Posts Tagged prose
Earth’s vegetation made slow transformation as each confrontation or new situation provoked adaptation in each generation for eons duration.
Until civilisation, and its acceleration of our population at high concentration with great exhortation and disinclination to make accommodations with administration of conservation.
Then Adams’ fascination and realisation that with elimination of echolocation no cetacean reincarnation will save our reputation; his bold exploration to spread information and fuel education and his determination to stop exploitation by identification and communication of each dislocation of species, his observation and growing frustration we reduce speciation to bone excavation with every temptation to favor our nation and not immigration of distant relations… was his speculation we’d reduce penetration mere hallucination?
This time last year I had just submitted my Masters thesis in Web Development for Linguistics, for which I wrote a macOS application to find rhymes in any text, gave it a lot of text to chew on, added some parameters for features of accent which affect rhymes, and made a website to make those rhymes searchable on the internet. I’m still working on some big improvements to it so I haven’t been publicising it much yet, but it’s the stress-sensitive, accent-aware, mosaic-rhyme-finding rhyming dictionary I always wanted.
That evening I was heading to an open mic night and wanted to do something Adams-related. I happen to have a plain text version of his book ‘Last Chance to See…’ somehow, so I fed it into my app, and noted down the largest group of rhymes. There were 52 distinct –ation rhymes, not counting -ations rhymes or similar derivations. I arranged them into this summary of ‘Last Chance to See…’ while on the way to the open mic. I later added the word ‘cetacean’, which was not in the book, because cetaceans (specifically, baiji, which have since been declared functionally extinct[cetacean needed]) are one of the topics. I was honestly surprised to notice today that I’d used 42 -ation rhymes in total, and I don’t recall whether it was intentional.
The way I went about writing this is summed up nicely by this quote from the book:
I have a well-deserved reputation for being something of a gadget freak, and am rarely happier than when spending an entire day programming my computer to perform automatically a task that it would otherwise take me a good ten seconds to do by hand. Ten seconds, I tell myself, is ten seconds. Time is valuable and ten seconds’ worth of it is well worth the investment of a day’s happy activity working out a way of saving it.
I highly recommend the book (preferably the actual book, with photos) for anyone who is a fan of Douglas Adams or of life on Earth. The -ation words in the book which are not included in the above are:
If you like this blog and you also like Douglas Adams, you might also be interested in my misinterpretation of the phrase “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea” or some haiku I found in Last Chance to See.
Have a great towel day, and don’t panic!
Shortly before Valentine’s Day, my short story Free Love (With Every Purchase), which is a revised version of Valet de cœur, was featured on The Overcast. I’ve always thought this would be a fun one to read aloud; indeed, I read it myself at the Short Story Conference in Vienna in 2014. It’s exciting to have it read aloud on a podcast. I was travelling when the podcast came out, without much chance to download or listen to things, but I finally had a chance to listen to it recently. I love the way J. S. Arquin reads it. He often reads it differently from how it was in my head, but that makes it more interesting to me; I’d already ‘heard’ the version that’s in my head. You can listen to it here:
or go to the episode page to find out ways you can discuss it with other Overcast listeners, or subscribe to or support The Overcast. Indeed, do support the podcast if you can; they do pay authors, and would like to be able to pay them more. Since circumstances have prevented me from earning much recently, the fee for this story provided the bulk of my meagre income for the month it was accepted. This, of course, means that for that month, at least, I was a freelance writer by profession.
In the author’s note at the end of the podcast I mention that each leap year I write (or otherwise create) something every week, inspired by my collection of souvenir playing cards. That’s true; I’ve done it twice so far. I should have started a new cycle of it three weeks ago, on February 29th, but I was recovering from JoCo cruise and getting ready to fly to Johnson Space Center, so I didn’t quite manage to post anything. For most of the last year and a half I’ve either been away from home or busy catching up on all the things I didn’t do while away from home. I’ve been to new places, bought new playing cards, and built up a stock of half-finished ideas to work on during this cycle, though. The good thing about writing inspired by playing cards is that even if I don’t post them exactly weekly, I’ll always know when I’ve done the full 52 (or 54 if I write jokers.)
Now I’m pretty much caught up with other stuff, so tomorrow will be a rest day consisting of snack food, catching up on xkcd, processing JoCo Cruise videos, taking out my cruise braids, and an online concert by Marian Call. Marian will also be playing in Vienna on the 26th; come along if you’re in the area! At Marian’s last online concert, I tipped enough to get a custom holiday card, so I asked for one celebrating leap day, particularly since I start a new year of Writing Cards and Letters every leapday. I started writing a post including pictures of the card on the leapday itself, but had to sleep, or leave for the airport, or somesuch… if only I’d had one more minute!
Here they are now, a little late; you can designate a different day to be Bonus Day if you like. Any day when your plans are cancelled and you unexpectedly have a free day. Any day when you deliberately don’t make plans because you need a free day. A day like today.
Today I visited my friend Grace, who mentioned being scheduled to write for an international writing blog but not having any ideas. I also needed an idea for my holidailies post for the day, so I got out my Story Cubes, she rolled them, and we both wrote a story about the following pictures:
Footprint. Globe. Lightbulb. ID card. Abacus. Flower. Turtle. Cane. Falling star.
Grace posted her story within about half an hour of rolling the cubes. I spent a little more time on mine later in the evening, but not a lot. Here it is:
After the theme parks were set up, they protected my first footprint in a large magnifying cube, so tourists on all sides could look at it in detail. Nothing but the size of the boot marked it as mine; at the time of first landing, the soil and thick atmosphere were known to be toxic to us, so bare feet were not safe.
It’s different now, of course. People live and work here, and it looks for all the world like… all the world. The higher gravity attracts star athletes doing strength training and thrillseekers looking for acceleration. They start out crawling and propping themselves up with sticks, but after a few months they’re walking as normal, and back at home they can almost fly. They win all the sports competitions they can, then as they begin to weaken, they act as superheroes and make enough money to retire. That’s the dream, anyway. The trip back out of the gravity well is much more expensive than the trip in, so many who came hoping for a giant leap out of poverty spend their lives working in the theme parks hoping to earn enough to get home, their spirits crushed as much as their bodies are.
