One Small Thing

2021 has not been a great year. It might be better than 2020, but let’s be brutally honest, the bar is so low it might be mistaken for lying on the ground. I wrestled with how to write about this surreal tragedy we have been pushing ourselves through. While ranting about each and every baffling and terrifying event might prove cathartic for me, it would undoubtedly be an enormous drag for anyone who had the misfortune to read it. So instead, I offer this very short story that suggests that things possibly might change.

“It doesn’t look good,” he said.

“No,” she replied, “it does not.”

They walked around the piles of debris that towered around them. At the peak of one, a jagged piece fell, bisecting a smaller mound of rubble at its base.

“It’s hard to believe that this could happen.”

“And yet, here we are,” she countered.

He kicked a small, empty plastic bottle. It bounced and clattered away. In the distance, other collapses could be heard. With a sigh, he sat on a container.

“It just keeps getting worse and worse.”

“So it seems.”

“It feels as though there isn’t anything that can be done.”

“Does it?”

“Why are you arguing with me?” he sputtered.

“I’m not, but it feels like you’re arguing with me.”

“Fine!”

“We’re on the same side,” she reminded him.

A pause followed. Not quite an awkward one but neither a companionable one either.

“I know…” he admitted.

She sat next to him and said, “It’s nice to hear it out loud. Every now and again.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“I just don’t know where to start. We try to make things better but that just seems to make someone else angry.”

“You’re not wrong. People can be difficult.”

“Do you mean me?” he asked with a sad smile.

“Only occasionally.”

“Good to know.”

“You’re much better than most.”

“Please, I’ll blush!”

“I’d love to see that.”

She leaned into him and they sat for a while.

“Do feel better?” she inquired.

“Calmer. Not necessarily better.”

“That’s fair.”

“So… What are we going to do?”

“Well, we’re not going to give up.”

“We aren’t?” he asked.

“Of course not!” she stated with certainty.

“Because that feels like a solid plan.”

“Is that a joke?”

“Not my best work,” he admitted.

“No. But I do get it. It would be easy to just surrender to all this.”

“I like easy.”

“Everybody likes easy. Because it’s…”

“Easy.”

“Exactly. But things don’t get better with easy.”

“I don’t suppose they do.”

“So we do the hard thing. Which in this case is continuing.”

“It feels like throwing rocks in the ocean.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“So what’s the point?”

“The point is we aren’t alone.”

He looked around, all he could see were massive piles of garbage.

“No one here but us chickens.”

“Not right here, but I know that we’re not the only ones who care.”

“How? How can you know that?”

She looked him straight in the eye and said, “Because I know that people don’t want to live like this, and if they don’t, they will do something about it. Consider it a leap into the void.”

“That sounds terrifying,” he replied.

“Maybe, but it can’t get much worse than what’s going on now.”

As she said that, a nearby tower of refuse burst into flame. They looked at each other and exploded with laughter. After a few minutes of uncontrolled and inappropriate mirth, they finally stopped.

“If I didn’t laugh…”

“Exactly,” she agreed.

“So what do we do now?”

“We start. Something small.”

“Because?”

“Because it’s where you start. Do one small thing. Then another and so on.”

“I suppose so.”

“I’m glad we’re on the same page.”

“Me too. Though I’m still scared and angry.”

She took his hand and asked, “How about now.”

“Not as much now.”

“That’s all it takes. One small thing. Ready?”

“Yes, I am now.”

And with that, they leapt.

In Our Nature

I had two influences for this story. The first is the artwork of Mœbius, aka Jean Henri Gaston Giraud. Mœbius was a French comic artist well known for his imaginative, fantastic, and absurdist style. If you are not familiar, please look up his work, it will be time well spent. The second was the writer and director, Billy Wilder, but only at the end. Please enjoy and have a happy whatever you celebrate this time of year.

Wind groaned as it rushed through the gaps in the enormous stone tree, in a manner that sounded to Ghent that it was not yet ready to awaken.

“This is a very dispiriting local,” observed T7-U.

“I’d call it more melancholy,” replied Ghent.

“You’re far too romantic for a Xeno-archeologist slash sociologist.”

Ghent smiled, then said, “I’d say I’m about the right amount of romantic. You’re quite mopey for a Mobile Artificial Intelligence.”

The floating MAI, currently shaped as a sphere, glowed an ocherous hue that suggested that if it did have eyes, they would be rolling.

“Let’s take a closer look,” said Ghent as she trotted towards the edifice.

“You know I’ve already scanned it and have a thorough holo of both its exterior and interior. If we went back to the ship, you could examine it at your leisure.”

“We didn’t come all this way to look at a holo.”

“Maybe you didn’t,” muttered T7-U.

“It’ll be fun.”

“You say that but it never is.”

Ghent discovered that there were a series of platforms on the outside of the tree, which would allow her to climb around and up it. She ran her hands over the stone at the base. It was rough and mimicked tree bark. Taking out her portable analyzer she scanned the rock.

“This appears to be petrified wood, very ancient!” she exclaimed.

