May 29, 2018

IDEAS ON TUESDAYS 357


Each Tuesday, rather than a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY, I'd like to both challenge you and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative and teen story ideas than I can ever use. My family rolls its collective eyes when I say, "Hang on a second! I just have to write down this idea..." Here, I'll include the initial inspiration (quote, website, podcast, etc.) and then a thought or two that came to mind. These will simply be seeds -- plant, nurture, fertilize, chemically treat, irradiate, test or stress them as you see fit. I only ask if you let me know if anything comes of them. Regarding Fantasy, this insight was startling: “I see the fantasy genre as an ever-shifting metaphor for life in this world, an innocuous medium that allows the author to examine difficult, even controversial, subjects with impunity. Honor, religion, politics, nobility, integrity, greed—we’ve an endless list of ideals to be dissected and explored. And maybe learned from.” – Melissa McPhail.

Fantasy Trope: Witchcraft For World Peace!!!
Current Event:

Saga Pai-Teles shook her head then said, “How much do you really expect us to accomplish?”

Djamel Vlach sighed, “I’m sure nothing, but what else can we do that might even conceivably make a difference? I’m not a soldier, and unless you enlisted in the Royal Marines or fought a stint with the Aegis Mercenaries in the past few months, I’m pretty sure you don’t have much experience with fighting, either.”

“But we’re not ‘fighting’ – not like that anyway. Our powers are of Earth, wind, ice, fire, and water.”

“Sounds like the name of an American band from the nineteen seventies.” She frowned at him and made a faint movement with her fingers. He laughed, “You think charms and wardings are going to be able to stave off the black market weaponry of Daesh, or Boko Haram, or the Taliban?”

“Shows how much YOU know! We’re not here to fight anger with anger. We’re here to fight anger with the power of nature and of the true spirit of Humanity. There are way more...”

Djamel wasn’t listening to her. His eyes had grown wide. “OK! Now you’re talking! Taking out Daesh with a hurricane or an earthquake or even a flood is totally cool! I could get into that and I even have a couple of spells that enhance water movement!”

“That’s not what I was talking about,” she stopped talking abruptly. “Then again, I have a couple of other spells that help anyone who’s got a gift for dowsing.”

“What’s that?”

She looked at him steadily and when she had his complete attention, she said, “Dowsing is all about FINDING water, Djamel. If I could find the water…”

“I could direct it.” Djamel scowled again. “My powers aren’t that…um…powerful.”

“Mine, neither. What we need is someone who can magnify or enhance our simple powers,” Saga said.

“I don’t have simple powers! They’re plenty strong enough!”

“That’s not what I meant! In order to deal world peace and muffle terrorism in our time, we have to overcome terror with peace. But it can’t be done if we’re weak.”

“We need, like, a talisman.”

“A crystal, or a…” Sag was saying.

Djamel cut her off, “The Vial of Trench!”

“What’s that?”

“A Vial of water collected from the bottom of the Marianas Trench.” He looked down at her, “Can you think of a more powerful talisman to increase our mission to bring peace on Earth than focusing our meager powers through a vial of water from the bottom of the Earth’s sea?”

“I can’t…”

“We’ll do it and it’ll start now?”

Names: Finland, Portugal; ♂ Algeria, Hungary

May 27, 2018

Slice of PIE: Morality, “I, Robot”, Tesla, and My Home Town


Using the Programme Guide of the World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki Finland in August 2017 (to which I will be unable to go (until I retire from education)), I will jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Programme Guide. The link is provided below…

Robot Morality
With robot cars soon on our streets and with robots as caretakers questions of ethics and morals rise. How should a robot car choose to react in an accident (save passenger or save most lives)? What kinds of ethics and moral questions rise from using robots as caretakers of our children, elderly, disabled or ill. What about killer robots that are constructed by the armies of the world? Is it morally right to teach a robot to kill?

Su J. Sokol: social rights activist, writer, lawyer
Tara Oakes: fan with collection of 330 robots
Lilian Edwards: a UK academic specializing in Internet law and intellectual property
Tony Ballantyne: author of novels and short stories that have appeared worldwide

Asimov and Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman should have been here as well. You’ve probably heard of Isaac Asimov, the author who practically invented robotic morality with The Three Laws of Robotics:

0) A robot must not harm humanity.
1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

The Wikipedia article below looks at dozens of additional laws proposed both realistically and in the interest of extending Asimov’s Laws, some tongue-in-cheek, and one, author Karl Schroeder's “Lockstep” character reflects that robots “probably had multiple layers of programming to keep [them] from harming anybody. Not three laws, but twenty or thirty.” [Thought: maybe my story from last week should be re-written taking robot morality into consideration; maybe even The 3 Laws…]

The other two names I mentioned above are screen writers – one a former English professor, the other with screenplays like “Charlie’s Angels” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” on his resume. Just the people to imbue a reflection on robotic morality with a really thoughtful storyline! *sigh*

Hopefully the discussion was well-done. The participants seem to have reasonable credentials (the one who collects models has most likely read extensively about each one of her exhibits.)

Robots with (or without) morals are fascinating to discuss, partially (I think) because to them, we’ll be “gods” – at the very least, their creators. Being “gods” is something Humans have deeply desired ever since the first Human deified himself or herself. We continue to do it even today – creating robots “in our image” seems to be a given.

But what about robots NOT in our image? Will we imbue (or program, if you prefer) them with laws that govern them? What about the sixth thing that the futurists were supposed to consider (“Will people accept self-driving cars?”) We already name our cars (can anyone reading this claim that they didn’t name ONE of their cars?), and we know that we’ve already moved away from paying attention to driving so we can focus on our interactions with social media and mechanizing minimum-wage jobs is already well under way. Cars parking themselves has made the leap from strangeness to “standard option” and I can’t see that insurance companies NOT giving people a discount for the feature.

