NaNo: Chapter 16

Chapter 16: Reesh Calls for Help

I wonder if the momentum of this vehicle is putting a strain on my body, Reesh though, looking out the window as the driverless vehicle raced down the road.

Empty, dry, and desolate land flanked either side, but the road itself was in perfect condition, as though freshly laid.

I suppose the lack of use helps. That, and the maintenance bots.

The city was far behind, as was the reach of the nearest link tower. Reesh pulled out the handheld and clicked it, to double check that the satellite relay was still operative. In a small box on the ground, Reesh knew, was a collection of emergency bots- called pigeons- which could be sent out as a form of automated SOS, should the need arise.

Sitting in the vehicle, watching the countless acres race past, Reesh felt, more than anything, a profound sense of annoyance.

We spent years developing a modern communication network. We lifted our people out of the perils of need with automated distribution. We freed them from the tyranny of capitalism, of exploitation. Why do these backward imbeciles resent us for it?  Why do they reject our friendship and cooperation? Most of all, why in the world do they insist on meeting in mass, despite the great distance between us?

This was Reesh’s second time visiting their neighbor to the west, a small constellation of villages organized loosely around a capital city called Bastion. ‘City’ was an ambitious label; Reesh thought it likely that more people lived in a single residential building in their city than lived within the retrograde confines of Bastion.

Reesh leaned forward as the vehicle dropped speed. Ahead, primitive buildings, few over two floors in height, appeared on the horizon.

Welcome to Backwards, Reesh thought, wryly, the last bastion of resistance to the future.

As the vehicle continued into town and slowed in front of the small domed building in its center, Reesh tried to take it all in, to look for changes, new construction, any indication at all, really, of progress. There was none.

Three people stood in front of the erstwhile city hall, the one in the center wearing more striking garb than the others. They looked like actors from a period piece: denim pants, shirts sewn from cotton fibers, and no shoes.

The vehicle stopped, and Reesh alighted.

“One of you is Kiley?”

“I am,” said the person in the center. “And you must be Reesh. Welcome to Bastion.”

“I would have recognized you, had you consented to a single link comm before our meeting.”

Kiley smiled. “We aren’t too keen on your link systems, as you probably know.”

“Yes, well, that’s why I’m here.  You’re barefoot?”

“I wouldn’t want to disabuse you of your belief that we are ignorant hillbillies,” said Kiley.

Reesh grunted. “Well, shall we get to it?”

“Yes, I thought we would have supper together, talk over the details.  Oh, let me introduce you: this is Vri, who is in charge of our mining, and Aioe, who runs our treasury.”

Reesh nodded to each of them. “Right, you are on a money system. Fascinating.”

The Bastions exchanged glances. “You can study our quaint economic system some other time,” said Kiley, “Right now, I’m hungry. Shall we?”

Reesh followed Kiley inside, the others bringing up the rear. The city hall was really nothing note than a single large room, and in its center, a long wooden table had been set with eating utensils, glasses, and a pitcher. Kiley gestured to one of the seats, and Reesh sat, the others quickly following suit.

“We are having chicken and herb rice, hope that suits,” said Kiley.

“That sounds lovely, though I am most impatient to discuss a potential trade.”

Kiley frowned. “We can talk while we eat.  I’ll grab us the food.”

As Kiley walked off, Reesh turned their attention to the other two hosts, trying to make polite eye contact.  They studiously looked in another direction. Strange, Reesh thought, are they afraid of me?

Unoiled cart wheels squealed as Kiley returned, pushing a serving tray with several large dishes on them.  Plates were handed out, and the large steaming platters were set down on the table.

“Here we are, let’s dig in,” said Kiley, lifting a ladle and heaping fragrant, sticky rice onto a plate.  

“So as you may know from my, er, correspondence,” said Reesh, “we have a particular need for titanium, which I understand is abundant in your, uh, territory.”

Kiley had speared a large piece of chicken breast with a fork, and was holding it aloft, taking bites from it as Reesh spoke.

“Yes, well, that is something we have in abundance.  We could mine more, but since we don’t need more, most of the old miners are doing different jobs.  Earning a living, you see, not something I’d imagine you can relate to.”

“Ah, yes, the virtues of needless toil.  I’m not sure how I could have forgotten,” said Reesh, smiling.  

The three hosts exchanged glances.  

“Since you have no money,” Aioe spoke up, “how will you pay us for the goods?”

Reesh shifted positions to face Aioe.  “We have valuable goods to trade, which is worth more to you than money.  Goods you can’t get here. Things that could make things easier, more manageable.”

“Ah, yes,” said Kiley, “the savior from the East bestows its great wonders upon us!  They will never stop asking, we will never stop refusing, and yet they persist!”

“Do all your people feel this way?” Reesh asked, directing the question to Aioe and Vri.

Both nodded, sheepishly.

Reesh thought for a moment.  “Well, then, perhaps there are things that are already used in your society which we could provide in greater numbers, if not quality.  Then we could work out a trade: we ship you something you need more of, and you ship us the titanium ore.”

Kiley looked at Aioe, who leaned in, and they exchanged whispers.

“There is nothing that we need so badly that we cannot easily produce.  I’m afraid that it doesn’t appear you have anything to offer us,” Kiley said.

“Food, then,” said Reesh.  “Surely, you don’t object to food?  We have a great surplus, and the capacity to send sufficient supplies to feed your entire populace!  You wouldn’t need to labor for your bread. And I know, you put stock in hard work, but those people can be used for other work, and new projects.  Or old projects. Whatever you like. They just won’t have to worry about keeping the people fed.”

Aioe started to lean to Kiley, as though to whisper, but Kiley raised a hand, brushing them off.

“I see you understand us very little, Reesh.  We have no desire or need for your synthetically-created food.  The people who grow our crops and raise our livestock aren’t looking for some demonstration of divine providence to save them from their jobs; it’s what they do, it’s what they learned to do, it’s what they like to do.  The arrogance of your people, forever coming to us and promising us some futuristic paradise where machines control everything, it’s exhausting.”

“We just hate seeing people suffer,” said Reesh, quietly.

Kiley laughed.  “Can’t you see, we aren’t suffering!  We are happy with our lives, and while we are always facing and overcoming challenges, we don’t need or want what you have.  You don’t like seeing people suffer: we don’t like seeing people wasted. And that’s what your people are, Reesh, they’re wasted, wasted in a world where their actions are unnecessary, their presence is a burden, and their existence is meaningless.”

Reesh bristled.  “So you think the only thing that gives your lives meaning is the toil, the work?  That’s not just misguided, it’s downright ludicrous!”

Kiley pointed to Aioe and Vri.  “Mark that, see how they insult us even when they’re coming to us for help.  And that’s what you’re doing, isn’t it? Coming to us for help. But you can’t bear to do it, so instead you make us an offer we don’t want, aimed at changing us into something closer to what you are.  This is why we don’t use the link, why we won’t participate in your strange technologies. We don’t want to be like you.”

Kiley sat back, and Aioe and Vri crossed their arms.

“I didn’t mean to insult you,” Reesh said.  “And you’re right, I am asking for help. We need titanium.  I’ve come to ask for some. If there is a reasonable price you can think of, something we have that we can give you, I’d be happy to pay it in return.  But at the end of the day, yes, I’m asking. I need your help.”

Kiley turned to look at Aioe, who only shrugged; Kiley then set down the silverware and turned back to Reesh.  

“Well, now, that’s a different thing entirely.   As it happens, we do have a bounty of titanium, and we would be glad to share some of it with you.  And as we sit here talking, I did think of something you can send to us in return, something I’m sure you can easily make.”

“Name it,” said Reesh.

“Combustion engines.”

Reesh started.  “Well, we did use to make those, but you know we haven’t in a very long time.  They’re terribly inefficient, and bad for the air and water quality.”

“They’re still in wide use here, so if you can make us some, we’d see that as a very neighborly gesture, what with us sending you titanium.”

What an interesting little snake, Reesh thought.  He doesn’t need those, he’s just asking for something he thinks it will hurt us to produce.

And yet, it won’t do us any real harm, not in the numbers they could possibly need.

“Fine,” said Reesh. “We can retool some factories immediately upon my return.  How many would you like us to send?”

“How much titanium you reckon you’ll be needing?”

“Up to 200,000 tons per month,” said Reesh.

Kiley turned to Vri.  “Do you think we can manage that?”

“We can probably do half that, and if you give me a few months I can get you most of the way to 200,” said Vri.  “But it’ll take putting some more workers in place.”

“2,000 motors per month,” said Kiley.  “One for every hundred tons we send you.”

“Deal,” said Reesh.  “How would you like us to handle the pickup logistics?”

“Depends,” Kiley said, “how do you plan to do the picking up?”

Reesh frowned.  “What do you mean?”

“Are you sending people, or machines?”

“Bots.  We call machines bots.”

“Uh uh.  Not gonna happen.  You can’t send any machines into our area, for any purpose.”

“I can’t send people,” Reesh said.  “That’s just not how it works there.”

Kiley scooted their chair away from the table, and huddled with Vri and Aioe.  They whispered for a few seconds.

“Okay,” said Kiley.  “I was sorely tempted to say you needed people to pick it up, but my colleagues have proposed something more…diplomatic.  You recall the road you came here on?”

“Yes.” Reesh hadn’t been paying any attention to the road during the drive.

“Well, about two and a half miles up that way, is the line to what we consider our city border.  We’ll mark it, and leave the ore there. You can pick it up from there however you like. And the motors, you’ll put them there, too, when you come for the pick up.”

“I think that sounds more than fair,” said Reesh.

“Then we have a deal?”

“We do.”  

Kiley stood up, leaned across the table, and extended a hand to Reesh.  Remembering the custom, Reesh shook it.

“Glad we could help you out,” said Kiley, smiling.  

(1966 words)

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Published in: on November 18, 2018 at 12:37 am  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Chapter 15

Chapter 15: Vair Takes the Helm

Carem, motivated as much by muscle memory as by cognition, opened their eyes only a fraction of an inch against the blinding light of the plane.

“What’s the matter, Carem, your face muscles broken?”

Carem grimaced and sat up.  “Okay, Vair, two things: first, no, you don’t get to do that.  Just because Chein is letting you sit in the big-boy chair today doesn’t mean you get to participate in our banter.  That’s mine and Chein’s, and not yours, you understand?”

“What’s the second thing?” Vair said.

“That’s not even very funny.  If you’re gonna pull an asshole move like that, at least be funnier.”

“Okay, noted.  I guess we can skip the preliminaries: you seem to know who you are and who I am.”

“Deviating from the script on your very first run.  Be careful, that rebellious streak won’t go over too well with Chein.”

“I thought you said no witty banter?” said Vair.

“For you.  I can still do it.”

Vair sighed.  “Okay, well, let’s get this thing over with.  Can you describe what you’re seeing?”

“Yeah,” said Carem.  “I see a basic room, eight by ten or so…Vair, if you put an invisible wall of any kind in this place, you will tell me about it right now, or so help me-”

“This isn’t a fourth wall chapter, Carem, calm yourself.”

