NaNo: Chapter 21

Chapter 21: Vair Ventures Deeper

“I still don’t understand why we started so early,” Vair said, yawning and stretching.

“I told you, we need to brief on a few ideas before we meet up with Carem,” Chein said. “If we are going to further this research, we need to go in with a solid game plan.”

“Okay, but we do pre-meetings all the time,” said Vair. “That doesn’t usually push up our start time. And does this mean we are cutting out early?  Because if not, you have us working beyond my assigned hours for today.”

Chein took a deep breath. “Vair, if you want to be at the top of this profession, sometimes you need to focus less on your time obligations and more on the goals in front of us.”

“I call shenanigans. We aren’t the only techs in this sector; hell, we probably aren’t the only techs working on this exact same thing. So why should we carry more than our burden?  Can’t they pick up where we left off?”

“Vair, let me ask you something,” said Chein, speaking slowly and patiently. “What is your ultimate goal, working in this assignment?”

“Get promoter and retire,” Vair shot back immediately.

“Okay, and that’s typical. Most people would say that. But for me, the goal is to make a meaningful difference. I want to be great at this job.”

“Okay, but why?” Vair said. “We don’t have capitalism anymore, so it’s not like your retirement is going to be any better if you hit certain goals beyond your promotion metrics.”

“See, this is where we disagree. I think that if I can make a big difference, my retirement will be more rewarding, because I will get to spend the rest of my life thinking about my accomplishments.”

“Okay, well, I guess I can see that,” said Vair. “Just, try not to let your hyperactive motivation spill over into my work schedule, could you?”

“You know,” said Chein, “the longer this briefing takes, the longer until we get started, Janice the longer your day is going to be. Any more questions about my work ethic?”

“None,” said Vair. “So what’s on the agenda for today?”

“It’s another meta-plane test,” Chein said. “I have some theories I’d like to discuss with you, and then we can figure out how to test and refine them.”

“Wyndos told me to steer clear of this field of study,” said Vair. “I know that Wyndos doesn’t have any supervision control over me, but I do respect their opinion, so I’m just, I dunno, letting you know about it.”

“To be frank with you, I don’t know Wyndos and I’m not sure why they even know about this, since we are keeping the research pretty quiet. My guess is that Wyndos has heard some inaccurate rumors and half-truths and thinks that this whole field is dangerous somehow.”

“I dunno about that,” said Vair. “Wyndos was my mentor, and seems to know a lot of stuff. I think they’re important, and not the type to be taken in by rumors.”

“Well, regardless, you and I both know that neither of us is in any danger from these tests. Perhaps Wyndos should be more worried about Carem, who could disintegrate at almost any time, god willing.”

Vair chuckled. “Don’t even joke about that!  I was terrified when Carem was missing.”

“Yes, well, we know more now than we did then. And that’s the whole point of research, isn’t it?” Chein said. “We move the horizons of our knowledge farther and farther afield.”

“Very motivational, you should teach somewhere,” said Vair. “But for now, let’s get today’s stuff over with.”

Chein sighed. “Fine. So here’s the theory I’m working with, and you can let me know your thoughts. It seems like we can maintain awareness and memory any time we jump from one plane-level to another, but if we go two planes away, we lose all awareness of the meta-plane.”

“Sounds right,” said Vair, “one jump is fine, more than that isn’t.”

“That’s not precisely what I said,” observed Chein.  “We haven’t tested ‘more than one.’ We’ve tested two.”

“…which is more than one?”

“It is, but it is an insufficient data set to determine that ANY number higher than one will create a problem. Another plausible explanation is that awareness alternates. In other words, one level is fine, two levels is not, but three levels is fine, alternating ad infinitum.”

“Why would that be the case?” Vair said.

“I have no idea. And honestly, I think the simpler thesis as you stated it is more likely correct. But I am acknowledging that we haven’t ruled out the alternative theory, which is what I want to do today.”

“Okay…” said Vair, skeptically.

“One of the things you need to learn in this field,” Chein said, “is how to limit your conclusions to the data you actually have, and not make any logical leaps unless you absolutely must. Here, we can run a simple test and be more confident in our theory.”

“Fair enough,” Vair said, “so how do you propose to test it?”

“Did you finish putting together that clone we discussed?” said Chein.

“Of the meta-plane station?  Yeah, I cloned the physical state and added in the insertion protocols. I haven’t tested it yet but it’s an exact replica of the one you made.”

“Good. Here’s what I’m thinking: we put you and Carem into the first plane. Let’s call them level one, level two, and level three for short. So you both go to level one. Then, you upload your clone into level two. After you’ve done that, we’ll send Carem to level two, and they can make the jump solo to level three using the asset you programmed.”

“What if my asset doesn’t work?  Should we test it first?”

“No need,” said Chein. “I’ll set up a ten minute auto-extract from level two. If your program fails, Carem will just have to wait a few minutes and will be extracted back to level one, and from there, home.”

“Where will I be during all this?  Still on level one?”

“Yes,” said Chein. “You stay there until it’s over, just in case I need to communicate with Carem, since we can’t communicate across more than one level.”

“You mean, we can’t communicate two levels away.  We haven’t tested more than that.”

Chein smiled. “You’re a quick study. Bravo. And we can test the comms further on this experiment, too.”

“But we might not be able to communicate at all with Carem when they’re on level three, right?”

“That’s correct,” Chein said, “but we shouldn’t need to, since it’s just an empty plane.”  

“How long will I be stuck on level one?”

“We really can’t know that.  Could be a few minutes, could be hours.”

“Sounds boring,” Vair said.  “Can you at least give me something to do while I wait?”

“Sure,” said Chein, smiling, “I’ll program in a book on research protocols, so you can study while you wait.”

“Yay, great, thanks,” said Vair, in monotone.  

“That’s settled, then.  Let’s get Carem in here.”

A few seconds passed, and Carem’s image appeared on screen.

“Howdy, folks, what have you got for me today?” said Carem.

“Oh, nothing special, just a three-step jump down a rabbit hole from which you may or may not return intact,” said Chein.

“Just another day at the office, then,” Carem said.

“Glad you feel that way.  Get ready for upload one. You’ll be going in with Vair.”

“Oh great, if anything goes wrong, that’s exactly who I want watching my back end.”

“Vair programmed one of the plane steps here, so you’d best show a little respect,” said Chein.

“Is it too late to make some adjustments?” said Vair, smiling.

“Fine, fine.  Just…be ready in case I need your help, Chein.”