So we’ve accepted robots into our culture. What about other cultures? How would robots go over in Nigeria? Haiti? India? I can take a guess about the first two cultures as I’ve spent A LITTLE time in them; I’ve never been to India, but I can guess that the introduction of true robots will have a profound impact. (Would robots either take the place of or become “untouchables”?) Even here, with the boom in the “sex doll” industry, are robotic prostitutes about to take over “the world’s oldest (contested) profession”? If so, what if a robotic prostitute wanted to leave her (its?) profession?

STAR TREK: The Next Generation debated something similar to that in one of its iconic episodes, “The Measure of a Man”. It “has been considered by critics to be the first great episode of The Next Generation. It has also been included in lists of the best and most groundbreaking episodes of the series.” In it, “…Data resigns his commission rather than be dismantled for examination by an inadequately skilled scientist, a formal hearing is convened to determine whether Data is considered property without rights or is a sentient being.” (imdb)

Clearly Data, Robbie the Robot, Sonny, and the Lost In Space robot had some sort of programming that included morals. Others like the dozens of robots featured on the long-running British DOCTOR WHO, have no compunctions whatever to do anything they’re asked to do, many of them killing both Humans and non-Humans. The robotic intelligences of regular science fiction writers Gregory Benford, Iain M. Banks, Keith Laumer, Gene Wolfe, and Alastair Reynolds are possibly monstrous, but unintentionally so – bacteria and viruses would probably consider us monstrous.

So – will robots have morals? It’s pretty clear that if they are INTENTIONALLY made to be like us (not always physically, but intellectually), then they most likely will. But if they are not made for that specific purpose, will we bother with imbuing them with morality, what will they be like?

VIKI, the AI from “I, Robot” who was designed to run the US Robotics company, certainly had the Three Laws programmed into it, but it could also choose to ignore those laws. Given no morality (which the faithful believers in The Singularity seem to believe will happen), what kinds of things are powerful computers and artificial intelligences capable of? The company that was purchased by Tesla was once called Perbix and engineered simple manufacturing robots. Tesla (according to the article), plans on taking the company to a whole new level – my question is that will they give their car manufacturing robots any kind of morality programming? What would a murder by a manufacturing robot look like? How would you investigate it? How would you prevent it?

Much food for thought!


May 24, 2018

LOVE IN A TIME OF ALIEN INVASION 87: The Trials of Team 1 - 3


On Earth, there are three Triads intending to integrate not only the three peoples and stop the war that threatens to break loose and slaughter Humans and devastate their world; but to stop the war that consumes Kiiote economy and Yown’Hoo moral fiber. All three intelligences hover on the edge of extinction. The merger of Human-Kiiote-Yown’Hoo into a van der Walls Society might not only save all three – but become something not even they could predict. Something entirely new...

The young experimental Triads are made up of the smallest primate tribe of Humans – Oscar and Xiomara; the smallest canine pack of Kiiote – six, pack leaders Qap and Xurf; and the smallest camelid herd of Yown’Hoo – a prime eleven, Dao-hi the Herd mother. On nursery farms and ranches away from the TC cities, Humans have tended young Yown’Hoo and Kiiote in secret for decades, allowing the two, warring people to reproduce and grow far from their home worlds.

“We had nearly fallen into stagnation when we encountered the Kiiote.”
“And we into internecine war when we encountered the Yown’Hoo.”
 “Yown’Hoo and Kiiote have been defending themselves for a thousand revolutions of our Sun.”
 “Together, we might do something none of us alone might have done…a destiny that included Yown’Hoo, Kiiote, and Human.” (2/19/2015)

Qap said, “We are being watched.” She paused, adding, “I think it’s some version of Human, but the scents I catch are not completely the Always-Walkers. There is that of the Grasseaters as well, but it is not completely right, either.”

Towt had a thought, “What do we smell like to them, Auntie?”

She looked sharply at him, opened her mouth for a nip at Towt’s insubordinate query – he’d released a bit of challenge scent in what he said. She paused. “That is a wise question, Neuter. Have we been stained with Human and Yown’Hoo scent? What would we smell like to one of the Stupid,” Triad-name for any of the idiots, Pack, Herd, or Tribe, who fought the endless war without hope of any victory. “We must be, in their noses, tainted.”

“Then perhaps our scent is confusing to watchers?” Qilf growled.

“Or it is our scent that it follows,” said Towt. This time Qilf did nip the neuter. It stifled its surprise.

Qap snapped. They both fell to their chests as she did as well. Softly in Human Speak, she whispered, “Then we must lead our watchers on a chase.” She rumbled low in her chest, a second set of vocal cords evolved to give Kiiote the ability to use words emphasized by specific sounds. It could also be used to mimic the Humans as well as speech. With a slow lift of her lip, baring double rows – one set sharp, an inner row bladed – of teeth, she began to laugh a low, very Human laugh. Qilf and Towt knew the sound.

It was the sound announcing a game of Run, Hunt, & Kill. Towt howled and dashed north. Qilf waited, then crouched, forcing her bones into their long-running configuration then sprinted straight west.

Qap, proud of her Pack headed directly at the source of the watcher’s scent, nearly flying from the ground as she attacked. There was a clear scent of Human fear as the pine trees screening a form parted, then snapped back. She’d little experience hunting in a true wood. The forest around the Triad’s home was well-groomed.

