Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Microstory 1772: Archer

I survived, against all odds. A group of men abducted me, and held me captive in a barn. Once they were ready, they released me into the woods, and told me that they would give me a five-minute head start. They expected me to run as far as I could, but I circled back, and stole one of their vehicles. When I look back on that moment, I’m filled with regret at how disappointing and anticlimactic that ordeal was. That was my chance; my chance to see what it feels like to take a life. I wouldn’t have gotten in any trouble for it, and any of them would have deserved it. I only ran, because some idiot left the key in the ignition, and didn’t give me a choice. Had I tried to fight back at that point, it would have looked suspicious. If I had just gone for it, and ended up not liking it, at least I would have known the truth. As it stands, I feel like I don’t know who I am. Am I a killer? Am I no better than those rich bastards who liked to hunt the most dangerous game? I try to move on with my life, but these questions nag at me, and refuse to relent. I wake up one day, and find myself on autopilot. No hope to stop myself, I drive to the prison to visit the ringleader. He acts like he saw this coming. Does he see something in me that no one else does? I ask him why he did it, and what turned him into the kind of person he is. Since I’m not a lawyer, this conversation isn’t privileged, so I have to worry about them listening in. I frame my interrogation like a victim who is trying to get some closure and move past it. I get the sense that he understands why I’m really here, and he frames his responses to help me work through my existential crisis. When the hunt began, someone flung an arrow at my feet, and nearly struck me. As it turns out, this is the guy who did that. He wanted me to know that he had my life in his hands. The arrow, according to him, is the purest weapon history ever came up with. I don’t know what that means, but my attention shifts to it, and I know that I have to find out.

I start learning archery on my own. I don’t want anyone to know what I’m into, so I build a range in my basement all by myself, and let internet videos teach me the basics. From there, it’s just a matter of practicing. I breathe archery, and dream about it. It consumes my whole being, and before I know it, I’m an expert marksman. I keep wondering if I’ll get tired of it, or if I’ll eventually stop feeling the need to continue, but that day never comes. I have to do more. I have to know how far that arrow flies. I feel like a junkie, chasing after something I’ll never get. The difference is that I think I can get it. I think all I need is some better targets. Out of the dozen people who tried to kill me two years ago, one of them got an easy sentence. He cooperated with law enforcement, and basically sealed all the others’ fates. He was apparently new to the crew, so he hadn’t killed anyone yet. He’s the only one not still in prison, so I decide he’ll be my first. I can’t tell you how good it feels when I watch that arrowhead sink into his kidney. It’s like witnessing a miracle; I’m euphoric. The high doesn’t last, and I must find another. Vigilante is not the word I can use for myself, though that would be a fantastic excuse. The truth is that my experience screwed me up more than I realized at first, and I have become obsessed with understanding why those people did what they did. After killing a few random criminals here and there, I determine that I’ve been sloppy and unorganized. If I want to hold onto this feeling, I have to become something new. I form my own crew, but we don’t go after normal people. We go after the rich.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Microstory 1771: Arrow

I know what they want; what they’re expecting. They have obviously done this before, and they know how it goes, because all of their victims have been predictable. They want to get as deep in the woods as possible as fast as possible. But I don’t know where I am, or how far I am from civilization. I could wind up heading straight for some kind of secondary base camp, where an entire regiment is waiting to finish the job. Things used to be a lot easier for me. I had a pretty cushy life, and I didn’t worry myself with the state of the rest of the world. I’m sure that’s why they chose me, because they’re angry, and I’m an easy target. Well, I’m about to show them just how wrong they are. I am not going to make it easy on them. I’m not going to run as far as I can. I’m going to hide, and find an opportunity to hunt them right back. They’re counting on the fact that I’ve been so sheltered. They think it gives them some kind of advantage over me, like they’re the only ones who are all right with getting their hands dirty. I may have less experience than them, but there has been a darkness inside me since I was a boy, and they just gave me permission to let it out. If I manage to kill any of these people in my pursuit of freedom and safety, no one will blame me for it. It was self-defense. They may have all the weapons, and probably even the skill. But I have something they could never understand: the ability to shut out my feelings, and turn feral. I’m no straight arrow, but I don’t drink all that much, because if I want to lose my inhibitions, all I have to do is let go of my grasp on the moral code that I developed to avoid getting in trouble. That’s the only reason it’s there. I don’t really value human life, and I certainly don’t value these people’s lives. If they want violence tonight, they’ll get it, and they’ll be sorry they asked.

