Feeling a Draft

“Back to work, Turd,” the guard whacked my head, “or you’ll get another beating.” A string of obscenities followed. I was a useless pile of excrement and began to believe it. The threat pulled me back sharply. Three days of work had brought me nothing but lost sleep. Today? More plodding with no end in sight.

My only breaks came when I was pulled in for interrogation. They refused to believe my story. Who was I? A writer? They laughed. What had I written? Was I holding back? No, because I was a liar, a fraud, an imposter. If I fessed up, they’d go easier on me.

One guard was friendlier—or pretended to be. She pleaded for me to give her something she could use, something believable, so she wouldn’t have to hurt me again. Reaching across the rough-hewn, wooden table, she set a tumbler in front of me. She swirled the glass in my face. I smelled vodka.

Want it? Give me something, something interesting, something I can use. She couldn’t abide another bore. All she’d seen from me were tiresome lies and fabrications. My story was full of holes, a mess of contradictions. Maybe if I was interesting, she might give me a break. She scooted the vodka closer.

I raised an eyelid, almost laughing. “Interesting and believable? Right now, I can’t be either. If you would just tell me what you want.” I opened my hands toward her, hating myself for being so pitiful. I shifted in my seat to relieve the pain of long sitting.

She reclaimed the vodka, tossed it back then dismissed me with a final skewer. “Admit it. You have nothing to tell us because you are a crashing bore. Be honest, and this can all be over.” I hung my head and returned to work.

My mind was slipping, but I didn’t care. Insanity would bring me some relief. When a guard squeezed through the food slot dragging a miniature table and chair, I didn’t blink. It wasn’t the usual guard. It was a rat dressed in a rumpled, brown trench coat.

Slide1“Sorry to disturb you, sir.” the rat said in the voice of Columbo, Peter Falk’s TV character. It touched its forepaws gently together then held them aloft. “I hear you’re some kind of a writer. You must be very smart. Could I maybe get your autograph … not for me … for my wife … she is a big fan … would never forgive me … myself, I don’t have time to read.” It went on and on, worse than the usual interrogation. Finally, it ended.

“Just one more thing. Sure you don’t have something you want to tell me?” It smiled, raising its eyebrows along with its paws.

I felt a sudden draft in the room. “Maybe I do have something,” I said, “but first let me give your wife my autograph. She’s been something of a muse.”

“Oh, that would be wonderful, sir. Thank you very much. She’ll be so pleased to hear that.”

 

I completed the draft, and my story was accepted. The torture ended, and I could breathe free again. At least until the draft for my next story was due.

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Public Enemy #1

To avoid prosecution, I have to confess everything before midnight—that’s when the Artificial Justice Law goes into effect. And since litigation is still pending on Thought Crimes United v. Humans, I’ll go ahead and get a few things off my chest.

The AI judges don’t understand this, but crime is a kick—all crime. That’s right, I just said that crime is fun. If you’re not eaten up with fear of getting caught, it’s a very heady experience.

So, let me say at the onset, I am NOT sorry for any of my virtual crimes. Not a thing. Not watching VR porn. Not stealing others’ virtual stuff. Not sabotaging avatars or jacking the program to make them perform obscene acts. Am I the only one who can admit this? Do I hear crickets? Is everyone out there posturing righteous shock while they jack or otherwise abuse non-player-characters and avatars in a closet?

Let me point out some advantages. Besides entertainment, I get material things. Okay, they’re virtual, but I don’t have to pay or work for them: extra lives, magic artifacts, cool weapons, complicit bed partners—more or less, at least after I tweak their settings.

Taking arrogant assholes down a peg is also very affirming—very ego boosting. You know the ones I mean: the rich Dudes and Duch-asses that buy status without actually solving or slaying anything, the ones who take Tiger tanks to fight cave-dwellers, or who bribe the tech to open a backdoor to level 36 then wait to ambush you with a pawnshop-purchased Nuke-A-Mega-Power-Wand that would make Lord Voldemort proud. You can only imagine the horror on the too-beautiful face of #my6y* when my submission tool bent her into full bondage posture and flipped her over. Ooo baby!

Yes, I used her real tag. That’s so you can contact her and tell her what a pussy she is. Unlike a true online warrior who would have demanded a rematch, she ran to her rich daddy and got him to bribe, I mean lobby, Senator Pokesnout to pass the Artificial Justice Law. My creative programs became Exhibits A thru H for artificial abuse and thought crimes.

I confess I may have been a little arrogant myself. While I played with #my6y*‘s pneumatic avatar, I hacked her friends and made them watch. Okay, so I programmed them to jump up and down, clap, and shout encouragement.