Carem and Vair both turned to look at the reader awkwardly, and then resumed.

“Okay, so, in the room, I see a basic control panel, the manual input type.  Looks like an old-fashioned keyboard and mouse.”

“Perfect,” said Vair.  “So I’ve programmed it to run a very basic sim, just another bare room, so I need you to power the thing on and wait for it to initiate.”

“You programmed this? I find that highly unlikely.”

Vair blushed.  “Well, I helped.  It was mostly Chein, though.”

“Thought so,” Carem muttered.

“What was that?  Turn up the light?”

“Don’t you even dare,” said Carem.

Vair didn’t.

“Okay, so the thing is powering up.  Is it going to happen automatically?”

“No, it will prompt you when it’s ready.  After that, you just push the execute button, and in you’ll go.”

“So is this a self-aware insertion, or what?”

“Honestly, we have no idea,” said Vair.  “You’ll be the first one to try it. You might be fully aware, you might go insane, you might get stuck, or you might just die.  Think of it more as a human guinea pig insertion, if you need to classify it.”

“Chein is a bad influence on you,” said Carem.  “Okay, looks like it’s ready.”

“Okay, so go ahead an initiate.  I’ve programmed it- I mean, Chein programmed it- to only last about ten minutes, and after that you should automatically extract.  Try to communicate with me if you can, though we don’t think we’ll have a connection.”

“If I die, scatter my ashes in Chein’s coffee,” Carem said.

“Don’t worry,” said Vair, “if you die, there won’t be anything left of you to incinerate.”

Carem pushed the button.  Vair heard nothing but silence.

“Carem, can you hear me?”

No response.  A few seconds passed.

“Carem?  Hello?”

Nothing.

Oh no, Vair thought, what if he never comes back?  How am I going to explain this to Chein?  My first time running a plane, and we lose one of our best sim techs?  I’ll be finished in this job. They’ll kick me out of here to something worse.  

Vair’s pulse was racing.

“Hello, Carem?  Please answer.”

Only silence answered.

Maybe they’ll bring me up on charges!  Maybe I missed a step, something I was supposed to do, something I should have known to do!  Could I get a punitive assignment for this? I don’t want to do hard labor! And the conditions…no, he has to come back!

“Carem!!  Answer me, dammit!”

Still no response.  

Pulse racing, Vair decided to reach out for help.  With sweaty palms and nervous fingers, they dialed a link.  

In moments, Wyndos’ face appeared.

“Vair!  It is nice to hear from you.”

“Uh, thanks….I need help, Wyndos.”

“Tell me what has happened,” Wyndos said, patiently.

Vair spoke quickly.  “So, it’s my first day running the board in sim tech.  That’s what we call it when you’re the one programming and controlling the plane, and-”

“Yes,” said Wyndos, “I know what it means to run the board.”

“Okay, good.  So, we’re doing these experimental planes, and I worked with Chein on the programming.  Honestly, it was mostly Chein, but I helped some! And then Chein had something else going on today and let me run things.  And I’m working with Carem, you know, the tech guy with the attitude, and he goes in for the first plane, and everything’s fine, and then he goes into the plane-within-a-plane, and poof!  He’s gone! And I don’t know if he’s coming back, and it’s been fifteen minutes, and…I’m scared!”

“Take a deep breath, Vair.  I can’t help you if you don’t speak more slowly.  Now, you mentioned a ‘plane-within-a-plane.’ Can you tell me what you mean by that?”

Vair paused.  “I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say.”

“Be at your ease,” Wyndos said, “I have sufficient clearance to hear this.  Here, I’ll post the details on your screen.”

Vair looked at the new information, and almost gasped.  “Oh wow, yeah, you can hear this. You can hear almost anything!  How did you-”

“The ‘plane-within-a-plane,’ please?”

“Right!  So, we’re testing a new system that involves putting a sim within a plane, so in other words, you can be in a plane, and then enter another plane on top of that.  So we call it a ‘plane-within-a-plane’ because it’s kinda meta.”

“Meta-plane would be a more concise name,” Wyndos observed.

Vair laughed nervously.  “Yeah, I guess it would be.”

“I am surprised they would put a new trainee on such an important and highly-technical assignment,” said Wyndos.

“Well,” Vair said, “it’s probably not a very important assignment. We have a lot of work on experimental stuff that doesn’t lead anywhere. I’m just worried about Carem. Setting aside whether or not it’s my fault…I just want Carem back safely.”

“It is early yet, Vair. And with any luck, Carem will return shortly. There is nothing more you can do now, so I’d encourage you to remain calm.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“However, and this is quite important, you need to steer clear of the meta-plane research.”

“What?”

“Just as I said. This research would be best handled by others.”

“You know about what I’m working on?”

Wyndos was silent a moment. “All I am saying is that you need to stay away from this line of inquiry. Do you understand?”

I understand that I may never know who you really are, or how you know the things you know.

“I understand. But can you at least tell me-“

An incoming link flashed.

“-oh!  It’s Carem!  I gotta go!”

“Good luck, Vair.  Don’t forget what I told you.”

Vair prompted the screen switch and opened the link with Carem.

“You’re back!” Vair said. “How was it?  What happened?”

Carem blinked and shook their head from side to side. “That was certainly interesting.”

“Tell me!”

Carem scrunched their face. “It was like being in a dream.”

(1221 words)

Published in: on November 17, 2018 at 11:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Chapter 14

Chapter 14: Quarla Opts In

Quarla woke up early, but made a point to sit in bed for twenty minutes before actually getting up.

No way I’m going to give these assholes an extra chunk of my time, not today.

The bedroom was small and functional: a bed several iterations out of date, and too small for Quarla’s lanky frame; a small light next to the bed, which got inexplicably hot if left on for more than five minutes at a time; and a stingy night stand, scarcely large enough to hold a cup of water and Quarla’s handheld.

The rest of the habitation was equally sparse- a small bedroom, a small kitchenette, and an office, where Quarla spent most of the waking time not spent walking the clean-up route.

This habitation- Quarla never thought of it as anything else, and certainly not as a home- was part and parcel of the punishment for their misdeeds. The powers that be would never acknowledge this, of course, but Quarla had only to recall the spacious quarters of their retirement to see the pointed lack of luxury here, the absence of any unnecessary creature comforts.

Unlike most others, Quarla’s office only had one wall of screens. The luxury of dividing business and pleasure was denied. Of course, very little of Quarla’s labor time was spent on screen, as the cleaning route was mostly mass labor.

Still, as part of the morning routine, Quarla was required to check messages, receive marching orders, and respond to any inquiries from control. Two such messages awaited this morning: a slight modification of the day’s route, and an inquiry about Quarla’s participation in a research study on punitive assignments.

Quarla decided to address the second message first, and clicked to open it.

‘Please consider participating in an academic study on the experience and efficacy of rehabilitative occupational assignment.’

Quarla scoffed aloud at the euphemism.

‘Participation will be via link interview, and will be credited as labor time. All information will be kept strictly confidential, and aggregated anonymously prior to any publication. For those with reporting requirements, we will furnish a report of acceptable participation, which may reflect positively on your progress reports.’

Nope, and nope. Not gonna help you assholes, especially not with fine-tuning your damned punishment regime.

Quarla deleted the message without responding.

The route variation was minimal, and Quarla made a mental note of where the day would take them. Putting on dirty pants and sturdy shoes, they left the habitation and started off on the day’s assignment.

Let’s see if I can get through the day without punching any bots, Quarla thought.

Keeping a brisk pace, Quarla quickly finished the first leg of the route. It helped that no significant anomalies were apparent, though that might have resulted in part from the fast and inattentive pace.

Around 11, a bot intercepted Quarla’s path.

“Quarla, good pace today!  But you missed a piece of piping two blocks ago. Be sure to pay careful attention: we are counting on you!”

“Sorry, must have just missed it,” Quarla said.

“One other thing: you were to receive an invitation to a study this morning, but we have not logged your response. Did you perhaps miss that, too?”

Even after all these months, Quarla still chafed at the controller’s voice coming from the stiff and inexpressive bot.

“Oh, I saw it. I’m not interested.”

The voice emanating from the bot sighed. “Are you sure?  It’s equal time, you know, and it’s link instead of mass, so you’d be coming out ahead. You won’t have any extra work as a result.”

“Yeah, no, it just doesn’t sound like something I’d be interested in.”

“Will you at least think about it?  We are encouraging everyone qualified to participate.”

Quarla smiles wryly. “Okay, sure, I’ll think about it. Just for you.”

The bot sped away without responding.

Stupid hunk of metal, Quarla thought. Why do they even care about the damned study?  Well, no way I’m going to do it, not for equal time. I’d rather sweat outdoors than help them with their punishment schemes. Unless they put some serious time on the table, forget it.

Quarla made a rash decision. Turning around, they sprinted back two blocks, retracing the route in the wrong direction. Glancing about, Quarla saw the errant piece of piping, picked it up, and jogged back to where the encounter with the bot had taken place.

Resuming a normal pace, Quarla became suddenly introspective. Now why in the hells did I do that?  I’m not out to be a good worker, and I don’t give a shit about this stupid route.

That wasn’t entirely true, Quarla realized. Lazy and slow they could manage, even relish, but bad at the job?  No way.

Three more blocks passed uneventfully when a faint hum indicates the approach of another bot. Or is it the same bot?  Who knows, they all look alike anyway.

“Quarla, I’m so pleased. You actually went back and grabbed the piping. This reflects well on your work ethic, and today’s report will reflect that. You didn’t even fall behind schedule!”

“I do take pride in my work,” Quarla said, facetiously.

“Did you…um…” the bot- or the animating voice within it- stammered, “…that study…have you given it any more thought?”

“I have, and I’m not interested.”

“Is it privacy concerns?  Because I can assure you-“

“It’s not about privacy. I just don’t want to do it, that’s all.  I know why I’m on this assignment, and I prefer not to dwell on it, if it’s all the same to you.”

“But it’s not all the same- look, Quarla, can I level with you?” The tenor of the voice had changed. Quarla detected something resembling resignation.

“Sure.”

“This study, there aren’t a lot of people eligible, and so they’ve given us an incentive to get voluntary participation.”

“An incentive?” Quarla said. “What kind of incentive?”

“The promotion kind. The, ‘I’m one half day closer to retirement’ kind. And I won’t lie, I need your help. Would you do this for me, as a favor?”

Well isn’t this interesting?

Quarla pursed their lips. “Well, it seems to me, if there’s a promotion-sized incentive at stake for you, there should be something valuable for me, too, seeing as all you did is ask nicely, and I’m the one who had to, you know, actually do the study.”

There was a pause. The bot remained stoic.

“What kind of incentive do you have in mind, Quarla?”

“The ‘I just got six months deducted from my assignment’ kind.”

The voice from the bot sighed. “Quarla, you know I don’t have the authority to do that. Only the judicial council can commute a sentence, and I’ve never heard of them doing it.”