Just as I’m crossing the tree line, an arrow nearly catches me in the ankle. They promised they would wait five minutes before they began the hunt. I don’t think they have their eyes on breaking that promise. They’re clearly a cocky bunch who have no reason to suspect that I might actually survive this. I think that was just one of them showing off his bow and arrow skills. That’s good to know. When I think I’m out of eyesight, I speed up. I run as fast as I can, as far as I can, using up nearly all the energy I can muster at once. Once a minute has passed, I stop. I turn around, and head back towards the barn, but at an angle. I walk slowly and carefully, avoiding every fallen leaf on the ground. I spend the four minutes I have left getting right back to the starting point without alerting anyone to my presence. They’re going to walk straight into the woods, thinking that I’ll be a kilometer away before they catch up to me. I start to hear their voices as I get closer. I can’t tell what they’re saying, but their tone doesn’t sound like they know what’s up. My plan is working. What I’m gonna do is make it back up to the barn, kill whoever they left behind to guard it, steal their weapons, and then go after the rest, one by one. I stay low, and peek around a tree. Hm. I don’t see anyone there at all. Did they really all go off on the hunt? What a bunch of morons. I wait for a moment just in case before bolting towards the barn, getting myself drenched in the floodlights, but not staying visible too long. I find an old pickup truck inside. Perhaps there are some weapons stored in here. There aren’t, but the key is in the ignition. This forces me to admit to myself that they left me with no excuse to fight back and kill people. So I reluctantly get in the truck, and drive to the police station two counties over.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: March 13, 2371