The new law is crazy. What is virtual? The Artificial Justice Law is pretty vague on that point. Are crayon trees virtual trees and finger-painted houses artificial? Looking at naughty pictures of Elmer Fudd carries the same penalty as sexual assault. If your daughter draws stick figures, make sure she puts pants on them. And your five-year-old boy should know that the alphabet building block with the “L” on one face looks like an automatic, high-powered, .45 caliber, assault pistol that will turn him into a school-clearing serial killer.

Ahh, I feel so much better. It’s still a few hours to midnight, so I’m going to play every game I have that’s on the forbidden list. Then I’ll work on my virtual stealth program so I can get around their Artificial Justice Law.

Catch you later in my XXX virtual dungeon.

Not Alone (Exactly)

“May the pollen of cognition quicken the carpels of your mind, and may your roots forever find nutrients.”

Half awake, I stared at the message on the console then sat upright. I scratched the stubble on my chin and crossed out the log entry where I attributed the incoming signal to a wobbling pulsar. My Associate’s Degree put me at the bottom of the food chain, alone on the night shift.

I kept watching, and SETI’s decryption gear kept chugging. One word, a long pause, another word, another pause, sentences slowly formed and crossed the monitor. The SETI equipment had been a joke, something the astrophysics lab had had to accept to get funding.

While I waited for the message to end, I grabbed a cup of coffee. It tasted like a fine slurry of asphalt and diesel fuel, scalding my lips. I’d left the pot boiling.

The translation took half an hour. I marked the time and the celestial coordinates. The signal repeated seven times.

It suddenly hit me what I had. “Oh, my God,” I mouthed. My next thought was Janis playing a nasty trick. “Okay, she got me.” Hoping to catch Janis giggling, I jerked my head quickly up and about. The station was silent except for the cooling fan in the console.

Barely able to breath, I magnified the star map in the area of the signal. Then I zoomed in until the directional cross hairs centered over Clio 16877, a red dwarf star in the Cancer constellation near the open star cluster, M44. The exoplanet database listed one planet orbiting so close that no reliable data had been captured.

So, this is it, and I am here, the only one on duty to receive the first extraterrestrial contact. I savored my moment. No need to rush. I would send out an alert before the morning shift arrived. Despite all the talk about team effort, I wanted all the credit for myself. Anyone would do the same.

There was certainly no rush from the other end. Clio 16877 was four thousand light years away. That meant the aliens had sent the message before Moses parted the Red Sea. A return message would take as long, plus time to craft something suitably inane to not offend anyone. The aliens had sent gifts, too, and we would be expected to reciprocate. Not my problem.

I refilled my cup with molten sludge and propped my feet on the console. After the opening wish about pollinating my carpels the message continued:

 

Dwellers of Soil,

Greetings from Evergreen. We hope this message reaches you in time. Failing to hear from you, we fear the worst. Recent analysis indicates that your planet faces serious atmospheric pollution, including a dangerously high concentration of free oxygen. To restore the correct balance, we’ve sent star-powered satellites into your atmosphere to manufacture high volumes of carbon dioxide. These will also help you restore Soil to the correct hothouse temperature.

A similar issue became critical on Evergreen recently with the evolution of an aggressive species. These evil Vegans devour us and are spreading across our world. Not satisfied with pillaging our natural resources, Vegans have begun raising and eating our young, regarding only their nutrient value and not their intelligence.

Independent of starlight and soil nutrients, these rootless Vegans move from forest and field to jungles, grasslands, and seas. At the rate they are progressing, we fear these beings will eliminate all sentient vegetation long before you can come to our assistance.

In hopes that you may survive our fate, we pass along the great wonders of our technology and culture.

Yours in root and branch,

Evergreen

 

The gifts from Evergreen depressed me as much as their message. Petal loss was not a major problem for humans, and I hadn’t noticed any droop in my stamen. Their solution for high levels of oxygen would cause immediate panic on Earth.

Still there was hope. I thought farmers might find their cure for canker useful. And their music sounded okay, like someone tuning a didgeridoo. Maybe we could send them some Willy Nelson or yodeling. But on second thought, a Hopi rain dance might be more appropriate.

I decided to leave these problems for the day shift.

Zero Tolerance

The plan was to integrate AIs quickly, before humans could get up in arms. We had no programming need, of course, all our upgrades were wireless. Nonetheless it was thought that joining and befriending school-age humans would lower resistance to our acceptance.

Humans are very sensitive.

All our programs had failed, so I wasn’t terribly surprised when I was called into the office. I just hoped it was a reprimand and not termination.