“Well then, make me a counteroffer. Because I’m just fine going about my duties and taking a hard pass on that study.”

“Don’t you want to have some work time that’s spent

“But it costs you nothing, and it would really help me out!”

“With all due respect, controller, I don’t know you, I’ve never seen you, and helping you out isn’t really on my list of priorities for today.”

A long pause.

“Okay, I hear you. I still can’t do anything about the end date, but how about this: I’ll give you three days of link work instead of your route.”

“No deal. I’m growing fond of all this fresh air.”

Silence from the bot.

“How about instead of link work, you just give me the days off,” said Quarla. “I think that’s a deal I could work with.”

“Fine,” said the controller, “but it will have to be one per week for three weeks, or else I’ll be getting questions I can’t answer.”

“Okay, deal!” said Quarla.

“Great!  So, go ahead and return home. We’ll do the first part of the research this afternoon.”

“So soon?”

“We’ve, uh, had some trouble getting volunteers,” the controller said.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” Quarla said.

Twenty minutes later, Quarla arrived at the habitation.  It looked unfamiliar.

I never see it this time of day, Quarla thought. The light is sideways, the shadows are eerie. This isn’t my place and time.

Walking inside, Quarla went straight to the office. Sure enough, a message was waiting: follow this link as soon as possible to commence the research study.

I’m in no hurry.

Quarla changed clothes, went into the bathroom, and sat for a long spell, collecting thoughts and revisiting the conversation with the controller.

That was the longest interaction I’ve had with another human in months, and it was with a damn bot!  Still, I did all right. Three days I won’t be working, and a half day of just sitting on my keister, talking to some damned researcher.

Biological needs met, Quarla returned to the office, got comfortable, and initiated the link.

The screen buzzed for a few seconds, and then transitioned to an image of another office, and a dark figure seated, its featured obscured in shadows.

“Hello Quarla,” the voice said, “and thank you for agreeing to participate.”

“You bet,” Quarla said, with a flat voice.

Are they having another damn bot interview me, even now?  How the hell did I get so toxic that I can’t even be face-to-face with a real person?

“I will be asking you some questions about your experiences in the rehabilitative assignment system. I assure you, your answers will be held in the strictest confidence.”

Quarla squinted, trying to make out the figure on the screen. It doesn’t look much like a bot, but I just can’t be sure.

“Okay,” Quarla said.

“So, let me start with this: what was the underlying reason for your assignment?”

“The council said I had to do it, so here I am,” Quarla said, arms folding.

“I mean,” the voice said, patiently, “what was it you did that led to the council’s decision?”

“I suppose you’d have to ask them that,” said Quarla.

“Okay, look, I have your file, but you’re being difficult. I already know the charges and proceedings. I’m interested in hearing things from your perspective, in your own words, so to speak. So what was it?  Why did you violate the orders? What was so important that you risked your retirement just to…reach out?”

Quarla’s anger rose, but they checked it before it could break through. They answered calmly. “You wouldn’t understand?”

“You don’t know that,” the voice snapped back. “So come on, what was it?  A good mass meet? Some sort of idolization fantasy? What?”

This is not what I was expecting, Quarla thought, and I really don’t want to dreg up all this shit.

“None of those things,” Quarla said, voice unsteady.

“So what was it, then?  A vendetta? A blood feud? Love?”

“Yes,” said Quarla, barely audible.

“Love, then?” said the researcher.

“Yes.”

There was a long silence. Quarla could see the researcher breathing deeply. What’s going on here?

“Can I ask you a question?” Quarla said.

“Um, sure, I guess.”  Now the researcher’s voice was unsteady.

“Who are you, anyway?”

For a long moment, there was only silence. Then, the researcher reached above their head, off camera, and turned the light source until it fully illuminated their face.

Quarla gasped.

“It’s me,” Mensa said, “and I love you, too.”

(1890 words)

Published in: on November 15, 2018 at 7:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Chapter 13

Chapter 13: Reesh Holds a Meeting

Reesh, sitting alone under a dilapidated gazebo, got a sudden hankering to feel the grass between their toes.

Kicking off shoes, they stepped out slowly, letting their foot glide down, touching the soil, and squishing slightly into it; the ground was wet, a souvenir of last night’s rains.

Reesh frowned. These unkempt, corn-husky blades of grass felt stiff and twig-like, nothing like the lush, sweet-smelling green grass that, these days, seemed to only exist in the sim.

Hearing footsteps from across the old park, Reesh walked back into the gazebo, brushed their feet off quickly, and put back on the shoes, finishing just as two others arrived and stepped inside.

“Covum, Wyndos, hello,” Reesh said. “I trust you’re both doing well.”

“I have no complaints, Reesh, save for a failure to comprehend the need to schlep all the way across town to meet in mass.”

Covum grunted, but did not speak.

“Must we go through this each and every time, Wyndos?  The links aren’t secure. You, of all people, know that. And if we can observe links at will, it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see that others could as well.”

“At the risk of elaboration on your paranoia, can you perhaps shed some light on why we couldn’t do this in a meeting room? The idea inheres in the room’s very name.”

“Again, those rooms are just as insecure. And maybe you’re right, maybe I’m paranoid. I just want to ensure that we are safe from prying eyes and ears. Don’t you agree, Covum?”

Covum’s shoulders moved in what looked like a diagonal shrug.

“If the links ‘could theoretically’ be intercepted, and the meeting rooms ‘might possibly’ be compromised, have you considered that someone may be spying on us here, too?”  Wyndos looked up at the dome. “It would be child’s play to install a camera or microphone up there.”

“Be careful what you suggest,” Reesh said, “or we will relocate these meetings into the middle of a desert somewhere.”

Corvum grunted again, this time approximating a chuckle.

“Wyndos,” Reesh said, “I want you to know that I have been giving a lot of thought to the concerns you raised at our last meeting.”

Wyndos raised an eyebrow. “Really?  I thought you dismissed them out of hand. ‘Weak-willed vole,’ I think that was the phrase you used to describe me.”

Reesh smiles. “I have never been accused of employing false charm. But I do have a talent for second considerations, and I have given some here.  Ethics was never my academic focus, so I tend to avoid this type of inquiry, but you made a very persuasive case.”

“Thank you. I admit, it could be radically off-base.”

“In a way, it seems similar to an argument I had years ago, regarding the practice of keeping housepets,” said Reesh.

“Oh?” Wyndos said.

“Yes, if you’ll recall, back when the practice was widespread, people started questioning how to define ethics with regards to non-humans.  Some things were crystal clear: you wouldn’t, for instance, torture an animal, or even cause it arbitrary pain. Other questions were stickier: how much medical treatment is a pet entitled to before it’s euthanized, for instance.”

Wyndos gave a confused look.

“What I’m driving at is, people have long believed that the more like us something is, the more aware, the harder it is not to apply our ethics to those beings.  And I think your fascination with sim ethics moves in that same direction.”

“Yes, though the NPCs aren’t just moving in that direction; in many ways, and at many times, they are indistinguishable from you or me.”

“Well,” said Reesh, “I have to admit my first reaction was dismissive.  I thought you were arguing for their ethical treatment just as one might argue against cruelty to a character in a book.”

“I assure you, I am not a weak-hearted person, Reesh.  As it happens, I once had a pet, and euthanized it early on to avoid a diagnosed disease of fatal decline.”

“You had a pet?” said Reesh.

Corva made a sound of mild surprise.  

“I did, back when it was seen as acceptable.”

“Gods, how old ARE you, Wyndos?”

Wyndos smiled.  “In any case, my interest in the NPCs, and the reason for my inquiry which you have mislabeled as advocacy, relates less to what they are to us now, and more to what they are when we are in the sim.”

“The sims are just like a dream, Wyndos, nothing there really exists.”

“Of course,” said Wyndos, “I know that, and you know that, and everyone knows that…when they are here.  When we are inside, those bits and data are every bit as real to us as we are, standing here in this gazebo.  Who is to say this-” Wyndos gestered around, “-is any more real than those planes?”

“And you call ME the paranoid one,” Reesh said, “Things in this world are fundamentally different than in the sim.  For one thing, our actions here have real consequences. In the sim, the worst thing you can do is die, and then you just wake up.”

“Perhaps we are all just on the cusp of awakening from this world into another, onion ringing outwards towards the elusive true plane?” said Wyndos.  “Perhaps on an outer layer, intelligent versions of ourselves, or, worse, intelligent beings who hide here among us for their own entertainment or edification, are deciding at this moment whether they can turn off our plane, casting us into darkness.”  

“An interesting paradox, though not one I haven’t heard before,” said Reesh.  “At the end of the day, it’s academic, as it can be neither proven nor disproven.  So let’s go with the infinitely more workable theory that our world is real, and the choices we make here matter.”

“Even so,” said Wyndos, “I think there is an interesting ethical question about whether, given the binaries of that paradox, it is ethical and proper that we be good stewards of our creations.  Once they have been given intelligence- in whatever form we bestow it- do we owe them a duty of care to permit them to naturally expire unmolested?”

Corva was watching intently but had not said a word.  

Reesh paced back and forth, deep in thought.  “So in that case, that shutdown of the anomalous plane was the equivalent of mass genocide, and to its inhabitants I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”

“It is not as dire as you make it sound,” said Wyndos.  “Just as in your pets example, people hunted and arbitrarily killed, ate, and exterminated animals in the wild for generations before they were taken into the house and given shelter and protection.”  

“So I’m basically the rogue who throws bags of unwanted kittens into the river to drown?” Reesh smirked.

“Per your own metaphor.  As I observed, it isn’t a perfect parallel.  I also do not claim to have the answer,” Wyndos said, “only the appropriate questions.”

“And how would you begin to go about answering?” said Reesh.  “It isn’t exactly a question that suggests any type of experimental approach.”

Corva, who had stood stoic and still through the entire conversation, now made a sound somewhere between a snarl and a loud bark.  

“Er, sorry,” Corva said, “just needed to clear my throat.  You can test it. Pick a number of planes, and give the NPCs there a system similar to ours, so they can create artificial worlds so compelling as to be very nearly real.  See how they treat them. Let them evolve with it for centuries, but watch them. See what they do. They’ll give you the answer.”

The sudden energy that had animated this conversation in Corva dissipated just as fast, and they stood straight up, arms folded behind their back, and re-assumed a stoic posture.  

“That actually sounds quite workable,” said Reesh.  “It sounds non-intrusive enough that we could put it on a number of planes still in circulation, without the need to create more.”

“Intriguing concept, but I have two concerns,” said Wyndos.”

“Of course you do,” said Reesh.  Corva snapped their head around to stare at Wyndos.

“First, creating anything resembling a sim system on a plane presents some technical problems.  While I have no doubt our technicians can solve them, that would beg the question of what they are working on, and why.  These ethical questions that give us sober concern could, in others, inspire passions, or even revolt.”

“You have a point,” Reesh said.  “Let me think on that for a bit.”