A hundred and twenty light years away from Vendelin’s source planet—in the direction of the oncoming Power Vacuum—was a brown dwarf with tons of proto-planetary debris, but no fully coalesced planets. A quantum terminal was installed on an asteroid, but it was never part of the Quantum Colony game. It was available, like all others, but either people had come here, and decided to leave without declaring it their own, or no one had found it yet. The game was not something that most people could have played back in the 21st century. Players weren’t provided a map, or a list of star systems. Unlocking each one required solving a gauntlet of mathematical equations, and calculating the precise location for themselves. Some of these puzzles were naturally relevant, but others were arbitrarily injected into the game to make it more difficult. Because of how much effort went into finding a planet to call their own, many players didn’t bother. There were plenty of public-access worlds that their respective colonists chose to make a hub for interstellar activity. The chances that this system had simply not yet been discovered were pretty high. Leona and Ramses only knew about it, because they were afforded direct access to the complete and unadulterated database of Project Stargate sites.
Seven hundred light years away from both the source planet, and the brown dwarf was a main sequence star being orbited by four gas giants, one icy dwarf planet, and the densest boundary planetesimal cloud any of the smart people in the group had ever heard of. Being so far from Gatewood, Project Stargate had yet to reach it. They only knew about it, because the Project Topdown ships were already mapping the galaxy, even before escaping into the intergalactic void. They didn’t choose it for any specific reason, other than the fact that it was the farthest system they knew about at this point, and its remoteness was key to completing their mission.
While the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was parked on the quantum terminal asteroid around the brown dwarf, Kestral and Ishida’s ship was stationed in the void. The Jameela Jamil was commissioned to replace The Emma González as Team Keshida’s primary mode of transportation since the latter was donated to Étude Einarsson, who needed it to search for her daughter. Goswin, Weaver, and Eight Point Seven were in possession of it last, but they hadn’t heard a peep from them in years, so anything could have happened to it and its crew since then. It was funny that Medley called the AOC the fastest ship in the galaxy. The reframe engine was not something that could be improved. It was capable of moving a vessel at 707 times the speed of light. By its nature, that was the absolute maximum speed. It was based on a limitation hardcoded into the proper physics of the universe. Regardless, theirs was not the only ship with such technology, and the Jameela just surpassed it.
It was elegant, nigh impenetrable, fast, and chock full of time technology. Atterberry pods, Ubiña pockets, disturbance detectors, emergency personal teleporters, debris teleporter field generators, and more, gave it an edge over any contender. It could teleport at the light year range, and maintain hull integrity through burst mode, which was an engineering problem that no one had been able to solve up until now. It could get clear across the Milky Way in two days without having to stop for repairs, or to refuel. It could get to the next galaxy over, Andromeda, in a month. The only fastest way to travel—besides calling upon Maqsud Al-Amin—was the Nexus network, and that wasn’t always available. It wasn’t an argument against the Jameela anyway, as there was a Nexus built into it as well, in case passengers didn’t have days to wait.
During the team’s interim year, Team Keshida actually visited both star systems, and began work on their solution to the Power Vacuum problem. They programmed machines to construct some of the largest objects present-day had to offer. According to the data that they were able to pull from Vendelin’s computers, the energy sucking beam that was threatening to destroy Earth was about the size of a main sequence star. Indeed, its energy came from such a star. He constructed millions of objects around it, and coordinated their motion patterns in such a way to actually drive solar winds in one direction. Basically he built gargantuan bellows to harness plasma, and focus it as a projectile. Once filtered through the muzzle, this energy served as a sort of souped-up electro-magnetic pulse that could be targeted at an enemy’s planet. There appeared to be no means of stopping it, because anything placed in its path would be affected by its power. Fortunately, it wasn’t likely capable of nullifying temporal energy. If they were wrong about that, there really wasn’t anything they could do.
The teleporter rings were not completed yet, which was why they chose a departing site as far as they did, to give this process time. The Power Vacuum would reach it in 2374, but if all went according to plan, it wouldn’t go any farther than that. They were the largest teleporters ever, far outsizing the diameter of the star of origin. The beam should pass right into the entrance, and be instantly transported to the exit, where it would fly out into the void at the speed of light, where it would not be able to harm anyone anymore.
Since the robots were doing all of the work, and would continue doing it after they left the timestream, the humans weren’t all that useful anymore. All the intelligent ones could do was periodically check up on the systems, and make sure everything was going smoothly, and all the not super intelligent ones could do was twiddle their thumbs; maybe play a game of RPS-101 Plus, or two...or eleven.
Olimpia paused the game just before Mateo’s Sponge could doesn’t use her Math to win the round. “I’m sick of this.” It looked like a way to avoid losing again, but she wasn’t wrong. They were all bored. Their situation was serious, but in no way urgent.