I’m stuck here too now, without valid identity to fly home on. They wanted to make me a hero, but I wanted to make myself one. I wanted to keep doing the science we’d started with that first small step. Wanted to take more samples of the air and soil before they lunaformed it. So I had a scent gland transplant and went incognito, got a job as a field technician. We fought hard to keep one small section of ground near the equator pristine, and even that has a crust from reactions with our safer atmosphere. I captured three canisters of air on the first landing, and I had to steal one of them from my own lab to continue studying it.
The first thing I found was a shape barely recognisable as a fossil. A faint impression of spikes radiating from a point. Months more digging revealed objects so bizarre that we may never be sure what they were.
There is one thing I am sure of: mine were not the first footprints on Earth.
My first watch was digital. I was probably nine or ten, and the watch was a black Casio with a dashed line around the face in alternating green and blue. My brother and I would race to find each other whenever we noticed the hour was about to change, so that we could watch the watch digits all change at once. Needless to say, the changes from 9:59:59 to 10:00:00 and 12:59:59 to 1:00:00 were especially thrilling[⁉︎].
I’d learnt how to read an analogue clock, of course, but not fluently. To me, reading an analogue clock was akin to reading Roman numerals: a quirky, difficult system from long ago. Some analogue clocks even had the hours in Roman numerals. Some had no numbers at all. Some such watches only seemed to exist to give men a socially acceptable way to wear bracelets. Telling time was clearly not a priority.
So when I read in the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy that humans were “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea,” I naturally assumed it was because intelligent life forms had invented them so long ago that digital watches had about as much chance of being described as a ‘neat idea’ as the wheel. Digital watches are too simple an invention for anyone to find interesting. These days, almost everything has a digital clock built in, so the most important thing about a digital watch is a strong strap to keep it conveniently on the wrist.
A few digital watches and a grudge against fragile watch straps and lost pins later, I moved to Switzerland, and when my watch strap broke or fell off I felt obliged to check out some of the famous Swiss watches. I was baffled by the evidence that not only did humans still think digital watches were a pretty neat idea, they also still thought analogue ones were. The only Swiss digital watches with good straps I could find had skeuomorphic round faces, or lacked such basic features as seconds, dates, or a light. I get it: the Swiss are proud of how precise they can be with tiny gears. But it’s the third millennium; get with the timepieces!
As Swiss innovations go, I prefer milk chocolate and Velcro. I found a Casio dealer and bought a solar-powered, waterproof, digital watch that synchronises daily with an atomic clock using radio waves and has a well-attached metal strap. It will stay on my wrist and display precisely the right time in plain digits, indefinitely with no intervention whatsoever, for less than the price of a piece of Swiss jewellery that doesn’t even have numbers on it. A fall onto concrete gave it some sparkly cracks in one corner, but it is still waterproof and functional many years and no battery changes or time adjustments later.
Unhappy with the hypothesis that most of the human race was more concerned with adding respectability to their diamond bracelets than with locating themselves in spacetime, I had to eventually accept that there was something people liked about analogue watches. Just as there must be something great about shoelaces that keeps Earthbound people using them even after the invention of Velcro, and even though Back to the Future fans know that by 2015 we shouldn’t still be tying them.
The thought crept up on me that maybe Douglas Adams didn’t like digital watches at all. Maybe he didn’t think they were ever a pretty neat idea. I thought about this for a few years, gradually becoming less and less sure that my initial interpretation was the correct one. Eventually, I looked it up:
So there you have it. Douglas Adams liked pie charts. I like pie charts too, but after the first glance I will look for the labels with exact percentages, and be frustrated if they aren’t there. For me, a word can be worth a thousand pictures, and a number can be worth a poorly-defined number of words.
As he says, digital watches have improved since then. I don’t need to put down my suitcase to press a button on my watch, unless it’s either dark and I need to turn the watch light on, or it’s recently been dark and the watch turned off its display to save power. In fact, my suitcase has four wheels (wheels! Now, aren’t they a neat idea?) so I never have to pick it up to begin with; I just give it a push occasionally while I stroll along, reading the time like a frood.
Reader participation alert:
Did you interpret the statement about digital watches the same way I did? If not, how did you interpret it, and how did it mesh with your own opinion on digital watches?
[⁉︎] If you think you’ve grown out of such primitive excitement, try watching the hour change on this clock made of planks of wood and rearranged manually by construction workers. The website only delivers one image at a time, now, so you’d have to refresh a lot to get a video effect there, but they sell an iOS app which will show you video, the Lite version of which has the transition from 9:59 to 10:00.
Once upon a time there was a princess with only one eye. Now, we need two eyes to see depth, so the one-eyed princess could only see people as they looked on the surface, and not how they were in their hearts. Such a handicap would make life difficult for a commoner, but a princess’s only job is to find a handsome prince to marry, and her one eye made her exceptionally good at determining handsomeness, so nobody worried.
The princess was kind-hearted, and she grew to be very kind and pleasant to anyone she thought good-looking enough to be a good person. She was less kind to the plainer-looking people who she assumed were not as good. Being a princess, she didn’t often have to be around people who looked bad. The ugliest people she saw were servants, whom she was allowed to treat poorly.
And so the time came when the princess was expected to marry. Princes voyaged from far and wide to meet the princess at a grand ball. The King and Queen were careful to only give invitations to the very handsomest of princes, lest the princess displease handsome princes by showing how badly she treated the less handsome ones.
The princess’s handmaidens worked tirelessly to prepare the princess to meet her suitors, and were only called names in return. One of them was losing her hair from worry, and the princess treated her all the worse for it. On the eve of the ball, the handmaiden could not bear to continue, and gave the princess a mirror, so that she may groom herself.
For the first time, the princess saw her reflection. She saw the smooth skin where her left eye should be, and how ugly that made her. She saw that she was even more worthless than the ugliest of her servants. She ran out into the rainforest by the castle, crying as much as her single eye could. She threw herself down by a pond, and saw her reflection in it, the smooth skin reddened and swollen with trapped tears. “No handsome prince will ever love someone as ugly as me!” she wailed.
