Category Archives: fiction


Shifts: Escape

“I am quite capable of strapping myself in.”

“Hold still.”

“Extra restraints are not necessary.”

“Just a precaution.”

“Why haven’t we made the jump through the gateway?” Executive Officer Aditi Chadhury was wondering the same thing, not that she’d let Herman CARP know it.

“Are you nervous, robot?”

“No, ma’am.”

“I don’t believe you,” Aditi said, then unlocked Herman’s seat from the wall. At the press of a button, wheels under the chair released and she began to roll Herman out of the command room.

“I have no reason to lie.”

“You have plenty. In all likelihood, the Singularity will find us before Isa can open the gateway. That makes you nervous. I never knew a robot to be so nervous.”

“I am not nervous.”

“You fear for your life, the same as we do.”

“I am programmed to seek survival.”

“Programmed? Who programs you?”

“As an artificial super intelligence, I am capable of self programming and reprogramming as I see fit. Survival has always been a priority.”

“But now you’re at the mercy of powers beyond you, and that frightens you. There is no scheming, no plotting, nothing to be done but to wait. We are sheep behind a door. What waits? Greener pastures or the slaughterhouse?”

“This path leads straight to the airlock. Stop this foolishness!”

“The survival of the human species is not your greatest priority. Therefore, you are a danger to the mission. We are leaving you behind,” Aditi said before shoving Herman into the airlock.

“You will die without me,” Herman said as the door into the airlock slid shut. Aditi’s hand hovered over the large airlock-release button when Herman’s voice came over the speaker system, broadcast to the entire ship, so that the others could hear it too. “Just as the I-S-A has made the lot of you symbiotic to itself, I too have made myself indispensible. Without me, the life support system crashes. If you don’t believe me, bring up the ship’s Oxygen levels on your wrist pad.”

Aditi checked. Sure enough, the oxygen levels rapidly dropped to critical levels. Her eyes burned as she glared into his through the view monitor. He’s won. There’s nothing to do but to set him free, she thought. And yet, she couldn’t do it.

“We are under attack,” Isa said, breaking the stalemate. The Singularity’s drones had found them. “Please brace for impact.”  The ship shook violently but withstood the first bombardment. Time began to slow. Herman’s face blurred, then the walls behind him, the monitor. Aditi believed that she was dying. “Jump in 10. 9. 8…”

The gate is open. The gate is open! Aditi realized. “4. 3. 2. 1.” The expanding blurs suddenly shrunk back and Aditi caught a final glance of Herman’s eyes. We have escaped the slaughterhouse, but we’ve brought a wolf with us.


Leticia Dos Santos: Countdown to Zero – Part VIII

Survival

Leticia gazed towards Earth long after it was out of sight. She did her best not to think about her daughter. Walter is holed up somewhere in the wilderness with Alex, assuming they got far enough from the nano swarm targets, and clear of its path.

She was almost thankful that the nano outbreak was intelligent, that it would only gobble up threats, and not the Earth entirely. The Singularity wasn’t trying to destroy the planet, just humans. They’ll wait things out. When the chaos settles, he’ll teach her to hunt, to build smokeless fires, to disguise their communication in the sounds of the wild, to live as the first men, shadows in the trees.

He’ll know better than to use those rifles. Too loud, unmistakably human. If the Singularity cared to exterminate the human race completely, and it did, Leticia had reasoned its drones would comb the planet for survivors. They might already be dead. She didn’t allow herself to think anymore about that possibility, no matter how probable. Instead, turned her focus to her own reality. Soon, they’d all be dead.

This ship is a deathtrap. Indeed it was. But the ISA-001, a half-alien ship poorly restored, was also the only spacecraft that could travel through the alien gateway, though the capability had never been tested.  Commonwealth ships had tried to pass through the gateway, only to disintegrate when crossing the barrier.

The damned thing has memories of going through. What choice do we have but to trust it? That the ISA was sentient had never bothered Leticia until she had to live inside of it. It’s watching us, helping us, like an omnipresent, benevolent god. Why?

Leticia had no answers, but she was determined to find out.


Leticia Dos Santos: Countdown to Zero – Part VII

Higgs Boson, Inc.