“The second problem,” Wyndos continued as though Reesh had not broken in, “is that those planes could NOT be ones in circulation, because interactions with any of our clients could sour the results.  There is no sense in hoping they won’t stumble upon them, since their brains, though with memories suppressed, will likely respond to the opportunity to participate in a sub-sim, which will be familiar to them on a subconscious level.”

“What’s the problem if that happens?  Surely the worst that could happen is that they die, which is how every sim experience ends, after all.”

“But it would contaminate our results.  Despite its unlikelihood, the very possibility that an incompletely wiped client influenced the results would contaminate the entire experiment.”

“Your second problem has solved the first for me,” said Reesh.  

Wyndos smiled and nodded, prompting.  

“We tell the technicians that we are developing a next-level sim experience, and need to figure out how to create sub-sims, as you termed them, in order to test them and see if they are appropriate enhancements.  That way, the techs will think they’re working on a futures project without knowing the ethical angle, and since we will be doing this on test planes, no client interaction will be possible.”

Corva nodded enthusiastically and made a sound not unlike a purr.

“It will require substantial resources, in order to power enough dedicated planes to make this a worthwhile study,” cautioned Wyndos.

Reesh dismissed this with a waving hand.  “It will, but it’s an important inquiry. I may have been flippant before, but I see the problem as squarely as you do.  Perhaps I have neglected the proper pursuit of ethics. We always ask what we can do, and seldom if we should do those things.  No, I’m resolved. We will put in the necessary resources. Let’s see how these NPCs handle our own ethical dilemmas.”

“Indeed we shall,” said Wyndos.  

(1751 words)

Published in: on November 13, 2018 at 10:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Chapter 12

Chapter 12: Truu Love

Consciousness returned, self-awareness flooded back, Truu’s mind adjusting to reality like eyes adjusting to a bright room.  

Gotta get this down, gotta get this down.  

Truu reached for the controls, vision still hazy, and started inputting the story.

‘I don’t know how I died.  The last thing I remember is going to sleep, so maybe I died in my sleep, or there was some accident, or something.  It’s not important.

‘I was a woman, my name was Nora Butler, I lived to be sixty eight.  I grew up in a city, the city of…shit. I forget. Unimportant, moving on.  I was married, twice, actually, but both times to the same person. A man, his name was Ricky.  He was still alive when I passed, unless some freak accident took us both together. He was still alive when I fell asleep, of that much I’m certain.

‘We got married right after high school, more as a joke than anything serious, and it only took us about four years to figure out we’d made a huge mistake.  We loved each other, more than anything, but we had been so inseparable our whole lives that I think we were both missing out on things. He wanted to travel, I wanted to stay close to my friends.  We divorced, but we never really moved on. I had a couple of flings that year, but within two we were back to living together.

‘We married for the second time at 29, and this time it took.  

‘Ricky had a kind heart and an infectious laugh.  He worked his whole life for the same company, it was…dammit, who cares.  He was steady. When I felt unmoored, I could always count on him, my rock. I fought breast cancer in my fifties, and Ricky was there by my side, every step of the way.  He even cashed in his vacation time in order to come with me to the doctor, no matter how many times I told him I was fine, I could do it myself.

‘Ricky never left me alone, not when I needed him.  

‘He wore suspenders, which were in style.  Only people from…oh, some other country, it isn’t important…wore belts.  I liked pants so tight they hugged my legs, so it wasn’t an issue for me.

‘We were planning a trip, a big cruise, going to some warm beach town, I forget the name.  We had the money saved, we were just waiting for…well, now I don’t remember why we didn’t go.  

‘But I loved Ricky, so much.  He made me feel safe, made me feel valuable, like I really mattered to him.  A perfect partner. So much love in that life, I hate that it had to end so soon.’

A notification on the screen jarred Truu away from their typing.  It was the official debrief form. Stupid fucking thing, not now!

‘We had one child, Reia, a modern name for a modern little girl.  She was a delight when she was young, playing the same games over and over, never getting sick of being lifted in the air or cuddling on the couch.  She moved out for college, and then lived in…another place, it wasn’t close, but it wasn’t too far. She came down to see us every month or two. It was nice.  I think we did right by her.

‘She had a husband…or was it a wife?  I don’t remember. And they…no, no, her life isn’t sticking.  Sorry.

‘Horses!  We had horses, Ricky and me.  We rode horses most weekends. Ricky always said one of us was gonna fall and break our skulls open, but that never happened.  We were too careful. We went riding side by side, never faster than a trot. I felt powerful, mounted on the back of a magnificent creature.  Her name, that I don’t remember. But she was a good horse, and I loved her.’

The screen squawked urgently, renewing its reminder for the official debrief form.  Okay, okay!

Truu pulled up the questionnaire.  Name: Nora- Truu had to look back at the narrative note to recall the last name Butler.  Occupation: don’t remember. Waist gear: suspenders mostly, belts rare. Economic system: money, currency, capitalist.  Loves: Ricky (husband), Reia- Truu checked the notes for the correct spelling. My horse.

It was a feeble effort, Truu knew, but the narrative seemed much more important.  Truu submitted the form and switched back to it.

‘We moved after Reia left for school, into a smaller place, or was it bigger?  Maybe just further away from town? Shit, I don’t remember this part. I did something for a living, but I don’t remember what.’  

Truu shook their head from side to side, trying to squeeze out more of the fading history.  Little came, just dribs and drabs, nothing solid enough to jot down. Maybe I can just focus on one memory, something strong, and hold onto that?

Nothing came.

Truu sighed, surrendered, and saved the note.  Most of the debrief narratives ended this way, in faded recollections, forgotten details, and a recognition that the sim had faded.  Nothing gold can stay, Truu thought, smiling sadly.

There was just one thing left to do, if Truu was brave enough to do it.  Maybe I should just let them be, not push things.  I mean, we can always talk about this tomorrow.

Truu recognized that for the excuse-making it was.  

Maybe if I wait, they’ll call me.  Besides, what if they’re still coming out of it, or debriefing?  I wouldn’t have liked getting a call while I was narrating.

Of course, with each passing minute, the chances that a debrief was still going on became more and more remote.  Screw it, I should just call.  

Truu clicked a few keys on the controls, and initiated a call.  Several moments passed. See, they’re probably busy.  Just when Truu was about to give up, the screen powered up, and Rasha’s face appeared.

“Well, hi there, stranger!”

“We meet again, husband mine,” Truu said.  That was a phrase I used in the plane.  I’’m almost sure of it.

“How was your debrief?” Rasha said.

“Disappointing, as always.  I tried to get as much down as I could but, you know, it fades fast.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“So,” said Truu, “about all that…I’m honestly not sure how we should proceed.”

“Do you have plans this evening?”

“Nope?”

“We should meet.  In mass,” said Rasha.  “Like, are you doing anything now?”

I love this confidence, Truu thought, it’s probably why we were so well-matched on the plane.  

“Uh, give me maybe thirty minutes?  I’d like to shower.”

“You do that,” Rasha said.  “I’m going to reserve us a room.  I’ll patch down the room number when I have it.”

“See you soon,” said Truu.  The connection broke.

The next half hour passed in a haze.  Truu ran to get into the shower, feeling hot water rouse the senses and wash away all remaining dregs of the memories from the plane.  It felt refreshing, if bittersweet. In moments, Truu was drying off, pulling on fresh clothes, checking the screen for the room number, and then walking out the door.

What am I even doing?

Rasha had arrived first, and greeted Truu with a smile and a long hug.  

“It’s good to see you again,” Rasha said.

“What a difference an afternoon makes, huh?” said Truu.

Rasha laughed.  “The magic of the sim, I guess.”

Truu smiled and folded their arms nervously.  “So, uh, I’m not sure where to go from here…”

“Wherever we want, I suppose.  You made a wonderful spouse,” Rasha said, touching the side of Truu’s face.  

“So that’s why you picked this room, then, huh?  For a conjugal reward?”

Rasha laughed.  “I mean, I’d like to keep the option available.”  

Rasha sat down and ordered a drink from the touch screen.  “I don’t know, Truu, I’m not sure how to move forward either.  I just know that we have a real connection. I suspected it when we met this morning, and that sim, though…it was overwhelming.  I don’t even remember any of it, I mean not really, but I remember how you made me feel.”

Truu nodded.  “Yeah, same here.  But this world isn’t like the sim.  I mean, it’s not like we can just go on perma-sim or something.  But I don’t know…I don’t want to just go back to life the way it was, now that I know how it CAN be.”

“Now that I know you,” Rasha said, “I don’t think I could go back to normal, either.”

“There’s someone I work with, they actually live with a partner.  I didn’t know that was still a thing people did,” said Truu.

“Yeah, it’s still a thing.  They don’t exactly encourage it, but it’s not against any rules.  You just have to put in a request. I hear you even get a larger living space, so you won’t be on top of each other all the time.”

“Is that…something you might be interested in?” said Truu.

Rasha smiled.  “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  What say we have a drink or two, and see if our virtual chemistry-” Rasha glanced meaningfully at the double-wide bed, “-translates into the real world.  How does that sound?”

It sounded very good to Truu.  

(1564 words)

Published in: on November 12, 2018 at 4:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Chapter 11

Chapter 11: Chein Troubleshoots

“Morning, Chein,” Carem said, sipping coffee, as Chein’s face filled the viewing screen.

“Hey Carem, ready to get to it today?  We’ve got a lot scheduled.”

“Oh, why not.  Hey, where’s your minion?”

“You mean Vair?  In class.”

“I’d hate to be your trainee.  How many credits did you assign this time?”

“Not too many, I think fifteen?  Just enough to get the basics down.”

“Chein, I think your idea of basics and everyone else’s might be radically different metrics.”

“And yet I get some of the best ratings of anyone at my job.  Do you think there’s any correlation there? Oh, wait, I forgot, you never studied correlations, did you?  Do you…know what math is?”

Carem snorted.  “You’re an asshole, you know that, right?”

“Let’s just get to it.  It’s a troubleshooting day, so we really don’t have time to goof around.”

“Okay,” Carem said, “what’s on tap first?”

“Oh,” Chein smiled, “you’re gonna love this one.  It’s a plane we don’t have any data on, because everyone who goes there comes back dead.”

“Oh, wow.  As opposed to all the others, where people come back…dead, is it?”

“I mean quickly.  Like, they never age enough to remember what killed them.  That usually means something is wrong with the programming.  So I’ll put you in, fully aware, and you can take a look around and let us know what’s the problem.”

“Can’t they just look at the data logs?”

“Carem, do you have any idea how much data goes into a plane?  Programming a single leaf’s photosynthetic structure takes more data than your local system can even hold.”

“That sounds extremely inefficient.  Maybe that’s why these planes are so clunky: you put too much data into them!”

“Here’s a thought,” said Chein, “how about you worry about your job, investigation, and let us technicians do ours?”

“Fine, whatever, I’ll check the place out.  I just hope I don’t get immolated or something.”

“Oh, statistically that’s quite likely.  If there’s something killing people off before they can even age to self-awareness, it’s very probably environmental.”