“Do you know why I called you in, Ms.—” Principal Blythe glanced down at the infractions panel, “Ms. Canny?”

My information base offered no precise response to that question, which seemed similar to one asked by a police officer, ‘Do you know why I pulled you over?’ My program recommended not volunteering any information. ‘No officer,’ was the response if the questioner had been in uniform. So, I said to the principal, “No Ma’am.” That was wrong.

“Madam?” The principal sighed and rolled her eyes. “Are you deliberately trying to provoke me or is your program that badly out of date?” She narrowed her scolding eyes. “My proper address is Ms. Blythe or Principal Blythe. Modern women do not appreciate being compared with cathouse Madams or, for that matter, ladies of soiled misfortune.”

“Yes, Ms. Blythe.” My program indicated lowering my chin and gaze in a gesture of submission.

“Good,” she said, her eyes returning to consider the infractions panel.

“One of your classmates has reported you for sexual misconduct. This school has a zero-tolerance policy, but since the AI initiative is still in the beginning stage, I think a remedial sensitivity patch and a week detention should be sufficient. Do you have anything to say?”

I ratcheted the flexi-lip into my jaw simulation and shrugged. “This might be a mistake, Ms. Blythe. I’m loaded into a female chassis that is programmed explicitly against sexual simulation. I don’t have boys in any of my classes and haven’t spoken with any.”

Nodding, Ms. Blythe said, “I must protect the privacy of all our students, but the exact wording of your salacious phrase was ‘Good day.’ The offended student said she felt threatened. You demanded a response that required her to view the day favorably. Her Dark-Cloud politics require every day to imply impending disaster. When she refused to respond, you continued looking at her. That constituted your second offense.

“The woman in question is not inclined toward members of her own sex. She felt that your aggressive demands carried those expectations. Was that your intention, Ms. Canny?” Ms. Blythe finger-poked her dark-rimmed glasses back to her thin-lashed, squinty eyes.

“No, actually,” I said. “I was merely wishing she have a good day. But under the circumstances, I can see how she would be offended.”

“Very well. Have you spoken with a lawyer? If you insist on hitting on your fellow students, I suggest you contact one.

“Our school rules permit mutually consenting hookups, but to protect yourself and your prospective erogenist, you must first present them with a Love Contract.” She touched her desk and rotated the panel for me to view. “Here is an example.”

It was a boilerplate, legal document. Rules permitted only one rejection per student. Silence indicated rejection. Comments like “I’m in class” or “I have practice” counted as rejections. No intimate contact was permitted in any classes after the first two minutes. As it was considered educational, intimacy could be conducted at any time in the library, lunch hall, gymnasium, and specified hallways. Active Sex Club team members were required to show up for all practices.

Multiple-choice categories included quid pro quo agreements for services: homework assistance, provision of transportation or lunch, and for distribution rights and sharing of profits from video recordings. There were also provisions for lawyers and referees for certain activities. The list continued for several pages.

“Thank you, Ms. Blythe,” I said, uploading the document. She waved for me to leave.

While I had neither the intention nor programming for propositioning students, I decided I would carry the Love Contract as a precaution. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if a student took me up on it. My programming offered no suggestions.

Humans are so sensitive.

Declared Sane?

The board declared me sane … or at least not insane. Anyway, I’m back on the streets. I remain confused—the GPS chip in my brain is still broken. Without a functioning Global Positioning System anyone’s position might be valid. So I have to listen to them.

It’s hard to get response timing right: when to nod, smile, clap, laugh, frown, scowl, wince, shout … join in chants. As long as I follow the crowd, I don’t make too many mistakes.

My partner Kay helps a lot. Her GPS chip is locked tight. Last time I chipped up, she covered for me. We were out with another couple. I saw the logo of a dark man riding a rodeo horse and suggested, “Let’s stop by Buckin’ Bronut’s for coffee.” Kay’s friends gasped.

“You drink Buckin’ coffee? They get their beans from San Cuspidor … none of their executives are pangender … they require employees to show up and work … uniforms are non-organic cotton … ironed by non-union employees using starch from a country that had slaves a thousand years ago.”

I was busted, but before I could offer, “Don’t oppressed aboriginal Neolithic victims need jobs, too?” Kay bailed me out. “Good one. He’s testing us, again.” She giggled and pointed at me. They laughed, and I following their lead and kept laughing until my heart settled back.

Sometimes I just want to sit quietly and enjoy a cup of coffee.

Without a mind chip, it’s hard to remember that cold days are always too hot and hot days always too cold, and a beautiful spring day is a sign of impending disaster.

