person he is.

But at some point in time, something changes in him, a very specific something, and he turns into someone who is not only motivated but driven. How do you go from being an average student in high school to having two doctorates when you're thirty, and being the foremost expert on theoretical physics?

More often than not, it's because you've lost something very dear to you, and you'll do anything to get it back.

Flash forward.

-

It's college, and he sleeps through most of his morning classes, and attends fifty percent of his afternoon ones, if that. He works in the computer lab at school, which is a relatively boring job. He's a bit older, a bit more sarcastic, but otherwise the exact same person he was in high school. A collage of his life doesn't need to play for you to recognize that it's the same old underachieving kid wasting his potential.

And then, of course, he starts talking to a girl. It doesn't matter to describe the girl, dear reader, just as I haven't described the guy, because there's no need to. Everything is interchangeable, and all the details are just that, details. The only thing that matters is that these two fit each other — when he wraps his arms around her and look in the mirror, or when they curl up in bed together, there's a distinct sense that they fit, as objects more complex than puzzle pieces rarely do.

Flash forward.

-


He loses her.


-

He graduates at the top of his Master's class in only a year, does some very advanced research, and pushes the envelope of science forward, in more than just the pimple-sized expansion that most Ph.D. students end up doing with their thesis. He publishes in multiple journals on theoretical physics, submits experiments for consideration to be performed by the LHC, and has not one, but two doctorates by the time he's thirty, as mentioned

And then, theory complete, he turns to practice. He starts building the machine that he will step through at the beginning of this story. He finances it with money earned from patents and papers, and wholly devotes himself to this project, which, if it works, will completely transform humanity's understanding and knowledge of the world.

A year later, the machine is finished. He sells his apartment, gives away the furniture on craiglist, and puts all of his belongings in a single moving box, which he then throws out. 

Flash forward.

-

And here, now, we're at the second most important of his life. Now, here, everything matters to him, because it's the moment he lives through again, and again, and again.

But this is the first time.

It's right before dusk and he stands on the doorway of an old colonial home, with an old but well-maintained Toyota Camry in the driveway. It's just finished raining, and so the air smells new, which he finds appropriate for the occasion. He raises a hand to knock, and his new suit pulls back from the wrist, revealing a navy-blue collared shirt underneath. He knocks once, twice, three times, and then rings the doorbell which chimes three times, also, a low-medium-high tone.

He waits five seconds, and then, as he raises his finger to the doorbell again, hears footsteps coming down the stairs. The door unlocks, and opens, and there she is.

They stay there, like that, for a long time, as night falls. They talk in gestures, in glances, in thoughts, but neither one breaks the silence... until the choice is taken out of their hands.

From behind her, a baby starts crying.

-

He remembers that first time vividly, the following times less so. Tries blur, as the Toyota changes into a Mercedes into a motorcycle, as the colonial becomes victorian becomes an apartment. Sometimes, it's raining, or snowing when he visits, sometimes there's a fog so thick that he approaches the wrong door at first

Each time, though, the answer is constant; the answer is negative.

So he keeps jumping through his machine, sometimes tirelessly recreating it when science didn't go the way it did from the world he came from. He keeps tweaking a formula that he keeps in his head to figure out which variables need to be changed to jump closer to the world where their split didn't happen

At first, he tries to keep the rest of the world constant, but eventually stops caring, until he jumps into worlds that are not even close to his own, into worlds that he wouldn't recognize otherwise. But he always recognizes her.

And her answer is always the same.

-

He tells someone, only once, in one world, a friend of his from a long time ago, in a form that is foreign to him but yet undeniably the person he knew. She's smart enough — perceptive enough — not to ask him why he doesn't jump to a completely foreign world, which he surely knows how to do. She asks, instead, why he doesn't go back, earlier, to before they stood outside in a parking lot and bid their goodbyes for the last time it was meaningful. And frustrated, impatient, he tells her that it's not possible to do that, or why the hell wouldn't he have done so already? He can only travel across worlds, not forward or back.

He doesn't tell anyone else after that.

-

One of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. But for him, it's worth it, because there is a chance, he believes, no matter how infitesimal, that there is a world closer to where it worked out. Closer to, in his mind, the center of things, where everyone is happier, if there is such a center. And so he keeps jumping, keeps trying, even though each world is exactly like the last in the only way that matters: losing her.