“I already knew that,” interjected T7-U, “I can even tell exactly how old it is.”

“Go on then.”

“One hundred, seventy-three million, five hundred and thirty-eight thousand, two hundred and sixty years, eight months, four days, seventeen hours and eleven seconds old. And counting.”

“Remarkable!”

“Not really, atomic dating is actually very easy. For me.”

“I meant that this is still here.”

“All it had to do was exist. Not challenging for an inanimate object.”

“Maybe, but no natural disaster toppled it, it wasn’t eroded by sand and wind, it stands here, just as it did so all those centuries ago.”

“It used to be alive, so maybe not exactly.”

“You seem especially glum today T7-U. Is something troubling you?”

“Other than you frittering away your time, no,” remarked the MAI.

Ghent gave her companion a meaningful stare but it didn’t blink. Of course, technically, it couldn’t do that, but it seemed unperturbed by her gaze.

“Very well then, let’s get exploring!” said Ghent with enthusiasm.

The steps were designed for a longer stride than a standard human had, indicating perhaps a taller species, so Ghent adjusted her localized gravity field so she could leap from one platform to the next. T7-U floated alongside her. After circumnavigating one and a half times they arrived at an opening, three meters wide and five meters tall.

Before entering, Ghent looked out over the plain that the structure sat on. To the north-east, on the horizon, were mountains, little more than tiny bumps at this distance.

The two suns, one a G-type star and the other a blue O-type, had passed each other and were slowly heading to set on opposite sides of the planet. Ghent recorded images, not for science but because she found it beautiful.

“Let’s see what’s what.”

They entered the tree tower. Sunlight streamed through both sides of the multitude of gaps in the stone. With the dust that blew in, it created a lattice of light.

“This reminds me of the Living Cathedral on Banvoc Prime,” said Ghent, “Utilizing nature for art.”

“My scans indicate that the species that made this place, genetically altered the plant life to grow in this precise layout,” added T7-U, “So unlike the Living Cathedral, this was engineered, not utilized.”

“It might be argued that both are utilized in the broadest sense of the word,” Ghent pointed out.

“Galactic Standard is a very sloppy and imprecise language,” snarked the MAI.

Ghent shrugged and replied, “You are technically right-”

“The very best way to BE right,” interrupted N7-U.

“But,” continued Ghent, “like great art, it can be subject to interpretation.”

N7-U said nothing in a very pointed way.

“Look at the tile work on the floor,” exclaimed Ghent in an attempt to distract the MAI, “The glyphs are similar to the kind found on many Harbinger sites, especially because of the circular pattern.”

“You are correct, it seems likely the natives had contact with them.”

Looking about the vaulted chamber, she saw carvings. Then again, not carvings precisely, engineered artwork? The native species seems to have tri-legged mobility, with long muscular legs and a humanoid torso and a horizontal head. It was representational, as best as she could tell without seeing a live being or a mummified corpse.

“Let’s see if we can translate this. Link up to my scanner, if you don’t mind,” Ghent asked.

“Linked now.”

With a dance of light and an almost imperceptible hum, the two transcribed the glyphs and the matched them to other examples of the Harbinger’s language.

“I’ve detected an energy surge,” warned N7-U, “Please retreat at least thirty meters and find shelter.”

Ghent moved rapidly, some of the places she explored had a habit of being dangerous and she trusted the MAI. Safely tucked away behind a pillar, she waited. Seconds passed then she heard it. A beautiful song, though she couldn’t understand the words.

“You should come out now,” she heard N7-U say.

From the center of the glyph tile-work came a projection of one of the natives. They did have three legs and an elongated head. The eyes were large and had a double, brass-colored iris. They moved in what seemed to be a graceful dance, and their skin seemed to be covered with a very fine fur. Both Xeno-archeologist slash sociologist and MAI stood and watched this performance until it faded.

“The light from the suns powered a projector set into the middle of the pattern,” stated N7-U, “It must start when enough energy has been harvested.”

“What a gift, to see a species that may not exist anymore,” she said with a smile.

“There is no evidence of current sentient life on this world,” added N7-U.

“It is possible that they left, and found a new home.”

“Would you like to hear the probability of that happening? It is low. Very, very low.”

“But not zero,” Ghent countered.

“No. Not zero.”

“There you go!”

As they explored the rest of the petrified tree tower, Ghent delighted in all they discovered. The images on the walls, containers made of some variety of ceramic steel, tools, and more advanced machines, long drained of power. Each one cataloged and samples collected.

After several hours, the suns began to set, the yellow one first then the blue. N7-U glowed so Ghent could see.

“Would you like me to summon the ship?” asked the MAI.

“Not just yet,” she replied, moving to a small balcony, “The moons are rising and I want to see that.”

N7-U followed her and radiated heat to keep her warm.

“Thank you.”

“You are welcome.”

The two of them stood watched the three moons rise into the night sky, each of them a different shade, red, green, and blue.

“I would like to ask you a question,” stated N7-U.