“Roger that.  Uploading now.”

Vair momentarily lost consciousness, and came to on the familiar test plane.  

So much easier than the first time, Vair thought, I just need to stay calm and breathe through it.

“Okay,” said Carem, “let’s get this over with.  What are we doing next?”

“Vair is going to use the terminal to install a sim upload station in the next plane,” said Chein.  “Once it’s ready, you’ll go down solo and use it to jump to a third plane. You probably won’t be able to talk to me, though we’ll test the comms again, but you should be able to talk to Vair.”

“Okay,” said Carem, “and then what?”

“Then nothing.  That plane will be basically empty.  You just go there and wait for extraction.  We have you programmed to be extracted all the way back to me, and we’re gonna see how much you remember from the experience.”

“You two are insane.  Okay, let’s get it over with.  Vair, get off your ass and do your thing.”

Vair went to the terminal and started the upload.  On the status screen, Vair could see the upload station manifesting, and it completed within seconds.

“All good, Chein,” said Vair.

“Okay, now Carem, you’ll be heading in.  Wait for Vair’s instructions when you get there, and then we’ll send you down the real rabbit hole.”

“Can’t wait,” said Carem, “sounds like it’ll be a lot of-”

Carem slumped over as the upload took effect.  

Vair waited several seconds, and then activated the comm.  “Can you hear me, Carem?”

“Loud and clear.  This place is desolate!”

“Well, you won’t be there long,” said Vair.  “But first, we’re gonna check your comms with Chein.  Chein, go ahead.”

“Carem, the code is blue station, red station.  Do you copy?” said Chein.

A beat.

“Carem, did you catch that?” Vair said.

“Nope, haven’t heard Chein’s voice at all,” said Carem.

“Okay, the comms don’t follow, once again, through the second link,” said Chein.  “Vair, go ahead and have Carem take the next leap.”

“Roger,” said Vair.

“Who’s Roger?” said Carem.

“Don’t be an ass.  Go ahead and prepare for another upload.  There’s a station in front of you, just click the only button on the screen.”

“Okay, going there now,” said Carem.  “And pushing the button-”

The comm link went silent.

“I think Carem’s in,” said Vair.  

“Good,” Chein said.  “Seems like your programming was successful.  Carem, can you hear me?”

No response.

“Now you try,” said Chein.

“Carem, can you hear me?” Vair said.

Silence.

“Okay, I’m revising my theory to ‘no comm links between more than one plane,’” said Vair.

“Seems likely.  I guess next time we’ll need another person to go with us, so we can be positioned on several levels at once for comm purposes.”

“It’s like a meta-physical version of telephone,” said Vair.

“Like what?”

“Never mind.  So, I just wait here until Carem re-emerges?”

“Yes, and we don’t know how long that will be, because we don’t know how the time dilation works between multiple planes.  How long did you put on the auto-extract?”

“What auto-extract?” said Vair.

“On your uploader.  Did you use ten minutes, like I did?”

Vair thought for a moment, and then felt fear rising.

“I didn’t put in anything but the upload program!  You said to clone the station and the upload program.  You didn’t say anything about the extraction!”

“That’s part of the-  You know what, never mind.  It’s not important. We just need to fix the problem.  If Carem isn’t back in a few minutes, we need to figure out some extraction options.”

“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.”

“No, no, this is not the time to panic,” said Chein.  “And even if it were, that’s not a very effective panic.  We just need to wait now.”

“Should I come back up?  I mean, so we can work on this together?”

“No,” Chein said, “I need you to stay there in case Carem winds up on your plane.  Or on the second level, where you can communicate and I can’t. Just stay put for now.”

“This is how I felt when Carem didn’t come back the first time, only now it’s worse because you’re here and I feel like I seriously fucked something up.”

“Again, we need to focus on the problem, not the assignment of blame,” Chein said.  “Stay put and try to becalm yourself. Maybe read that book I uploaded, or something.  I don’t care. Just stop fretting, you’re stressing me out.”

Vair wanted desperately to respond, but managed to remain silent.  

At least Chein can’t see what I do here, Vair thought, pacing rapidly back and forth across the small test plane.  

Eons passed, by Vair’s reckoning, though a dispassionate observer might have clocked it at twenty minutes.  Chein’s voice broke the silence.

“Okay, it has been twenty minutes and nothing has happened.  I’m going to bring you back, Vair, and we can figure out our next steps from here.”

“Can’t I just go down there and add the programming?” Vair said.

“I thought about that.  And it might be the answer.  But then again, it might put you in danger, and I don’t want to be responsible for that.  You would be without comms, and if anything were to happen, we would have lost two techs instead of one.  So come back here and we’ll figure this out together.”

“I’m in deep shit, aren’t I?”

“Maybe,” said Chein.  “Right now, it seems like maybe we both are.”

(2232 words)

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Published in: on November 23, 2018 at 1:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Chapter 20

Chapter 20: Quarla Takes a Risk

“I think I can feel my heart beating in my foot.  Is that a thing? Am I having a heart attack?”

“You’re not having a heart attack, Quarla, it’s just nerves,” Mensa said.  “Well, that, and possibly an acute attack of cold feet.”

“Hey, I’m not getting cold feet.  Who said anything about getting cold feet?” said Quarla.

“I’m just saying, if you’d rather back out, I understand.  Just like we talked about, we have other options.”

“We don’t though,” said Quarla.  “Either we confront this head-on, or we’ll be hiding for the rest of our lives.  Not to mention the new assignment…”

“I wouldn’t count on getting out of the assignment if I were you,” Mensa said.  “After all, the whole purpose of this meeting is to get your new assignment. They don’t just release you because some programming toadie algorithmed you into obsolescence.”

“What about the full-time research idea?  That might work,” said Quarla.

“I told you, it was just spitballing.  It’s a bad idea.”

“It’s not a bad idea from where I’m sitting!”

“It’s just too risky.  We’d have to basically fake months and months of research data, and then what?  You think they’ll just turn a blind eye to us getting into a relationship? You think they won’t happen to notice that I’m the same person you were link stalking, who got you into this mess in the first place?”

“Stranger things have happened,” said Quarla, meekly.

“But not often.  I’m telling you: it’s a bad idea.”

“Ugh, fine,” Quarla said.  “Maybe I should just take the new assignment, not say anything about you.  I mean, if they start asking questions, couldn’t you get in trouble, too?”

“I told you already, I’m prepared to take that risk.”

“Well, maybe I’m not.”