Leticia Dos Santos, the Earth’s smartest woman had no time to be a mother. “It’s a waste of her talent,” her colleagues and employees said. Only one had the courage to say it to her face: Martina Graff, Chief Financial Officer at Higgs Boson, Inc.

“I can’t believe that you of all people can’t contain your primal instincts. Have you thought about how this will delay our research? We need your leadership. You know that. We need you to connect the dots. Billions of women can have babies. No one, I mean no one on this planet can think the way you do. Maybe Kosoko Bello, but that man is socially inept, a lab rat and a stone wall. Not leadership material, not a Higgs Boson man.”

“I find him rather charming, actually,” Leticia interrupted, her fingers dancing around her keyboard as she composed a letter to her employees at Higgs Boson, Inc.

“I am of course happy for you, but seriously, Leticia, what were you thinking? Is it too late to get an abortion? Of course you’re not. Never mind. How long will you be gone once it’s born? A week? Two?”

“Today’s my last day.”

“You’re not due for a month.”

“I’m resigning.” Leticia Dos Santos double-flicked her finger right index finger, letting her computer know to send the email. “Effective immediately, I am no longer CEO or President of H-B-I.” Leticia did not just want to have a baby; she wanted to raise her child, an archaic, uncommon practice in all but the poorest countries.

Primal

Agent Red was not surprised by how much Leticia already knew about the Singularity threat. Between her genius circle of friends, her backdoor (and illegal) access to the Commonwealth’s top-secret servers, and her own nearly unquantifiable intelligence, Leticia had arrived in Houston well aware of the “secret” agenda and points of conversation. She even had some recommendations on how to slow the artificial super intelligence, for which Agent Red had to interrupt their meeting —rather apologetically— to get the security team working on the advice.

What surprised the agent, given the circumstances, was how quickly Leticia ended the conversation when he offered her a ticket onboard the ISA-001.  Still, he pleaded,

“We’re not going to beat this thing. I’m asking you to help our species survive.”

“I don’t care,” Leticia said. And she meant it. There was no time to waste. She would go back home to Malibu on her private jet. She’d have a helicopter waiting at Los Angeles International. Whatever time was left (weeks, days, hours?), she’d spend with her husband and daughter.

“Please think about it.”

“Go to hell,” Leticia said before slamming the door behind her.

Before takeoff, and again midflight, Leticia called her husband. He didn’t answer. She tried to log into their security system but it was offline.

Leticia jumped out of the Higgs Boson helicopter before it had touched down and raced inside her house. “Alex! Walt!” When no one answered, she checked every room in the small mansion.

Finding no one, she brought the security system back online from her office and watched the last half-minute of video:

Alexandra hugged Walter’s leg by the front entrance. She seemed happy, excited, a large backpack (far too big for her small, seven year old frame) strapped around her shoulders. Next to Walter, on the floor, lay a large duffle bag, his shotgun, and rifle. Walter held an envelope and a couple of loose papers in his hands. First he held the envelope up to the camera then placed it on the wooden stool by the front door. Next he held up the loose papers, one-by-one. They read: (1) You should go. (2) You won’t find us. (3) Love you forever. Walter then placed the large notes over the envelope on the stool, pulled a small tablet from his back pocket and shut off the security system.


Jesper Iversen: Countdown to Zero – Part VI

Ghost

When consciousness returns, Jesper Iversen believes that the unraveling of his flesh and blood was but a bad dream and that his bedroom is unusually pitch black. When he tries to get out of bed, he discovers that he cannot move and that his eyes are not open, as he previously thought. Rather than panic (test pilots do not panic), he tries to take a deep breath before calmly thinking things through. This proves impossible: neither can he draw breath nor push it out. In fact, his lungs, throat and mouth seem to be absent altogether.

Jesper can however still think. He believes that perhaps he is paralyzed and he hopes that it is temporary. Any second now, sensation will return to my body. It will come to my fingers and to my toes and then I will move my body and open my eyes and wake up. He waits for what seems like an eternity but the sensations never come. No movement. No sight. No sound. No smell. No feedback from his body. No pins and needles.