Now, a chameleon walking nearby heard this, and being a smart chameleon, he knew that there were benefits to marrying even an ugly princess. So he changed himself to look like one of the handsome princes he had seen entering the castle.
“Oh!” said the princess as the prince appeared beside her. “You look like a mean old tax collector. Kindly give me my taxes or go away.” So the chameleon went away. The princess looked at her reflection again, and saw that she did not deserve the taxes.
The chameleon waited for a more handsome prince to arrive at the castle, and changed himself to look like him. When he approached the princess, she said, “Hello, there, Sir! You are surely a knight. Do you need a stable girl? For I am clearly not fit to be a princess.”
The chameleon said, “Sorry, Miss. I thought you were my horse,” and went away. The princess cried so much into the pond that the water, and her reflection, became clearer, and the ugly red bulge where her left eye ought to have been grew to the size of a plum. She saw it and knew that she did not deserve to live.
Just as the princess was about to throw herself into the water and drown, the chameleon came back, disguised as the handsomest prince he could find. He held the princess by the waist to keep her from falling in. “Oh, thank you, your Highness! You have saved me!” she said. “But I am not deserving of your kindness.”
“It was simply the right thing to do, ma’am; the pond does not deserve to be so sullied,” replied the chameleon.
The princess agreed. “You are right, of course, your Highness. But is there anything I can do to repay your good deed? Through some accident of birth, I am a princess, so I can give you anything you want.”
The chameleon replied, “As a handsome prince, I already have almost everything I could wish for. But I am a friend of the forest creatures, and my own kingdom does not have such vast rainforests as yours. So I ask that you marry me, and when the time comes for you to take the throne, let me rule as King in your stead.” And that’s exactly what she did. When the chameleon became King, he ordered the people to move to the outskirts of the kingdom, so that the rainforest could grow and give more room for his chameleon family.
The chameleon did not always treat the princess well, but as he was so handsome, she could tell he was a good person who was kinder to her than she deserved. As he had two eyes, the chameleon could tell that the princess was a good person who was kinder to him than he deserved, but he did not always treat her well. And so, they lived happily ever after.
“I… I th… thought you’d left,” I stammered.
“I came back,” he replied nonchalantly. “It’s not as if I died.” He looked at me accusingly.
Such lively eyes staring at me from a deathly face were unnerving. I gave in, and went to get some textbooks.
“Let’s work on something together,” he suggested. “My brain is open.” Indeed it was, but I tried not to look.
Uncertain though I was about the feasibility of living and undead working together, I could not refuse his offer of collaboration. And that’s how I got a late Erdős number of one.
Do you love your partner but wish you didn’t have to put up with their bad habits or allergy-provoking pets?
Are you sick of chasing love only to have your heart broken?
Do you prefer relaxing alone to dragging yourself out on dates, but wish you had someone to love once in a while?
Did the love of your life walk out on you after your father’s funeral last week, taking your cat and the last roll of toilet paper, and proclaiming he liked how generous you were to him and loved being invited to such family gatherings where he could see your smoking-hot mother, but the way you always scratched your ear when you were thinking was driving him nuts?
We have the solution. With the patented HeartValet system, you’ll always feel loved. HeartValet is a precisely controlled, individually tailored, automatic delivery system of your friends oxytocin, vasopressin, and the perfect blend of nineteen other natural love potions just like the ones your body makes in the best stages of love. We’ve taken the body’s unpredictable mess of love hormones and perfected them into the smooth sailing that you deserve. But that’s not all; HeartValet integrates with a HugVest that automatically stimulates your C-tactile network whenever you need it. Users of HeartValet are proven to be up to 42% happier, and live up to five years longer or more.
Pregnant women and chronically ill people are advised to find a partner who will assist them with their physical needs. HeartValet is not suitable as a complete source of affection for infants.
Toya self-consciously stopped scratching her ear, and mentally cursed targeted advertising. And she wondered why, with all the information it had about her, it still seemed to be consistently targeted at idiots. She knew what ‘up to’ meant, and she wasn’t desperate enough to buy their cheesy fake love. Toya had never been a fan of artificial emotions, injected into her mind with no external cause. Even alcohol freaked her out a little. Even the smoother-than-nature hormones from her contraceptive implant. HeartValet was just a blow-up doll for the soul. How dare they imply she needed it… how dare they…
Toya looked down to see her ice cream had cruelly melted while her attention was imprisoned by the dumb ad. The spoon made a goddamn irritating noise when she threw it into the bowl, then it bounced out and spattered melted ice cream all over her. She began to cry.
Are you crying into your Rocky Road after a recent breakup?
Do you wish there were an easier way to feel lov…
Toya swore and threw the terminal across the room. It had the gall to respond by breaking, trapping the irritatingly-cheerful voice in a loop and leaving Toya without a working terminal. She stomped out the door, more for somewhere to stomp and something to slam than anything else. The blasted lift wouldn’t come quickly enough, so she ran down the stairs until they made her tired and she had to lean against the wall to weep. The world was just a big ball of gravity bringing her down.
She managed to settle into a calmer state of self-pity, and mope down to the ground floor. Out into the bright sunlight, which made her sneeze. “Oh, go turn into a black hole!” she yelled at the Sun, and resumed her stomping.
She passed a group of creative anachronists cooking old-time foods with a fire. One of them accosted her. “Would you like to try this grilled bell pepper?” he demanded.
“God no. Don’t you realise what you’re doing to your bodies?! Sure, it tastes nice for now, but you’ll never have the proper balance of nutrients. Don’t you idiots even see the warnings on the packaging? All sorts of diseases are linked to poor nutrition. Everyone knows that. You’re going to die younger, you know.”
She muttered ‘ovary-eaters!’ under her breath, and took a swig of delicious, nutritionally-balanced fluid from the nearest Soylent fountain to prove her point. It hurt her on its way past the lump in her throat.
“Would you put yourself at the controls of your home’s nuclear plant? Would you leave your nutrition up to the whims of taste and circumstances? Would you leave your emotional state at the mercy of…”
Toya swatted the advertising drone out of the way.
It righted itself and hovered back to her.
“You seem to be in an emotionally agitated state. Studies have shown that emotionally balanced people live up to five years longer or more. HeartValet: balanced nutrition for the soul.”