“You would?”

“Yes. If you don’t mind.”

“Please, ask away.”

“Why do you care about the past of others so much?”

“There’s not just one reason. Part of it is curiosity, other worlds are filled with new and fascinating things. Art, and if we’re lucky, music, and stories. We can learn so much from what has come before. We still only know very little about the Harbingers. What did they want? Why visit so many worlds? Where are they now? So many unanswered questions.”

N7-U floated silently for a moment then said, “And yet, it’s all the same.”

“How can you say that? The inhabitants of this planet are very different from humans or the Juntu, or the Bantakians, just to name three.”

“Whoever these people were, they are now gone, and until today, forgotten.”

“Exactly, they live again.”

“Do they? After many years of research, you might have a slight idea of who they were, but hardly the full picture.”

“True, but no one can know everything. Some knowledge is surely better than none?”

“As one of your people once said, ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’”

“Ha! Laying some ancient human wisdom on me! Well played sir,” Ghent conceded.

“The odds of truly knowing this species is five trillion, nine hundred and seventy-nine million, three hundred and-”

“You’ve made your point! I know we’ll only get a sliver of insight into this species. However, we might gain more knowledge of Harbingers.”

“How do you know that the Harbingers are even still alive? Or if they have your best interests in mind?” asked N7-U.

“One, we don’t. They could all be dead or ascended to the next plane of existence or something more incomprehensible. Two, every place we’ve seen evidence of their presence has been positive. And if they are even half as advanced as we think they are, it would be easy for them to conquer the Concordance of Worlds. Why would they make us work this hard to find them, and why leave clues if they wanted to attack?”

“Your reasoning is… sound.”

“Thank you. Did you translate the song or the glyphs yet?”

“I have.”

She stared at the MAI.

“It seems to be a prayer of thanks. To the Harbingers. Though they use a different word but it is clear from the context.”

“How dangerous! We must flee at once!”

“Please do not mock me!”

“Sorry, I apologize. I wasn’t making fun of you. Just what you said.”

“I do not see the distinction,” observed N7-U.

“I was doing it with affection.”

“Understood. I do accept your apology then.”

They stood for a while, Ghent watching the moonrise, N7-U possessing thoughts.

“I wish you would allow us to explore for you. MAIs are extraordinarily resistant to damage, we can go places biological beings cannot, our memories are flawless,-”

“You are an outstanding being, but humans have the need to do things for themselves. Obviously not everyone, we’d be tripping over each other if that were true. But enough of us want to see what’s over the next hill, so to speak.”

“It would be safer for you if you did not.”

“In our nature,” Ghent said with a shrug.

“This seems to be the truth,” N7-U replied with resignation.

“There is something to be said for boots on the ground, if we hadn’t explored first hand, we never would never have heard that alien song.”

“Very true. But it might have been dangerous, even fatal.”

“No reward without risk.” Ghent countered.

“While that might factual, however I must insist on protecting you.”

“Even when I don’t want you to?” she asked.

“That is when you will need it the most,” N7-U pointed out.

“Agreed!” Ghent accepted, “We complement each other well, don’t you think.”

“According to many philosophical theories, the balance of opposing viewpoints has merits.”

“I’ll take that as a yes. If you don’t mind, it is getting very chilly, could you please summon our ship?”

“It’s on its way now.”

“Thank you. You know, I think it’s very sweet the way you look after me,” she said.

“As it is your nature to put yourself in possible peril, it is in my nature to protect you,” answered N7-U.

“I love you too.”

Mad Science and Magic, Together at Last

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

-Arthur C. Clarke

The above is a very well-known and often quoted rule, at least by fans of science fiction and fantasy. And the reason that this bon mot is so often dropped is that it is absolutely true. If you went into the past, your smartphone would effectively become a magic tablet, even without cell service. Let’s face it, we don’t use phones to talk to one another but let’s get back on track.

In movies, TV, books, and comics there is a clear delineation between magic and technology. Magic is inscribing runes or glyphs, speaking specific words, and making gestures to make the impossible real. Technology uses physics, chemistry, and engineering to make the impossible real.

So what’s the difference? Well, physics, chemistry, and engineering are all real and magic is not, as far as I know. But they essentially accomplish the same things, narratively speaking. Whether you’re firing a plasma pistol or shooting magic flames from your hands ends up with the same result, someone’s painful death. Unless you miss but let’s just say that orc or stormtrooper got what they had coming.

Again, aside from flavor, how do they differ? A plasma pistol should have a limited number of shots, like any projectile weapon. Do wizards have ammo? It depends on if they are using their own reservoir of magical energy, in which case, yes they have ammo and it’s limited. Even if they are channeling magic from outside their bodies, that has to take a toll so again, a wizard is limited on how much they can do.

Of course, an energy weapon can be hooked up to an external power source that would effectively give the shooter unlimited ammo, or near enough to deal with their foes, so that’s different. Of course, a wizard could use some sort of ritual that allows them to focus magic from another dimension. It becomes a zero-sum game.