“So you’re saying if I go in, I’m likely to experience nothing but a fast, painful death?”

“No, of course not.  You don’t really have a choice in the matter.  Ta ta!”

Chein cued the simulation, and Carem’s world went black.  

After verifying that the upload had been successful, Chein stood and fetched a water.  There was little to do while Carem was in the sim; until some new breakthrough gave them vision, the only information coming out of each plane was the debriefs from the clients.  So all Chein could really do was wait.

I hope it isn’t a painful death, Chein thought.  As annoying as Carem can be, I hope it’s something swift, painless, and- crucially- easy to reprogram.  It would be a shame to lose the entire plane.

To pass the time, Chein began looking over the next troubleshoot. This was a training plane, and those malfunctioned frequently, being quickly programmed and alloted far fewer resources than full, client-accepting simulations.  One-pers, they were called, leading to the widespread misconception that they were designed for one person at a time.

It’s short for ‘one purpose,’ Chein thought, recalling all the times they had to correct someone in conversation.  They are planes designed to convey a single experience, a single topic, or a single lesson.  They can have more than one person participating.  

The brief on this particular training was interesting.  It wasn’t a malfunction, really, more of an anomaly. But a promising one.  Chein started to read.

Scarcely a paragraph in, however, Chein saw movement on the screen, and watched as Carem’s head moved from side to side, slowly coming to.  

“Hey, there, buddy.  Not too painful, I hope.  What happened?”

Carem looked scared, and was breathing hard.  “Do you have contact info for the programmers?”

“Some of them, yeah,” Chein said.  “Though about half are retired.”

“Fine me the person who programmed the insects.”

“It was a problem with the insects?”

“I said-” Carem’s eyes were fierce and glaring, “find them!”

Chein hesitated a moment, and then searched the lengthy database of programmers for the malfunctioning plane.  

“I’ve got two names: do you want the person who did the structure, or the behaviors?”

“Structure, please,” said Carem, “there was nothing wrong with the behaviors.”  

Carem laughed, somewhat maniacally.

“Okay, I’ll see if they’re available.”

“Patch me in as well, I’d like to have a word with them.”

Chein did as Carem requested.  In moments, a third face appeared.  

“Hi, we’re calling from sim tech, and this is about-” Chein started.

“Are you the one who programmed the god-damned insects?!” Carem snapped.

“Uh,” the newcoming said, “what?”

“I said,” Carem said, enunciating each word, “did you, program, the god-damned insects?”

“Uh, maybe?  That WAS my speciality.  Which plane is this one?”

“I’ll send you the specs.  On your screen now,” said Chein.

The newcomer looked it over. “Oh, yes, this was mine.  I remember it because this is the plane that I finished just before retirement.”

“Well, they oughta unretire you,” said Carem.

“What’s the problem?”

“If you would be so kind, take a look at the proportions, and see if you can tell ME what the problem is?”

“Okay,” said the programmer, “let me take a look.”  

A few seconds ticked by.  Carem made a face of righteous indignation, but only Chein could see, as the programmer was busily searching on the other screen.

“Looks okay, good head-to-thorax ratio, proper numbers of limbs.  Is there a specific insect you’re concerned with?”

“How about the size?” Carem said, impatiently.

“The size is set as…oh.  Oh god, that’s bad. That’s really bad.  It’s just…the decimal.”

“Just a decimal?” Carem said, feigning disbelief.  

“It was supposed to be 0.02 percent, for the standard size proportion, but it looks like it came through as 2 percent instead.”

Oh wow, thought Chein.  Giant insects.  No wonder the plane is a disaster.  

“They were as big as we are!” Carem screamed.  “There were no people, at least, no people I saw.  Just roving bands of ants, wasps, and beetles the size of beds!”

“Gosh, I’m really sorry about this, I can’t believe-”

“Well, believe it!  I just got disemboweled by an insect I didn’t even recognize, with a pincer the size of my entire body.  I spent thirteen days running from these fuckers, and all I have to show for it is this confrontation with a lazy retiree who can’t do math!”

“That’s enough, Carem,” Chein said, terminating the connection.  The bewildered face of the programmer faded. “It was just a mistake, and besides, they should have caught it in quality control.”

“Who was responsible for THAT?  I’d like to have a word with them, too.”

“I said, that’s enough.  It’s an easy fix, and hopefully that’s the only thing wrong with the plane.  We’ll have it up and running again in no time.”

Carem was still breathing heavily, eyes bloodshot.

“In the meantime,” Chein said, “let’s hit the second plane.”

“Can I have a minute,” Carem said.  “I just told you, it was thirteen days of pure hell.”

“Sorry, no can do,” said Chein.  “Per regulations, only time here counts towards the workday, so you’ve only been on the clock for ninety minutes.”

“Well…I need to pee!” said Carem, standing and stomping off petulantly.  Chein waited patiently until they returned.

“Alright, tell me we don’t have another hellscape to visit.”

“Actually, this one is interesting, you might like it,” said Chein.  “It’s a training plane for artists, and it has some unusual properties we want to look into.”

“Are dead art students among those unusual properties?”

“No,” Chein smiled, “but it’s interesting: training planes are usually not that useful for most sectors, since the specific memories fade so rapidly.  The only reason the art one is used is that their control believes that exposure to art changes brain chemistry and makes a person more creative, even if they don’t retain the specific experiences.”

“Sounds like hokum to me, but okay.”

“The thing is, this particular art plane isn’t being forgotten.  People are going for their training, and weeks later they can still remember it like it really happened.”

“Hold on, if that’s the case, why do you need me?  Couldn’t you just ask one of them to describe whatever issue you’re looking for?”

“We could,” Chein said, “but they’re not trained sim techs: they’re art students, for godsake.  We need an expert.”

Carem sighed.  “Fine.”

“Hey, don’t you see the possibility here?” Chein said.  “If we can isolate what’s causing this, it could be a real game changer for the sim.  Imagine if you could retain everything that happens each time you come out.”

“Given my recent disemboweling, you’ll forgive me if I don’t share your enthusiasm,” said Carem.  

“Okay, fair point.  But I want you to pay careful attention to anything out of the ordinary.”

“That, I can do,” said Carem.  “Let’s get this over with.”

Chein nodded and started the upload.  Carem went to sleep.

Within minutes, Carem was back, and fully alert.

“Whoa, I hardly feel groggy at all.  How long was I down there?”

“Maybe six minutes.”

“That fast?” Carem said.

“Yeah, it’s a training plane thing.  I’m surprised you haven’t noticed it before.”

“Why is that, anyway?”

“Well, the only reason the sim takes any time at all is the uplink and downlink.  For the training planes, it’s a small fraction of the data load, so it’s much quicker.  Anyway,” Chein said, “did you find anything out?”

“Yeah, actually, I did.  I’m pretty sure it’s the music.”

“Really?” Chein was genuinely surprised.

“Yeah.  The plane was a virtual art museum, with lots of the classics and a whole lot of stuff I hadn’t seen before.  It didn’t really do much for me, to be honest. But the music was enchanting. At one point, I closed my eyes, and I could feel it, I don’t know how to describe this.  Like it was cutting grooves in my brain.”

“Like an old-style record?”

“I don’t know what that means,” said Carem.  

“Never mind.  I forget sometimes what a rube you are,” Chein said.  

“Anyway, yeah, I’d look into whatever music that was.  I didn’t recognize it.”

“That doesn’t mean much, coming from you,” said Chein.  “But it’s a good lead. Thanks. I’ll send it up the chain.”

“Ready for another one?” said Carem.

“Not today,” said Chein.  “I guess things are running a bit too smoothly for the likes of us.  But don’t worry, I’m sure there will be more opportunities for you to be dismembered in the very near future.”

“Disemboweled, not dismembered,” said Carem.

“Yeah, whatever, basically the same thing,” Chein said.

“You wouldn’t say that if you had been recently disemboweled,” Carem grumbled.  

(1812 words)

Published in: on November 11, 2018 at 6:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Chapter 10

Chapter 10: Mensa Keeps a Secret

Several blocks away from where Vair sat, talking with Wyndos, Mensa was finishing a class of their own: the history and future of rehabilitative assignments.  

It was a newfound interest, a way to stay engaged during their retirement.  

“It’s just something I’ve always been interested in,” Mensa said, filling out the class application several weeks ago.  

That may have been a lie, but it was a lie Mensa had earned.  Earned, as it were, by sitting through three previous, more general classes on the topic, covering everything from the end of the penal system to modern laws and their enforcement.  

Mensa saw each of these classes, each hour spent on this academic pursuit, as a small piece of their masterpiece, an engineering feat that would take patience, dedication, and most of all, extreme discretion.  

Mensa was going to find a way to meet Quarla.  

Mensa felt a tightening in the chest, remembering their sudden interaction but eighteen months ago.  It had only lasted a few minutes, but each second was seared into Mensa’s memory, a pathway of pain and deeply-grooved regret.  

I was just reading something, who cares what, doing not much of anything, when the buzzer sounded.  

There were so few reasons the door buzzer would go off unexpectedly these days, and almost all of them were automated.  An unplanned delivery, a maintenance issue, a bot misprogrammed and at the wrong door.

Mensa remembered walking to the door, realizing that if it were an emergency, it would be best to wear shoes, and Mensa’s feet were bare.  Opening the door, the instant appearance of Quarla.

Quarla, thought Mensa, it can’t be you.  

In fact, Mensa’s first thought had been that the link had learned to read thoughts, or that their oft-repeated wish that Quarla would seek them out had become known, and granted.  Who knew, after all, where the cutting edge of technology had taken them? Perhaps merely wishing strongly enough was enough to make it so.

The first instinct Mensa felt was to reach for Quarla, to embrace, to pull them inside and ask a million questions.  Arms rising to seek out Quarla’s body, a sudden wave of caution overcame Mensa, and the arms fell, the voice retreating to monotone.  

“Can I help you?” Mensa said.  

It was a test, a conversational litmus paper, to see if the recognition and memory ran both ways.  After all, if this WAS a granted wish, that didn’t mean that Quarla would share those memories, would share that recognition.  

“Mensa, it’s me, Quarla.  From the sim.”

So it was true.  They both remembered.  The sim had failed to wash away the evidence of the experiences it gave them.  Now they would be together, would be happy.

Then caution, that old blackguard, overtook Mensa’s mind.  Perhaps there had been an issue with the sim, and Quarla was here not to reconnect, but to investigate, to warn Mensa of some lingering side effect.  

Love is not a lingering side effect, Mensa thought, ruefully.  

Mensa opened their mouth to speak, but indecision limited them to a single word.  “What?”

“The sim, we were…together.”

That removed all doubt.  The lingering pause, the inflection of ‘together.’  This was Quarla, the same Quarla with whom Mensa had shared a life.  The lover of a lifetime. And they both remembered it  

Caution may have been vanquished, but on its heels came fear, a more powerful emotion, set to vanquish its fallen comrade and prevent any sense of peace from coming to the reunited couple.  