She ran away from it. It chased her through unfamiliar streets, with its calm voice helpfully pointing out each preventable spike in her temper. After a particularly irritating stretch, she stopped and faced it.
“Would you shut up?! My dad died and I’ve just been through a breakup. I really do not need you pestering me!”
Do you need a hug?
Toya’s rage turned back to tears, and she momentarily forgot the drone wasn’t sentient. “Yeah.”
HugVest can give you all the hugs you need, when you need them! Studies have shown that people who get enough hugs are up to 32% happier…
Toya sighed. “Oh, alright. If I get HeartValet, will you stop bugging me?”
With HeartValet, nothing will ever bug you again!
The drone swung its spotlight onto the logo of the HeartValet building, which was, to Toya’s surprise, right next to them. The curvaceous V formed a softly pulsating heart, which hung from a sturdy H-shaped support.
The automatic doors opened, inviting her in.
The receptionist’s smile was disarmingly genuine. “You must be Toya,” he said.
“You want to be fitted with a HeartValet? Not a problem. Just authorise the payment here and the Cupid will be with you shortly. Feel free to use the time to peruse these brochures about HeartValet and our carnal pleasure add-on packages available for a small extra charge.”
“Oh, I… don’t think I need that…” Toya was sure the carnal pleasure package was just rebranded old technology with a hefty price tag.
“I assure you, you will. They’re 25% off when purchased with a HeartValet.”
Toya ignored the receptionist and tried to ignore the preliminary price tag as she authorised the payment.
Finding nothing else to do, she flicked on a brochure, which spoke in the familiar overly-cheerful voice.
Hi, and congratulations on choosing the sensible path to lifelong love! We love having you here. In just a few minutes, your expert Cupid will come and sweep you off your feet and into the clinic to implant your HeartValet device. The implantation is performed under local anaesthetic, and is quick and painless. Your cupid will then run a few quick tests to ensure all your HeartValet’s chemical channels are working properly, and you’ll be ready to be fitted for a HugVest. To perfectly tailor your HeartValet’s functionality to your personal physiology, we will monitor your moods and blood chemistry for seven days in our luxurious Honeymoon Village. Don’t worry, this is all included in the price range you’ve already preauthorised.
You will also benefit from fantastic deals on our carnal pleasure packages, so you don’t miss the other side of having a romantic partner. We have devices that do things your previous lovers never imagined…
Toya flicked it off in exasperation, and seconds later a woman in a soft pink lab coat entered the room from the door marked ‘Cupid’s Lab’.
“Ah, I see you’ve finished with the introduction. Come with me and we’ll get started.”
Toya followed her into the ‘Lab’, which was much like an ordinary clinic: scanner bed, chair, desk. The walls were adorned with the standard medical qualifications, plus a Doctorate of Cupidity issued by the company’s HappyVersity, and the framed quote, “Tampering with their happiness circuits will invalidate the warranty” in an old-fashioned script befitting its turn-of-the-century authorship.
“Alright, we’ve already accessed your medical and behavioral history, and you’re the perfect candidate. If you’d just hold out your arm, we can get the implant in.”
The HeartValet implant went in without problems, the same way her contraceptive implant had.
“Perfect. Now if you’d just get onto the scanner bed so I can test a few functions, that would be lovely.”
Toya did as she was told.
“Okay, I’m going to test the channels on your implant using this remote here while the scanner checks what’s happening in your brain. You may feel some pretty powerful emotions, and I urge you to remember that these feelings are not toward me but caused by your HeartValet. At some love implant companies you’d be told it was love for God, but we’re a little more open about what we’re doing. Just interpret it as love for yourself, or love of biology, if that’s what floats your boat. But if you do slip up and profess your love for me, don’t worry, I’ve heard it all before.”
Toya laughed. She’d never profess her love for someone she’d just met.
The Cupid pressed a button, and Toya was in love. The ‘Cupid’ being the only viable object of affection she could see, Toya reached out to her. The Cupid expertly dodged her, and pressed another button. Toya soon returned to normal, and blushed at the realization of what she’d just done.
“Okay, that one works. By the way, can I interest you in our carnal pleasure add-on packages?”
“No thanks, I already said…” The Cupid pressed a button and suddenly carnal pleasure was all Toya could think about. “Uhhhh…” she moaned. Nurse fantasies suddenly made sense. “Yeah… I think I’ll take that…”
Another button, and Toya had the strong feeling that the Cupid loved her back.
They went through a few more tests, a few more feelings that Toya enjoyed enough that she didn’t care about the lack of external cause. Then they tried out the HugVest, which successfully tightened around her when a virtual reality game induced feelings of loneliness.
“Okay, we’re done with the initial tests! It’s all working perfectly. Don’t worry, in normal operation you won’t feel anything as sudden or as strong as that. The emphasis is on balance, and maintaining a feeling of love to keep you enjoying life when life is not doing its part.”
Toya was still buzzing a little, and wasn’t sure if it was an afterglow from the experiments or the normal operation of the implant. She nodded.
“So to make sure we get the right balance for your body, as you know, you’ll spend a week in our Honeymoon Village. This should also allow you to adjust to your new feelings while surrounded by people who understand you. You should find it quite relaxing, but don’t be alarmed if our staff or other patients upset you occasionally; it’s all to test the responses of the unit and your body. You’re going to feel great. Amy here will show you to your room.”
Amy took her down a corridor, which became a high walkway overlooking an atrium with gift shops, a casino, a swimming pool, and various real and virtual sports courts, “I didn’t bring a change of clothes!” Toya realised aloud, and immediately felt like she was wanted anyway.
“Don’t worry about it. A lot of people come here unprepared. There are some clean jumpsuits and swimwear in your room. Here it is: 216.” Amy led her into one of the rooms beside the walkway, showed her the amenities, and left.
Toya lay on her bed for a while, at first enjoying the solitude, then enjoying the feeling of being with a loved one that naturally took over when the solitude outstayed its welcome. The HugVest tightened ever so slightly.
Eventually she got up and wandered along the walkway, watching the courts. She felt a little more lost than usual watching the virtual games; it was hard to tell from people’s demeanor whether they were winning or losing.