“What’s the risk for you?” said Mensa.

“I mean, maybe I’m not willing to risk your freedom to try to save my own behind.  Don’t laugh! I made that choice once before, and I sure as hell could do it again.”

Mensa smiled.  “I know, Quarla, I know you did.  And I know you would. But if you really love me, you need to listen to me: let’s go out on that limb together.  What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

“I hope you’re being rhetorical,” said Quarla. “Because the worst thing that could happen is that I get more time on my punishment, you get a punishment, and we both get our sim memories wiped.  Then we’ll be doing hard labor for years, with no idea why.”

“Well, that’s not technically true,” said Mensa, “I mean, we wouldn’t remember the actual THING, but we’d remember that it was the reason-”

“Oh, shut up, you know what I mean,” Quarla said.

“Look, it’s almost time.  Just link in and ask them if I can join.  Tell them I’m standing by.”

Quarla sighed.  “Fine. I guess we’re doing this.”

“Hey,” said Mensa, smiling kindly, “it’ll be okay, whatever happens.”

“Thanks,” said Quarla, disconnecting.

Somehow I don’t think any of this is going to be okay.  This is stupid: they probably only have a few minutes to tell me my next assignment.  They probably won’t even listen to me, no matter what I say. They don’t care what I want or what I think or what my experience is.  They just want to get this done, and expend as few labor-hours as possible to get their beloved system running smoothly.

The time had arrived.  Quarla opened the link.

Three faces appeared, and Quarla glanced to the side screen to make note of their names. 

Vo, Wyndos, and Trava.  No details. Of course: I’m a reprobate, they probably want to keep their identities secret in case I get all link stalkerish, again.

“Hi, you must be Quarla.  My name is Vo. And this is Trava and Wyndos.  We are members of the judicial commission.”

“Hello,” said Quarla.

“So as you know,” said Vo, “your present assignment has been eliminated.  It represents a big step forward for your sector, and you should be proud of your hard work.”

Quarla grunted and nodded.

“As you might imagine, such a big efficiency leap has led to some pretty big rewards for the programmers responsible.  After speaking with my fellow commissioners,” Vo nodded to Wyndos and Trava, who returned the nods, “we have decided that you should also share in some of that benefit.”

Are they about to release me?  Is this my retirement? Oh, shit, I didn’t prepare for this: what do I do if they retire me?  I guess I just keep my fat mouth shut.

“As of today, you have just under four years remaining on your assignment.  We have decided to offer you a choice of two assignments, each carrying a three-year duration.  If you complete either satisfactorily, we will consider the balance of your rehabilitation assignment period waived.”

Ah, just scraps.  

“Trava will explain your choices,” said Vo.  

“Thank you, Vo.  And congratulations, Quarla, I’m sure you must be happy with this development.”

“Uh, yeah, I guess,” said Quarla.  

Trava laughed.  “Ah, such enthusiasm.  It’s okay. You don’t need to have any particular reaction for our benefit.  Here’s what we’ve put together: the first option is an interesting one: placing sensors on submerged piping.  It’s too fine for bots, but it does involve rather heavy mass labor. As an incentive, though, it is only a three day assignment, so you would have an additional day each week for leisure.”

“Or,” Trava continued, “if you would prefer something more similar to your last assignment, we have-”

“May I say something?” Quarla broke in.  Trava leaned back, surprised at the interruption.  After a quick glance at Wyndos, Trava nodded.

“I, um, look, this is hard for me, but I need to come clean about something.”

Wyndos, who had been sitting stoically through the meeting to this point, leaned forward, their interest clearly piqued.

“When I first came before you,” said Quarla, “and you asked me about my, um, actions, I wasn’t completely straight with you.”

“Quarla,” said Vo, “from time to time people try to change their stories, to get some different result from the disciplinary process, and you should know that ship has sailed.”

“This isn’t that,” said Quarla, “it’s something I should have told you that I didn’t say before.”

Vo started to respond, but Wyndos held up a hand.  “Go ahead, please.”

“The person I came to visit, the one I had been following on the link, their name is Mensa.”

“Yes, that’s in the record,” said Trava.

“Well, the reason I did it is, me and Mensa had a sim experience together.”

Trava started to speak, and again, Wyndos held up a hand.

“Continue,” said Wyndos.

“It was a standard plane, and we lived long lives.  We fell in love. We spent decades together. It’s…it’s hard to explain.  That’s just so LONG to spend with another person.”

Vo leaned forward to speak, and Wyndos raised a hand, but Vo ignored it.  “Are you trying to say you remember the plane? Or is this from your debrief?”

“I’m saying I remember it.  All of it. Every day of it.  And I’ve been living with those feelings ever since.”

The commissioners were silent, exchanging looks.  

“Pardon this question, Quarla,” said Wyndos, “but how can we ascertain the truth of what you are telling us, particularly inasmuch as you did not mention this during your initial interviews with the commission?”

Quarla thought a moment.  

“That’s really two questions, and I have two different answers, if you’ll indulge me.”  

Wyndos nodded.

“Why didn’t I say anything before?  Well, I figured that if I told you, you’d just wipe that memory, and then I wouldn’t have it anymore.  If I just took my punishment- I know you like to call it rehabilitation but let’s not fool around with euphemisms here- I could keep the memories for the rest of my life.  And I don’t know how to explain this to someone who hasn’t experienced it, but that trade was worth it.”

“Then why would you tell us now?” Trava said.

“Well, that’s related to the second question, which is why should you believe me?  And the answer is, uh, I found them. I found Mensa. And they remember too! I have them standing by on the link.”

The commissioners were visibly startled.  

“Can you please give us a moment, Quarla?” said Vo, as the link went dead.  

So there it is, Quarla thought.  I put it out there.  It’s on them now, whatever they do.  

After a moment, the link resumed.

“Quarla, go ahead and link in Mensa,” Vo said.

Quarla initiated the link.  Mensa’s face joined those on the screen.

“Hello, I’m Mensa.”

“Quarla has been telling us quite a story,” said Vo.  “Maybe you can help clear a few things up.”

“I’ll certainly try.”

“Do you, in fact, still recall the relationship you had with Quarla on the plane?” said Wyndos.

“Yes.”

The three commissioners exchanged meaningful looks.

“Why did you not report this anomaly before now?” Wyndos said.

“That’s a good question,” Mensa said.  “At first, I didn’t realize it. I didn’t know that Quarla was link stalking me, as you folks termed it, and if I was aware that my memories were intact, I don’t remember it now.  Then, Quarla showed up at my door, and I was stunned. And at that point, I knew. I remembered everything.”