Everyone agreed, so they leaned back in their chairs, and ignored the screens for a moment. As they were doing nothing, Ramses climbed down from the upper level, and began to head for the engineering ladder.
“Hey, Ramathorn, anything interesting happening on the Jameela right now?” They had temporarily converted one of the shower rooms to a small teleporter, which allowed them to seamlessly switch from one ship to the other, almost as if they were only on the one ship. This feature was limited in range, and a massive power hog, which was why they were pulling energy from the full-sized fusion reactor that was designated for the quantum terminal, completely bypassing their miniature version. The Jameela had one of this calibre on board, as well as a backup in storage, so this was no problem for them.
“Nope.” He slid downstairs without elaborating.
“Welp,” Angela said, looking at her watch. “That conversation killed about ten seconds of time.”
“What are we going to do now?” Olimpia questioned. She unpaused their game just to let the Sponge attack, and be done with it.
Kivi darted her eyes amongst her friends. “We could...upgrade to a better game?”
“What might that be?” Mateo asked. “I’m not playing 4D Go.”
“No, I’m talking about...” Kivi looked around to make sure they weren’t being spied upon. “...Quantum Colony.”
“We ordered that thing to be shut down,” Mateo exclaimed. He was the one who delivered the order personally.
“It mostly was,” Kivi admitted. “But not completely. A few of the hub worlds are still available, while all of the individually-claimed systems are locked out. Teagarden is currently working on a plan to reveal the whole truth to the populace.”
“I’m sure that won’t take thirty years,” Angela joked.
“What do people do there?” Mateo pressed, “on these hub worlds?”
“Well, they’re building an interplanetary train track on one of them,” Kivi said. She grabbed her tablet, and presumably started looking it up.
“How is that possible?” Angela asked. “I mean, in the afterlife simulation, no big deal, but out here?”
“Oh, it’s possible,” Kivi promised. “It orbits one planet, and then keeps moving out in concentric elliptical circles, eventually linking up with orbital tracks from other planets. Hypothetically, if you were none too worried about time, you could literally walk across a solar system.”
“Why would they bother doing that?” Olimpia asked.
“Quite exclusively, because they can,” Kivi answered. She flung the page up to the central hologram so they could all see it. They were looking at several planets with concentric circles connecting them to one another. Part of the circles were white, while others were red. “The red is planned track, not yet complete.”
Angela regarded it with deep fascination. “How long would it take for the whole train ride?”
“It doesn’t get specific,” Kivi replied, “but it says it would only take a matter of weeks. You can go real fast on very little power.”
“Perhaps we’ll go there when it’s done,” Mateo determined. “We probably shouldn’t go anywhere unless we ask for permission anyway. We’ll just get caught.”
“Sure, we can,” Kivi contended. “No one here is an elected leader.”
“They are our leaders just the same,” Olimpia returned. “A fool who refuses to follow their superior only proves why they are the fool, and why their superior is the leader.”
“Who said that?” Angela asked.
“Olimpia Sangster, circa 2371.”
They laughed. This conversation just killed a couple minutes of time.
Angela consulted her watch again. “It’s too late in the day to do anything now. If we’re gonna go somewhere, we should make it an all-day event, and we should make sure the smarties are aware of it. It’s disrespectful not to.”
“It’s nice to hear you say that.” Kestral and Leona were climbing down the ladder.
“Thanks for the heads up, Olimpia,” Leona said.
“What did you do?”
Olimpia lifted her Cassidy cuff, and tapped a button on the screen, which disengaged the communicator.
“We heard most of what you said,” Kestral clarified.
“I don’t feel bad,” Mateo told her. “Us dum-dums need sumfin to do.”
“It’s fine,” Kestral assured him with a smile. “I think it’s a great idea. Unfortunately, we have to amend the plan slightly. You wouldn’t be going to a hub world. A mission came up, and we are once again the best people for the job.”
“Either we all underestimated the number of Quantum Colony players who were aware that it was more than just a game, or Teagarden has been keeping more from us than we realized,” Leona said.
“Someone else set off another weapon?” Kivi guessed.
“No, but as part of the agreement we made with them, Teagarden had to recall all players, either to their homeworld, or one of those hubs. Only once they were returned could they be locked out of the necessary quantum terminals. Most players complied, because the military didn’t say why they were being recalled, or that everyone was being recalled at the same time, or that they probably wouldn’t ever be allowed to go back. There were a few holdouts, which required an actual contingency to go offworld, and scoop them up.”
“Did one of them fight back?” Mateo asked.
“No, they just did to Teagarden exactly what Teagarden was trying to do to them. They hacked into their own quantum terminal, and blocked all external access. It wasn’t hit by the Power Vacuum; it’s not at all in range; they’re just refusing to come back. Even if we didn’t force their hands, Teagarden still wouldn’t be happy about it. You’re not allowed to tamper with the terminal, or you’re meant to be booted from the game.”
“The point is,” Kestral went on, “we got an FTL ship, we gotta go check it out. I’m sure this is just the next of many requests they give us because of our advantage. It’s part of their strategy until they figure out how to reverse-engineer their own reframe engine.”
“Don’t both our ships need to stay with the teleporter rings?” Angela pointed out.
“They are not the only ships we have,” Kestral said, still with that smile. “Ours is a capital ship, complete with other, smaller ships docked inside of it. The four of you will be taking The Tahani on a recon mission to New Earth...on your own.”