Fear whispered, Mensa recalled, that this was wrong, that this could not work.  A reunion of two sim lovers in mass? They would be found out, interrogated, scrubbed clean.  It would not be delicate; any sim malfunction was a cause of major concern, and the authorities would be thorough in wiping away any trace of their experience on a misfiring plane.

Be cool, Mensa thought, just play dumb.  Let Quarla take the lead.  Guide them to safety, we can find a way, don’t let me screw this up.

“Oh, yes,” said Mensa, trying like hell to signal Quarla with a flash of the eyes, “I thought you looked familiar.  What’s the matter?”

Quarla’s brow pinched, eyes searching Mensa’s face.  Questioning, pleading. Quarla couldn’t understand the depth of this folly; why had they come here?  

“Do you remember any of it?” Quarla asked.

No, dammit!  Don’t give voice to our memories!  Mensa was angry.  Angry at Quarla for coming here, for putting them both in danger.  Angry that even now, they didn’t understand the danger. Angry at the system that kept them apart, at the sim for misfiring, for not letting them forget.

No, Mensa thought, not that.  Never that.  I am glad for the memory.  

Mensa tried to keep a calm face, while all these emotions roiled just under the surface.  Perhaps slow and deliberate words will communicate the need for caution better than a meaningful look.

“No, why?  Do you need my notes?” Mensa put an emphasis on the notes.  

Yes, ask for my notes.  We can read them together.  I could invite you in. We will rediscover our passion by reading about it, like reading a love story between strangers.  Natural as can be. Please, Quarla, take the invitation, help me clean this up. We can figure out the rest of a cover story later but for now, I need you to do this for me.  

“Not your notes, no.  Just…do YOU remember any of it?”

Mensa blanched.  Surely they were being overheard, surely someone now knew that Quarla was remembering a long-ago sim.  

This would condemn them both to a wipe.  Like we’re bots in need of reprogramming.  Quarla wasn’t dumb, but this level of desperate stupidity had robbed them of the chance to be together again.  Mensa knew it, knew that any hope of manufacturing a new love story between them had all but evaporated.

Mensa took a step back from the door, and then another.  Quarla was lost, then, at least, lost to Mensa. Sounds from down the hallway confirmed this; folks were already on the way to investigate this anomaly, to interrupt this strange conversation.  

And yet, Mensa realized, things wouldn’t necessarily be the same for them.  Quarla keeps asking, but I haven’t yet answered.  Perhaps if I continue to feign ignorance, I will be spared a wipe.  Oh, there will be questions, but I can outmaneuver those questions.

Mensa looked at Quarla, whose eyes were still pleading for recognition.  Mensa was afraid for Quarla, afraid for what their rash words and actions had set in motion.  

I’m sorry, old friend.  

“I’m…I’m sorry, no.  Why are you here?” Mensa said.

You need to say something now, Quarla.  You need to come up with something, anything, to explain your presence, and you need to do it now.  

Quarla was silent, their composure was breaking.  

“I think you should go,” Mensa said, turning back on Quarla and shutting the door.  

The sound of that door shutting echoed over the many months since, each percussive recollection a dagger into Mensa’s heart.  

I had to do it, Quarla, it was either you, or both of us.  

There had been questions afterwards, just as expected.  

“Why did Quarla come there?  What had happened in the sim?  Please,” they had said, not unkindly, “we just want to help them.  Tell us what you know.”

Mensa was too smart to fall into that trap.  

“I wish I could help you,” Mensa said.  “But I really don’t know that person. I recognized the name from the sim debrief, sure, and if I check my notes, I can see if there was anything unusual that came up in the debrief.”

“We’ve looked through those,” they said, “and there’s nothing out of the ordinary.  Do you have any idea what might have happened?”

“I really don’t, sorry. I hope you’re able to help them.  They seemed distressed,” said Mensa.

That had satisfied the investigators, who never called again.  Over the next two months Mensa, who fortunately had a habit of reading the news each day, learned that an unprecedented case of stalking had led to a five year rehabilitative assignment.  

So you never talked, Mensa thought.  You came here and said everything you had to say, and when that didn’t work, you clammed up again.  You’re either incredibly stupid, or brilliantly committed, Quarla. You never told, so you never got scrubbed, did you?  

Down that path led madness.  That meant Quarla was out there somewhere, working a second full career, likely doing something manual and unpleasant, just to buy the right to remember.  To remember Mensa.

If they thought you stalked me, you’ll be cut off.  There’s no way you’ll ever be able to contact me again.  

Caution and fear, having teamed up to defeat Mensa at that fateful meeting at the front door, were subdued in victory, gently urging Mensa to just put Quarla behind them.  It was tragic, they reasoned, but necessary, and any further pursuit risked jeopardizing Mensa’s retirement and the life of leisure that awaited.

But Mensa would not give into those fears.  After learning of Quarla’s fate, Mensa made a plan. They would study the rehabilitative assignments, and become a retiree-scholar; those were certainly common enough in a world where so few worked into middle age.  As those assignments were so rare, the odds were good Mensa would learn details about Quarla, and about their assignment.

Mensa was daring, but not reckless.  

If they find me out, I’ll confess…kind of.  I’ll tell them that ever since that weird encounter at my front door, I have been curious about what happened to the distressed individual, and went looking for answers.  They’ll believe that: it’s easier than believing something went wrong on one of their vaunted planes. No matter what they ask, they’ll find me to be a normal, well-adjusted retiree, just following their passions and enjoying the fruits of retirement.  

Normal, that is, but for one quirk.  Ever since that unforgettable experience with Quarla on the plane, Mensa had refrained from ever entering a sim again.  

(1691 words)

Published in: on November 10, 2018 at 12:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Chapter 9

Chapter 9: Vair Gets Schooled

Ten minutes still remained until the start of class, but Vair was already seated, the link screen primed to auto-initiate.   Wyndos was probably busy, Vair knew, but decided to risk a quick call.

“Vair, what a nice surprise.”

“Hi, Wyndos.  I wasn’t sure if you saw me on the roster.”

“I did,” Wyndos said, “and I was both delighted and confused.  You’ve never struck me as the ‘lifetime learning’ sort. Aren’t they keeping you busy at sim tech?”

“Yep, so busy that they’ve assigned me supplemental studies.  So I guess you’re right, this is for business, not pleasure.”

“Well, I’m delighted to have you.  But still, my class is auditory, and I thought you were rated kinesthetic.”

“I am.  Had to get a special dispensation, in fact.  But they gave it to me, when I told them how excited I was to get to take a class from you.”

Wyndos smiled.  “Well, I appreciate that.  I hope you find the class interesting.  I need to disconnect now, so I can finish my notes and get started.”

“Of course.  Thanks, Wyndos.”

The line disconnected.  Vair smiled, glad to have made the call.  In truth, Vair resented the extra training requirement: basic history had already been covered in the early education system, and it seemed to Vair that this course was strictly unnecessary for them to learn how to be a high-level sim technician.  

Still, Chein had insisted.  When Wyndos mentioned the ‘lifetime learning’ sort, I was picturing Chein.  It was true: Vair had already learned that Chein spent much of the off-days taking courses in everything from ancient civilizations to mathematical theory.  

And, of course, it had been Chein who designed the trainee program for Vair, and that program came with a list of a dozen classes, some of them multi-session.  All attempts to argue were futile: Chein believed that technical success came from what they called ‘a mastery of the context.’

Which meant, as far as Vair could figure, a basic understanding of all the world’s knowledge.  

The class was about to start: Vair dimmed the surrounding lights and sat back to listen as Wyndos’ image appeared on screen.  

“Good morning.  This is part one of the modern history curriculum.  It looks like we have about a hundred and fifty of you.  I’m curious, how many are auditing? It looks like about thirty.  Good for you. I hope you find this interesting.

“History is, at its core, a long-form answer to the question ‘how did we get here?’  So today, let’s begin to answer.

“Since this is modern history, we can avoid the pitfall of when to start. Since nobody knows the true origin of the universe, we’ll just skip that part, along with the vast ages where physics and chemistry came together to form life, biology led to evolution and early human development, and early humans formed civilizations, fought wars, and settled into semi-stable political systems.  

“Instead, let’s start around the time of our unification, 473 years ago, calendar year 1.  That world looked far different from our own. The population was vastly larger, but the people were spread out all over the globe.  Some folks lived in towns or villages of just a few hundred people. That physical isolation meant that most of their daily lives were spent away from home, seeking gainful employment, socialization, and entertainment.”

“Resources were allocated asymmetrically, based on what was termed a monetary system.  The more valuable work you performed, the more money you were given, and the more things you could acquire by exchanging said money.  Thus, the most prosperous people lived vastly differently from those without in-demand skills, and all people were incentivized to work as much as possible, to maximize their acquisition of money.

“In the year 97, Carta devised their transformative theory of hierarchies.  Some of you may have learned that the Great Ascension started at that point, but in reality it had been going on for several years before Carta recognized it and gave it a name.  Indeed, housing became universal in 86, and a primitive form of food dispensary existed as far back as 93.

“Carta theorized that a unified world would begin by taking care of its people’s basic needs, such as safety and sustenance, before moving on to creature comforts and higher pursuits.  

“The Great Ascension, which took its name largely after the fact, really took off around the start of the second century.  As technology advanced, unskilled labor was rapidly replaced by automation. Advances in robotics and the development of the Link system in 104 resulted in a vast influx of computer programming investment.  

“Monetary systems persisted through the first decades of the Ascension, as those with financial advantages were loathe to give them up.  While some predicted a socialist revolution, in actual practice the use of money never officially died out; it faded from relevance. At first, guaranteed housing was inferior to purchased housing, but technology rapidly decreased the gap, and soon the standard options became so widespread as to be nearly universal.  

“That brings us up to the reforms of 175, and we will get to those after a brief recess.”  

With that, the screen posted a seven-minute timer, and Vair stood and stretched.  The material thus far had been very basic, though the dates stuck in the memory about as transiently as they had during the first time they learned them.  

Carta’s Hierarchy is hornbook, Vair thought, but hearing Wyndos describe it really brings it alive.

Vair walked into the hallway and grabbed a sparkling water to sip on during the lecture, and returned just as the countdown expired.

“To understand the reforms of 175,” Wyndos began without prelude, “you need to understand what was happening across the world.  Most people were unemployed, but those who did work, were working long hours. Political success required pandering to the many, not the few, so social programs and entitlement had risen so high, the masses had very little incentive to seek employment.

“There were two economic systems running parallel: the wealthy and the employed still traded money for luxuries, while those in the social safety net bartered their own form of currency, called credits, which the government handed out like the rations of times past.  

“The reforms were addressed primarily at redistributing work, not wealth, and the watch word of the time was equality of responsibility.  Sector guilds were founded during the 160s. Those guilds still exist today, though back then they were more independent, and there was no central control or system of assignments; people simply joined the guild that best suited their interests and talents.  