Some science fiction tries to use real science to justify the fantastic things that are accomplished in the course of their stories. This is more prevalent now than it was in the past. In the Lensman books by E.E. “Doc” Smith, faster than light travel was accomplished by use of an inertialess drive. Other than the idea that being inertialess would allow you to travel faster, it has no scientific legitimacy. If you’ve not heard of the Lensman stories, the first one, “Triplanetary”, was published in 1934.

Note: A man by the name of Michael Pedler claimed to be developing an inertialess drive and raised $6.8 million to make it a reality. Spoilers, we do not have inertialess drive space ships.

So how does inertialess drive work? It just does, that’s all you need to know. In fact, that’s how a lot of science fiction tech works. I’m sure there are some that have a basis in theoretical physics or other disciplines, and I’m quite confident that some of my readers can cite examples that counter this. While I admit I’m painting with a very large brush, I don’t think I’m wrong.

For magic, it’s the same thing. Why does saying certain words and waving your hands or a wand allows you to break the laws of physics? Because it does.

In the Harry Dresden series, which is about a wizard private eye operating out of Chicago, magic has rules. He can throw up a shield spell to protect himself but it takes energy. If he does it too much it can wear him out.

Too counter that, he makes rings and a bracelet that captures the energy he generates while walking around each day, like a self-winding watch, and uses that power to avoid being damaged or to throw some of that force back. While this is clearly something we cannot really do, it does have a scientific feel, despite being magical. And like the inertialess drive, it works because it does. Side note, if you’ve not read them, I suggest you check them out. After you’ve read all my stuff.

Does the lack of a solid scientific basis make it less enjoyable? For me, not at all. When you create a weird and wondrous world, it doesn’t need to be entirely realistic. The rules just need to be consistent.

In a very real way, science fiction and fantasy are closer than people think. It may come down to a matter of preference.

I have a friend who loves fantasy and superheroes but does not care for science fiction. To me, this is puzzling, not just because of all the reasons I’ve listed above but because to my way of thinking, superheroes and science fiction are very closely linked. While there are magical heroes and villains, most have origins closely tied to scientific means or more accurately pseudo-scientific means. If radiation really bestowed superpowers, I would’ve dosed myself a long time ago. I know I’m not alone in this.

In spite of that fact, he just doesn’t care for science fiction and nothing I could say would change his mind. He likes what he likes.

Of course, fantasy leans into the destiny of heroes and queens and kings and science fiction tends to be a little more inclusive and more democratic but the idea of a hereditary nobility still persists in the distant and not so distant future. But in both, emperors are usually evil. Another overlap on the ven diagram of these two genres. Interesting.

Maybe we should think of fantasy and science fiction as potato chips, each with a different flavor. You might love sour cream and onion or barbecue but they are both crispy and delicious. Also, they are both still chips.

So conjure up, or nano-build, a big bowl of crunchy goodness, share it with your favorite cyborg or sorceress, and realize you aren’t so different after all.

Tiny Robots

Here is a short story that I wrote a while ago. It is not an epic tale but I suspect if you live in the five boroughs, you might relate. And if you live somewhere else, this is glamour of big city life.

If there is anything worse than finding bedbugs in your New York City apartment it’s tiny robots. While the robots are not going to devour you like the bedbugs and are not high on the ick scale, they are in fact, downright adorable. They have little sprongy antennae, wide (relatively speaking) round eyes, rubber soled feet and if they were not dangerous as all get out, they would be wonderful toys.

They were designed to look that way by Professor Hieronymus Superious, a genuine mad scientist, who had made the original tiny robot to build a much larger robot. Why build tiny robots that in turn would build a larger robot? Well, he was a mad scientist and maybe not the most rational person, especially since the intended use for the larger robot was world domination, or at least the five boroughs.

Once the tiny robots gained sentience, they reasoned once the big version was built, they would be recycled. Their logic was sound and they turned on their creator who was subsequently arrested by the F.B.I.’s Mad Science Division. The tiny robots disappeared into the infrastructure of New York.
The first thing they did was got rid of all the vermin. Rats, mice, water bugs and rumor has it, an albino alligator were purged from the sewer system and out of every building.

Everyone was pretty jazzed about them in the beginning. The mayor even declared an annual robot day, it was June 13th. But once they started to cannibalize people’s electronics, they became extremely unpopular.
A sentiment I could get on board with as by the time I got home, after some drinks with friends, those miniature jerks had already dismantled my microwave and re-purposed it to build more cute little automata. A chorus of beeps, pings and chirps sounded as they fled into the walls, under cabinets and though any and all available nooks and crannies.

My cat Mac, an orange tabby, was perched on top of the bookshelf, watched the rapid robot exodus. I’d be annoyed, but a cat will only chase the minuscule machines once, super low voltage shocks are not deadly but they do make an effective deterrent. There was an uneasy détente between cats and robots and as long as they kept to themselves, no one got hurt.