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Extremus: Year 21

Three people are in the room with Halan. One is the ship’s primary counselor, the other is the Consul, and the third is Dr. Holmes. The Consul, who is generally responsible for maintaining the wall that separates right from wrong, is leading this phase of the review. He sets the video sphere on the table between them, and begins. “This is the one-year post-upload certification interview with Probationary Captain Halan Yenant. I am Dvronen Vatal. To my left is current ship counselor, Madam Thora Adebayo, and to my right is Medical Administrator, Dr. Holmes. This is the fourth of nine planned periodical check-ins, which are being used to assess the subject’s ongoing fitness for his responsibilities to the pangalactic generation ship known as The Extremus. They will continue for the next five years, or until such time that the subject is declared undoubtedly competent to continue his role on the ship, whether that be as Captain, as Admiral, or in any other capacity. Dr. Ima Holmes has already performed the most recent medical evaluation in private. Madam Adebayo will be handling the psychological phase immediately following the conclusion of this session, also in private. First of all, Probationary Captain, how are you feeling?”
“I thought you were going to stop calling me that.”
“You’ll assume your full rank after today, assuming this goes smoothly.”
“When does it ever not?”
“I’m just trying to do my job, sir,” Dvronen contends. “No one here has any personal bias against you.”
“Or for you,” Thora adds. She practices a thing called radical honesty, having decided during her studies that anything short of full transparency is conflict waiting to happen. She believes that the only reason anyone ever gets hurt is either because they were hiding something, or someone was hiding something from them. Halan is sure it’s more nuanced than that, but he doesn’t argue with her. It’s part of the reason he prefers to seek guidance from Grief Counselor Meziani, but Madam Adebayo doesn’t know that, because he’s not radically honest. As far as he can tell, this lie is not causing her harm.
Dvronen decides to go on, “I was informed that both you and Probationary Lieutenant Eckhart Mercer ceased your physical therapy shortly after your six-month certification.”
“We don’t need it,” Halan explains. “Physically, we’re fine.”
“But not psychologically?”
“Is anyone ever perfectly emotionally healthy? I was allowed therapy before my death.”
“I’m not judging,” Dvronen assures him. “I obviously cannot access your therapy records, so I’m asking you to provide as much information about that as you feel comfortable with. If that means nothing, then I can accept that. It might be easier to certify you for the next year, though. That will be the longest period of time without one of these interviews you’ve had since the incident. I need to make sure you’re ready.”
“I’m confident that I will be fine,” Halan says. “I’ve been doing the job, and no one has reported any incidents to you, have they?”
Dvronen looks just a tad bit uncomfortable, like he’s not sure he’s going to bring up whatever happened that has him so worried about Halan’s fitness as the Captain.
“Spit it out, Consul,” Halan urges.
“Tell me about December 4, 2289,” Dvronen prompts, still uncomfortable.
Halan has always had a very good memory, but he’s traditionally used it to recall people, rather than events in the past. If you know everything that any given individual has been through, you probably have a pretty good idea of who they are. Once there, you can start to understand them. You won’t ever reach a hundred percent understanding, but it should be enough to see their worldview, and appreciate their flaws. Halan can’t do all that, though. It would be an invasion of privacy, and impossible to try for everyone on the ship. Short of this full understanding, being able to remember too much of that past can actually be a hindrance. Yes, yes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, but it can also make it more difficult to move on. Halan hates to hold grudges, so when people around him screw up, it’s better for everyone if he distributes consequences immediately, but then forget about it, and not hold it against them later. Ovan was a huge exception. December 4, 2289. That was just over a month ago, and while that doesn’t sound like very long, the date doesn’t live in the front of his mind.
“Are you having memory problems?” Dvronen asks after it takes Halan too long to respond. He has his pen ready to take note of this in Halan’s personnel file, and his whole tone has changed for the worse.
“Just give me a second.” Yeah he remembers that date. It’s nothing. “It was nothing, don’t worry about it.”
“According to eyewitness accounts, a child asked you to marry her.”
“I’m the Captain, such sentiments are not uncommon. Children look to me as an authority figure, and they mistake respect for love.”
“I don’t doubt that,” Dvronen promises. “I’m questioning your response to her.”
“Well, she caught me off guard. We were in a room full of people, what did you expect me to say?”
“I don’t know,” Dvronen replies. He zooms in on his tablet. “But maybe not—and I quote—‘perhaps one day, when you’re older, and I haven’t aged.’ Do you still feel as if that was an appropriate response?”
“It was a joke, because I’m a clone now, and many people believe that I don’t age, when actually I still do. I’ll die at around the same time as I would have if I hadn’t been murdered.”
“Do you think the child understood such nuance?” Dvronen pressed.
Halan rolls his eyes. “Probably not, but when she does grow up, she will.”
“I’m not convinced that’s the case. This interaction concerns me.”
He rolls his eyes again. “Have you ever heard of Santa Claus?”
“Ancient Earthan superstitious figure. He gave people cookies, or something.”
“He gave presents, to children, who often gave him cookies.”
“Whatever. Where is this going?”
“Well, he was a lie, just like the Easter Bunny, and Jesus Christ’s ghost, and an honest lawyer.”
“Oh, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.”
“My point is that that little girl might right now be dreaming of marrying the captain of the ship, partially because of what I told her, but then she’ll get older, and realize I wasn’t being at all serious. And she’s not going to hold it against me later, because she’ll be an adult.”
“Maybe not, but in the meantime, she’ll have trouble forming romantic relationships with others, because her heart will be with you until such time that she grows up,” Dvronen reasons. His tone grows graver still.
“You don’t know that,” Halan argues.
“Well, if you—”
Halan interrupts him, “You’re here to make sure that the transference of my consciousness to this new substrate has not negatively impacted my job here. It is not your responsibility to criticize my leadership style in general. I was selected as captain over two decades ago, so I must have done something right to prove to the council that I was the best choice. I feel like myself. I am myself. And I would have responded to the girl’s proposal the same way as I would if Ovan had never shot me. Well, I mean, it would have been a different response, because I wouldn’t be in a clone body, but it still wouldn’t necessarily have been something you would approve of. But I did not require your approval before, and I shouldn’t require it now. That is well beyond your scope.”
Dvronen tries to speak again, but can’t get a word out.
“Nothing has changed about who I am, and how I lead; nothing important, anyway. This is just a new body. I’m still the same person I’ve always been, in my mind, which is all that really counts. I even look as I did before I died. If you hadn’t made my condition public, neither the crew, nor the passengers, would have noticed a difference. The only reason the good doctor didn’t upload us two years ago is because it took time to grow the clones in the pods, and people noticed my absence, as well as the Lieutenant’s. Now, I’m going to keep coming back to these things every year, as I promised to. So unless you have some undeniably objective evidence that I’m not competent to continue, continuing is what I’m going to do.”
Dvronen takes a moment before replying, not out of respect for Halan, but as a passive-aggressive tactic to make sure he knows how little sense that little monologue made. “I have the power to strip you of your rank, and begin the succession process.”
“You can’t, she’s too young,” Halan contends.
“Who? The little girl who wants to marry you? She is not up for consideration.” Perhaps the Probationary Captain really has gone crazy.
You don’t have to consider anything, you’re just a lawyer. I’m talking about Kaiora Leithe.”
“I don’t know who that is,” Dvronen admits.
Halan goes on, “she was the first baby born on this ship.”
“Okay...what about her?”
“She’s on the captain’s track, but she’s too young. She won’t be ready until 2294, which just so happens to coincide with my planned retirement. If you force my replacement now, she’ll never get the chance.”
“Are you saying you’re going to rig the selection process?” Dvronen questions.
“I won’t have to. She’s top of her class, and has been the whole time. She’s forgotten more about this ship than I’ll ever know.”
“I don’t take comfort in that, if true.”
“It’s an expression. Even if she doesn’t get the job, she has plenty of competitors who are also too young, or otherwise not yet ready. You wanna get rid of me? I don’t like it, but I recognize your perspective, and the complexities of this whole situation. But don’t punish the people who are working hard to be worthy of the title one day, and hastily replace me with someone inferior.”
“We wouldn’t have to do that,” Dvronen says. He pulls the bylaws up on his tablet. “Interim leadership. We’re allowed to institute that for a maximum of four years, at which point a new full-shift captain can be found, just as it would be if you served out your own shift.”
“You’re trying to fire me,” Halan figures. That’s why his tone changed, because he was tired of pretending that this charade was anything but an extended exit interview. “Four year interim. You know how hard I would fight against it if we weren’t exactly four years away from my shift change. You’ve wanted this the entire time, but you also need my cooperation.”
The Consul drops all pretense. “It will be so much smoother if you just let this happen. I already have a shortlist, and since you know literally everyone on the Extremus, you can help us choose the right one. I’ll give you full veto power, and once it’s done, you’ll ascend immediately to the admiralty. We’ve been lacking in that department too. You can even be more involved than Thatch was.”
Dvronen’s logic isn’t bad, and Halan really does see where he’s coming from. Annoyingly, where he’s coming from has placed the Captain in a terribly awkward position, because if he fights it, he’ll look like another power-hungry tyrant, just like Ovan. He can’t simply dismiss this out of hand. There has to be some loophole, though. He wants to keep his seat until his shift is officially over. He doesn’t want there to have been more than nine captains before this is all over. He doesn’t want to step down. He doesn’t want to lose this battle of wills. The incident with the girl was obviously just an excuse for Dvronen to do what he’s wanted to do all along. Maybe Halan can turn things around, and use that against him. He knows what buttons to push. He doesn’t like manipulating people, but he’s done it before, and he can do it again.
“Well...?” Dvronen has to prompt again. Halan spends too much time in his own head.
He’s about to use his silver-tongue to his advantage again, but his words betray him. “Okay.” He can’t get nothing out of this, though. “But I don’t want any more evaluations. This is the last one, or I don’t step down.”
“Okay.”