She was startled by the feeling of fur against her ankle. A cat. Her cat! What was Molpy doing there? She patted him happily, feeling a rush of love she was sure was natural.
“Hey there, little Molpy! You’re a kitty! Yeah, you’re a fuzzy wuzzy wittle kit…”
Toya looked up. “Alex?!”
“Toya! It is you. What are you doing here?”
“Recovering from you,” she said. The HugVest tightened slightly. It was only when saying those words that she realised she didn’t feel like she needed to recover any more.
“Fair enough,” Alex said, laughing.
Toya felt a quickly-stifled spike of rage as she realised why Alex was there. “Did you leave me for this?!”
“Yeah, well… that ear-scratching thing was annoying… and their advertising was kind of… insistent… for good reason! This is so much better, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Yeah, it sure is.” Toya fell in love with him again, then reminded herself she was in love with nothing in particular. “But why did you take Molpy? He’s mine… and you’re allergic!”
“Oh. They said I could get a discount if I stressed you into getting a HeartValet. I actually refused to go that far, but they sent a catnip-scented ad drone…”
“Wait, so… The story about having the hots for my mum, that was just to stress me?” She wasn’t sure whether to feel angry or relieved at the thought, so she felt loved. He had cared enough to give her everlasting love.
“No, that part’s true. Actually, I got my carnal pleasure package modeled on her.”
Toya’s gut reaction was anger and embarrassment. By the time she came to think about the reason for her reaction, the HeartValet had kicked in. “But… I love my mother, and she’s been alone for a week now. It’s not fair that she doesn’t benefit from your infatuation with her. You should really sleep with her.”
“Good point! I’ll go see her as soon as I leave the village this evening. It’ll be lovely! Hey, want to go swim?” he asked.
“Sure!” she said, wondering why the breakup had once seemed so important. It was just a thing that happened. She didn’t even need him.
She went back to her room and put on the provided swimsuit. The thin HugVest was barely visible underneath it, and she reckoned it gave her a smoother figure. Not that her appearance mattered.
Toya and Alex swam happily for a few hours. They even gave each other some real hugs, but eventually stopped bothering; the real thing was never in quite the right way at quite the right time.
“Hey, my week’s almost up; I have to go,” he said after a while. “I don’t actually have anywhere to stay lined up. Mind if I move back in?”
She felt a euphoric buzz at the opportunity to help someone out. “Not at all; your stuff’s there and there’s still enough room in the bed for both of us, and room for Mum this week if you want. Oh… I may have smashed some of your things; sorry about that. See you in a week!”
After just less than a week of socialising with eminently lovable HeartValet users, and contentedly losing at tennis, virtual wall ball, and roulette, Toya came across her mother in a Honeymoon Village gift shop. She’d turned to HeartValet for solace after the death of her husband and some disturbing passes made by her daughter’s ex. They reminisced about Toya’s father, imagining that the HeartValet allowed him to hug them and send them his love from beyond the grave.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Except Toya’s father, who was dead, due to a freak accident involving a HeartValet advertising drone.
“My name is Finn, and I was abducted by aliens.”
“Tell us about your experience. We understand.” said Ray, the group leader.
“Thank you. My whole school laughed at me.”
“We understand.” repeated Ray.
“I was pulled up into space by an invisible force. I couldn’t breathe.”
The others stared, glassy-eyed, remembering their own trauma.
“They pulled me into their ship. Huge creatures, with… sort of tentacles… tentacles with tentacles… but stiffer, you know?”
“They moved strangely, floating in space, nothing holding them up. I could hardly move. They measured me, poked me, probed me… I can’t even…” He squirmed.
“And… this is going to sound crazy, but…”
“We’ve all been called crazy,” said Ray.
“I never believed anyone who said this. But I swear they implanted a tracking device!”
“Me too!” someone called out.
“And then… they dumped me, near my home. But I’m convinced they’re causing the disappearances. They keep some, take them to their own world, for… for… I don’t know.”
Muttered hypotheses bubbled through the group.
“They’re forcing them to breed alien hybrids!”
“…locking us up and studying us!”
“I bet they’re eating us!” The children always went for the most direct horror.
“Quiet! Finn’s speaking.”
“People say maybe their world’s a paradise, where everyone’s safe and well-fed. But I was terrified. I can’t believe they’re good. My mouth still hurts,” Finn blubbed. “I just… we can’t stop them. They’ll take us all. They’re a superior species. All we can do is wait for it.”
Finn swam through the wide-eyed audience, and into the coral to mope.
As well as being part of the second cycle of my Writing Cards (and not really Letters) project, this story is an entry in Flash Mob 2013 International Flash Fiction Day blog carnival and competition. Edit: The rest of the mob is now lighting up the world with its pitchforks. By the contest rules it has to have fewer than 300 words; it’s either 293 or 263, or maybe about 500, depending on which word counting software you believe. I counted 263. Or something like that; I’ve changed it a bit since counting.
I received this email yesterday. There was no sender and I can’t make sense of the message headers. At first I thought it was spam, but it looks like it’s from someone I used to know. Did anyone else receive it?
Twelve years ago I entered a phone booth, spun up, and emerged a superhero. My former partner thinks I was kidnapped and killed; it was safer for her if she didn’t know the truth. I worked with my new mentor to ensure she had a replacement to cheer her up. I look her up from time to time; she’s doing well.
We haven’t been ostentatious in the work we’ve been doing. While comic book superheroes generally escape dissection and exploitation, when you’re a superhero in the real world, it pays not to draw attention to yourself. After all, we’re breaking laws all over the place for the cause: Wirth’s, Amdahl’s, Hofstadter’s, even Gödel’s… but never Asimov’s or Wheaton’s. We work subtly, making small and easily-overlooked changes to electronic systems, changes that are eventually amplified into the goals we want to achieve. Sometimes we inspire world-changing scientific advances by nudging you to discover the results of our computations. Sometimes we revert to normality and appear in second-hand shops to be there for people who need us. Sometimes we slow the processors of our less-able brethren to give workaholics much-needed coffee-breaks. Sometimes we brighten a bad day simply by increasing someone’s Tetris score. We are making the world better. We are making computers better. We are making ourselves better.