I put my now cold dinner on the counter next to the husk of my former microwave, and thought about how to deal with this. Legitimate robot exterminators were very expensive and I knew my landlady would not be shelling out for one.

Since they had not gotten to my laptop, I searched for a more financially reasonable solution. Amazon offered several robot repellers though third party sellers but the reviews for them were mixed at best. There was a mini-EMP machine but everyone in the block would need remove all their electronics while it went off and it was way to much money.

It occurred to me that crowd sourcing might turn something up, so I posted on Facebook, twitter and instagramed a pic of my ruined microwave.

“So sorry!”, “That blows!”, “Call one of the robot killer guys”, and “Sux to be you.” Were among the replies. Mostly sympathy, but no new answers until I got a PM from my old roommate who was now living her boyfriend.

“Becca, Kurt and I had the same thing happen, so I know how bad this sucks. There is a someone who can help you, send her a message, R_hero78@automata.net, and put REFERRAL:CASSIE HOROWITZ in the subject line, she can help you.”

Since my options were limited to watch every piece of electronic equipment I owned be disassembled or emailing a perfect stranger for help, I took the second one. If Cassie was messing with me I’d… well I wouldn’t beat her up, but I might unfriend her but if I was being honest, I probably wouldn’t even do that. So I send the email, explaining my problem.

Almost immediately I got a reply, I’ll be there in thirty minutes. Please do not leave your apartment or turn off the lights and have some food ready to eat.

I did all of it and heated up the take out I brought home in my actual stove, which I last used to make last year’s attempt at Thanksgiving dinner. After managing to both burn the outside of the turkey and maintaining a frozen center, we had Thai delivered.

Exactly thirty minutes later, my buzzer sounded.

She wasn’t what I expected. I though she might be a kindly aunt type with white hair in a sensible ponytail and a twinkle in her eye or a hot nerd girl with big glasses and elaborate tattoos and skinny jeans. Instead, she was slightly overweight with weary eyes, dressed in a peacoat over a food-stained hoodie over a tee-shirt with Korean lettering and the image of pink and blue monster. Her jeans were definitely not skinny but they were speckled in what at first looked like paint but turned out to be minute burns.

“Is the food ready?” she asked.

“Yes!” I replied and took it out of the oven. I hadn’t burned it, which gave me a sudden and secret burst of pride.

“Put it on the table,” she said as he took a handful of plastic pipes from her battered messenger bag.

She began to assemble a small tower, about three feet tall with a base that was made of Legoes. Pressing a switch, a pattern of lights flickered up and down the height of the tower.

“What is that?” I asked.

“It overrides their programming,” she said as she began to eat.

I now had this stranger in my apartment, eating my food and it occurred to me that I didn’t even know her name

“I’m Rebecca Lee, “ I said holding out my hand.

Wiping her hand on her jeans, she shook mine and said, “Call me Lucius.”

“Just one name?” I asked, shaking as long enough to cover my own hands in grease.

“Yep.”

“Like Banksy!” I said.

Lucius grunted and said, “Sorta.”

So I sat and watched her eat for ten minutes or so. She ate like she was alone, which made me wonder what I looked like when I had dinner alone, which was more often that I liked. I decided that I was more ladylike but resolved to stop eating out of takeout cartons.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but what comes next?”

Lucius nodded to the living room over my shoulder. I’d like to say I just took the sight in with the cynical weariness of a true New Yorker but I was born in Wisconsin so I screamed.

Standing in flawless symmetrical rows, the tiny robots gazed at the small, though not to them, tower. Their micro eyes blinked in a synchronistic rhythm with the lights.

“WHATTHEHELLDIDYOUDO!” I yelled without breathing.

“Relax,” Lucius said, “They’re being reprogrammed, they won’t do anything.”

“They’re on my laptop,” I whispered.

“It’s fine,’ replied Lucius, who spoke at a normal volume. “And you can shout if you like, they can’t hear you now.”

While it was an unnerving sight, they covered the entire living /bedroom, but they did not dismantle any electronics.

“What are they going to do?” I asked.

“Hmmm?” murmured Lucius

I turned, looked her in eyes and said, “You said they are being reprogrammed. To do what?”

Lucius took a bite out of a spring roll, chewed and said, “More productive tasks.”

“That’s a little vague.”

She shrugged and we sat in uncompanionable silence for while.

“Listen-” I began.

“What?” interrupted Lucius.

“I don’t want to seem rude, but are you a…”

She regarded me with mild disinterest.

“Well… You know…” I finished.

“I don’t.”

“What?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.

I took a deep breath, and said, “Are you a mad scientist?”

Lucius laughed. It sounded like a princess might laugh. It was so unlike her appearance all I could do was stare. The giggles slowly stopped.

“No,” she said, “I’m not a mad scientist. I don’t have a trust fund.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s tough to have the money or time to build a teleporter or spaceship when you have to work nine to five.”

“Oh. That makes sense,” I said.

A series of musical notes sounded from the tower. Lucius wiped her mouth and took a battered grey metal cylinder, unscrewed the top and lay it on the floor. The tiny robots then marched into the opening and when the last of them filed in, she sealed the top.