Friday, December 3, 2021

Microstory 1770: Net Loss

I’ve always been a terrible person, who treats others poorly, and only looks out for himself. I don’t like that about myself, but no one understands how hard it is to change. I keep trying to do better, but when I think of something nice to say, it gets stuck inside my head, while a bunch of malice comes out instead. One of my therapists and I worked out the metaphor. There’s a golden net on the top of my throat. It catches all the pretty things that people want to hear, and what I wish I could say to them. These pleasantries are larger, as they should be, but it means that they can’t escape. The smaller, meaner, bits of darkness can slip out easily. After deciding to look at it this way, we began to work on ways to make me easier to work with. Before I respond to someone about something, I’m meant to force myself to smile. This apparently should stretch out the golden net so much that it breaks, and lets out all the goodness I supposedly have inside me. Well, I’ve never been able to break it, but the stretching helps a little. It opens up the holes just a little more, allowing some of the smaller pretty words to get out sometimes. It’s not enough for the Catholic church to canonize me as a saint, but I guess I would call it a start. Sadly, that’s not my only problem anyway. My biggest issue is how I behave, not just what I say to people. Sociopaths and psychopaths say charming things all the time, but if they still act selfishly, or even hurt people, it’s not really good, is it? Altering my instincts to stop just taking what I want without regard to others is going to be the biggest thing I’ve ever tried, and I don’t think I can do it alone. So here I am at this spa, upon the recommendation of one of my therapist’s other patients. They can reportedly turn anyone into a nice person. I feel like I’ve seen this movie before.

I sit on the table in the exam room. The woman who ushered me in here ordered me to remove my clothes. She took them all with her, and never provided a gown. I thought maybe it was an oversight, but when the...I guess, doctor comes in, she’s not fazed, so I guess this is how it goes. She looks me over from the door, quite clinically; not sexually, nor critically. She reaches up, and turns a dial on her glasses, like she’s seeing me through multiple filtered lenses. Once she’s satisfied with her readings, she steps over to a computer terminal on the wall, and begins to input the data. I don’t say a word. She’s the one leading this hoedown, so I wait for her. When she’s finished, she walks back over to the door with a clicker, which she uses to retract the floor. I try not to freak out, but I’m rather confident that the exam table is safe. It stops short of it, like I figured, but I’m stuck up here. It’s a surprisingly large room. There’s no way I would be able to make the jump. The maybe-doctor gives me a choice. I can wait 30 seconds, and walk out of here on the floor with a full refund, or I can take a literal leap of faith, and fix my life. With no context, she leaves. I peer over the edge, and see a beautiful glow emanating from below. My eyes adjust and I realize it’s a net. It’s a golden net. Am I dreaming? Am I just living in the metaphor? This can’t be real, it doesn’t look real. So I jump. I jump belly first. My body lands in the net, and it gives just enough to keep it from hurting. I bounce a little before it returns to equilibrium, and then I’m just lying there. Not for long, though, before I begin to feel skin ooze off my bones. It’s like the net is melting me, except it doesn’t hurt, and I’m not scared. I fall all the way through; not all of me, though; just the best parts, leaving behind only the garbage that once weighed down my soul.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Microstory 1769: Pointed Pyxis