Vo started to break in with a question, and Wyndos’ hand came up, accompanied by a warning glare.

“So then,” Mensa continued, “I was put on the spot and had to make a fast choice.  I thought that if I admitted to remembering, I would be brought up on charges. It doesn’t make sense now, but it did at the time.  I also…I also didn’t want to lose them. The memories. I’m sorry, I know I’m not supposed to say that, but it’s true. I didn’t want you to take them away from me, because they made me happy.”

“This is most unusual,” Trava said, “in fact, I don’t think I have ever heard of anything quite like it.  It’s rare enough for the memories to persist in an individual, but TWO individuals, from the very same plane, who had a relationship on that plane, no less?  I wonder, Wyndos, whether there is any way we can verify what they are telling us. Is there a way to test the memories?”

“I cannot conceive of any test more reliable than that which they have just passed,” said Wyndos.

“What do you mean?” said Trava.

“There was never a rational explanation for Quarla’s misdeeds.  The commission report indicates that their refusal to explain is largely the basis for the assignment.  That explanation has just been furnished. Credibly, in my judgment.”

“Wyndos,” said Vo, “we can’t disclose that sort of detail to a person who is the subject-”

“That is unimportant,” Wyndos said, raising a hand to silence Vo.  “Any doubt as to the veracity of Quarla’s account cannot withstand the addition of Mensa’s testimony.  Risking retirement to help a person who- if the alternative explanation is believed- is a complete stranger?  Inconceivable. Irrational. Highly unlikely, given what we have just heard.”

“So,” said Quarla, “what is going to happen to us?”

Mensa took a deep breath and sat back in the chair.

“We will, of course,” said Vo, “deliberate about this, and notify you when we have reached consensus on your next assignment, given this interesting turn of events.”

“No,” said Wyndos, quietly, “we will not.”  

“Excuse me?” Vo said.  

Trava made a face of manifest confusion.

“We will not deliberate any further.  Quarla, your assignment is over: you are retired.  Mensa, thank you for your participation.”

“Now hold on a minute!” Vo erupted.  “You’re just one member of this commission, and we deserve to have our views aired and discussed!  It’s the protocols-”

“Vo,” said Wyndos, remaining calm.  “I am sending some information to your screen, and to you, Trava.  Please read it before you continue.”

Vo glanced to the side, and the anger dissolved. Trava’s eyes widened.

“So you’re…why didn’t you tell us? What are you even-”

“Unimportant,” Wyndos said, dismissing the question with a hand wave.  “Quarla, suitable accommodations for your new status will be arranged within the week.  If you and Mensa decide to put in a request to double, or for special sim arrangements, please use my name in making the request, and I assure you they will be given priority consideration.”

The last thing Quarla saw as the link ended was the stunned faces of Trava and Vo.

For several seconds, Mensa and Quarla were silent.  

“So, that went well,” Mensa ventured.

“Who is Wyndos?” Quarla said, still not reacting to the decision.  

“I have no idea,” said Mensa. “Someone important, I guess.”

“Wanna double?” said Quarla.

Mensa laughed.  “Yeah, I kinda do.”

(2159 words)

Published in: on November 21, 2018 at 7:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Chapter 19

Chapter 19: Wyndos Keeps a Secret

Transportation was, as always, readily available, but Wyndos decided to cover the final half-mile to the meeting place on foot.  Of course, this decision was readily and enthusiastically approved by Reesh, on the basis of paranoia. After all, one never could tell who had access to the transit bot logs.  

Once again, Wyndos was not alone: Covum tagged along.  

It is just the same as a solitary walk, Wyndos thought, given my friend’s penchant for remaining silent.  

It was autumn, though this late in the season, the once-vibrant colors had faded and decayed.  Brown, ecru, and off-white vegetation littered the mostly-abandoned park. Still, the air smelled crisp, and Wyndos made a point of taking in deep breaths through the nose to savor the unconditioned air of the outdoors.  

Seasons change, but it all means nothing, doesn’t it?  All of this that we hold so dear. We really had no idea, no sense of our own insignificance.  

It was a pervasive, depressing thought, one that Wyndos couldn’t seem to shake, not since reading Chein’s report.  

I wonder if they- whoever they are- have perfected the tools we are still trying to implement.  Perhaps they are observing our motions, studying us, compiling data. Worse yet, maybe they are indifferent to us.  Perhaps one day they will simply turn us off.

These thoughts were futile; there was nothing for it but to press on.  

Ahead, Wyndos saw Reesh, early as always, fortified on the ledge of the gazebo, seated and looking their way.  Reesh’s eyes followed Wyndos and Corvum and they closed the final yards between them.

“Thank you for coming,” said Reesh.  “I gather we have much to discuss.”

“A few important items,” Wyndos said, “beginning with my compliments, and surely I can speak for Covum in this matter as well.  Your bargain with the Bastards has solved some serious logistical challenges.”

Reesh laughed.  “Wyndos, you are the LAST person I would expect to use that term, but I never cease to find it funny.  Bastards, indeed.”

“A slip of the tongue: I meant Bastians, of course.”

“Naturally.  And thank you for the compliment.  Not to pat myself on the head too fervently, but the latest estimate is that I have reduced labor-hours by approximately twelve hundred per week through this deal alone.”

Covum and Wyndos exchanged a meaningful look.

“That segues to an issue I need to raise with you, Reesh.  The tabulation of efficiency markers is a finicky thing, and by claiming credit for the direct and indirect labor savings, you are creating some unintended consequences of which you should be aware.”

“Oh?” Reesh seemed disappointed and surprised.  

“An example was brought to my attention just yesterday.  A programmer was able to make an adjustment that eliminated- completely eliminated, mind you- a mass labor, four-day assignment.”

“Must have been punitive,” Reesh observed.

Covum grunted.

“Unfortunately,” Wyndos continued, “because the adjustment relied upon a bot that in turn relied upon your titanium acquisition, control credited the savings to you, rather than to the programmer.”

“Ah, I see the issue,” said Reesh.  

Covum rasped and barked.  “Sorry,” they said, sniffing to clear their nose, “I have some interesting details of that situation to share.”

Wyndos and Reesh both looked at Covum inquisitively.

“That same programmer, er, the one who eliminated the job?  Just before that adjustment, they came to me as part of the housing commission and asked to double with a love interest.  I had no problem with it, but one of the other commissioners made the approval conditional on the programmer’s next promotion.”