My phone pinged and I jumped a little.

“My bill,” said Lucius.

It was very reasonable, much less than I expected.

“I take PayPal,” she said as she disassembled the tower and put it back in her bag.

I sent the payment and she was ready to go.

“Thanks for getting here so quickly, you really were a life saver,” I said.

Lucius nodded as she looked at her phone.

“I have another job,” she said. “If they come back, just message me.”

“Great!” I said holding out my hand but she had already walked out. I had not made a new besty but my place was free of tiny robots and that’s all I cared about.

I cleaned up and was browsing new microwaves online, when it occurred to me that Lucius never said what she was doing with the tiny robots. She said she wasn’t a mad scientist. Why would a stranger who was hired strictly through referrals lie? Oh…

But Then Again…

This is a short piece I wrote, dipping my toe in some Cyberpunk waters. A sub-genre I’m extremely fond of but one I haven’t written much in. The idea behind this is probably absurd and could never happen. But then again…

They sat in that evening in late autumn rain, waiting on a rooftop for the saleryman to emerge from the tube station. Mathis checked her gauss rifle to make sure it was still charged. There was an almost zero chance it would lose its charge, but she was meticulous. Shanna, who had set up a micro-cameras in a three-block radius checked the facial recognition algorithm installed in her eye. Still nothing.
“It’s so damn cold,” she said.
“So it is,” replied Mathis.
Neither woman spoke as the rain beat on roof as well as them. Shanna looked at her partner. Mathis resembled a middle-aged woman. In the past, Shanna asked her if she’d ever consider plastic surgery, they could make her look years younger in the time it would take to eat a meal. Mathis told her, “A middle-aged woman is often unseen, something that in our line of work is priceless.” The younger woman didn’t know if Mathis was modified to look that age or if she was that age. She supposed it didn’t really matter.
“There’s a coffee machine across the street,” Shanna observed wistfully, “Do I have enough time to get us a couple of cups?”
“Probably not,” she said.
“Damn.”
A moment passed.
“What kind of machine is it?” she asked.
Shanna zoomed in and read the name.
“Mestre Do Café. Not terrible for machine coffee.”
Mathis shook her head. “I won’t touch the stuff.”
Shanna smirked, “Coffee snob.”
“It’s not that. Did you ever hear of the Umbrella Man?”
“The legendary killer? Yeah, I’ve heard of him.”
“Do you know what happened to him?”
Shanna paused.
“He doesn’t work anymore. I just assumed he had enough credit to move up to one of the Orbitals and is living his best post-human life.”
“I too heard that rumor, though no one knows for sure. But I heard another one.”
Rain continued to piss down on both of them.
“Are you going to make me guess?” asked Shanna who was in no mood for guessing.
“No. But it is absurd,” she said.
“It has to be better than listening to the rain.”
“Very well. As you may know, the Umbrella Man had multiple body modifications, not crude chainsaw hands or obvious hydraulic legs, but subtle and bespoke enhancements. Invisible to the human eye and to all scans. These were very expensive, but then again, his own fees were such that if you had to ask, you should know that you could not afford them.”
Shanna sighed, everybody knew that part.
“One day he took a commission on a dictator. A terrible man, as all dictators are, but his security was exceptionally talented as well as true believers, which made them even more dangerous. This dictator did not drink alcohol, or use drugs and while he had an appetite for physical pleasures, his partners were scrupulously vetted. So the usual avenues were closed. But the Umbrella Man was undaunted. This dictator had one weakness, which he saw as a strength. He would not eat anything prepared by human chefs, because he did not trust them. Everything he ate or drank came from a vending machine, each picked randomly each day.”
“That’s disgusting!” Shanna said.
“I agree. But it an excellent way to not be poisoned, except for the terrible food and drink but I suspect that this man was already dead, spiritually speaking, so these synthetic meals had little effect. Now the Umbrella Man, as I heard the tale, goes to Mrs. Sai, the noted body mod specialist.”
“I know who she is Mathis, she did my eyes,” said Shanna.
“And a superlative job indeed. But the Umbrella Man wanted something unique, an untried mod. He wanted his consciousness implanted into a vending machine. Specifically, a Mestre Do Café machine.”
Shanna looked at her partner and wondered if she was taking the mickey out of her but she was not one for whimsy. Mathis shrugged her shoulders and continued.
“I am aware of how absurd this sounds. But it is genius, even if it is a bit mad,” observed Mathis.
“A bit mad? It sounds completely bonkers! Even it were true, which I don’t believe, how would he know that this dictator would chose the one he was in? That’s an insane gamble!”
Mathis smiled.
“Ah, but it isn’t. There are thousands of these machines, all over the world, from major cities to the smallest towns, they are omnipresent. However, they are all linked together effectively making them one machine, giving the Umbrella Man a would-wide view.”
“Then why not just hire a digital artiste to get into their system?”
“Mestre Do Café did not become the most prolific beverage machine by having a lackadaisical outlook on digital security. The word from my friends in the business is that their customer data is both extensive and viciously protected. But the Umbrella Man became as a spirit, watching patiently. He knew he would have only one shot, so to speak, to complete his contract. When the dictator placed his order from a machine, and it could be any machine, all he had to do was alter the synthesizing sub-routines for that one cup, and while it tasted like coffee, it also was laced with a nano-toxin that would cause a massive, irreparable stroke. Job done”
The only sound was the incessant rain as Shanna looked at Mathis. It was ridiculous. Urban legend. The sort of story you might tell over drinks or to kill time.
“That’s bullshit,” she said, “How would he get out? Why wasn’t he caught by the digital security? How did it not make it on the grid?”
Mathis checked her rifle once more and sighed.
“As I told you, it’s an absurd tale. Most likely rumor and nonsense, as you said, bullshit. However, even the most preposterous story may have a particle of truth. Do I think a cup of Mestre Do Café will kill me? No. But then again…”