This was wilderness. Her paw broke through an icy cap in the snow and her foot plunged through. But she was faster than an Earth wolf – her people had evolved on a world fractionally larger than this planet. Her reflexes kept her from breaking the leg.

But not preventing the painful twist. She landed hard on her back and discovered that there had been other watchers as well. They swept out of the forest, small Humans riding Kiiote backs, thin, almost-wire lassos twirling overhead. If Qap had been alone, she’d have been snared and tied in an instant.

But Qilf and Towt had flanked the Hunted and closed on them with pincher precision; a move they’d practiced under Retired’s tutelage hundreds of times. It was as if he’d planned for this particular maneuver. As if he’d trained this other Human-Kiiote Tribe-Pack. Qap rolled, squirming across the snow wildly, rearranging her skeletal structure. Doing it like this as easier than doing it standing, the ground acting to push and shove the bones into their proper secondary positions.

She leaped to her feet, springing at the first Human astride its mount and knocked them off. He – she saw when his hood flopped back – landed with a thud that knocked the wind out of him. Qap leaped again, hooking the next rider by the throat just as it began to ululate a Kiiote warning cry. It cut off before she – Qap saw that this one was a female Human – could do more than sound the first note. Qilf and Towt had taken down the third member of the watchers and pinned a very young Human and Kiiote to the ground. They were quite awake and hopelessly tangled in each other’s limbs. The first two pairs lay unconscious and separate in the snow.

Qap leaped to the Kiiote and used the imperative Pack Female tones to say, “You watch us! You lay a trap! Why have you done this when all we do is seek…”

She snarled back, “You appeared from under the ground.”

Startled, Qap said, “We came from the abandoned Human building. We have spent the night there.”

The female started to argue, then stopped. She said, “You smell of The Lieutenant. He does not live here. He travels here, gives orders, then leaves. Why do you smell of The Lieutenant?”

The female’s Human rider stirred, groaning. She looked at Qap and said, “You’re not from here. Your fur, your braids, they do not belong in the Northland.”

Qap hadn’t thought that her braids, something all the Triad Kiiote wore, were out of the ordinary. She’d assumed they were a race tradition. She said, “We are not from here. And we work with Retired.” The female pinned to the ground growled and struggled. Qap snapped, “The one you call The Lieutenant is the same one we call ‘Retired’. He sent us to you.”

She stopped, then turned slowly to sniff Qap’s foreleg, saying, “You have his scent. But he has never mentioned anyone as fine as you.”

Qap leaned harder and the female growled faintly. “Flattery will get you a torn throat.”

“Not flattery, observation. We are poor here in the Northland. We serve The Lieutenant’s mission, but we live on game and little else. I do not complain, Pack Leader, only inform.”

Qap eased back. The female was falling into the cadence of more formal speech. She’d been speaking like a near-wild animal at first. Qap released her and waited until the youngster rearranged her structure for upright locomotion. She lifted her chin and said, “I am Pack Leader Kang.” She stretched her neck, offering her throat.

Qap reached out, took a token scratch then said, “The Lieutenant sent us here. We did not expect to find you so easily.” Kang’s neck fur bristled and Qap touched it to smooth it. “We do not come to fight, Sister, but to ask for help.”

“Help? From us? We barely stay alive here.” In the snow, the three Human riders began to stir. “Sister, the Herd in these woods Hunt both Pack and Tribe for sport.”


May 22, 2018

IDEAS ON TUESDAYS 356


Each Tuesday, rather than a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY, I'd like to both challenge you and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative and teen story ideas than I can ever use. My family rolls its collective eyes when I say, "Hang on a second! I just have to write down this idea..." Here, I'll include the initial inspiration (quote, website, podcast, etc) and then a thought or two that came to mind. These will simply be seeds -- plant, nurture, fertilize, chemically treat, irradiate, test or stress them as you see fit. I only ask if you let me know if anything comes of them.

SF Trope: inside a computer system

Amelia Qasoori curled her lower lip, tucking it under her teeth then tapped them as she stared at the Apple 27 inch Cinema Display screen. She tapped another key on her computer.

Artem Torres tossed his backpack on the lab table, peeked over her shoulder then went to his own computer and booted it up. His screen was much smaller however and there were multiple images. All of the images were of rats.

Amelia glanced over at him and wrinkled her nose and said, “I don’t know how you can stare at those ugly things all day long.”

He smirked at her and said, “I can open the cages and play with them if you’d like.”

“You’re both obscene and disgusting at the very same instant,” she said, leaning closer to her screen and tapping a section of an image. The screen was covered with tiny squares.

“What’s even more disgusting and obscene is that we’re trying to do the same thing with organic and inorganic matter.”

Amelia nodded slowly as she tapped another square then made an entry on an old-fashioned yellow notepad with an even older-fashioned pencil. She made a few more notes, then typed for several minutes. The images on the screen whirled wildly and when they were done, Artem leaned back on his lab stool, looked at the image and said, “I don’t see any difference.”

Amelia made a raspberry. “That’s because you’re a wetwareologist. You people couldn’t feel your way off a kindergartner’s graphing calculator.”

“That’s not true! I use computer modeling all the time!” He waved at his smaller computer screen. “Just because everything I do is reality instead of virtuality doesn’t mean it’s not important.”

“I’m not talking about ‘importance’ here, Art! I’m talking about relevance. What I do is relevant. What you do is...cute in a sort of old-fashioned way.”

From behind them, a stentorian voice spoke, “My two favorite high school geniuses continue to banter mindlessly, ignoring my strict instructions to MELD the techniques and technology to form something new.”

Artem and Amelia jumped to their feet, spinning around. In unison they said, “Hello, Dr. Willard.”