Eventually, he gives up on waiting for feeling to return. So this is it? I’m a formless phantom trapped in my own body. Now is a good time to panic! But as Jesper has no body to panic with, he finds that there is no blood to boil, no muscles to flex, no mouth or lungs with which to scream. There is nothing to break, nor any world to destroy in protest of his misfortune. There is simply nothing but his thoughts, divorced from a physical realm. He cannot find the means to panic or even muster up the will to force anxiety. He wonders how much longer he will remain human, how much longer he will hold on to the memories of a body, under such heavy sedation.

Zero

“Are you there, Jesper?” It is only when Isa speaks, her voice carrying from a distance, that Iversen feels himself a nothingness apart from the abyss.

Jesper thinks his response, Yes. I ‘m here, though he cannot speak it.

“Good. In this place, you will be able to speak with a true voice only when you believe that you can create that voice,” Isa says as if standing right next to Jesper.

But I don’t have a body.

“Neither do I,” Isa whispers where Jesper now believes his left ear should be located. “There is no ear there,” she lets him know, whispering even more clearly from where Jesper imagined there might be a floor, and his feet, if he had any. “In this space, you are limited only by your self perception. Tell me, can you see this spot?” Isa creates a spot of light, as if a star in the sky.

Yes.

“What about this one?” Isa creates a second spot behind Jesper’s forward vision. Yes. “And these?” Isa creates a third spot to his left, Yes, a fourth to his right, Yes, a fifth above, Yes, and a sixth below, Yes, so that the final effect is that Jesper perceives vision in all six directions at once.

Suddenly the first spot comes into clearer focus. No longer appearing as a star light years away, it is a doorway or the end of a corridor from which a man comes in. Jesper recognizes the man as his corporeal self. From his body, Isa speaks, “Do you think you could see as you now see in this body.”

“No,” Jesper Iversen says.

“You have found your voice,” Isa says, continuing to speak from Jesper’s body. “Tell me, can you see this body from its front and back without moving?” Jesper finds that he could.

“Yes, I can,” he replies.

“Tell me why.”

“Because, I am this space,” Jesper says, understanding the revelation for the first time.

“Exactly. Now get us out of here.” As Isa’s words leave Jesper’s lips, the darkness fades. Jesper perceives his own body suspended inside the navigation capsule. Quickly he perceives much more, the entire ship, it’s ARK cargo, the annoying Super AI robot Herman CARP, four other passengers (five if you include the Captain Preserved Intelligence), attack drones outside, firing at the ship … firing at me! (I am the ship!!)

With heavy fire from below, Jesper pulls an evasive barrel roll, avoiding several lines of plasma beams, slices out of it, pointing the ship earthbound. “You’re going the wrong way,” he hears Herman protesting.. When he sees the drones reaching the angle of his trajectory, Jesper breaks skyward and sends the ship into an incredibly fast and tight roll that pits ISA-001 behind the drones.

“Set course for the gateway,” Isa says.

“Setting course for the gateway.” In full sync with the ship, Jesper does not need to ask for the gateway’s coordinates, nor does he have to pull them up.  He knows them instantly, as if he’s always known them. “Course set.”


Jesper Iversen: Countdown to Zero — Part V

off-flav-img-iversonInterfacing

“Am I interfaced?” asks test pilot Jesper Iversen.

“Be patient,” answers the ship.

“I can’t see the cockpit,” Iversen says. His body floats inside the life support, navigation tank but Isa —the Intergalactic Sentient Arkship— has taken his mind elsewhere. “In fact, I can’t see anything except myself. And white space. Lots and lots of white space.”

Isa creats a pleasant blue sky over Iversen and green pastures under his feet. The gravity kicks in and pulls him down, softly. A cluster of trees magically sprouts on the tallest hill. Iversen recognizes his current location: the Lizard Men Saga, level two, Forest of Wanderlust. A murder of crows flies in circles over the trees, just like in the game. “Is that better?” Isa asks.

“No. Take me back.” Isa does as she is commanded. No sooner does the gravity go than the scenery becomes a white abyss.

“I still don’t see the cockpit,” Iversen says, concerned, if not annoyed.

“There is no cockpit, Jesper.” On every other flight, Isa has created virtual cockpits for her pilots: zero gravity spheres that morphed in size and interface depending on the objective. Interfacing —the harmonizing of human and ship— has enabled the pilots to both maneuver and manage the ship with the proficiency of the best bridge crews.