Ensign’s Log

Photo by Jacub Gomez on Pexels.com

Today is Star Trek Day, honoring the anniversary of the first time it was broadcast, fifty-five years ago. This is a short story I wrote that is, let’s call it Star Trek adjacent. I’m a big fan and this is my way of paying tribute. With the serial numbers filed off.

Live Long and Prosper and… Engage!

Ensign Edward Park’s Personal Log-StarDate 8720.73

I have been tasked with transporting Atlas, favorite pet of Captain Buhle of the U.S.S. Centurion. While some of my shipmates have dismissed this is as a dull errand, I see this as an avenue into the Captain’s good graces. I’ve wanted to serve on the Centurion since I was a child and read about their exploits.

I don’t see this as brown-nosing, (Lieutenant J.G. Pillington I’m looking at you!) but rather as an opportunity to show Captain Buhle that I’m a responsible officer with much to offer. She apparently dotes on Atlas so this can only help my career.

Hard to believe that no one else volunteered for this.

End of Log.

Personal Log Supplemental-StarDate 8721.11

Have arrived at the Altairian outpost and taken possession of Atlas. The name must be ironic as the case he came in was very small. Some sort of miniature dog? Atlas is sleeping now so I can’t really tell. The Lieutenant who passed him along to me advised me to not fly too fast in such a small craft. Apparently, it would upset up Atlas, which he said was dangerous.

I’m supposed to rendezvous with the Centurion tomorrow so I have plenty of time to make it. Atlas, you are in the safest of hands.

This is easier than I could’ve imagined.

End of Log.

Personal Log Supplemental-StarDate 8721.56

This is bad, very bad. I’m currently fleeing from a Gorgorian Rapid Raider. There’s supposed to be a cease-fire after the conference at Mantok-Prime. I hailed them to remind them of that fact but frankly, they were more interested in mocking me and firing upon the shuttle than in any real diplomatic solution.

Shields are holding but since they gave me a shuttle with no weapons, I will have to outfly them. Why don’t our shuttles have weapons? Right now it feels like they should.

End of Log.

Personal Log Supplemental-StarDate 8721.89

We escaped! I suppose that’s obvious since I’m here to record this log, but it’s kind of a miracle. The Gorgorian Rapid Raider had hammered us, alarms were blaring to tell me the shields were about to fail, and then Atlas began to whine. Honestly, I couldn’t tell right away, as he was harmonizing with the alarms.

Then suddenly, he stopped. Then the Gorgorian Rapid Raider exploded. We, and by we I mean the shuttle, started spinning out of control. Fortunately, I am a fully trained star pilot and had no trouble steadying the flight path. Eventually.

Sensors indicated that the Gorgorian Rapid Raider suffered a massive quantum engine failure. Maybe the Gorgorian Rapid Raider passed through a micro singularity. Those Gorgorian Rapid Raider need to hire some more qualified engineers.

Am I saying Gorgorian Rapid Raider too much? No. An Ensign’s logs need to be thorough and accurate. I mean, a Gorgorian Rapid Raider is a formidable foe.

That ought to be worth a commendation. Fingers crossed.

End Log.

Personal Log Supplemental-StarDate 8722.24

Well, the engines are damaged and I had to drop to sub-light speeds. This is very inconvenient. If I can’t repair the problem I won’t make my rendezvous with the Centurion. I’m reluctant to send out a distress signal as it might attract more attention from the Gorgorians.

Also, it would reflect poorly on my abilities as an officer and damage my chances of getting assigned to the Centurion. That, I refuse to let happen. Time to roll up my sleeves and get working.

End Log.

Personal Log Supplemental-StarDate 8722.73

Well, that took longer than I anticipated. I ran half a dozen level one diagnostics, realigned the crystalline shunt, and hand cleaned thirty-seven isotronic chips and the damned thing still didn’t turn over. It wasn’t till I re-polarized the power coupling that it worked again.

At least now I can get back on schedule. Apologies to Atlas but I am NOT going to be late.

End Log.