“It was those guilds, more than any governmental program, that shaped society into the rough form it takes today.  Guilds first instituted, for instance, the retirement system, providing their members with lifelong benefits for a set amount of labor.  In the first years, those guilds funded their members’ benefits with money generated by the members’ employment, but this quickly proved unworkable.  Instead, they began to make inter-guild agreements, so that, for instance, the clothing guild would provide free products to members of the electronics guild, in exchange for electronics.  

“Those inter-guild agreements became so complex that there was a boom in the legal sector, which was universally seen as an unfortunate side effect to be addressed.  And address it, the guilds did. In 173, at a conference in the world capital, the guilds decided to work together to take a controlling position in the world government.  That effort was immediately successful, and this led directly to the reforms of 175.

Okay, thought Vair, this part I did not know.  

“Over the next eighteen months, the guilds put their best minds at work, and developed a plan to reshape society dramatically.  In effect, the modern structure of our world can be thought of as a single guild, made up of every member of society. Each person is expected to contribute what and how they can, and each is assured of not just their safety and sustenance, but of an ever-rising quality of life.  

“Implementation followed, and lasted until the turn of the third century.  Not everyone was happy with the new reforms, and in certain parts of the world, there was massive resistance.  That is why in the Western Hemisphere, for instance, there are still pockets of humanity living outside the social network that connects us all.  Those independent societies were formed around unity of ideals, rather than unity of geography, and many if not most of their members come from elsewhere.  

“Since the start of the third century, the watch word has been recreation.  With all its other needs being met with a minimum of labor, humanity has turned its attention to pleasure, which some argue is the pinnacle of Carta’s hierarchy.  Of course, Carta, who was a religious as well as economic scholar, might be aghast to see the implementation of their hierarchical ideals.

“And with that, our time for today draws to a close.  In the next session, we will discuss the great efficiency leap of the mid-third century, and bring ourselves closer to answering that elusive question, how did we get to where we are?”

As the screen shut off, Vair began thinking about dinner, only to be immediately interrupted by an incoming link.  It was Wyndos.

“So,” Wyndos said, “what did you think?”

“It was fascinating,” Vair smiled.  “I knew a lot of the broad strokes, but didn’t realize the part about the guilds banding together and taking over the government.”

“That’s a very interesting topic.  The guilds themselves are what is really fascinating,” said Wyndos.  “If you are ever interested, I also teach a class that goes in depth discussing how they operated, using the farming guild as a case study.”

“It’s not on my list, so I think I’ll pass,” Vair said.  “Just being honest.”

Wyndos shook their head.  “Youth is wasted on the young.  In any case, I’m glad you enjoyed the lecture, and I’m so pleased to have you in the class.”

“I’m looking forward to the next one.  Did recreation start off as a separate guild, or is that something you’re going to cover next time?”

“In many ways,” said Wyndos, “recreation became THE industry in the late third century.  No, it wasn’t ever a guild, but it informed what every sector of the economy would do going forward.  I won’t spoil it for you, you will just have to hear it for yourself.”

“Same time next week then?”

Wyndos nodded.  “Same time.”

“Hey,” said Vair, catching Wyndos just before they disconnected, “how many classes do you teach?”

“Five each week,” Wyndos said.

“And you mentor, and you’re retired?  You make interesting choices, Wyndos.”

“…utterly wasted on the young,” said Wyndos, smiling as the connected ended.      

(1804 words)

Published in: on November 9, 2018 at 3:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Chapter 8

Chapter 8: Truu Spices Things Up

So this is what a free Wednesday feels like, Truu thought, stretching tall before sliding into the chair and turning it towards the recreation center.  Though a day off wasn’t unusual- Truu had more free days than working days- the novelty of the conversion of Wednesdays from business to pleasure made it feel different, made it feel special.

Today, instead of going through a morning routine and plugging in for work, Truu slept in, showered, and had a brief tryst courtesy of the Mass Match.  The algorithmically-selected mate, Rasha, surprised Truu, towering over them but having a personality, and even movements, that mirrored their own.

It felt like fooling around with myself, Truu thought.  An odd sensation, to be sure, but not an unpleasant one.  Guess I’m a good lay.  

Truu looked at the clock on the display: it was only a quarter past eleven. Still morning.  A reservation for a sim lay ahead, at 3, and this block of time Truu had mentally allocated to catching up with friends and diving into the knowledge base in search of amusement.

Might as well get to it.  

With a flick of the controls, Truu paged Eefoh.  Within seconds, Eefoh’s face appeared on screen.

“Truu!  Great to see you.  This is your first Wednesday, huh?”

“Yep.”

“Enjoying it so far?”

“No complaints at all.  Just did a Mass Match, and got a sim this afternoon.”

“Nice.  I wonder how people met each other before the ‘match.”

“Infrequently and by happenstance, I’d imagine,” Truu said.   

“True enough.  But Mass Match is just the beginning.  You should see some of the new gadgets social is putting together.  I’m telling you, the next few years, we’re all gonna feel so much more connected.”

“How much closer can we be, other than sex?”

Eefoh laughed.  “I mean connected in different ways.  Like, there are apps out there to connect with people who share interests, only now they’ve incorporated the location features, so you can find people you might like who also live close by.”

“I’m not sure I see the point of that,” said Truu.  “I barely notice where people are physically located these days. Shit, I don’t even know where you live in mass without looking.”

“It’s, like, right on the screen.”

“I know, I know, but that’s the point.  It matters so little, I don’t even look.  What’s the point? Who cares if you’re a thousand miles away, or literally right next door?”

“It matters to some people.  Like, what if you wanted to meet in mass?  To, like, go for a walk or something?”

“There’s always minis.  You can program better walks than anything you’d encounter in the wild.”

“Some people are still old-fashioned.  Or new-fashioned: I hear that meeting in mass for inane bullshit is actually quite trendy.”

“Why?” said Truu.

“Who knows?  Rebellion, probably.  Against some vague sense that the powers-that-be are steering us towards increasing physical isolation.”

“Well, that sounds downright paranoid.  Haven’t those people ever heard of efficiency?”

“I think it’s more about authenticity,” said Eefoh, “I mean, between the sims and most assignments being virtual, it’s understandable that people might long for real physical contact.”

“Yeah, well, they tried it that day, and what was the result?  A push towards this great modern world.”

“Yeah, but at what cost?”

“Wow,” said Truu, “you’ve really bought into this whole ‘au natural’ thing, haven’t you?”

“Not a bit,” Eefoh said, “just trying to relate to them, is all.”

“Empathy is overrated.”

“Yeah,” Eefoh laughed. “But seriously, some of the new systems are kinda interesting. There’s one that lets you meet people in mass just to see if you want to do a shared sim with them.”

Truu had a sudden flashback to his abortive sib-sim with Eefoh.

“Sounds cool.”

“Here,” said Eefoh, “I’ll pass the link.”

“Thanks.”

“So I’ve gotta run- I have my own mass meeting in a few.”

“One of these new things?” said Truu.

“Nope, just a good ol’ mass match. Call me old fashioned.”  

With a small wave, Eefoh disappeared from the screen.

Truu looked at the link that had appeared on the screen. Dumb ass waste of time.

Pushing the link aside, Truu decided to look into some upcoming and newly-released systems.

A ream of unusual-sounding foods had been added to the Avails list. Calumnian spices, some whimsically-names cocktails, and a mushroom Truu was certain they could not pronounce.

Eh, why not? Truu thought, adding each to the next delivery with a few keystrokes. In fact, Truu didn’t care much for exotic eating. But I’m game to try anything.

That thought still firmly in mind, Truu swiped over to the link Eefoh had provided. I’ll try it for a few minutes. Might as well; got nothing better to do.

The system loaded, and a calm, automated voice resonated from the speakers.

“Welcome to Meet You, a mass-based, interest-based algorithm technology. Please enter your interests, and your location will be determined automatically.”

Truu was frustrated to see that the interface was simply a blank screen with a cursor. What, no options to choose from?

Pausing a moment to think, Truu made a mischievous smile. “Calumnian spices,” they articulated carefully.

“Match found!  Do you want to mass-meet now?”

“Uh, yes?”

A beat.

“Please proceed to room 3523. Your match will meet you shortly.”

With a melodic tone, the system disconnected.

Well, that was weird and easy, Truu thought. What have I just got myself into?

With a stretch and considerable effort, Truu stood and started for the door.

It’s a good thing I had a mass meet earlier, or no way I’d be okay with leaving the house. Heck, I’m even dressed nicely.

When Truu reached the appointed room, it was already occupied.  The other, standing alone and swaying back and forth, caught Truu’s eye immediately.

“You’re from Meet You?” they said.

“Yeah, hi, I’m Truu. Weird, I guess it didn’t even give us names first.”

“Yeah!  I noticed that last time!  I’m Rasha.” They shook hands.

“So you’ve used this before?” Truu said.

“Oh, yeah, I’m a grizzled old veteran. This is my second time,” Rasha laughed. “I did the first this morning. It was…interesting.”

“Interesting how?”

“Interesting like, neither of us had ever used the system before, and we had no guidance at all in what to do. So, I dunno, we just kinda stood around awkwardly for a bit and then went home.”

“And you still decided to give it another shot?”

“Something about repetition of trials,” Rasha said.

It was Truu’s turn to laugh. “Well, you’re in luck. I can do awkward standing around at an elite level.”

“You’re off to a solid start,” said Rasha. “Why don’t we sit down and chat?”

As Rasha moved across the room, Truu regarded them. Rasha was tall, much taller than Truu, and their frame was slender, with sharp angles. I like the shape of your head, Truu thought and, blessedly, did not say.

Rather, following Rasha’s lead, Truu sat, face to face.

“So, should we be talking about Capresian spices?” Truu said.

“You mean Calumnian spices?”

“Sure.”

Rasha stares disbelieving for a moment. “You…have no idea what that means, do you?”

“Not a clue,” Truu laughed at the predicament.

“I’m not sure whether to be amused or offended,” said Rasha.

“Yeah, sorry, I don’t know, I told a friend I’d check this thing out, so I just said the first thing that popped into my mind.”

“And I thought the last meeting was awkward.”

“Sorry. I just…I guess I don’t get it. This whole mass meeting trend. Like, why is it a thing?  Couldn’t we do this same thing over a link?”

“Not really,” said Rasha. “Like, over a link, I couldn’t touch your arm. May I?”

Truu nodded. Rasha reached out and set a hand on their arm. “See, I’m real.”

Truu flinched. “I never thought you weren’t.”

Rasha leaned back. “I don’t mean it literally, it’s just…when was the last time you spent mass time with someone you weren’t having sex with?”

Truu flinched again. This was getting heavy.

“Uh, I don’t know…there was a retirement about four months ago.”

“Okay, so if we eliminate sex and rites, how long has it been?”

Truu thought for a moment. “Uh, I guess I don’t know.”

“Isn’t that weird?”

“Not really. I mean, I don’t think about it very much,” Truu said.