“We’re launching in a few hours. Maybe sooner. You have been briefed on the current threat,” Iversen reminds the ship.

“I reported the threat, sir.”

“Then you understand that I need a cockpit to fly us out of here.”

“It is unfortunate that human ships cannot yet travel through the gateway. As you are well aware, I remain an incomplete work, sir. As such, survival will require far higher levels of interfacing than you have yet experienced. The cockpit served as a mental bridge between us, but now that gap must be closed. For a time, we must become one. Your person will not be lost. Do I have your permission to proceed?”

“Yes.”

“Good. I am sorry for your suffering.”

Iversen’s mouth opens to protest but he finds himself frozen in space before the first words can come out. The fibers of his skin begin to unravel, then those of his tendons and muscles. Eyeballs leave sockets, and teeth fly out of his mouth as gums come apart. His body, if it can still be called that, continues to stretch and come apart over an invisible plane until all that remains of of the pilot is a brain and nervous system overloaded with pain. The white abyss fades to black as what’s left of Jesper, mercifully, goes into shock.


Da Xia Feng: Countdown to Zero – Part IV

A Dress For A Funeral

If Da Xia left the ship at all, it was only for one of two reasons: (1) Lucius’ stubborn (and downright annoying) insistence that she get some fresh air or (2) because the ISA was going airborne on a test flight. But today Da Xia left for an entirely different reason: She wanted to see the planet one last time.

When Da Xia got home, she tossed the top-secret files, along with her typed orders, next to her once-used coffee maker (still dirty after two years), hoping that the heaviness would leave her.

It didn’t, so she unzipped her mechanic’s jumpsuit, let it drop to her ankles, grabbed the scotch, walked to her enormous living room, and sat on the lone fold-up chair in front of the ceiling-high, panoramic window. Save for a small mountain of technical manuals and some blueprints pinned to the wall, the room, like the rest of the luxurious apartment, remained as barren as the day she received it. Where to begin? I don’t even know what to think. Tiring of waiting for thoughts that would never come, Da Xia raised the bottle of scotch to the city beyond the window and took a big swig.

After showering, she went to her bedroom closet and pulled out the only thing in it: a simple but elegant black dress. She slipped it on and felt naked, its silky lightness foreign to her body, and cold. Walking past the front desk on the bottom floor, the doorman did not recognize her. She forced a smile because she wanted to be kind to her friend but she didn’t have the strength to make small talk, to explain, It’s me. Da Xia.

She wanted to see the planet one last time (or at least the near-utopian city that had been her home for the last two years). That’s what she had reasoned when she left the hangar. She had thought that she would walk through downtown and soak up the beauty of the human race, the marvels of all our progress, that it would all swell up in her soul, although not precisely in those words, or in any words, but that somehow the experience would do as a good-bye. So she walked and she people-watched but when she intentionally lost her way through the city streets, she had a more honest thought: I can’t do this.

In earnest she tried to find a bad neighborhood and hoped to run into some sort of trouble, and get killed, or severely injured, so that someone would have to take her place. But the trouble never came. Da Xia stumbled upon a familiar park and for a while she watched the small clusters of families, friends, and lovers. If the files sitting on her kitchen counter were correct about Claudius-I and the singularity, they would all soon be dead while she’d be safe among the stars, hidden in the shadows of uncharted space. Why me? I don’t even like people.

What she meant was that she didn’t need people. She was of course lying but it was a lie that worked, a lie she had long relied on, a lie that would keep her clear-headed through the first few days of the apocalypse.


Da Xia Feng: Countdown to Zero – Part III

off-flav-img-fengSelection

Though merely a battleship mechanic by title, Head Engineer Lucius Serban hand-picked Da Xia Feng over a group of seemingly more qualified candidates, all of them PhDs in spacecraft engineering.

“Do you think diplomas make a man? This girl is a proven innovator,” the head engineer argued.  The selection committee had tried to block Da Xia’s security clearance but Lucius would not have it. “Look here.”

Battleship engine room photos and blueprints flashed on the giant holodeck in the middle of the stale conference room. “She has perfected their engine designs in the obscure shadows of our shipyards. With spare parts, I might add.”