-

'Why' is the question to be asked, here at the end. What causes someone to love so deeply, so much, for it to become obsession, or is love itself simply an obsession? Why doesn't he just give up, or kill himself, or find someone else? Why doesn't he just give up?

-

There are two types of people in the world, he would say.

Those who are alone
and those who aren't.

To stay in the ignorance of the first is understandable,
and to be in the paradise of the second is preferable.
and to have been complete, but no longer be — hell.

So he keeps jumping, because he believes in heaven.
talonkarrde: (color)
The backstory: )


She found me there by the edge of the Kraken Mare, the liquid methane sloshing gently on the icy shore.

I had been staring out at the endless expanse, completely still, a statue in the pre-dawn darkness of Titan — not that it ever got lighter, even when Saturn wasn’t blocking the sun. I had my reasons for wanting to be alone, though I suppose she had her reasons for coming to find me.

I saw her on the suit display first, her little dot moving closer and closer to my dot, though I didn’t acknowledge her. I was hoping that she was doing some other research, or was just picking up a probe, or would just take the hint and go away. Mainly, I was hoping she wouldn’t ask me why I was here; she had always read me like an open book and I had been trying to avoid her.

No such luck.

“Clark?” she asked, once she took up a spot alongside me.

I went through a couple of responses in my head, some sarcastic, some heartfelt — some both — and then rejected them all, settling on a default, neutral, completely-ignoring-the-tone-of-her-voice response.

“I never really got used to the way the oceans here felt.” I said. “Probably because of the way that the methane rolls, it just doesn’t give me the same atmosphere. Plus there’s no sun beating down, just a distant globe of light that you don’t even need to shade your eyes to look at. It’s almost as small as the satellite.”

Silence for a moment, and then as usual, she cut right through all of the smoke.

“Look, Clark, you’ve been working here for five years now, and I’ve never seen you as depressed as you were these last couple of weeks. Is it the theft of supplies? Is it the meteorite problem? You’re ignoring your projects, you’re ignoring the other people on the team, you’re even ignoring — a lot of things, you know. It’s not like you, and I want to know why.”

I said nothing.

“What did I do, Clark? Why are you ignoring me?” she asked, plaintively.

“It’s not you! It was never you, you never did anything wrong. You were — are — one of the brightest parts of my life here, but—”

“Come on, Clark,” she said, and then took a step closer. “I always knew when things were bugging you, and the last time — when they stopped funding the research, last May, remember? We pulled through it together, looked for other funding with each other, wrote essays fighting for it together. I was there for you, supported everything you did as leader, didn’t I? And you were there for me, when I needed it. So stop trying to do it all by yourself, and let me in, please?”

She always knew the right thing to say, the one line that would break down all my defenses. And maybe, I was hoping for it a little, hoping that I wouldn’t have to bear the burden all by myself.

“They’re withdrawing funding—” I started, and waved her down before she could make the argument. “— to everything. Not just the scientific experiments, but the whole base. It’s not up to Horizon’s profit standards, partially because of the advances in terraforming they’ve been making on Mars lately. They don’t need much of the ice that we send them. Earth doesn’t need the silica from the core mines. The investment is now a net loss, and Horizon doesn’t want to send rockets here anymore, or do any sort of upkeep.”

“So they’re going to…” I could almost see the gears turning as she puzzled it out. “Titan’s mostly self-sufficient, though. What could they possibly do that would hurt us? We could just go off without them, forever. This is depressing, but not something that you would lose sleep over. So what’s the real problem?”

“NASA — twenty years ago, when this was first launched — promised that they would fund half of the investment. Because of the high danger, though, Horizon didn’t want to commit, and so the administration at the time, which strongly pushed for exploration, had NASA sneak in a clause into the contract that it would pay Horizon all of the money back in the case of catastrophic failure.”

At this point, I think, the puppet strings began to make themselves visible; she looked up, for a second, and then pointed at the satellite, wordlessly.