“Why didn’t you speak up?” Reesh said.  “I thought any commissioner could approve a doubling request, and besides, you’re far senior to all the other members.”

“Well, AHEM, excuse me, um, I wasn’t in a very, uhhh…talkative mood that day.”

Wyndos nodded. “So that means not only did the programmer miss out on credit, they missed out on a promotion, and with it, the doubling approval.  Quite a train of consequences.”

Reesh sighed.  “Yes, I see it.  I did enjoy seeing my score up so high.  Call it vanity. Still, I’m the one who had to endure meeting those heathens in order to get a fair deal, if you can call forced combustion manufacturing fair.”

“A troubling but fair price to pay,” said Wyndos.

“What about the costs of the delivery and drop-off bots?  I had charged those to myself, as well, and they partially offset the gains from the titanium.”

“Reesh, are you so concerned about your personal metrics?  You could have retired at any point in the last decade. What are a few labor-hours or power requisitions to you?”

“It’s personal,” Reesh said.  “I know it’s hard to understand, but metrics like this make my assignment meaningful.”

Meaningful, yes.  That is precisely what I need.  A way to find meaning in this chaos, Wyndos thought.

“So what’s going to happen to the rehabilitative assignee?” Reesh said.

“Who?” said Wyndos.  

Covum grunted.

“You said that this poor, unpromoted programmer eliminated a four-day mass assignment, which is probably punitive.  What’s going to happen with that?”

“If this circumstance has ever arisen before, I am not aware of it,” said Wyndos.  “I would expect them to be reassigned.”

“By whom, though?  I don’t think the controllers have authority for that sort of thing.”

Wyndos pursed their lips.  “I suppose we will have to gather the judicial committee again.  I will sit, this time, and we can evaluate how to best satisfy justice given the new circumstances.”

“AHEM, maybe just let them go,” said Covum, sniffling.

“It usually isn’t that simple,” said Reesh, “we have to maintain some modicum of uniformity in our punishments, or they won’t serve as a deterrent. What did the individual in question do?”

“We will need to discover that,” said Wyndos.  “I will endeavor to reach a result that is just, without compromising deterrence.”

“We can certainly count on you for that,” said Reesh.  

Covum grunted agreeably.

“One other matter I would like to discuss,” said Reesh, “is the simulation idea we talked over last time.  Wyndos, you had some term you were using for it?”

“Meta-planes.”

“Yes, that was it.  I understand you have been reviewing the initial reports, and I have been looking forward to hearing about the early study results.”

Don’t be quite so eager, Wyndos thought.  I would better serve you by keeping my counsel for now.

“Yes,” said Wyndos, “I have reviewed the initial reports.  There have been no substantial breakthroughs as yet.”

“Do the meta-planes work?” said Reesh.

“In a fashion.  There remain several unresolved issues that impede a more complete understanding of the principles involved.”

Reesh kept silent, as did Covum.  They think I will keep talking if they stay quiet.  How little they know me.

Wyndos turned to look from Covum to Reesh and back again.  Finally Covum broke in with a series of grunts, and the tension evaporated.  

“I was hoping for more,” said Reesh.  “It has been several weeks.”

“I share your frustration,” Wyndos said, “but these things do take time, and with luck, our patience will be rewarded.”

“At this rate,” Reesh said, “we won’t be ready to incorporate the, what was it called?  The meta-plane. We won’t be able to incorporate it for months yet, unless testing progress can somehow be accelerated.”

“We have our best testers on it,” said Wyndos.  “Which reminds me, I do have a minor concern to express regarding those tests.  It came to my attention that a trainee sim tech had been assigned to do some of the first experiments on meta-planes.  While I am open to hearing a contrary opinion, I am of the view that such sensitive and priority research should be entrusted to more seasoned hands.”

“Who made that decision?” said Reesh.

“It was localized.  My understanding is that a seasoned sim tech was assigned, and passed it off onto a trainee.  I propose that we make an explicit rule for this entire area of inquiry limiting participation to those with no fewer than two years of prior experience.”

Covum cleared their throat loudly.  “What will that do to the time estimates?  We don’t want needless delay.”

“I agree,” said Wyndos, “and I have reason to believe the effect will be minimal.  Discretion, in this case, is just as important as speed.”

“I concur,” said Reesh,  “though speaking of discretion, I hope you aren’t holding back any information related to the early studies, Wyndos.  You know how I like my intel: raw and hot off the presses.”

“I am well-acquainted with your interests, Reesh, and will strive to accommodate.  My lack of information for you at this point is the result of a lack of information, not some misguided attempt to deprive you of the sneak peek to which you are rightly entitled.”

Reesh smiled.  “You have such a way with words, Wyndos.  Anything else?”

“Nothing from me,” said Wyndos.

Covum grunted and shook their head.

“In that case, I will see you both again soon.”  Reesh looked at Wyndos. “And I look forward to hearing your progress.  If something comes up with the initial tests, don’t wait for our next meeting; please link me directly and we’ll set up a special time to talk.”

“Of course, Reesh,” said Wyndos, nodding.  You would never understand, but my reticence is for your benefit, Wyndos thought.  The burden of futility is not something with which I ever thought to reckon, yet here we are.  Or, rather, here we aren’t.

(1590 words)

Published in: on November 20, 2018 at 3:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Chapter 18

Chapter 18: Truu Makes a Breakthrough

“I really don’t think it went that badly,” said Rasha.

“Not that badly?!” said Truu.  “It was the closest thing to a hard no!”

“They didn’t say no, they said you just need one more promotion, and then they’ll do it.  That’s definitely not a no.”

“Did you hear how damn snarky they were?  ‘You can just mass meet as often as you want for now.’  Like, they don’t even see the value of doubling. I thought they would encourage it: it must be more efficient.”

“There are definitely some front-end costs, though,” Rasha said.

“…and I just got a promotion last month.  How long do you think it will take me to get another?”

“That part’s up to you, Truu.  And I know you can do it.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” said Truu, frowning, “I’ve been looking at my sector for days now and I just don’t see a way.  I mean, I could turn my attention to getting rid of the mass labor, because that’s the richest target for reduction, but everything has been trimmed and streamlined to death already.  I’ve only got one person doing mass in my sector, and even if I eliminate that job entirely, I’d still be an hour and a half short of my next promotion.”

“Why don’t you talk to Eefoh?  Didn’t they help you last time you needed a kick in the hindquarters?”