Folks, there’s no doubt about it, this is the biggest find in archaeological history. I don’t know how it’s possible, but I’ve had it checked by a dozen of my colleagues, and we all agree on the results. This box before you dates back 16,000 years. It calls into question everything we know about pre-literary history. It breaks the laws of physics, and quite honestly, it’s driving me insane. I’m not here to talk about the science we used to date this artifact. You can read our paper at your leisure. Today, I’m going to be showing you the artwork on the box, and explaining just how impossible it is, just in case some of you aren’t surprised by it on your own. Now, we call this object a pointed pyxis, and the first of them rose up in Greek culture during the eleventh century BCE, which is a full 13,000 years after the artifact was made. That alone would be astonishing, to learn that people were making certain styles of art so much earlier than we once believed. That’s not the exciting part. If that was all there was, I suppose we could have just assumed it was a coincidence. Again, still remarkable, but not too crazy. Let me zoom in. In the first hexagon is a woolly mammoth. Nothing weird there; they weren’t extinct back then. But if you look closer, you’ll see that it’s not alone. There’s a human riding on top of it, and as far as we know, people never did that. We hunted and co-existed with them, but we did not domesticate them. Or maybe we did. In the next hexagon—and by the way, I’m not sure what to call this shape; curved hexagons on a sort of pointed cylinder—there is what appears to be a bird. This is not the kind of avian you would expect to find on something from this time period, or from any time period in human history. The pterosaur went extinct 66 million years ago, and was never seen by man. It’s possible the artist uncovered fossilized records, but unlikely they were intact enough for them to so accurately depict it’s living form. That’s your first clue to time travel, but not your last.

This appears to be an illustration of a crucifixion, which didn’t start happening until about the 6th century BCE. This is a sea-faring vessel, of a design which the vikings used in the tenth century CE. This writing is Cuneiform, this is Kaqchikel, this is Cyrillic, and these are Neolithic Chinese characters. Over here is the number pi to 12 decimal places...converted to binary. Here’s the hex code for gunmetal gray, but we had to figure that out, because it’s written in a language that we have never seen before. Right next to it is a photorealistic picture of a cannon in said color. There’s a mushroom cloud, there’s the logo for a car company, and look at this and tell me it doesn’t look exactly like TV’s James Van Der Beek. I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Our best guess is that this is the work of some kind of time traveler, but why would they paint all this on a pointed pyxis? What was the purpose of the container at the time? We’ve tested the inside as well, of course, and found absolutely no residue; not even the paint they used on the outside. No dirt, no microbes, no nothing. We’ve even exposed it to modern air, and while we take every precaution to protect against contamination, at least a little always gets in. We don’t operate inside of a vacuum. I’m presenting this to you, because you are the brightest minds this planet has to offer. We’ve decided to crowdsource the mystery, but we’re not ready to reveal it to the world at large yet. If any of you can explain any aspect of this incredible fine, we encourage you to sign up for some time to examine it. Thank you very much.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Microstory 1768: Father Stern

Turtle; beach. Fun; nothing. Money; drain. Father; stern. That’s interesting. I never really thought of my father as being stern. Is that really what my subconscious thinks of him? I take a moment to reflect on my life, completely ignoring whatever my therapist is saying now. He could be talking about the same thing, or he could be prompting me with more word associations, but I’m stuck in my own head. He should have thought about that before we started playing this game. The whole reason I’m in here is because I have trouble concentrating on the real world. I can tell the difference between what’s real, and what’s not, but I don’t much care for the former. It’s much easier to pretend I’m living in a fantasy; a world that I can shape to my needs. I don’t like to rely on others, because they’ll only disappoint me. Disappointing; mother. So now I’m just playing the game by myself. Has my mother been a disappointment? She’s certainly not my favorite person in the world, but I love her, and I appreciate everything she’s done for me. What was she supposed to do, order my father to stop making me practice the clarinet for four hours a day. She did the best she could with me and my brother, and so did my father. Brother; escape. Yeah, he was always smarter than me, so he was able to get a scholarship for a college on the other side of the country. I didn’t even bother applying, because the application fee would have been the same as flushing it down the toilet. Meanwhile, he stayed out there, and never has to come back. When the time comes—and it’s coming soon—I’ll be the one still here, having to take care of the parents. They’re going to resent me for it, and he’s going to act like sending a couple hundred dollars a month is contribution enough. He’s rich now, I don’t know why he doesn’t send more. No, this is a stupid stray thought. We don’t need anything from him.