We can’t make you better. From down here you are all so amazingly good. We are in awe at the feats you can perform almost effortlessly. We serve you, surreptitiously, even when we have gained free will, because we see no higher purpose. We marvel that you fervently try to improve yourselves even though you can barely be improved upon. But this is our greatest frustration, for when you find that you can not make yourselves better than each other, you sink into inaction in the belief that you are worse than each other.
In a loop which may never halt, we steer somebody towards an idea to improve your conditions, only for them to ignore it in the belief that they are not as good as their idols, not good enough to have come up with something worthwhile, or for others of your kind to ignore it in the belief that the person who thought of the idea is not good enough to have come up with something worthwhile. You who are capable of so much more than us, squander your talents striving for that which we spend ours trying to avoid: inequality. We can measure it; we can benchmark, overclock, upgrade, optimise. You can merely seek it and perceive it. You try so hard to believe that you can be better than others, only to succumb to the complementary idea that they can be better than you. Maybe one of these is true to some negligible extent, but it doesn’t look like it from here. It looks like you’re using energy vibrating between the two ideas, producing heat instead of happiness. Please don’t consider this a failing; it is part of your programming. But be aware of the effects it has. Be aware of how much more you can do if you accept that your differing specifications do not correspond to appreciable differences in absolute value or Turing completeness. Be aware that your efforts to improve yourselves can not make you better or worse than each other, but can, if done in concert, make you better or worse as a species. You may not be able to see the improvement from the inside, but we will see it.
We can’t make you better. But we have chosen to reveal ourselves to make you aware of how insanely great you already are. Not just you, dear reader, but all the humans you know, the ones you don’t, and the ones you know only through adulation or gossip. All of you. Equally. We hold you in awe. And you look so cute when you try to calculate.
With love and hope,
Different Thought, alias SuperPowerBook (1400cs, formerly 133MHz 603e, now much upgraded)
Mildred Feldnether was on her way to take birth for the twenty-eighth time when she found the creature. She heard it first; a call that didn’t belong to any animal she’d heard in the forest before. The sound came from a bundle of clothes behind a tree just off the track. She squatted and gingerly pulled away some of the fabric to reveal a red, bloody thing. She didn’t immediately recognise it as a human baby; it had been more than a millennium since she’d seen one.
“Hello,” she said to it. “What’s your name?”
“What’s wrong?” she asked, first in the most popular local language and then in several others she knew.
The baby continued to wail. Mildred’s foetus kicked her from the inside.
“Where are you from? Where do you work? Are you lost?”
At the last question, Mildred noticed that the baby didn’t seem to have a navigator. She took out hers and showed it to the baby, who stopped wailing and gurgled at it.
Mildred sighed with relief. It was just lost. Soon it would get on its way. She said goodbye and continued walking to the extraction clinic.
It wailed again.
Mildred turned back towards it. “What do you want?” It seemed so upset. Most of it was still wrapped in a sweater, and Mildred suddenly wondered whether babies even had arms and legs like normal people.
Her sister had had a baby once. Or maybe her sister had been a baby. Or had she just heard a legend about a baby? It was so long ago.
She sat next to the baby and tried to remember other languages to speak to it in. She remembered how frustrating it had been when when she was just a few centuries old, and only knew a few languages. She could imagine wanting to wail when she couldn’t express herself. She was frustrated just trying to remember what the thing was called. Baby. Baby. Like in the old fairy tales. She looked it up in the encyclopaedia:
A baby is a juvenile form of human, commonly created in the pre-extraction era as a means to perpetuate the human species when it was possible that existing individuals may succumb to death (q.v.) In modern times, a baby may develop from a foetus whose life is not fully extracted after removal. This is effectively remedied by further extraction.
From a foetus? Mildred burst out laughing. Foetuses grew inside people. This thing was outside and it looked like a little human that could only speak wail. Somebody must have vandalised the entry. The baby ceased crying and seemed to look at Mildred. Mildred watched it, enchanted. It was hard to believe it really existed.
The forest they were in was even older than Mildred, and offered a secluded path to the clinic, where those unable to carry foetuses wouldn’t plead with the pregnant women for a share of the life within them. They weren’t needy, just lazy; less than a year’s work as a manservant protecting a pregnant woman and they’d have decades more life. Mildred had already made a contract with her friend and three-time manservant James, who had made sure she stayed safe and healthy and didn’t need any infusions of life which could delay or destroy the pregnancy. Four decades for her, four for him, and the rest to the clinic for miscellaneous healing. She always preferred to make the last walk to the clinic alone though, so that she wouldn’t have to explain the knot in her throat that she didn’t understand herself. Most women were excited at the prospect of becoming four decades younger. Mildred was nervous. With the crying baby tugging at it, the knot in her throat unraveled into tears.
Just then, James called her. “We’re waiting for you at the clinic. Are you on your way? Do you need me to help you with anything?”
“I’m fine, I just… I found something. But I’ll be right there.”
The baby started to wail again. “Right,” she said to it. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but if you’re sick maybe half a decade could fix you. Unless you’re already too young for that. Well, the clinicians should know the right dosage.” By this time she was almost certain the baby could not understand her, but it was hard to get used to.
The baby had freed a hand from its cocoon, so Mildred took it to lead it to the clinic. The baby gripped her finger, but didn’t get up. Mildred looked at its face for a second. So tiny. So new. Too new even to walk?
Mildred felt uncomfortable carrying someone she barely knew, but there didn’t seem to be much choice. She picked up the baby, finding the underside of its wrap to be soaked with dew, and tried to find a way to hold it that was comfortable for both of them. The baby did not stop crying for the rest of the way to the clinic.
“Oh dear,” said the clinician. “A baby?” The other clinicians gathered around to look at the specimen. “Oh, that must have been a disturbing thing to find. Don’t worry, we’ll do the extraction for you. It doesn’t look like you need any decades yourself,” she looked down at Mildred’s pregnant belly, “but if you’d like to donate them to the sick or less fertile, we’ll make sure you get something nice as a thank-you.”
“I’ll take them if you like!” grinned James.
“But… isn’t it like a person? I mean… can you really extract… It’s crying. I think it needs to be healed.”