“Yeah, but this is a heavy lift.  I’m not sure this one is going to be solved that easily.  But I’ll make the call anyway. At least I can vent.”

Truu ended the link, and dialed up Eefoh.

“Hey, buddy,” Eefoh said.  “How did the council meeting go?”

“Not great,” said Truu.  “They won’t approve the double until my next promotion.”

“Yikes.  I’ve heard that happens sometimes.  I think they think it’s motivational, or some bullshit like that.”

“I dunno, Eefoh, it’s like, they’re so monomaniacal about efficiency, sometimes they don’t look at the people they’re governing at all.”

“Yeah, I think that’s true.”

“I’m not saying I don’t appreciate all the things they’ve done for us, but in a case like this, I think they really should just approve a doubling.  Or, if they really need to milk us for motivation, approve it subject to continued professional progress, something like that.”

“You could pitch that idea,” Eefoh said, “but right now, they’d see it as self-interested.  Maybe when this is over and you’re safely doubled.”

“Yeah, and at that point, they know I wouldn’t spend the time or effort on it, because it won’t affect me.  Plus, there’s that whole ‘I had to do this, and so should you,’ thing. What’s the old saying? Pulling the ladder up behind you.”

Eefoh laughed.  “So what’s the prognosis on your promotion?  Do you want to talk through it?”

“The worst part is, if you had asked me a week ago, I thought I was right on the cusp of getting that goal met.  You heard about the titanium coming in from the outlands?”

“I’m not sure.”

“You know, the big to-do about combustion engines in trade.”

“Oh!  Yeah, I read about that.”

“Well, whatever you think about the combustion thing, that titanium shortage was a big log-jam in what I’m trying to do.  They have new bots that combine magnetic pick-up with sensors good enough to help them navigate even when they have irregular loads.  But they’re titanium-intensive, so there was a hold on them for months. And now they should be coming back on-line; might be already, I just haven’t checked yet.”

“What kind of impact will that make on your sector?”

“See, that’s the thing.  I thought it would be huge, because the mass assignments can be completely replaced once these things arrive.  And then I found out that the total number of people with mass assignments in my sector is precisely one.”

Eefoh laughed.  “Sorry, not laughing at you, it’s just…you’ve got to reduce by, what, five days of labor, and you wind up with one person who’s MAYBE doing three.  It’s just such a catch-22.”

“Nail on the head, buddy.  Although in my case, the mass assignment is four days, so it’s close, just not enough to get me completely over the hump.”

“Four days in mass?”

“It’s punitive, I’m pretty sure, but you know they won’t tell us that,” said Truu.

“How pretty sure are you?”

“Like ninety percent, why?”

“Because,” said Eefoh, “if it really is punitive, there’s probably support labor you would also be freeing up.  They watch folks on rehab assignments pretty carefully. I’m not sure if you get to count those hours, but completely eliminating a mass job is a pretty big deal, and I’m inclined to think you’d get to claim all of the support labor time as well.”

Could that be true?  If so, I might get the entire five days in one fell swoop.  I’d be a legend!

“Hell, it’s worth a try,” said Truu.  “How is it you always have the answer when I’m stuck on a problem, Eefoh?”

“Because you lack the common sense to make logical connections not immediately germane to the topic under consideration,” said Eefoh, speaking quickly.

“Come again?”

“Just dumb luck, I guess,” said Eefoh, laughing at the end.  

“I’m too excited to be mad at you. Chat soon!”

As the link ended, Truu turned the chair to face the assignment wall, waited for the monitors to power up, and opened a link request to the requisitions office.  

“What can I do for ya,” said the face that appeared.  Truu checked the information on the side-bar: this was Dreet, a third-year requisition coordinator.  

“Hi Dreet, Truu here in waste management.  I’m looking to get some of the class-MN bots, standard size, for my sector.  How’s that looking?”

“Hi Truu.  Not so good, I’m afraid.  We are going to need at least three months before we’ll be able to release those into your sector.”

“But I thought the titanium shortage was over?”

“It is,” Dreet said, “and those bots are rolling off the line every day.  We just have a backlog of requests, and we’re going need-based, so unless you can articulate a good reason why your sector should be a priority, you’ll just have to wait until we get caught back up.”

“Have you ever been in love, Dreet?”

“What?” Dreet laughed self-consciously.

“Love.  Like, meeting someone and feeling so strongly about them you want to double?”

“Oh, wow, no, I haven’t.  Not too many people double these days.”

“I know,” said Truu, “so you can see how strongly I must feel about this.”

“You…want to double with a bot?  I’m sorry, I’m confused.”

“Dreet, take a look at my stats again, see if anything unusual jumps out at you.”

Dreet turned their head and started reading.  “No, nothing immediate, why?”

“Do you see my assigned hours?”

“Yeah, three days per week…oh!  You’re not supposed to be working right now!”

“That’s right, I’m not,” said Truu.  “Do you want to know why I am spending my off time making this request on behalf of my sector?”

“Sure,” said Dreet.

“Because I am in love, and I want to double.  And the powers-that-be have decided, in their infinite wisdom, that I can’t double until I get my next promotion.  My sector has been made so efficient that any gains are going to be hard fought, but here’s this one thing I can do, and it will make a huge difference.  All I need from you are three MN standards, and I’m most of the way home.”

“That’s a compelling pitch,” said Dreet. “I have to say, I’m used to operators giving me every reason in the book why their request should trump everyone else’s request, but nobody has ever laid the love bomb on me.  I respect the hustle.”

“So you’ll do it?!”

“No,” said Dreet.  “I can’t do it, at least not now.  Because you’re not technically on shift, and I’m allergic to filling out atypical forms.  But I see that both of us are working tomorrow mid-day. I’ll send you my direct link info, here.”

The information populated on a secondary screen.  

“When you get on shift,” Dreet continued, “put in a link to me, tell me that your previous request was made four months ago but is not listed as pending, and make your order.”

“That would be a pretty easy thing for them to find out isn’t true,” said Truu.

“Not necessarily.  We lost a handful of orders when we switched systems three months ago, and I’ve had a few calls like that.  Our instructions are to just move them up to the front of the line.”

“You’re a lifesaver, Dreet.  Hope I can return the favor someday.”

“Hey, for what it’s worth, I think you’re crazy, requesting a double.  But good luck.”

The link ended, and Truu swung back to the recreation screens, calling Eefoh.

“Back so soon?” Eefoh said.

“It worked!  I mean, it won’t be official until tomorrow, since they won’t take requistions from me right now-”

“Wait, you went to work already?”