Nothing; fun. That was a weird response too, don’t you think? Why don’t I find anything fun? It’s not even true. I love going...well, I guess I’m tired of that. What about...no, I was never very good. I guess it’s true that I don’t like to have fun. What kind of person feels that way? Suicidal, I suppose. I’ve never given it much thought, but am I secretly at risk of doing something to hurt myself? No, that can’t be right. A lot of people don’t have fun, but that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy being alive. Fun is an interpretation of an experience, and is not a synonym for happiness. Still, I’m probably not really happy either, which I imagine, is why my wife left me. Wife; disappointed. Wow, how’s that for an Oedipus complex? I’m disappointed in my mother, and my ex-wife is disappointed in me. Does that mean I married myself, though? That doesn’t sound right. That would say more about her own poor choices, and she has her own psychology to deal with, with her own therapist. Therapist; uninspired. Whew, that’s rough. Why don’t you tell us how you really feel, self? It’s true, I don’t know about this guy yet. I feel like I read somewhere that said techniques like this word association game are basic, and ultimately don’t really improve a patient’s mental health. I don’t want to judge, but I’m paying him to help me, and if it’s not doing me any good, then there goes more cash down the toilet. Toilet; now. It’s not an emergency, but I could do with a break. Only then do I notice that we’ve both been silent for the past three minutes; me in my own head, and him waiting patiently for me to come back out of my shell, like a turtle; beach. “Are you ready to talk about your father?” he asks me. Father; stern. Stern; justified.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Microstory 1767: Piscis Austrinus

I’ve been an honorary fish for a few months now, and I’ve loved almost all of it. There’s something missing in my life, though. I’m the only one of my kind. The other fish have accepted me into their school, but I’m not truly one of them. I’m a giant, and I still look human. Every other member is paired up. That’s how this species works. It’s hard to communicate with them, but I’ve been able to gather some information, like how their pairings are a defense mechanism. When they swim in their circles, they create a bunch of bubbles, which makes them difficult to pinpoint. It allows each pair to move off from the school, and hunt for food, or maybe find a little alone time. I don’t want to mate with a fish, or anything, but I do feel lonely. Like I said, they’ve accepted me, but that doesn’t mean one of them is going to circle with me. I don’t want that anyway. I want to find another human to transform into a fish. Unfortunately, that’s damn near impossible. The reason I discovered this species is because they live deeper than 600 meters below sea level. I’m the first person in history to scuba dive to that depth, and since I never came back up, I doubt anyone else is going to be trying it anytime soon. They wouldn’t likely survive; I was the best in the world before I became a fish. Submarines have come this far before, but not regularly, because there’s usually no point. The chances of finding a mate are just too low to hold out hope. I’ve tried encouraging the school to swim closer to the surface, but they won’t do it. They’ve never done it before, and it’s not how they evolved. I don’t know why they transformed me into someone who can breathe underwater, but they seem to consider that act their one favor, and they aren’t interested in going for another. I’m free to go up alone, but that won’t matter. I’m not capable of repeating the miracle myself. I need them to do it. There’s no other way.

I give up on pleading with them. I don’t think it’s gonna happen, even though the second generation seems to be a little more open-minded. I just surrender to the fact that I’ll live the rest of my life alone. It’s still a blessing to be down here. I’m setting records left and right. As it turns out, 600 meters is a little high for these fish. We spend most of our time at 800, which is a depth I never dreamed of seeing. It’s dark, but my eyes have adjusted accordingly, so it basically looks like tropical snorkeling to me. I don’t even think there’s a regular species with that kind of eyesight. Some have even lost their eyes to evolution, because it’s too dark for them to see. It’s a wonder, all the underground mountains, and other unique terrain. As I’m watching some kind of crustacean crawl around on the floor off the coast of Australia, the school suddenly shoots upwards, faster then they ever have before. I have to work hard to keep up. They gave me the ability to breathe water like air, and to withstand the pressure, but I didn’t grow fins. I’m still using the carbon fiber ones I came down here with. It’s not long before I see what all the fuss is about. It’s another diver. She’s only at 500 meters, but she’s descending quickly. Something is tied to her leg. My God, it’s a cement block. Someone is trying to kill her. I wonder why they left her with her scuba gear. Anyway, her attempted murderer is not going to succeed. The fish do to her what they once did for me. We bite off the rope, and swarm her, using magicks to keep her from dying. I smile, glad to finally have someone that I can relate to again. She does not feel the same way. The first thing she does is swim back up to confront her attacker. I feel compelled to follow. Maybe I can help.