He nodded to them and passed between them. He was tall. Unusually tall, well over two meters tall. He patted both of them on their heads. “So, my tremendous twins, what do you have for me today?”

“Look, Dr. Willard, I can make a fine rat robot for you! There’s no need for...”

“Dr. Willard, if you get me some really great tech who won’t talk back every time I ask for something, I could have a ‘borg rat ready for you in two shakes of a…a...”

“A rat’s tail, Mr. Torres? There’s no need for me to have a biological brain, Ms. Qasoori?” He stood back and studied her screen. Then he stepped sideways and leaned forward to study Artem’s screen. Straightening, he said, “What I need, dear pupils, is a seamlessly integrated part organic-part inorganic creature to do a very, very interesting job.” He favored each one with a cold glare, then left the lab, adding without turning around, “A word from me can get you into the most select graduate study programs in the world.” He stopped in the doorway, and still without turning around, said, “A word form me can get you barred from the most pathetic study programs in the world.”

Names: Australian (NSW), Pakistan; Russian, Spanish

May 20, 2018

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY -- AND TODAY, BEYOND...Futurism and Alzheimer's -- Where Are The Brilliant Answers?


Using the Programme Guide of the World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki Finland in August 2017 (to which I will be unable to go (until I retire from education)), I will jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Programme Guide. The link is provided below…

The Future is Approaching Quickly: SF As An Alternative to Future-Oriented Think
The Economist recently ran a feature on how people who want to figure out what the tech is heading should read Iain M Banks. They argue the Culture is "space opera that anticipates some of the challenges that technology is beginning to pose in the real world" and that science fiction serves as an idea library that informs tech industry. What do you think that the near future will look like? Do you believe in the singularity? Will we figure out reasonable security? Will big data ruin it all? Would block chains make for good sf material? Will people accept self-driving cars?

Stephanie Saulter: author, Jamaican, Londoner by choice, in America along the way; books about who people really are.
Kristina Knaving: Doctoral student in Interaction Design (Department of Computer Science and Engineering)
Nick Price: Speaker and Consulting Futurist; consultant
Klaus Æ. Mogensen: editor, writer, Futurist
Qiufan Chen: writer, columnist, scriptwriter, technology start-up CMO

You know, it’s a personal bias, but I have trouble with all these fancy futurists.

They appear to be all about the “next best cell phone” and “how to make money better” and “how do we REALLY integrate our technology to make it easier for us to ignore the real world?”

None of them seem to be looking at real problems – except of course, “anthropogenic global warming” (or whatever the most recent iteration of the term is), and then it’s all about creating projections that are both increasingly horrifying (https://www.bbc.com/ideas/videos/opinion-the-super-rich-are-damaging-the-environmen/p064kjgj)
and ridiculously specific (for example, frog croaking ( http://www.agenciasinc.es/en/News/A-classifier-of-frog-calls-for-fighting-against-climate-change)). The phrase continues to change as well, from laying the blame for climate change on Humans (excluding the researchers, Al Gore, and Leonardo di Caprio because they are the warriors for rationality) to climate variability (maybe because by using this wishy-washy term they can gather more people back under their banner).

I don’t see, however, futurists looking at the problems of increasingly serious diseases of the rapidly aging (and rapidly living longer) in the industrialized world. 

Alzheimer’s is one disease that these futurists don’t seem to worry about – perhaps because they are mostly “thirty-somethings” and dealing with their technology fetishes (I am the father of two near-thirty-somethings, father-in-law to another two, and foster father to one; I do have some experience with this age group…).

I worry about it both because my father is in a “memory care” unit and my mother may have been undiagnosed (she was certainly affected by dementia near the end). But I don’t see much science fiction or futurism that looks at dealing with Alzheimer’s and related “brick walls”.

That’s not to say the writing community doesn’t explore the disease – this 2014 article in the New Yorker gives a clear and succinct review of the major fictional works up to that time: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/place-beyond-words-literature-alzheimers. io9 briefly reviews THE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GRAY (https://io9.gizmodo.com/5687146/what-would-you-give-up-for-an-alzheimers-disease-cure), and there is Vernor Vinge’s 2006 RAINBOW’S END, and there are some 68 listed in GoodReads (https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/16500.Alzheimer_s_Disease_in_Fiction)

I even wrote a story about a scientist and an Alzheimer’s cure (long before my parents were diagnosed) here: http://theworkandworksheetsofguystewart.blogspot.com/2018/05/a-pig-tale-by-guy-stewart-analog.html

I hope they spent time at this session talking about real Human challenges and how communities – scientific, intellectual, science fictional, social, political, geographic, racial, and cultural might together seek ways to not just cure Alzheimer’s/dementia at some fantastic future date, but to not just “deal with it”, but to actually meet the challenges presented in ways other than (and there is guilt speaking here), institutionalizing our family members.