“Yeah,” said Truu, “I was excited, and just wanted to get it done.  So I talked to a requisitions rep, and found out how to game the system and get it before the other sectors.”

“You never met a system you couldn’t somehow subvert, have you?”

“The ends justify the means.  I shouldn’t have to do this at all, but if I do, I’m going to get it done, whatever it takes.”

“Cool, listen, I’m glad for you, but I gotta run.  I’ve got a mass meet with somebody super-attractive in like ten minutes.”

“Okay, have fun.  And thanks for your help,” Truu said.

Wish Eefoh didn’t have to run off. I really want to share this good news with somebody.

The obvious answer finally dawning on them, Truu linked Rasha.

“You better get your moving bags packed,” said Truu.

“What?  What did Eefoh say?”

“It’s about the mass assignment.  I mentioned that I’m pretty sure it’s punitive, since it’s four days.  And Eefoh pointed out that if that’s true, there’s probably some support staff, like overseeing them and stuff, that would also be eliminated.  If that’s the case, I’m home free!”

“That’s wonderful news!  Not just for us, either, but imagine what a load off it’s going to be for that poor punitive assignee.”

“Yeah, I don’t know what happens when those assignments get merged out.  Maybe they get retired, or put onto something else. I’m not really sure.”

“What’s the name of your mass person?”

“Their name?”

“Yeah,” said Rasha.  “Don’t you want to know about the people your decisions are affecting?”

“I mean, I guess so.”  Truu rotated the chair, keyed in a few inputs, and then swung back.

“It says their name is Quarla.”

(1817 words)

Published in: on November 19, 2018 at 11:44 am  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Chapter 17

Chapter 17: Chein Runs a Test

“I followed all of your directions,” Vair said, “and I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary.  But Carem didn’t remember anything at all from the meta plane.”

Chein glanced from Vair to the secondary screen, which held data from the test run.  There was precious little of it.

“I’m sure you did, and it went fine,” said Chein.  “We just need to run some additional uploads to see if that was an anomaly.”

“The down time was about twenty two minutes,” Vair said, “and the uplink started at exactly-”

“Vair, I can see the data,” Chein cut in.  “Just hang on a few minutes, I need to program something.  I’ll synch so you can watch what I’m doing. Just, be quiet, would you? I need to think.”

Chein opened up a blank plane architecture, and started mulling the problem.

It was the first run, so it’s possible Carem just wasn’t acclimated to the new plane- the meta-plane, I like Vair’s term.  We need to run something basic to see if any memory survives past extraction. Something simple, that will make a big impact.

An idea struck.  Chein started rapidly populating the test plane.  On the viewer, a large and colorful ball appeared, followed by a full-sized flag with the city seal emblazoned on it, and a large oak tree.  Chein looked from each to the next, and then input more data, creating three large banners.

‘BALL’

‘FLAG’

‘TREE’

This should do the trick.

“Is that all?” said Vair.

“Yes.  Carem has been through so many test planes that these words should be deeply ingrained.  When we link, we don’t give them any hint of what’s inside, just go through a simple test plane- we can use the one you did last time- and then on to this meta-plane.”

“How much information can we give Carem before the uplink?”

“None,” said Chein.  “We need to make sure this is a truly blind test. If there’s any recollection ability at all, Carem will return laughing at us for the three symbols, since we always use those words as a control.”

“I like it,” said Vair.  “Are we gonna link with Carem then?”

“Yes, and remember, not a word about the meta-plane.”

Vair nodded.  Chein initiated a link with Carem.

“I was beginning to think you had taken another day off,” said Carem, as soon as the link opened.  

“And miss the chance to screw with your brain?  Never,” Chein said.

“So, what’s the plan for today?  Any more screwy experiments?”

“Just one for now.  I’m going to upload you into a basic test plane.  Hang on a second.”

A few inputs later, Carem slumped forward in the chair, unconscious.

“Okay, Carem, let me know when you’re in and alert.”

“I’m here,” Carem said through the audio.  

“Great.  Now, you remember this plane?”

“No, it doesn’t look familiar.  Wait, you all aren’t putting me back in a plane-within-a-plane, are you?”

“We call them meta-planes now, and yes, that’s today’s assignment,” said Chein.

“Did you make any improvements, or is this just to confirm that your newbie didn’t screw it up the first time?  Because all things being equal, I’d prefer NOT to have an ostensibly-aware insertion that I can’t remember two minutes later.”

“I made changes,” said Chein.  “We’ll have to see if they’re improvements.  I’m going to have you enter the meta-plane, look around, and then the system will bring you back.  Your job is to try to remember anything about the plane, anything at all, no matter how fast it fades.  So when you come to, make sure to start talking right away.”

“Has anyone ever needed to tell Carem that before?” said Vair.

“You know what?” Carem said, “I’m going to remember every detail of the meta-plane, just so I can demonstrate that the first run was botched because we used an untested trainee.”

“That’s the spirit,” said Chein.  “Now, here we go.”

Chein initiated the meta-plane, and waited a few seconds.

“Carem, can you hear me?”

No response.

“Okay,” Chein looked to Vair.  “That’s how it’s supposed to work.  But as I’m sitting here thinking about it, there’s one question we didn’t plan to answer: what happened to Carem’s body in the first plane?”

“Wouldn’t it just go to sleep?”

“Maybe,” said Chein.  “But maybe it just disappeared.  The next time we run this, I’m going to send you in there with Carem to check it out and report your observations.”

“A conscious insertion?” Vair said.  “I didn’t know I was going to get to do any of those!”

“Yes, well, calm yourself.  It’s pretty challenging. You definitely get disoriented the first time you try it.”

“I can’t wait!”  said Vair. “So, what do we do now?”

“Just wait.  The last time it took around twenty minutes, so we have a little time before we can expect Carem to return.”

“Chein, can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“I was talking to my mentor, the last time, when I was scared that Carem wasn’t coming back.  And my mentor- his name is Wyndos- said that I should stay away from this particular experiment.  I haven’t given it too much thought since then, because it’s my assignment, after all, but I wanted to ask you, is there anything you know about this that would make Wyndos say that?”

“Wyndos, that name’s familiar.  No, there’s nothing I can think of.  I mean, this is a top-priority area, so that’s different.  Usually me and Carem work on the more out-there design concepts, but this one has a lot of resources behind it.  I guess it’s important to somebody.”

“So why would it be something to stay away from?” said Vair.