“Yup. The problem that we’ll have shortly is the satellite not getting any telemetry data, which means it’s going to let all the meteorites through. There’s a fierce wave in the next day or so, actually, which will crash through all of the structures we have up. And, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate, it turns out that where the base is located is one of the most popular places for meteorites to land; Horizon couldn’t have picked a better place…”

“…to be able to ‘accidentally’ wipe out the base.” She completed, looking horrified.

“And then merrily cash in their insurance payout and call it a day, yes.” I said, looking up at twinkling satellite. “They offered me a deal, that if I kept my mouth shut, I’d get a nice cut of the money — and more importantly, a permanent station back on Earth, in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado. A house, a job, everything I could want, and I’d never have to see this frozen hell again. It was a nice offer,” I said quietly.

“But?” she asked, coming over now to take my hand.

“But there were ten people out there whose lives have depended on me for these last few years that I couldn’t possibly let die. There was a sneaking suspicion in me that those who know too much don’t live very long. And there was a wonderful woman who I could never look in the eye again if I took the deal.” I finished, looking down, and away.

“So you told me — but why now?” she asked.

“Because the final preparations are complete. There’s an emergency dome set up, and it won’t be comfortable, but it will fit everyone until the rescue shuttle arrives. The power’s set up, and there are enough rations that we will live comfortably. No exercise equipment, though.”

“So that’s where the supplies have gone,” she said, shaking her head. “I wondered why you seemed less concerned about it than you should’ve been, but I just thought that it was due to the depression. Now I see—”

“I needed a lot of time alone to set everything up correctly, and I wanted to do it in a way that Horizon wouldn’t pick up from the camera. Still, though, I want to warn you that with the satellite not providing the defense net, the dome still might be punctured — we still might die.” And it was true, I knew; even though I had set it under an outcropping with a lot of protection, there was no guarantee we’d make it the six weeks before rescue.

“Even so,” she said, touching her helmet to mine. “I would rather take my chances with you, for as long as we could, than give up.”

I hug her, there, and whisper a promise that’s only meant for her ears; she smiles.

“Next time, though, you better tell me before everything’s set up, so I feel a bit less like a damsel in distress; I’m as capable as you were and could’ve helped, you know. But lead on, sir knight.”

And hand in hand, we head out to the hidden dome, as the first of the meteors starts to fall overhead.

Leaves

Dec. 27th, 2010 08:54 am
talonkarrde: (color)
For Siyi

---

A picture of a post-apocalyptic library, with books still on shelves but trees growing through the floor

He was finally starting to think of the library as his, as a place of sanctuary and refuge, when she appeared, sitting there as if she owned the place.

It was a day like any other; a long ride around two in the afternoon to twenty-seventh street, a diversion into an alley to hide his trusty one-speed titanium-alloy blue Schwinn — his most treasured possession — and finally, a short crawl through a break in the wall to enter the structure (it wasn’t really a building anymore, per se, what with not having a roof) itself.

Though his mother complained about the hour long ride into the ruins of New York, the library being so far away from the camp meant that no one but roving stragglers would be in the area. It meant security and safety, a place to hide when things were bad at home, and because of that, he was always very careful when he made the journey. He watched for shadows that weren’t his and took a more roundabout path when he even had the slightest suspicion that anyone might be following, and it had worked so far. The few times he had seen figures in the distance, whether following him or not, he made sure to lose them before sneaking into the library, trusting that the locked, barred, and rusted metal doors would hold, and that no one would be able to find his secret entrance.

And the library had always stood against intruders, even that one time when it seemed like the biker gang knew he was inside, and tried to force the doors open. He had curled up under a table, shivering, his eyes flitting from the door and his secret entrance, wondering what he’d do if they came through either. In the end, though, they gave up and he resolved to be twice as careful, and nothing like that ever happened again.

But for all his plans of secondary routes and hidden alleyways and loopbacks, he had never thought about what would happen if someone had found the sanctuary and was waiting for him inside. Certainly, he had never even come close to formulating a plan for anything like her: a girl who looked about about his age, blond hair in a ponytail, calmly sitting there with a book in her hands, reading as if this were before everything fell apart.

So he stared.

After a few moments, she looked up at him and smiled.

“Oh, so this place belongs to more than just the trees.” She patted the trunk of the one next to her, the one that had sprouted right in the middle of the library floor and climbed all the way to the ceiling, where its canopy filled in some of where the roof used to be.