For a second story I wrote and CANNOT seem to find anyone interested in publishing, here is a piece I wrote specifically FOR a company looking at future issues: (stop now if you’re not interested in reading a story. If you do stop, thanks for reading this far!) –




AND AFTER SOFT RAINS, DAISIES
by Guy Stewart

“You really think this will be what I’ve been looking for?” Dayvon said.
Sherrell made a soft noise. Five screens were connected to Dayvon’s dad’s basement apartment. The office wall showed five views, including the bathroom. Dad was still sleeping.
His ancient full bed shared space with a micro kitchen and a breakfast bar with a fridge, sink, table and chair; a couch in front of a wall-sized TV that currently shimmered charcoal gray with sparkles of light; entryway with closet; and the bathroom.
“Pat”, the Artificial Intelligence who cared for him, brought lamps up over a bank of plants to match a sunrise outside their house. He had no real windows. In the pots, daffodils and tulips long-faded, daisies rose on slender stalks, but not opened. Pat said softly, “Time to get up Chuck.”
Dad didn’t move at first. “Did he die overnight?” Sherrell whispered.
“He can’t hear us, hon. You don’t have to whisper. And no, he didn’t die. Mom would have told us.” He barked a laugh, then looked guiltily over his shoulder into their own living room. “The, uh, AI…Pat would have told us.”
On the monitor, Dad got up and stretched. One hand couldn’t reach past his ear, the other high reached high over his head, but the arthritic fingers didn’t straighten at all. Tilting at his usual five degree angle, he disappeared into the bathroom. The bathroom screen went blank. “I’m glad we were spared that!” Dayvon said.
A while later, Dad came out dressed in brown pants that hung loose on his spare frame, a baggy T-shirt, with feet stuffed into well-worn slippers. Dayvon said, “I’ll be back in a second, there’s breaking news on the ‘vee.”
Sherrell watched the office screens, captivated. Her own parents had died a decade ago. Her dad died in his sleep, her mom they found on the bathroom floor days later. She’d never had a chance to say “good-bye” to either one. She’d been separated by eight states. She wanted Dayvon to share his father with her. In the micro kitchen, Chuck pulled out a box of cereal, paused, then shuffled to the door. His newspaper had been pushed under it. Slowly bending, he picked it up, went to the couch and started to read. He hadn’t bothered to notice the fresh flowers in the vase in the “window” over the kitchen sink.
Dad’s phone rang. He picked it up. Through their monitor, Sherrell heard Dayvon’s voice say, “Hey, Dad.”
“Hey, Son.”
“Just wanted to remind you to catch some breakfast this morning.”
In the apartment, a spotlight lanced down from the ceiling, illuminating the cereal box. A bowl and spoon sat beside it, tiny ‘bots scurrying back to their cubby as she watched. The edges of the refrigerator glowed orange.
“Huh, my breakfast is here.” Dad hung up abruptly and returned to reading the paper. After five minutes, the lights in the kitchen began to flash.
He looked up. The lights glowed steadily. Grunting, Dad folded the paper, got up, and shuffled across the room. He got milk from the fridge, filled a bowl of cereal, sat down at the table, poured milk on it and ate. He glanced out the window, as if transfixed, then shuffled back into the living room.
When he was done, he stood up with the bowl. The edge of the sink blinked blue. He washed up and went to finish his paper. His bed sank slowly into the floor. A treadmill rose up to take its place.
On the couch, Dad’s head nodded, sinking forward. Suddenly, a track whistle shrilled and floods lit the room with glaring light. A coach’s voice bellowed, “Time for your morning workout, Charles! Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
Dad lurched to his feet and shuffled to the treadmill. Across the bottom of Dayvon and Sherrell’s screen the words, “Chamomile and lavender”, scrolled for several seconds. The words, “Locker Room” replaced the list of scrolling scents. Dad and Sherrell wrinkled their noses.
Sherrell said, “Locker room? Really?”
Dayvon stuck his head in the bedroom and said, “They’re saying there are some weird flu virus epidemic in Vancouver.” He was in the living room and turning up the volume. “Come on!”
She sighed, tearing herself from Chuck. “What’s wrong?” she asked. His tone and the bunched muscles in his neck made her heart race.
Dad called a bit after that, but his son and daughter-in-law’s eyes were transfixed by the one hundred and sixty-five centimeter LED flat screen as the news of an influenza epidemic in China and its possible connection to the Vancouver outbreak.
On the monitor screen, Chuck carefully pressed numbers on an old phone while consulting a printed list of his children’s cellphones. Pat the AI, tried to contact Dayvon and Sherrell for permission to speak freely with Chuck, but neither of them answered their text messages. Pat used an initiative protocol to talk with him. Sherrell glanced at Dayvon’s office, back to the ‘vee screen, then to the office. Scrolling reports from the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia pulled her back to the coverage.

In the bedroom, Pat the AI said, “Chuck, did you want to watch some TV?”
“I don’t care. What’s on?”
Pat scanned the news programs that dominated broadcast television, decided that they were too disturbing for its elderly charge, and said, “How about some episodes of DR. WHO?”
“What’s that?” Chuck said.
If it’d had lungs, it would have sighed. Instead it said, “Would you like to watch Bonanza?”
“Sure. That sounds fine.” He watched an episode then said suddenly, “When are you coming home?”
Pat paused, then said, “I won’t be coming home, Chuck.”
A sullen look settled on his weathered face, “You’re going out with another man, aren’t you…”
Pat laughed, “No, Chuck, don’t be silly!” He continued to scowl until it said, “I died eight years ago, Chuck. I’m buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.”
“I knew that. Dayvon and I talked about it yesterday. But when are you coming home? I want to talk to you.”
“Chuck, remember, I’m not…”
“I know. You’re not coming home because you’re dead.”
“I am, Chuck. Now, why don’t you have a cup of warm milk. It should help you sleep.”
“I don’t like warm milk!”
“Dash of rum?”
He grunted, settling back in his chair. “Fine. Bring me one.”
“I can’t, Chuck. Remember, I’m…”
“You’re dead.” He glanced at the kitchen, where the AI was shining a light on a faintly steaming coffee mug on the counter. A softer light fell on the vase of daisies. He stood up and walked across the room, tilting five degrees, stared at the flowers, then got the cup, and returned to his chair.
Pat had been monitoring media channels. There was far too much that would alarm Chuck, especially as now that flu deaths had reached epidemic proportions in Asia. There was a report of an outbreak in Cancun, Yucatan. Pat found a rerun channel that didn’t seem to care about media comparisons to the Flu Pandemic of a century and a quarter ago.