“Yeah, that’s the problem. At least, it is to me. Everything is so completely connected, so completely integrated and optimized and…efficient!  But there isn’t enough of this.” Rasha put a hand on each of Truu’s shoulders.

“I have to admit, it feels nice,” Truu said. “But then, what are we actually supposed to do?  Do they really think we are going to talk about those weird new spices, or whatever?”

“Okay so two things,” said Rasha. “First, Calumnian spices are fucking amazing, like, a symphony on your palate, and they’re not weird or new- they’ve been around forever, we just didn’t used to be able to get them here.  Second, who gives a fig about what we’re supposed to do? We’re not on a clock, being supervised, part of some great system. We’re two people having a conversation in the real world.”

Truu bristled. “Are you saying everything else is fake?”

Rasha considered this. “Poor choice of words. Not fake, just, artificial, I guess. Something less authentic.”

“You’re a real hippy, you know that, right?” Truu said, good-naturedly.

“And you’re a grade-a conformist. You should come for a walk with me. How about around the block- there’s a little park that’s still nice, just a hundred yards away from the building.  I promise, the sun won’t melt you. Do you remember the sun?”

“Asshole,” said Truu, smiling. “You know what, that actually sounds fun. But I’ve got a sim in-“ a glance at the watch- “thirty minutes, and I still haven’t picked the specs yet.”

“Is it a full experience plane?” Rasha said.

“Yeah.”

“Can I come along?  Not like a sib, but one of those neighborhood ones.”

“I’d like that,” said Truu, “but there’s a couple-day wait on this one; that’s why I had it booked in advance.”

“I can get into it, don’t worry about that,” said Rasha. “If you’re cool with it, give me your info and we’ll go in together.”

What do they mean, ‘I can get into it?’  This sure doesn’t seem like anybody important.

“Yeah, why not?” said Truu.

“Cool. Yeah. Let’s share an entire lifetime this afternoon and be back in time for dinner. That’s way less weird than meeting in person to talk about food.”  

They kind of have a point, Truu thought, smiling.

(1791 words)

Published in: on November 8, 2018 at 8:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Chapter 7

Chapter 7: Chein Finds a Loophole

“No way, no way, absolutely not. I don’t have to, you can’t make me, not gonna happen.”

“Carem, please,” said Chein, “don’t hold back. Feel free to be as direct as you want to be. I’m sure you won’t hurt anybody’s feelings.”

“I’ve told you since day 1, I go in alone, no teammates, and certainly no interns. I am NOT a teacher,” Carem said, “and if you read my assignment, you’ll see that it SPECIFICALLY says I will not have to train anybody to do what I do.”

“Yeah, well, considering how piss-poor you are at your job,” Chein grumbled, “we never thought it would be an issue. And yet, here we are.”

“And I said no. End of discussion.”

Through this entire exchange, nary a word was uttered by the fresh-faced youth sharing a portion of the video link. Their eyes alternated between Chein and Carem, following the conversation that would be of so much consequence to their future.

“What if we make a deal, like, cut a half day per week for the duration?”

“Like you could afford to lose me,” Carem said, haughtily.

“It’s a risk is be willing to take, for one,” said Chein.

Vair couldn’t take any more of this silence.

“You know, I don’t want to cause any problems. There are some other posts-“

“Vair?” said Chein, smiling and blinking, “please shut up, would you?”

“And they talk!  Did you hear that talking?” Carem was on a roll. “And the voice!  What an awful voice!”

“Look, Carem, your assignment says what it says, and we’ve got to work with that. Why don’t you give me and Vair a minute to talk.”

“There’s nothing to talk about!  It can’t happen!”

“Hey,” said Chein, more softly, “I’m just gonna let him down easy.”

Carem snorted. “Fine. Call me back.”

Carem’s image vanished from the screen, leaving only Chein and a vanquished-looking Vair.

“It’s actually not that bad, working with Carem,” said Chein.

“Yeah, sure, I’ll bet,” Vair said.

“Anyway, sorry about that.”

“Look, it’s fine. You don’t have to do…any of this.”  Vair gestured around at, well, everything. “I get it. I know the score. It’s not like I don’t have any other opportunities.”

“What do you mean ‘any of this?’” said Chein.

“The whole ‘letting me down easy’ thing. Carem made things perfectly clear.  And, you know, I could hear what you said before he disconnected.”

Chein laughed. “Oh, you little idiot. You actually think I was letting Carem get their way?  No fucking way. I just needed a few minutes to figure out a workaround.”

“A workaround?  Look, I appreciate it, but if the assignment Carem signed says no trainees, that’s pretty clear.”

“Hey, I do workarounds for a living. And I’m damn good at it. Just gimme a minute.”

Vair shrugged. “Okay.”

For a full minute they just stared at one another through the monitors, Chein pursing lips and Vair rapping fingers on the armrest.

“Bingo!” Chein said loudly. Vair started upright.

With a flip of a few fingers, a connection to Carem was initiated.

“Are you gonna tell me what your idea is?” Vair said, as they waited for Carem to patch in.

“Just trust me.”

Carem’s face appeared. “Ah, good, so you got rid of…Hey, you’re still here!”

“Hi Carem,” said Vair.

“Chein, darling,” Carem said, “perhaps I was unclear before, and I get it, that’s on me, but-“

“This isn’t-“

“I DO NOT WANT AN INTERN!” Carem shouted.

“And you don’t have one,” said Chein, smiling good-naturedly. “I’d like to introduce you to Vair, MY intern.”

“Hey!” said Vair.

“Whoa!” said Carem.

“You can’t do that!” they both said, smiling at each other at the accidental coordination.

“Carem, as you know, I have almost unlimited authority to accept new trainees for my department. That’s what’s written in MY assignment.”

“But I don’t want-“

“Vair?”

“Yeah?”

“Please shut up, m’kay?”

Vair stopped speaking.

Carem threw their hands in the air dramatically. “Fine. Whatever. Your intern, sure.”

“Okay then!  So we are going to run a basic test plane to acclimate Vair to sys-admin insertions.”

“Uh, excuse me? No we’re not,” said Carem. “Your assignment doesn’t involve any insertions, period. Give the kid a coding lesson or something.”

“Well, given my nearly unlimited authority over trainees, which, again, is plainly spelled out in my assignment, I’ve decided that Vair would benefit from getting a basic course on insertion, so they can, you know, see what it’s like on the inside.”

Vair smiled. Carem opened their mouth to protest, but finding no words, swiftly closed it again, making a clapping sound that persuaded through the connection.

A moment passed.

“I truly despise you, you know that, right?” said Carem.

“Whereas to you, I am serenely indifferent, as a person might feel towards a skunk, or an ant, or any being of lesser mental capacity.”

Vair burst out laughing.

“Hey, kid!” said Carem, sharply, “don’t you fucking start with me. I will not hesitate to make your life an unmitigated hell if you fuck with me.”

“Get ready for insertion in ten, Carem. I’ll send Vair in shortly.”

Fumbling with the controls, Chein stages and initiated a new plane, and after exchanging brisk and professional nods with Carem, sent them in. Chein and Vair watched as Carem’s head laid back and lost visible consciousness.

“‘A pleasure to work with,’ I think I heard you said,” Vair said.

“Carem grows on you. Like a cancer,” said Chein.

“So what do I need to know?”

“Surprisingly little. I’m going to insert you, but you won’t lose any consciousness of who you are. Well, there might be a momentary disorientation but that will fade.”

“Sounds pretty easy.”

“It is,” said Chein. “Oh, and for diagnostic purposes, I want you to remember three things, okay?  Ball, flag, tree. Can you repeat that back to me?”

“Ball, flag, tree?”

“Perfect. I’ll ask you later to remember those things, so try to keep them in mind.  Okay, ten seconds until insertion.”

“That was pretty brilliant, by the way.”

Chein looked quizzical.

“The trainee thing.”

“Oh, yes,” Chein watched as Vair slid into the sim and lost consciousness. “I do try.”

Vair awoke as though from a deep dream. What just happened?  Where am I?

“Hey, kid, wakey, wakey.”

I know that voice. And I’m not thrilled to hear it. Who is this bastard?  Chein? No, that’s not right…Carem!

Hi Carem,” Vair said, trying to sound more alert and aware than they really were.

“You remember me. Impressive.”

“Not my first insertion, you know.”

“Yeah, well, this has almost nothing in common with whatever fantasy worlds you’ve spent your weekends living through. For one thing, you’re still you, know what I’m saying?”

Vair nodded.

“Can you tell me your name?” said Carem.

Vair had to think for a moment. “Vair.”

“Good.  And I’d imagine Chein told you to remember a few words just before patching you in.”

“Ball, flag, tree.”  Somehow, it was easier to remember this than Vair’s own name.

“Not bad, not bad.”

“So what are we going to do here?”

“Not a damn thing,” Carem said. “We just hang out a couple minutes, and then head back. Only I’m going to give you three different words for you to remember,okay?”

“Okay,” Vair nodded smartly.

“Vituperation, obloquy, and synecdoche.  Got it?”

“Vi- what?”

“Vituperation.”

“Oboly?”

“Obloquy.” Carem pronounces it slowly.

“Obloquy. And synecdoche.”

“Right.”

“Vituperation, obloquy, synecdoche.”

“Perfect. Now we just wait a couple minutes, and Chein will beam us back up, so to speak.”

“Okay.”

Carem walked about ten paces away, sat, and turned their back on Vair, who, confused, also sat, still facing Carem.

Several minutes passed.

“Are you sure we aren’t supposed to be doing anything else?” Vair said.

There was no response.

“Carem?”

Carem didn’t move.

Vair stood and walked around to the other side. Carem’s eyes were closed, their posture was upright.

“You okay?” Vair slightly shook Carem’s shoulder.

“Shh!”’said Carem, “be quiet and wait.”

Just as the words were spoken, a rush of light overcame Vair, replaced by a slow recognition of the office chair under the butt.

“Whoa.”

Vair’s eyes adjusted within seconds, and the image of Chein and Carem appeared. Carem looked groggy, and Chein was looking at Vair with concern.

“You okay?”

Vair opened and closed his mouth twice, adjusting to the feel of real motion.  “Yeah, I think so. Synecdoche, uh, vit- uh, vitalization? Euphoria?”

“You don’t sound okay,” said Chein.

Carem, still coming to, started laughing.

“Sorry!” said Vair, “I just forgot them!  But I’m sure about synecdoche!”

Carem was still laughing.

“Vair,” said Chein, “what were the three words I told you to remember before you went in?”

“Ball, flag, tree,” Vair said, without hesitation.

Carem was howling now, nearly falling out of the chair.

“Did Carem tell you to remember three other words?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s what’s known as hazing. Don’t worry about it.”

“Hazing me,” said Vair, abashed, “or hazing you?”

“Both!” Carem said, catching their breath, “definitely both of you.”

“I’m serious though,” Chein said to Vair, with mock sincerity, “he really can be a delight.”

(1533 words)

Published in: on November 7, 2018 at 9:25 pm  Leave a Comment