“Wha-where-how’d you—” he sputtered, gesturing behind him and around him, coming up short for words. Her voice was musical and teasing and something else he wasn’t quite sure he could put a finger on. Happy, he realized later, something that hadn’t been familiar to him lately.

“The same way you came through, of course. The doors certainly weren’t going to open, and even if they were, that wouldn’t be a good idea, now would it? And I’m even smaller than you, and so I fit through just fine, and you didn’t even notice that someone had moved the bush and—” And then she suddenly realized that she was talking a bit too quickly, speaking without thinking about what she was saying, that somehow, she had started babbling. To a complete stranger, no less.

Her teeth clicked together as she stopped mid-sentence, waiting for him to respond, suddenly less confident than she had been. And still he stood there, still surprised, and she noticed, still staring.

“Um. I hope you don’t mind that I started in on your collection,” she said, lifting the book and showing him the cover. A story by Robin Hobb, one of the ones he had read. A very good book, actually, and he wondered if she had picked it by chance.

“No, that’s fine- I mean- it’s not like it’s—” And then he fell silent as well, trying to figure out what to do. She wasn’t here to use the books as firewood, certainly; it didn’t look like she was here to rob him, either. As for what she was here for...well, there was only one way to find out, wasn’t there?

“Did you like it?” He asked.

#


The next few weeks were much like the ones before, except that from two to five in the afternoon, the two of them would meet and read, and most of all, talk. They talked about their lives, their hobbies, and their favorite authors and books, and there was something in the ease of their bickering, their teasing, their flirting, and their talking. Back when the world had six billion people, these two finding each other would’ve been special; the fact that they existed in the three million people that were left — and met each other — was a miracle.

Or maybe, as the stories told, it was fate.

#


As he pedaled to the library two weeks later, he looked down at the basket in front of him, at the carnations inside. It was a gesture from before the cities fell, when flowers were rare enough that there were specialized stores that sold them. Nowadays they were everywhere, mixed with the weeds, and much of the meaning had been forgotten. Even so, he knew that she’d appreciate them, and rose early to get his scavenging shift done with enough time to pick the flowers for her.

She was waiting for him when he arrived, wearing the aviator shades he had found a week ago, another book in her lap; it was almost a deja vu of their first meeting, though this time, she was sitting on a rock in the alley outside. She looked up and waved as he pulled up.

“Hey,” she said softly, closing the book she was holding. Robin Hobb, again.

“Hey - waiting for me to go in? You didn’t have to, it’s not locked,” he said, smiling, as he leaned the bike against the wall.

“No, not...quite,” she said, looking up at him as he came over but not meeting his eyes, not matching his smile.

A guy leaning over a girl, a bike in the background.

“What is it, then?” he asked, hearing something in her tone of voice. He stopped in front of her, flowers forgotten, and then, reached out, slowly, to take the glasses off.

Her eyes were red and the tear tracks were obvious.

“I- I have to go. My parents, they’re...leaving, they’re taking the car and looking to head out to the West, see if there are bigger pockets of civilization left. They told me that we’re leaving at the end of today and that we’ve already been here longer than we should have, and that if I needed to say goodbye, I should do it now. We’ll be back in a year, they said.”

And like when they met, all he could do is stare until she broke him out of it.

“So, I was hoping...” she started, lifting the book in her lap weakly. “That you could part with some of your books, so that I could take them with me, and read them on the way, and...” so I’ll never forget, she doesn’t quite say.

“And then you can bring them back to me, and we’ll talk about them, right?” It was, they both knew, more a wish than a statement, but it was the best he could do. He tried to smile, and mostly succeeded. “Take anything you want, but promise me that you’ll be back within a year — otherwise, I’ll have to start charging overdue fines!”

She nodded, glad that he was playing along, and took his hand, leading him to the secret entrance. She walked into the library with him one last time, taking a few books here and there — a book of short stories, a history book, a love story — and finally came back out, ending up where they started.

“A year,” he said to her, taking her hands and putting a carnation in them. “I’ll see you here, inside the library, next year, okay? I’ll be here every day between now and then, in case you decide to come back early, if you’ve finished all of them.”