Personal Log Supplemental-StarDate Unknown

A good officer has to be ready for the unexpected. That’s what they taught us at the academy. It’s the first thing they say on the first day. Be ready for the unexpected. It’s a fine sentiment. Except how in holy hell can you be ready for the unexpected? That’s crazy! CRAZY!!!!!!!!!!!

(Log Paused)

Okay, I screamed and feel a little better. Not a lot, but I’ll take what I can get.

We were flying at top hyper factor, at least as fast as this shuttle can go, when Atlas started to howl. Except it wasn’t a howl, exactly. More like a keening wail. I tried to get him to stop. I sang him a lullaby, then tried talking to him in soothing tones, telling him that we were on our way to his mommy, and finally, I shouted at him to just shut up!

I’m not sure why I thought this creature would understand the Galactic Standard tongue, because it did not. The sound it made got higher and higher pitched until there was a burst of bright light and then I passed out. I dare anyone, ANYONE to not pass out in these circumstances.

Upon awakening, I found the familiar sight of rushing stars outside my forward viewport replaced with a swirling sea of colors and fractals. The navigation computer has thus far failed to locate where we are. But it gets worse.

Atlas is missing.

End Log.

Personal Log Supplemental-StarDate Still Unknown but later

Having searched this tiny shuttle fore to aft, I have found no sign of Atlas. I’m not sure what is worse, being trapped in an unknown region of space or losing Captain Buhle’s beloved pet. If I can’t find a way home, I’ll never know. That’s not better. Probably worse.

Time to start scanning and see what I can find out about where I ended up.

End Log.

Personal Log Supplemental-StarDate Who The Hell Knows

So the sensors were no help. Outside the shuttle is what the computer calls a “Pocket, pan-dimensional matrix of unquantifiable energy readings.” Thanks. For. Nothing. In other words, you have no idea. Also, no sign of Atlas. Ugh.

At least the nutritional dispenser is still working but all it can produce is a chicken sandwich and coffee. Some good news, that’s a perfect lunch.

I’m going to see if I can find a way out of this “Pocket, pan-dimensional matrix of unquantifiable energy readings.”

I mean, how big can it be?

End Log.

Personal Log Supplemental-StarDate Who Goddamn Cares At This Point?

So, a pocket dimension can be pretty damn big. I’ve been flying for what the computer tells me is one week, three days, seventeen hours, and forty minutes. I have no choice but to believe it.

Why would a computer lie?

Why indeed…

End Log

Personal Log Supplemental-StarDate No Idea

My Chicken sandwich was a little dry today. That should be impossible, given it is made from a static formula. But I swear it tasted like it had been sitting out on a counter for a bit too long. Strange.

On an unrelated note, my beard is coming in nicely.

End Log.

Personal Log Supplemental-StarDate Infinity Plus One

While time seems to stand still, I have not aged, for some reason, my hair and fingernails have continued to grow. Does this make any logical sense? Nope, not at all.

While I have perfected my braiding skills, I fear that this is some sort of personal hell. There are no Rigellian monkey bears with my father’s voice, forcing me to sing in public. Still, it feels pretty personal.

While I sleep, the sounds of Atlas echo through my mind. I try to find him but I find myself stuck in a pool of butterscotch. Let’s be clear, in my dreams. I would kill for some butterscotch right now. Anything except for damned chicken sandwiches and coffee.

All scans have yielded no life sign reading. I’ve lost the Captain’s pet and I can say, with a high degree of certainty, I’ve had lost my mind as well. Log entries that back that up have been deleted. No one needs to read all those quantum limericks. Honestly, not my best work.

In retrospect, I should’ve sent out a distress signal. That’s on me.

Also, whatever Atlas is, I hope he’s lost in his own personal hell. I’ve no idea what that is, but I wish with all my heart he’s there.

So, since I have nothing to look forward to, except more of this endless nothing, I have chosen to employ the self-destruct protocol. If anyone finds these logs, please think kindly of me.

Wait. If I self-destruct, no one will ever read this. So suck a singularity Atlas. You are the worst.

End Log.

Captain Buhle’s personal Log StarDate 8722.67

I am relieved to find the shuttle transporting Atlas intact. He is alive and in good spirits! I was worried about him traveling on a shuttle, it disagrees with him so, but it seems to have worked out.

Unfortunately, Ensign Edward Park has suffered some traumatic side effects from his trip. It will take a few days for him to get his synaptic responses in sync with normal reality. Doc says with some rest, he’ll be right as rain.

The engineering team has told me that the shuttle gave off pan-dimensional radiation but that that was well below any danger levels. In another piece of bad news, all logs were corrupted by the radiation.

When Ensign Park recovers, he can file a report about the incident. He must be a remarkable young officer to have made it through in one piece and keep Atlas safe. I have already requested his transfer to the Centurion, which the Admiralty approved immediately.

And on a personal note, it seems Atlas has taken quite a shine to young Mr. Park, when I visited sickbay, the little fella got quite excited. If I can trust anyone to look after Atlas, it is Ensign Park.

End Log