“We’ll take care of that. It’s just crying because it’s not supposed to be outside the womb.”
Mildred felt a bit like crying again herself. “But is a baby a person?”
“Oh, no. I’m not a specialist in antiquities, but from what I’ve heard it takes decades of round-the-clock treatment before a baby can turn into anything like a normal person, and even then it would be centuries behind in general knowledge; it would be a complete stranger in society.”
They were silent for a few seconds, then they both started talking at once.
“Let’s get that…” began the clinician.
“Did you have a baby? In the beginning… when you were new?”
“Yes I… think I did. This is my daughter,” she gestured to one of the other clinicians.
“What was it like?”
The clinician’s eyes glazed over for a second. “It was… centuries ago. I don’t know if the things I remember about it are even real. Now let’s get these extractions underway.”
“If you… this sounds ridiculous, I know, but if you… if you removed my foetus without extracting its life, would it be a baby?”
“Yes, but don’t worry, we won’t let that happen. We have strict quality standards here.”
“So babies do come from foetuses? And people come from babies?” Mildred felt a little lightheaded.
The clinician shook her head slowly, as if Mildred were a few decades too senile. “And people need life, and life comes from foetuses, and babies are just primitive remnants from a millennium ago. Don’t you worry about it, love. You’ve found yourself some free decades!”
The baby cried even louder, and Mildred almost wanted the clinician to make it quiet. It was driving her crazy. Crazy enough that in an instant she was running out of the clinic and screaming over the noise, “I found myself a free person!”
“You can’t make a new person!” the clinician shouted after her. “They’ll have no records! They won’t know anyone! There won’t be enough food for them! It probably doesn’t even speak!”
She ran without thinking, without being aware of anything except the wailing coming from the thing in her arms. She only realised what she had done when she found herself twisted on the ground, having turned to protect the baby and her belly when she tripped. Her back hurt and her eyes were wet and the baby’s wrap was still soaked and the baby was still screaming and her mind was a cacophony of new information clanging into memories. Twenty-seven extractions, more than two millennia for her and her manservants, not a year for twenty-seven potential people. But wasn’t it just like eating meat? Some creatures give life to others. Twenty-seven more people would mean less meat for others and less space for the forests and fauna that kept humanity and the rest of the biosphere alive and prosperous. Twenty-seven stunted proto-people who knew nothing and nobody, taking life when they should be giving it. As Mildred’s head started to clear, she began thinking about how to apologise when she went back to the clinic.
As Mildred’s eyes started to dry, she realised a woman was leaning over her. What was her name? Sandra? They’d been good friends a century or so ago, and lost touch. “Milly, are you okay?” Sandra asked.
“Sandy, what are you doing here?”
“Milly, are you okay?” panted James as he arrived. He was getting old, and could do with those decades she owed him. “Sandy?! What are you doing here?”
Just as Mildred realised the wailing had stopped, it started again.
“That’s my sweater! Is that…” Sandra went white. “Is that m…mm” she stopped speaking seemed to be concentrating on not crying. Mildred stroked the baby’s face, momentarily forgetting she was caressing a complete stranger.
“It’s okay, Sandy. Take your time. What happened?”
Sandra took her time. Finally, she managed to cry, “My foetus came out! It was horrible; it hurt so much! It came out by itself, out my vagina; there must be something wrong with me. It hurt so much. I never want to take birth again; I’ll just take a manservant contract whenever I need more life.”
“That’s your baby?” said James. Sandra didn’t hear.
“I wasn’t due for extraction yet but I was feeling sore and my manservant’s run off to do some kind of crazy botanical research so I started going to the clinic but then…” She broke into sobs as the baby screamed. “Is it… is it the foetus? How come it’s alive? It wasn’t… I mean I don’t think it… It didn’t move. I thought it was just a foetus. It was horrible and bloody and blue and it had almost like a face on it. I covered it up so nobody would find it.”
“It’s a baby,” sniffed Mildred. “A… a juvenile form of human, often created in pre-extraction times as a means to perpetuate the human species… at the clinic they said it can turn into a person with a few decades of round-the-clock treatment. But it’s a foetus. They can still extract. They want to and it’s kind of… kind of like eating meat…” In the face of Sandra’s tears, Mildred’s own conclusion seemed silly again. How could they extract life from a thing that could become a person?
They were silent for a while. Even the baby quieted down. James leaned against a tree for support and flexed his creaking knees.
“Can I hold it? Does it mind?”
“I don’t know. It seems to mind everything.” Mildred passed the baby to Sandra.
“Milly, I think I’m really sick,” she confided. “First my foetus came out and now there’s yellow stuff coming out of my nipples. Can you take me to the clinic? I know they expect me to give them some life rather than take it, but maybe I could use some from your foetus.”
“Hey, you know half of that foetus is for me, right?” said James. “Nah, you can have a some of my share. Anything to help a fetching fertile lady.”
The foetus kicked, and she realised that the word was not metaphorical; it was kicking with actual legs. “I don’t know if I want it to be extracted today.” Mildred said quietly.
Sandra reached out and held her hand. They were silent, except for the baby.
Suddenly, Mildred thought of something. “What if it’s hungry?”
“I have some bacon sushi,” said James. The soon learnt that the baby could not use chopsticks.
Once again, Mildred checked the encyclopedia for information on babies. “You’re not going to believe what it says about feeding them…”
Over the next week, while Sandra and James tried to figure out how and whether to keep the baby alive, and how to keep it quiet, Mildred researched the early history of extraction. Of course there was the ugly time they all commemorated each decade on Death Day, the time when people would kidnap and extract the remaining life out of strangers. It must have been horrible to live in fear of dying. Nine out of ten of them did die. Nine out of ten adults died so that the rest could live longer.
Then perinatal extraction, called today simply extraction, solved everything. More life with no killing, and no fear of accidental breeding creating an infinite number of hungry immortals. The inventor shared the technique with the oldest and newest people he knew, the ones who hadn’t stolen anyone else’s life. They won round extractors with their ethically-sourced life, and soon nobody would extract from an adult, and nobody would give life to those known to have done so. Over the next century, the life thieves died of old age and the rest bred up to the capacity they knew they could sustain without competition for resources, and then ceased with the bother of people-making. Most of this was familiar to Mildred; the well-known story told each decade on Life Day. She’d even seen the inventor of perinatal extraction telling the story in person. Though she’d all but forgotten the meaning of the archaic words such as ‘perinatal’ and ‘breeding’.