She nodded slowly, staring at him, trying to memorize every last detail before she left. And then she did leave, backpack over her shoulder, flower in her hair, and he turned to go back into the library, to find a very specific book — a calendar. Every day, he would draw a mark through the day on the calendar, counting down until she’d come back.

And every day, he would look forward to the afternoon he’d find her sitting there again, a new book in her hands, waiting for him to show up.
talonkarrde: (Default)
It's been ten years since I first heard about the procedure that would give me eternal life.

When I was young, there was a period of my life where I could do anything presented to me. Any sport, any physical activity, any challenge. I skiied down mountains and hiked up them, I rollerbladed and ice skated, I ran marathons monthly, and never felt like anything was beyond me; even if I wasn't Olympic-level, I could do it, and be good at it.

Mentally, I drank from the fountain of knowledge as if it were a firehose. I learned facts and figures and algorithms and troubleshooting, and I solved puzzles and expanded the boundaries of human knowledge and worked hard, climbing the ranks through talent and talent alone. I was alive, I was learning, and I was going to be somebody.

Most of all, I was young.

After my youth, I traded in sharpness for maturity — I had a face that people respected, a voice that was commanding, and the experience to solve problems with subtlety instead of the brute force of youth. I made clever decisions that saved wasted effort, I suggested good courses of action which were adopted, and I was respected for my position in life, for the judgment that I held, for the family I had raised.

I was happy and successful, and had achieved my dreams.

But even with all my successes, I never did find a way to escape the cruelty of time, until the twilight of my life. I was seventy when the news came of the triumph of medicine over biology, and I was already beginning to feel the fingers of the reaper, reaching from the other side. I had gone in for routine checkups where the doctors who used to greet me so cheerfully now looked at me with careful, measured expressions, where they spoke about potential issues and probable diseases.

Once upon a time, the world was mine for the taking; now I was forced to ever smaller pieces of it.

But then the breakthrough, the successful tests, the clinical trials that proved that there were effective ways to overcome time, and age, and death. In the same month, two complementary studies were completed, and the world would never be the same again. Clinical trials of a process that differentiated embryonic stem-cells correctly proved that it was possible to regrow entire organs, so that no one would ever need another donor; a specific advance in telomerase-therapy proved that it was possible to reverse the effects of aging, by preserving DNA chains across millions of replications.

The old could become young again, the news said, and for once, there was no exaggeration in their words.

I signed up for the treatment, right away, and was lucky enough to be in the first group that would get to experience the fountain of youth. And then we waited, for a week, a month, a year, and then more, as the scientists, doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians, pharmaceuticals, and religious figures tried to figure out whether it was permissible to free humanity from the bondage of death. Every major figure from Aristotle to Stephen Hawking was quoted, discussed, debated endlessly, while I and many others waited to be told if we could live.

Ten years, we waited.

Think about that for a moment. Ten years, three-thousand-six-hundred-fifty-plus days, with each year worse than the last. It's ten years of growing weak, of watching hair fall out, fingernails crack and skin become almost loose enough to slough off. It's ten years of having more and more pains which can't be helped, of having bones that might shatter if were not absolutely careful, of simply feeling wrong inside as systems start failing.

And then it was put to a vote; a vote where every single human being would be given a chance to decide an issue that affected every single one of them.

We voted, overwhelmingly, that the generation before us would be the last to die, and ours the first to live forever, and the treatments were prepared.

When I went in to receive it, there was no fanfare, no news coverage; we already knew it worked, and the systems were being put in place for widespread distribution. I sat down in the doctor’s office, received a shot from a needle, and went home; the doctor said, calmly, with tears in her eyes, that it would take a few days for the effects to become apparent.

On the first day after the treatment, there was no difference at all; on the second, I felt a bit lighter, on the third, I realized that my skin was starting to tighten back up. By the end of the first week, I was able to walk to the end of the street without losing my breath, and by the end of the first month, I remembered what it was like to be strong, to be alive.

And then, as the elixir of life was given to everyone, as the doctors reported a greater than ninety-five percent administration rate, only then did we look past the immediate future. We had conquered death — but only from natural causes. Would we fight each other? Would we expand to the stars? What would humanity become, now that we had all of eternity to become anything we desired?

Once upon a time, the world was mine for the taking. Now that it was mine, what was I to do?

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