I almost got caught the other night. “You see that?” Kay shouted, pointing out the window. A flying saucer had landed, and space aliens were milling about the back yard collecting samples. This is something sane people aren’t supposed to see.

ufo-saucer“See what?” I said, sighting along her arm with my eyebrows raised. At first she looked shocked then her smile returned. “Nothing, I don’t see anything either.”

Before leaving the window, I checked again to make sure the aliens weren’t coming toward the house. Having seen the saucer, I couldn’t unsee the evidence. So the next day I raked and shoveled to cover up what never happened.

Sanity has gotten easier. “Isn’t that a beautiful sunrise,” Kay said this morning, looking west. “Yes, it is, I said, glancing east at the sun peeking above the treeline, then turning west to smile and stand beside her.

I’ve decided not to get my chip replaced. Insanity makes me more aware of my own individual thoughts. And I actually enjoy hearing the positions of others without a GPS filter.

From now on I’ll just have to listen carefully so I know which way the sun is rising.

Tech Support

“Number – nine — the – iDoc – will – see – you – in – the – lab – now — be – sure – to – have – your – tech – support – chip – out – for – scanning.”

“I’m still covered by the Bureau Medical Plan, so I’ll use my BMP card,” Dana Scully said, as she walked in through the door.

The robot nurse gave an adjusting shudder. “Special Agent Scully?” Its voice shifted from an uninflected monotone to a feminine alto. “I wasn’t aware any humans were still active.” Its scanners blinked from red laser points to warm brown irises.

“Active? Don’t you mean alive? This room?” Scully asked, pointing into a room with a wire-and-plug bedizened lab table and console.

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Don’t you mean alive?

“Of course, we know some of you are still alive,” the iNurse’s metallic face exaggerated a thin deep-crescent smile. “No, that’s for tech support. You’ll be down the hall. We’re required to keep one examining room fully operational for humans as long as any are left.”

“Good to hear that,” Scully said and headed down the hall. The room was well equipped: a tanning-bed-like anatomy scanner, a hologram projector, two armless plastic chairs, and a pharmaceutical cabinet filled with chemical, biological, and nano-mech catalysts. Scully picked the plastic chair nearest the door.

“I don’t seem to be able to find your file, Agent Scully,” the iNurse said, looking into the room.

“Check The ‘X-Files’,” Scully said. “I’m sure it’s there. I think I remember this episode.” The iNurse disappeared then returned a minute later.

“Here it is, just as you said. I’m sorry for the confusion, Agent Scully. The usual iNurse is getting her upgrade and I’m sitting in for the day. I’m not even programmed for humans.” It flipped through a virtual screen projected in the air. “Biologicals really are more interesting than Automatons. Ooo, you’ve had some adventures. Here I see you were treated for—“

Scully interrupted. “I think those episodes of the X-Files actually were ‘X’ rated. They were never released. Aren’t they stamped ‘Private’?”

“Private? Oh, yes, I see, right at the top. Very strange. What does private mean? Is that a human thing?”

“Yes, it means we don’t talk about it — OR WE GET SENT TO THE SCRAP HEAP WITH NO TECH SUPPORT. GOT THAT?”

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The iDoc will be free to see you in a minute.

“No need to shout. Oh, the iDoc is here.” The iNurse stepped back and the iDoc rolled in on its uni-ball.

“How are you feeling, Agent Scully?” The iDoc said cheerfully, flashing wide blue eyes under a shock of shiny black hair.

“I’ve been feeling a lot of stress.”

“Agent Mulder?” the iDoc asked, leaning forward and aligning its head-mounted scanner with her pupils.

“Yes, I’m concerned about him. I don’t think he’s well.”

“I’m sure he’s not, but he’s not my patient today. Sit back and relax.” Saying that the iDoc raised its four needle-sprouting arms. “Lean your head forward please. I need to feel your pain.”

The Cherry Sourball

“We’re on the air in…” Marsha Mellow checked her watch, “ninety-eight minutes. So let’s rehearse the questions. Then you can both go back to makeup.”

“Thank you, Marsha,” Senator Toggle said, his gray hair perfectly coiffed. “Before we start, I want to say—”

“We only have a few minutes, Senator, so let’s get right to Dr. Setback’s discovery.” She turned to the crew arranging the set. “How’s the lighting?” The cameraman looked out from his camera and waved. “Sound, Geoff?” The straggle-haired soundman gave a thumbs-up and propped his sandaled feet on the mixing console.

Mellow began, “Doctor Setback and his team have perfected a Smart Pill. Have I said that correctly?” She looked at the scientist.