“You’d have to ask Wyndos that.  Maybe it was a fear that people could get lost in the meta-plane, but that didn’t happen the first time.  So I’m not sure.”

“Wyndos seems pretty level-headed, so I’m a bit concerned.  Did they tell you what they’re planning to do with this feature once it’s been tested?”

“Nope,” said Chein, “that’s distinctly above my pay grade.  They say ‘test,’ I say ‘test what?’ They say ‘this thing,’ I say ‘for what parameters?’”

“I thought Carem was the one with the incurious mind.”

Chein frowned.  “It’s not that. I’m usually extremely curious, especially about my assignments.  But this thing is so new, there isn’t any literature out there. We are creating this area of study, not just advancing it.”

“Oh, look!  Carem’s stirring!”

Sure enough, Carem’s head had started to move from side to side.  

“Start talking, Carem: what do you remember?” Chein said.

“..tsa dream.  Just dreamy. And sleeping.”

“What was the meta-plane like?  What did it look like?”

“It…oh.  No, I don’t remember.  I’m sorry.”

“Maybe this time we really did scramble Carem’s brains,” said Vair.  

“Be quiet,” Chein snapped.  “Carem, do you remember ANYTHING, no matter how small?”

“My name,” Carem sounded drunk, “is Carem.  And you’re Chein.”

“Anything from the meta-plane?”

“I…no.  I told you, I don’t remember anything.”

“Damn.”  Chein thought for a minute.  

Vair piped up.  “Carem, do you remember the first plane we put you in, before you were in the meta-plane?”

“The what?”

“The first plane.  Before we ran the experiment.”

“Vair,” said Chein, “this is not the time to tease Carem.”

“I’m not teasing,” said Vair, who pushed a button to mute the sound both ways on Carem’s link.  “When you first put Carem into the test plane, before the meta, you asked if it looked familiar, and they said ‘no.’”

It took Chein a full three seconds to catch the drift.  “Oh!” Carem was unmuted. “Carem, do you remember the first plane, the first test plane?”

“When?”

“From a few minutes ago, or however long you perceived that time as.  Look, you were just in a meta-plane, and you evidently can’t remember anything from your time there.  I’m asking if you remember any of your time from the FIRST upload.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Carem.

“Well, here, let’s try it the hard way.”  

With a few inputs, Chein re-loaded the initial plane, and uploaded Carem.

“…you piece of absolute trash, you waste of genetic material, you…ASSHOLE!” said Carem.

“Do you recognize this plane?”

“…you are supposed to warn me before insertion.  And there’s a mandatory cooling-off period, but did you care?  No, you did NOT care. You just ninja-uploaded me into a plane.  I will be making a report about this.”

“No, you won’t,” said Chein, “or you’ll see reports come in of some of your, how shall we say, custom planes that you think I don’t know about.”

Silence on the other end.  

“So, now that you’re settled,” said Chein, “do you recognize this plane?”

“Never been here before,” said Carem.

“Interesting.  Carem, I’m going to turn off audio for a minute so I can confer with Vair.”

“Looks like I was right!” Vair said.

“Don’t get cocky.  Yes, it looks like the meta-plane experience wiped Carem completely.  So I have an idea. I’m going to send you into the plane now. You will just be there to observe, since we don’t have eyes on the sim.  Then, I’ll put Carem back into secondary- into the meta-plane- but I’ll program it to revert to the first plane, instead of home. Make sense?”

“Kinda,  yeah,” said Vair.

“Okay, this will only take a second.  You are going to be disoriented, and the light will hurt your eyes.  I’ll try to make it as easy as possible. Are you up for it?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be.”

Chein unmuted the line with Carem and started the upload.  

“Hey,” said Carem, “it’s getting dim in here.  Did you just turn down the lights? Oh, shit, there’s somebody- Vair?”

“I sent Vair in to observe something,” said Chein. “Vair, can you hear me?”

“Wait, you turned down the lights for Vair?  Why don’t you ever do that for me?”

“I like Vair.  Vair, can you hear me?”

“Unggh,” Vair’s voice made sounds.

“Just take a couple of deep breaths.  Carem will help you out.”

“Okay little buddy, get up, that’s it. Now, the effects will go away quickly if you start running as fast as you can around the room.  Don’t worry, it’s not like there are any invisible obstacles you could smash your face into.”

“Carem, be serious,” said Chein.  “How is Vair doing?”

“I’m fine,” said Vair.  “Just a bit groggy.”

“Groggy is good enough.  Carem, I’m going to send you back into the meta-plane.”

“Wait, you did that already once today, right?  You’re not supposed to do those that often.”

“Do you remember being in the meta-plane?”

“No, but-”

“Then I’m not entirely sure what you’re complaining about.  Here goes!”

A few seconds passed.

“Carem looks passed out,” said Vair.  “Like, literally fell over and is in a very awkward position.  Should I move them into a more comfortable posture?”

“No, don’t touch them,” said Chein.  “We just need to wait for about twenty minutes, and then-”

“Oh, Carem’s moving!” said Vair.  “That wasn’t twenty minutes. Maybe it didn’t work?”

“Carem, can you hear me?” said Chein.

“You despicable such-and-such,” said Carem, voice groggy.  “A literal ball, flag, and tree.”

Chein checked the visual link: both Carem and Vair were out cold.

“Very good.  You can see why that would have been my choice,” said Chein.

“Very clever.  Now, get me out of here.”

“Gladly.”

Chein ended the sim, and both Carem and Vair started to stir in the visual link.  

“So,” said Chein, “tell me more about the meta-sim.  Did it feel any different from a typical upload?”

Carem started to speak, and then stopped, looking puzzled.  “I…honestly, I don’t remember the second sim at all, but I remember talking about remembering it, just a minute ago.”

Now, that’s odd, Chein thought.

“Vair?” said Chein, “do  you remember anything?”

“Yeah,” said Vair, voice pained.  “I remember all of it- Carem came back so fast!”

“So Carem, do you remember anything at all about the meta-plane?”

“No, and it’s really weird…I remember telling you that there was a literal ball, flag, and tree, but I don’t remember why I said that.”

“This is fascinating,” said Chein.  “Well, the good news is that I think I have enough data to work on for a little while, and possibly to craft a thesis.  So no more uploads today.”

“Thank god,” said Carem.

“Wait,” said Vair, voice still shaky, “could I maybe see one of the custom planes that you said Carem has going on?”

(2102 words)

Published in: on November 18, 2018 at 12:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

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)

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