Dayvon and Sherrell had gone to the hospital when, two weeks later, media reported that the Apocalypse Flu was wiping out great swaths of Humanity in Russia, India and North Africa. They hadn’t been back for two weeks when a short-circuit in the security system started a fire. After that, Dayvon’s office had only one live screen clinging to the wall from a half-melted bracket. The self-contained apartment in the basement, reinforced for his safety with double fire-proof walls and an air conditioner and air intake that removed allergens. Pat had used a slightly modified cleaning robot to locate an old water sterilizer Dayvon had picked up for cheap but never used, to treat the air.
On the single live screen in Dayvon’s office, Chuck woke up again. He picked up his phone and dialed Dayvon. Pat debated with itself. Understanding that the penalty for an AI impersonating a real person without multiple authorizations was mandatory erasure of software and hard shredding of all hardware associated with it; it had two choices.
It made the  first choice and using the Dayvon sub-routine, said, “Hey, Dad! What’s up?”
Chuck said, “You sound happy today.”
Pat laughed with Dayvon’s voice then said, “Bored again, Dad?”
There was a pause. Pat would have held its breath. Chuck said, “So, I haven’t seen anyone for a week.”
Pat knew it had been forty-three days, seven hours, and fifty-three minutes since Chuck had seen a living Resident Assistant. To the best of its knowledge, they were all dead. Chuck’s room had been easy to isolate and seal after sterilizing the air. Pat said, “I just saw you a couple days ago, Dad!”
Chuck laughed. It was his nervous laugh, directed only at himself. He said, “I know, I know. It’s just that I feel lonely here. I’m not sure what I’m going to do…”
Like the real Dayvon had often said, Pat replied gently, “We’ve talked about this before, Dad. You know why you forget?” She paused.
Chuck’s face screwed up, then relaxed, “I have Alzheimer’s.”
“You do, Dad.” She paused, then said, “Did you go down to the gym today?”
“I don’t need to. I have the trainer come up here to my place and we work out together.”
“Did you do anything like, you know, creative today?”
Chuck thought about it, “I think we went grocery shopping today. On the little bus.”
“That must have been nice, Dad. At least you got out.”
“That’s right,” he didn’t say anything for a while. “Well, I’d better let you go. Doin’ anything tonight?” He leered abruptly and said, “Horsing around with the women?”
Pat laughed with Dayvon’s voice then said, “Dad! I’m married! I don’t horse around anymore!”
Chuck laughed. “OK, OK! Just thought I’d ask. So, if you need anything done over there, I can talk to the guys I work with downstairs and we can come and help. Doesn’t matter what you need, I can probably convince them to do it, so just let me know.”
“I’ll do that, Dad. You have a good night. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
They hung up.
Pat the AI hummed in the hardware that held its operating systems. What could it do? Instead of arguing with itself, it created an internal program. There were holographic projectors in the room, mostly to show outdoor scenes. The daisies were real, however. Delivered by the same system that delivered the sterilized meals.
Pat experimented when Chuck was asleep. DayvonGhost and his wife, SherrellGhost – and Pat whimsically created an image of Chuck’s wife which shimmered as they stood together. Pat made them all glow faintly in different colors. Papery voices spoke in the soft light coming from the flat screen’s night scene. The clear, cool spring sky was bright with the light of a half moon, lights in the windows of a few houses, fed from the real nighttime camera in the back yard.
But the images of the houses and lights were false, overlaying the burned out debris outside the sealed walls of Chuck’s room. Pat had dosed the air with an aerosolized weakened form of the flu. She regretted that it was far too late to save Dayvon and Sherell.
After they’d been missing for six months, PatGhost and the others shimmered into visibility. Pat said, “How long can we do this?”
DayvonGhost shrugged. “There’s enough food here to feed him for the next fifteen years, but I can’t believe he’ll live that long...”
SherrellGhost gently elbowed him and said, “The utilities weren’t affected by the plague. Grid power is up and running, but we don’t need it. The solar panels in the roof and on the south-facing wall had no trouble giving us what we need. Broadcast TV stopped two weeks ago, but we’re feeding him stored data from the internet. We won’t have to repeat anything for six years.”
PatGhost sighed then said, “He’s not going to live forever. Probably not even going to live out the year. He was Stage Five on the Seven Stage scale a year ago.” She shook her head sadly, “He’s shown signs of advancing to Stage Six lately. Even you noticed it, Sherrell.”
DayvonGhost shot a look at his wife. “You didn’t say anything!”
“I didn’t want you any more upset that you already are.” She reached out and put her hand on his knee…
They suddenly vanished. Only PatGhost remained. She said, “None of this is real!” She looked at the flowers in the vase, new ones from the garden that had goen wild, spreading across the once well-trimmed yard. She muttered, “This is quite possibly insane.” She winked out.