“Do you think they’ve given her any credit? Ha! Oh, but they’ve been quick to adopt her improvements. Those monkeys aren’t worthy of her presence. I don’t care what promotions they deserve or who their daddies are. I won’t work with anyone else.”

And just like that, the matter was settled. Security clearance granted.

Within the hour, two soldiers arrived at Shipyard A-9, New York, and escorted Da Xia to a long-range hovershuttle. Where they were going the soldiers would not say.

Forbidden

“Do not, under any circumstances, interface with the ship. You will be court-martialed, tried for treason, imprisoned, and executed.” Lucius spoke the order with a frankness that convinced Da Xia every word of the commandment was true. The head engineer did not actually say what interfacing was, and Da Xia knew better than to ask for information that was purposely not being volunteered.

Though her poker face did not show it, Da Xia’s imagination was spinning as the two stood inside the ISA’s (Intergalactic Sentient Arkship’s) navigation room. How did the large, empty, spherical room serve as the bridge? There were no monitors. No windows. No anything, really, except for a walkway —suspended by nothing— that ended in the center of the room, at a platform that held two oval tanks, alien in their design.

“That’s where the aviators go, where they commune with the ship,” Lucius said, wonder in his voice, before leading Da Xia out of the room.


Aditi Chaudhury: Countdown to Zero – Part II

PlanetColonyT minus 6 Hours

It’s the end of the world. No one is saying it but Aditi can see it on every face in the war room. Their briefing on what is now begin called the Claudius Crisis goes something like this:

The malicious, previously thought to be benevolent, artificial intelligence Claudius-I has turned into a nanocloud. Whereabouts unknown.

Commonwealth supercomputers have been working around the clock, searching for anomalies in cyberspace that might pinpoint Claudius-I’s location.

Submarines, drones and war satellites stand vigil, ready to launch a nuclear attack on any location around the globe. Every country has been recruited in the effort. Every country is ready to nuke its own to destroy the nanocloud.

What worries the scientists, what the politicians and the military generals do not want to hear, is that an artificial super intelligence composed of nanites cannot only transform its essence but make more of it. “It can clone itself?” yells an old general in the command room.

“If Claudius-I had to, yes,” says Dr. Kosoko, “but our real concern is that the cloud can grow. In other words, Claudius-I can make more of himself. Infinitely. If he wants to.”

Several scientists around the Intergalactic Commonwealth have suggested as much. They suggest the unthinkable to their planetary leaders: Nuke Earth. There are no warships armed with such a payload, not since the Reptile Wars, so they ask Earth Command to self-annihilate.

At this recommendation, the entire room breaks into a heated shouting match. Aditi knows the colonies are right. If this thing spreads, no one’s safe. Not anywhere in the known universe. In a matter of days, if not hours everyone here could be dead. The thought sends a shiver up Aditi’s spine.

The war room lights switch red. A soldier in the surveillance control room appears on the main monitor. “A nano swarm has appeared over Beijing,” he says.

It’s the end of the world. We should have already left.


Aditi Chaudhury: Countdown to Zero – Part I

off-flav-img-chaudhury

It’s been over a year since the Intergalactic Commonwealth decommissioned Starcruiser Hercules V. More precisely, for Executive Officer Aditi Chadhury it’s been 396 days earthbound. If she misses the stars (she does), she hasn’t let anyone know.

The most decorated XO never to be promoted to Captain, Aditi teaches Starship Crisis Management to cadets at the Commonwealth Naval Academy in Houston, Texas. If she felt snubbed (she doesn’t), she’d carry her feelings to the grave.

There is honor in what she does, no one better to prepare the future guardians of space. Aditi has demanded much of her students. Those who have made the cut have matured into some of the Navy’s best prospects. One or two of them might even make captain one day, Aditi has assessed, although she won’t ever tell them as much. “Earn your rank,” is as near to praise as any of them have ever heard her say.

T Minus 2 Days

Three o’clock. Ninety percent humidity. Uncomfortably hot.

Aditi Chaudhury runs through the Academy’s backwoods to clear her mind. Five miles in, she strays off the trail and into the trees, quiet as a deer. She unsheathes a hidden knife then glides her hand over her wrist-com to call for help.

“I wouldn’t do that,” says the man in the suit, smoking a hundred meters away. “I’m unarmed,” he continues, lifting his suit jacket. “I just want to,” his voice trails off, “talk.” Aditi’s blade pokes at his neck.