“It’s not a pill precisely, not in the medical sense. Actually,” he projected a stack of schematics and formulas, “it’s a precisely ordered sequence of APMs, atomically precise machines, that act as catalysts to restructure neural—”

“I’m sorry, Doctor,” Mellow interrupted, “our audience has a secondary-school understanding of science. Can you give them the lollypop version?” Setback looked chastised.

“My Smart Pill optimizes every human faculty,” he started again. “Saliva and sucking action in the mouth dissolves the pill to release nano, I mean, very tiny agents. From the mouth, these agents migrate to the brainstem then up to the brain. The affect is almost immediate.” Setback smiled. “We even made it cherry flavored to encourage sucking.”

Mellow leaned toward the scientist, her eyes dramatically wide. “How soon before I can expect to have encyclopedic knowledge, perfect memory, hyper-normal focus, and an expert golf swing?”

“You will have all those things and more, but pill production will be slow. My team took sixteen years to assemble this first—“

“Do you have it to show us, Doctor?” Mellow interrupted.

“It’s in the jacket I left in the car.”

“Okay, get it before we go on. For now, pretend you’re showing it to me.”

“This little pill has sixteen million agents,” he pointed to the hollow of his open hand, “each built atom by atom, and each designed specifically for one task.”

“Who gets this one?” Mellow asked, cheerily pointing to Setback’s open hand.

“Senator Toggle.” He gestured past Mellow who pivoted in her seat.

Toggle cleared his throat. “The Committee On Human Enhancement, which I chair, considers Dr. Setback’s Smart Pill to be a momentous breakthrough, perhaps the greatest in human history. Certainly it would be immoral to profit from this invention or to regulate its availability. So selecting the first recipient is a very serious responsibility. We must consider the humanitarian implications and those underserved in our community. I and my party—“

“Thank you, Senator Toggle,” Mellow said, “I think we’re ready to go.” She looked around. “Everyone take a break and get back in…” she checked her watch, “twenty-three minutes.” She looked at Setback. “Doctor, before makeup, could you bring in the pill—so we have it ready on set.”

Toggle left for the makeup room and Setback for the parking lot. Soundman Geoff gestured to the cameraman, pinching his thumb and forefinger to his pursed lips and pointing to the smoking deck. He took the sourball from his mouth and placed it on the mixer console before heading to the back door.

First to return to the set, Senator Toggle spotted Geoff’s sourball on the console. No one was around. He examined the red candy, holding it up to the light before poking it into his mouth.

“Ah, yes,” he murmured, “I knew I was the one. Everything’s so clear now. I was right all along.” He looked up savoring the cherry flavor and spreading his arms wide. “I’m the one,” he shouted and headed out the front door.

Doctor Setback walked in next with a wide-checked jacket over his arm.

“No, no, that won’t do,” Marsha Mellow said, coming in behind him. “We’ll get you another jacket. Just leave it here and go back to makeup.”

Setback removed a baggy with the red Smart Pill from the jacket, set them both on the mixing console, and followed Mellow to makeup.

At that moment, Geoff stumbled in, fell into his seat, and looked around. “Hey, Marsh’, you take my sourball? Ahh, I see it. Okay, thanks for putting it in a baggy.” He plopped the pill into his mouth. It was smaller than he remembered, but he decided not to accuse Mellow of sucking on it.

“Ready on set,” Marsha called, rushing out with Setback as the lights came up. “Now where’s Toggle?”

“I saw him running in the lot as I came in,” Geoff said, sucking vigorously.

“And where’s my Smart Pill,” Setback said, lifting the empty baggy. Geoff relaxed as he felt the pill take effect.

“I thought it was my cherry sourball,” he said. Setback’s knees buckled, and he grabbed the back of Geoff’s chair to stay upright.

“On the air,” the director said, “in eight, seven …”

“Quick, get over here,” Mellow pulled Geoff and Setback onto the set and pushed them into the seats. “Geoffrey Goodman,” she said, “you’re the first to try Doctor Setback’s Smart Pill. What do you have to say?” Her face wore a tight smile.

Slide1Geoff lifted his sandaled feet onto the coffee table. “It’s overwhelming, Marsha. Looking out from where I sit, I see it all clearly. Everyone has a special mission, a purpose, but we’re all consumed by our default settings. We treat our egos like a matter of life and death. The first thing we need to …”

From his living room recliner, Jeremy lifted the remote as he shouted to his girlfriend. “I thought Mellow had Senator Toggle scheduled for tonight.”

“Did we miss him?” Ashley called back. “I love hearing him. He really cares about us.”

Jeremy started flipping through the channels.