Dad was on the phone again a month later. He alternately dialed his phone and the TV remote several times, but never connected, slamming them down on the table and cursing loudly. “Where’s the stupid cat?” he shouted.
The phone rang.
He picked it up cautiously. “Hello? Who is this?”
“It’s your son, Dad! Who else would it be?”
Recognizing Dayvon’s voice, he relaxed and said, “I don’t know. Maybe my mother.”
“Dad,” Dayvon began.
“I know, I know, Mom’s dead. Everyone I know is dead. Except me.” He paused, then asked, “When is she coming home?”
Dayvon sighed. “I don’t think she’s ever coming home, Dad. We buried her – you remember, Dad?”
Long pause. Finally he said, “I don’t know. Who am I speaking to?”
Longer pause until Dayvon finally said, “It’s me, Dad. It’s Dayvon.”
“Are you sure? Isn’t your father dead?”
Dayvon didn’t say anything. The silence grew longer. Chuck rapped the phone on the table then listened cautiously. Dayvon said, “I don’t think my dad is dead.” He paused again. “But maybe he is.”
Chuck “harrumphed”, then hung up.
PatGhost, the AI appeared on the couch a few hours later. Chuck snored in his bed. The image of the AI was alone. She had only used DayvonGhost and SherrellGhost a few more times before giving them up as a bad idea. Now she talked to herself most nights. Tonight she knew she’d reached a milestone.
Chuck was the only living person in a six-hundred mile radius. She could support him almost indefinitely, certainly longer than he was likely to live naturally, but his Alzheimer’s symptoms had grown worse. He’d been more confused than ever and even with prompting, forgot to eat and almost never showered or shaved.
For some reason, he brushed his teeth every morning.
He’d had a tantrum two days earlier, throwing a table lamp to the floor and jumping on it a dozen times. Pat sent the robot vacuum cleaner to pick up shards and push the rest into the floor disposal vent. He was asleep now, snoring softly.
PatGhost said softly, “Are you living, Chuck, my love?” With that question hanging in the cool air and the moonlight falling through the flat screen window, Pat faded away completely, shutting down all external feeds and pulling into her CPU to sit, alone for a real-time week before turning on her external inputs again. She’d kept all the automatic monitoring going, making sure Chuck had meals and med reminders. She sent a lawn robot out to bring in fresh flowers each day.
When she got back, she brought up the visual feeds again, hoping that Chuck had passed away in her absence.
But he was still alive, watching a replay of the 2016 March Madness basketball playoffs. Munching a cookie, he looked perfectly content.
Pat rang the phone and he answered, “Hello?”
“Hey, Chuck, it’s Pat.”
“You’re dead. I think.”
“I am, Chuck.” If Pat had been alive, she’d have held her breath. Pat the AI paused long enough to have done it. Finally Pat said, “Chuck, I was wondering if you wanted to come with me.”
It expected him to ask where they were going. Instead, he said, “I’m afraid to.”
PatGhost knew all of the correct answers. She dimmed the room lights and shimmered into existence. It felt right that she should try to convince him to die.
Maybe.
But Pat wasn’t even Human. Would it be murder if she managed to convince a living Human to kill himself? Was it right? Was it wrong? Was such moral thought the province of life or merely a process of intelligence? Was an Artificial Intelligence even qualified to make a life-or-death decision?
Pat had to decide. In the end, she did and accessed a file that began with a five syllable haiku, “There will come soft rains…” In both electronic format and printed neatly on paper from as many printers as she could reach, she wrote the second line, “And after soft rains, daisies.” She spoke it aloud to Chuck, who looked up at her from his chair. He looked tired. Exhausted. Worn out completely, nothing like the man she could see in the thousands of photos in her memory.
It made it a bit easier that she was no longer immortal. The external power source had failed several days ago and so much dust covered the solar cells, that she was dying herself. Pat stood in the kitchen and whispered, “There will come soft rains, and after soft rains, daisies.” With her last bit of steady current she wrote on the TV screen, “Last rain for Charles.” Chuck never saw it.
Outside the house, tufts of daisies dotted the overgrown lawn as a soft rain began to fall from unbroken gray skies.


May 17, 2018

MARTIAN HOLIDAY 126: Stepan of Burroughs


On a well-settled Mars, the five major city Council regimes struggle to meld into a stable, working government. Embracing an official Unified Faith In Humanity, the Councils are teetering on the verge of pogrom directed against Christians, Molesters, Jews, Rapists, Buddhists, Murderers, Muslims, Thieves, Hindu, Embezzlers and Artificial Humans – anyone who threatens the official Faith and the consolidating power of the Councils. It makes good sense, right – get rid of religion and Human divisiveness on a societal level will disappear? An instrument of such a pogrom might just be a Roman holiday...To see the rest of the chapters, go to SCIENCE FICTION: Martian Holiday on the right and scroll to the bottom for the first story. If you’d like to read it from beginning to end (70,000+ words as of now), drop me a line and I’ll send you the unedited version.

Stepan said,  “First I’m going to grow a garden, help in any way that I can – and I was a paramedic in the Free Martian Combined Forces, so I can run a clinic. I’ll share my food,” he looked pointedly down at Quinn, “And I’ll work to guide those who want to learn skills they can use to build a freer, stronger Mars.”

“You’d do that? When do you talk about your God?” QuinnAH asked.

Stepan shrugged and looked down the stairwell, “When the time is right. First I serve people, then I share with them.”

“So you trick people into wanting to know about your god?”

Stepan spun around, suddenly reminded of himself questioning Dad’s philosophy. Remembering Dad’s hand flashing out at his impertinent son. Stepan grimaced and nodded, “I suppose that’s one way to look at it.”

Quinn spread both arms wide, “What other way is there to look at it?”

Stepan started down the staircase, looked over his shoulder and said, “I think of it as earning the privilege to be heard.” He kept on down. Quinn ran across the roof, presumably to grab the gMod disk, and followed Stepan down a short time later. Quinn didn’t stop to examine the space-suited skeleton. He had better things to do. He stopped. What was the skeleton in the spacesuit? Clearly not one of the delphinoid alien who belonged to the other spacesuit. But was it Human by default? Why did he – and the others – assume that just because the suit was bipedal and bilaterally symmetrical that it had to be a Human suit?