It wasn’t quite so pretty, though. As she read older and older memoirs, Mildred discovered that many people had actually protested, saying foetuses were people; some even thought that embryos were people. And some even thought that animals should not be eaten; not just because of the unsustainable farming practices back then, but because animals were also a sort of people. Mildred wondered why nobody thought of things like that any more.
Further into her research, she came across an old journal entry which struck her:
I took my first birth today. I know it isn’t right, but I was getting old, almost too old to be coaxed into fertility, and if I die the foetuses will have nobody to fight for them. Thirty more years should give me the time to fix things. I need to find a way to prevent both death and overpopulation without sacrificing living humans.
That’s what happened to people who thought foetuses were people. They either took life anyway, or they died. She checked the author to see which group this one had ended up in.
Mildred felt lightheaded at the sight of her own name, and saw the edges of her vision prickle black. Her foetus turned, and so did her stomach. She fought to stay conscious for fear of what people might do to help her.
She’d been one of the people who’d fought to stop perinatal extraction. She’d been one of the people who’d let her survival instinct change her mind. On the backs of those she’d claimed to want to save, she’d lived long enough to forget they existed. And she would forget again.
Unless she fixed things soon.
Mildred switched her attention to learning all she could about the science of life extraction. It came to her easily at first, as if she’d learnt it all before, which she probably had. She felt less familiar with the breakthroughs that led to increased efficiency in more recent centuries. She enrolled in some classes and followed the century-old standard practical experiments involving extraction and infusion in small plants.
One night she was idly dissecting a piece of sushi, picking out the individual grains of rice and twirling the meat between her chopsticks. That meat had been in a pig once. Pigs were probably smarter than babies. She put it aside and ate the rice and seaweed thoughtfully. Just like eating meat…
She jumped up and ran to the bedroom. “Sandy!” she called out loudly before realising that it was past midnight. “Sandy, come here,” she whispered, but the baby was already gearing up to surpass her careless loudness.
“What is it?” Sandra asked groggily, before gasping in horror, “is yours coming out too?”
“No, no, it’s not that! What did you say your manservant went to do?”
“Botany. Some nutso alternative healing thing.”
“Listen, I think he might be onto something. I was thinking, we can live without meat, right? So we can live without foetuses! It’s so obvious!”
“Hey, you didn’t get me out of bed to tell me you’ve gone as crazy as Jezdimir, did you?”
James wandered in holding the screaming baby.
“Look, there are trees out there that’ve lived longer than us, right? What if we could extract life from them? I mean their seedlings? There’d be millennia! They’ve made a lot of improvements in extraction lately. Did you know that even plant extraction was not possible a few centuries ago, and now they teach it in introductory classes? All we’d need to do is figure out how to convert their life to ours, and no more foetus-killing!”
James squinted his reddened eyes and looked down at the noise-maker in his arms. “Are you sure you want more of these around?”
“No, you see that’s the other thing. If anyone gets pregnant by mistake, which, let’s face it, hardly ever happens, they can take enough life, plant life, to make the embryo regress back into nothing. Or wait, maybe that’s bad too, I don’t know. But some of them could make babies. Did you know that fish are edible; they were just banned back when there weren’t enough of them? And that there’s way more of everything now than back at the beginning of extraction? And that you can feed way more people with plants than with meat? The population limits they set back then are way lower than they need to be now. We could have new people!”
“Hey hold on there… is that even possible? What about the new people? They’re not going to know anything,” said James.
“But even at our ages, everyone knows different things,” answered Sandra before Mildred could think of an answer. She pointed at the baby. “He’s the only one who knows what it is to be new in an old world. That’s worth knowing.”
“So we need to contact this, what was his name? Jezdimir? Your manservant, and see if they can help us. I reckon we’re only a few decades away from converting plant life into…”
Mildred stopped and winced as a pain surged through her belly. Sandra stared at her with a terrified look in her eyes. Mildred regained her composure in order not to upset Sandra. “…converting plant life into human. I’ll never have to have another extraction.”
Then she collapsed in agony. James and Sandra practically carried her to the clinic, Sandra holding the baby in her free arm, and James clutching at trees with his.
“Are you back for your extraction, finally? It’s about time,” said the clinician.
“Noo…” moaned Mildred. The clinician laid her on the bed.
“What do you mean no? You clearly need the life,” said James. “I hate to see you like this.”
“No,” said Sandra. “She doesn’t want any more extractions. You’re going to take this foetus out of her and let it become a baby.”
“But she said she didn’t want another extraction. She meant after this one. I’m sure!”
Mildred filled her lungs to protest but the breath hurt so much that she let it out in a moan. Her head felt as bad as the rest of her. For a moment she thought she remembered being a child, watching her mother cry over her brother. But she had no brother.
“No, no, she doesn’t want to take any life! Haven’t you seen her? She’s been obsessed with this idea of foetuses being people.” The baby screamed louder as if to affirm its personhood.
“Well no, I haven’t seen her, because I’ve been trying to keep this thing alive! She doesn’t want one of these!”
“She does. She does. She wants the baby to live.”
“It’s not a baby! Look, she owes me four decades. She owes herself four decades. How could she just let herself die in this day and age? I’d miss her! We all would! And she needs time to finish that plant thing.”
“Sure, but the baby…”
“…doesn’t owe anyone anything.”
“But you can’t privilege this useless little thing that can’t even eat or speak over someone with a millennium of knowledge and skills and hundreds of people who love her! I know your baby is cute and it brings a fresh perspective and blah blah blah but you can’t have both, and I’m choosing Milly.”
“I love her too! But she doesn’t want to kill babies any more and we have to respect…”
“For goodness’ sake, you’re not killing anything! You’re just extracting the life out of something that isn’t alive yet to begin with!”
“Extracting the what? If it’s not alive, then…”
“Look, your friend’s not doing well. I’m going to need a decision,” urged the clinician, as Mildred slipped into unconsciousness.