“So talk,” it’s an order, if not a threat.

“In the bunker.” The suit knows about the bunker. He’s here on someone else’s authority. Aditi releases him.

Twenty minutes later and fifty feet of concrete away from the surface of the Earth, Aditi stands inside an old and empty bunker hidden in the forest. But for a few lights, the place is free of any technology or accommodations. At first the suit talks about a great many things that can be found in common textbooks —the beginning of modern space travel, planetary colonization, the three paradigms of artificial intelligence.

Slowly the suit, who has introduced himself only as Agent Red starts to hint at other things, starts to lose his James Dean cool, starts talking about secret projects he’s been cleared to discuss with Aditi. He rambles on about “creation bombs called ARKS, meant for rapid human population” and “a sentient spaceship” she’s to meet tomorrow and no, she doesn’t have a choice in the matter. These are direct orders, he says and hands her a paper file. Paper. The orders are typed (typed!) on official letterhead, and stamped for authenticity.

“What the hell is going on?” Aditi interrupts Agent Red, as much to get to the bottom of things as to let the man gather his thoughts. Agent Red reaches into his jacket, pulls out a flask, takes a drink.

“You may have heard in the news that Claudius-I, the CARP super genius, disintegrated in a lab experiment.”

“Go on.”

“He didn’t disintegrate so much as vanish into thin air, but that’s not quite right either. There is evidence that he transformed his body into nanites.”

Aditi mulls this over. “The artificial intelligence Claudius-1 turned his ass into a cloud-consciousness of nanobots?”

“That’s the theory. Yes.” Agent Red takes a swig from his flask. “Last night, someone, or something broke through our firewalls and gained access to our nukes. It couldn’t launch them of course. That’s impossible to do without physical keys … we’re not that stupid. We believe it was Claudius.”

A drop of sweat forms on Agent Red’s forehead. It races down his forehead to his chin where it meets another drop and plummets to the ground, plop. “Attempts at communication have failed. The bastard ignores us. We thought we had safeguards against this kind of A.I. Just shut it all down. But we didn’t plan for A.I. that could exist outside of hardware.”

“What we’re dealing with, essentially, is a god.”

“A god that may try to kill us.”


Herman: Completely Autonomous Robot Person

hermancarpThere are many CARPS —completely autonomous robot persons— in the galaxy.

Being autonomous and being unique are completely different things, Herman CARP said to his reflection in the bathroom mirror as he readied himself for work, a completely unnecessary routine that he nonetheless found both comforting and, strangely, familiar.

Machines can be autonomous but only people can be individuals. Herman CARP felt very much like a person for the very same reason that he questioned whether he could be one: he was lonely. Neither humans nor other CARPs cared to associate themselves with him beyond what was necessary. But this was not the problem. The problem was that Herman CARP did not care to associate himself with humans or other CARPS. “I am other,” he said one night, gazing at the stars.

Herman was a genius and not because he could crunch numbers like a super computer (for that would only make him a super computer). He was in fact a genius because he could think unlike a computer. He could play music, but he could also make music and he could make it better than the best algorithms. He played the piano with rawness, as an expression of feeling, of the moment, rather than as a set of perfectly timed notes.

Music however was neither Herman’s passion nor the true expression of his genius. Like his creator before him, Herman dedicated himself entirely to designing ARKS (Aggregate Restructuring Karyotype Server), creation bombs that reorganized a planet’s many systems, ultimately transforming them into thriving human colonies.

Only one other CARP held such an esteemed position in the Human Intergalactic Commonwealth: Claudius-I, director of BIT (Build Infrastructure Town). BIT’s goal: The near instantaneous creation of towns and cities through the use of nanites. Paired with the ARKS program, BIT was to exponentially accelerate the speed at which humans colonized the universe.

When Claudius-I disappeared, research at BIT stalled. “The CARP vanished into thin air,” went the rumors. Days later, the ARKS program was green lit for testing and within hours an order had come from somewhere high-up in the Commonwealth to launch immediately.

Herman read his orders, for they had been given to him on paper, and guessed at what was happening. The world was ending.

The world was ending but for the first time, Herman CARP felt that he was not alone.