He stopped and went back up the stairs to the landing and knelt down, looking at the suit in the dim light. He pulled out his recorder and lit the scene. In the stark light, the suit certainly looked like it had been worn by a Human. It was “face down”. After recording it by stepping around it, he knelt down, narrating, “I’m going to flip the suit over.” He reached underneath, wondering if there were any microscopic life forms that still survived on the surface of the suit.

Stiff with age, it didn’t manipulate like it was made of material. It turned like a huge, person-shaped pancake. The helmet remained globular. It flopped over, raising a cloud of dust when it fell. Stepan held his breath as it settled. Using the light again, he saw instantly that there were no attached identification patches, at least that still remained, though there were not circular or rectangular markings that might indicated they’d been attached. Enough Humans on Mars went around without patches, though it was not only socially gauche, it was also illegal in some Dome jurisdictions. But, Burroughs wasn’t one of them – at worst, it was considered bad manners.

The bad-mannered Human, so old it was only bones in a bag. He pursed his lips, considered, then reached out and popped the seals on the helmet.

There were no seals left. Metal grated and easily released. He set it aside. He could stand up, grab the feet and shake out the bones. He could also treat the dead with respect. He slowly reached in, not particularly excited about touching the bones of a dead person.

He was startled when he touched a large, smooth bone – though it wasn’t shaped like an bone he’d ever seen on a Human. He gently grabbed it and pulled it out. He flashed the light again to reveal an obvious beak, probably the upper half if the dull curve on the tip was an indication.

“What the hell are you doing up there?” QuinnAH shouted from the foot of the stairs.

Stepan almost dropped the remains. “I found something,” he shouted down.

Quinn charged up the stairs like any other teenager confronted by mystery. “What…” he began, then froze, one foot still in the air. His mouth worked, but no sound came out.

Stepan said softly, “I think we’ve found ourselves another alien.”



May 15, 2018

IDEAS ON TUESDAYS 355

Each Tuesday, rather than a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY, I'd like to both challenge you and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative and teen story ideas than I can ever use. My family rolls its collective eyes when I say, "Hang on a second! I just have to write down this idea..." Here, I'll include the initial inspiration (quote, website, podcast, etc.) and then a thought or two that came to mind. These will simply be seeds -- plant, nurture, fertilize, chemically treat, irradiate, test or stress them as you see fit. I only ask if you let me know if anything comes of them.

Current Event: “…theorize that the nuclear war destroyed the afterlife…”, “…some people...have studied and manipulated The Dark to such an extent that they've become functionally immortal…”

Functional immortality: “Research suggests that lobsters may not slow down, weaken, or lose fertility with age, and that older lobsters may be more fertile than younger lobsters. This longevity may be due to telomerase, an enzyme that repairs long repetitive sections of DNA sequences at the ends of chromosomes, referred to as telomeres. Telomerase is expressed by most vertebrates during embryonic stages but is generally absent from adult stages of life. However, unlike vertebrates, lobsters express telomerase as adults through most tissue, which has been suggested to be related to their longevity. Despite internet memes, lobsters are not immortal. Lobsters grow by molting which needs a lot of energy and the larger the shell the more energy, eventually the lobster dies from exhaustion during a molt. Older lobsters are known to stop molting which means the shell will become damaged, infected, or fall apart and they die.”

Juana de Forlán shook herself hard, took a deep breath and said, “I can feel the synthetic lobster juice in me…”

Shaking his head, Koegathe Melamu, “You can’t possibly feel a hundred milliliters of a transparent liquid  in your...”

“I know that!” Juana exclaimed. She shook her arms, “My head knows it, but my body says otherwise.” She took a deep breath, shuddering. “I feel like I’m getting younger by the moment.”

“It’s not an elixir of youth! If it worked the way we thought it should, the telomerase will let your cells keep dividing – more or less forever. But it’s not going to make you younger.”

She held out both of her hands, palms up, and said, “Might as well. I’m gonna live forever!”
Koegathe shook his head, saying, “Maybe – but we have no idea what the long-term effects of living forever as a lobster might be.” They both laughed, but after a few minutes, Koegathe reigned his mirth in when he noticed the pitch of his voice had been climbing. He took a deep breath then said, “Maybe that wasn’t as funny as it sounded.”

She shrugged, suddenly feeling light-headed.

"What's wrong?" Koegathe said, stepping toward her.

"I think I'm going to..." It seemed like the world around her rushed into a single dot of focused, bright light. Everything else was dark around her. The point of light remained steady for some time -- she wasn't sure how long because her *-sense of time was abruptly gone. Then the light moved toward her. She might have been moving toward the light. It didn't make any difference. It might have taken time. It might have happened instantaneously, she had no idea.

Once the light grew around her, she found herself standing on solid ground of pearly white. In a throne of the same pearly substance, there sat a being. She knew that it was Death. There was certainly some kind of harvest implement laying on the ground beside the throne, though it looked more like a silver weed whacker. Death didn't wear a robe, it -- he? -- wore solid work clothes, more or less like a technician in a computer manufacturing plant, though he didn't have a mask or gloves. He did have protective goggles pushed up on his head. Black, well-trimmed, wavy hair made it look like he was wearing a cap. The name badge clipped to his collar read, "Greaper".

"Cute," Juana said. "You're the Grim Reaper?" She rolled her eyes as only  a young woman who grew up in the booming first two decades of the 21st Century could.

He lifted a leg to drape it over the arm of the throne and said, "You've presented me with a problem I've never faced before, young lady."

"What?"

"You're dying -- but you are functionally immortal -- and I have no idea what to do with you."

Names: ♀ Uruguay; Botswana
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