Tag Archives: Sci-Fi

Water for Goats

by Jason Gibbs

Imagine a human observer, floating in space. This isn’t real, just imagining, as all the humans are still trapped by lack of technology on, or in a very few cases around, the third planet from the nearby star.

She sees a large rock approaching, a planet in fact. An exo-planet, a rogue planet, and realises, yes, can it be? Yes, it is artificial, a giant space ship. Did it start as a planet and was turned into a space ship? Or did it grow organically? We cannot know yet, or perhaps ever.

Our observer is not bound by physical laws, why would she be? So she can will herself nearer to the exo-planet, inside it.

It is hollow, or nearly, large chambers, with creatures everywhere. They are humanoid, we must accept some biases. They have horns, and eyes with slits for pupils, like goats. She looks at the horns and the eyes. Our human observer might think of them as devils. Or perhaps fauns. She doesn’t have time to observe them in detail, something is calling her to a control room, there is a decision to be made.

She enters a room, where two fauns are beginning a conversation, one which might be important to humanity. The two look identical.

“Jumelian greetings to you Captain,” said the first Faun, let us call him Pan.

“Yes Pan?” said the second, Captain Silenus.

“We have entered the new solar system, and recovered the first wave of survey bots.”

“Excellent, bring up the details on the display.”

The observer, who had drifted into the empty centre of the room, finds herself surrounded by stars, and then planets. She’s in a holograph, floating.

“Usual motley collection of objects, trapped in a solar gravity well,” grunts the Captain.

“Yes, with one potential source of interest, here, the third planet.”

“Hmm, blue, white, so liquid water?”

“Oh yes, and life too. Semi-intelligent it seems.”

The observer might be offended by this dismissal of her species, but she makes no sign.

“Water content figures please… hmm interesting, that is a decent quantity.”

“I thought you’d think that.”

“We need to restock our water supplies.”

“Yes Captain.”

“Right, then we have two options as I see it. Firstly, we fly to the middle planet, and park a circular ship above the most important centre of government…”

“A circle? Like a flying plate?”

“Yes.”

“Like one of those side plates you put salsa on?”

“Yes…” says the Captain, with a hint of irritation.

“So a Salsa-Flyer,” says Pan with a twinkle.

“Ha, ha. What do you suggest? Something triangular I suspect.”

“A pyramid?”

“A pyramid,” says the Captain, rolling his strange goat-like eyes.

“Yes. What’s wrong with a pyramid?”

“Nothing. Well, you seem a little obsessed with them to be honest.”

“Perfectly reasonable.”

“Fine, let’s put those two, salsa-flyer or pyramid, as sub-options if this first option is chosen. Where was I?”

“Parking a ship above a major government centre?” answer Pan, excited that for the first time the pyramid idea has made it as far as the sub-option phase.

“Yes, all very awe-inspiring, then give them the whole ‘we come in peace’ line. You know, there’s no point in crossing light-years just to wage war, blah blah blah. Then we gently take control of the reigns of power…”

“We could cause some of the rasher ones to attack us. They’re a young species, they might fall for that,” adds Pan getting into the planning.

The observer nods in agreement, she knows too well that they will.

“Hmm yes, that’s true, make it faster. We then send more of our people down to the ground, they mix with the natives, some fall in love.”

“Have you seen them?” asked Pan with a moue of distaste as he brings up an image of a man, an actor known to the observer, who was once heard to describe him as ‘rather dishy’.

“Yes, I know, apes, but it takes all sorts you know. Maybe we can get them to wear some contact lenses to cover their freaky round pupils? Anyway, we get some cross species amity.”

“If that’s what you want to call it.”

The Captain continues, ignoring the sarcasm, “Perhaps they become close enough that they reveal our big secret.”

“What big secret?”

“That we’re stealing all their water!”

“I thought we told them we needed some as part of the we come in peace blather, we will give you the gift of some advance technology, all we ask in return is some water.”

“No Pan. We say we ask nothing in return. Seriously, they’re not going to fall for the tech for water line.”

“If you say so.”

“I’m Captain, and I do say so. Right, yes, and then they start to rebel against us. Find out our weakness, whip up the populace, in a crescendo, battle for the planet, exciting finale and boom…”

“Well it would entertain that lot,” said Pan waving vaguely at the centre of the ship planet.

“Yes. Yes it would.”

There was silence while the observer floated round a bit more wondering if she could warn somebody. She tries to move things which look like switches, anything, but she’s incorporeal. There’s nothing she can do.

“That’s the first option, now to the second,” says the Captain with a sigh.

“Yes. The second option.” Pan nods wisely.

The Captain waves and the view zooms out, and focuses on the edge of the solar system, out beyond Neptune. At first our observer sees nothing, but the view zooms in again, and soon she sees lots of objects. Balls of ice. Some dirty, some not, tens, thousands, millions of them. This is the Kuiper belt, and the view zooms further until it focuses on a particular ball. Pluto.

“This object will give us most of what we need. While we’re scooping it up we’ll probably be able to grab a few more of these chunks of ice. More than enough to refill our tanks.”

The observer is relieved, and then, as an astronomer, she sighs at the injustice of it all. Once posited as planet X, 7 times the size of Earth, poor Pluto had, once it had been officially discovered, had rather a downward path. Initially thought of as a planet the size of Earth, it had, under observation shrunk so much it had lost its status and become a dwarf planet, a diminished consolation prize. But even that ignominy was not to be its last humiliation, no, now it was going to be sucked into a rogue planet to be used as fuel, never to be seen again. It would cause a stir in some circles.

She of course assumed that this would be the option chosen.

“Shall we put it to the population? They’ve been bored recently. I wonder which option they’ll choose?”

The human observer, if she existed, might think it odd to see a wolfish smile on a goat.

###

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Filed under Dark

Keyboards

by Jason Gibbs

“Hi, I’m Lucy, welcome to CABComms… I’ll be taking you round the office,” her tone was a little flat he thought, but perhaps she did this a lot.

“Ah thanks, I’m…”

“Dunstan, yes, I know. So let’s be going. I believe all your interviews were remote?”

Dunstan Howard nodded, slightly taken aback by the brusque nature of the woman. He thought she was pretty, in a careful low maintenance sort of way, and was wondering whether there were company rules about asking out colleagues when he realised that she had turned and was walking off at a pace. He trotted after her.

She waved to her right, “Lawyers.”

A few paces on, she waved to her left, “Accountants.”

And a little later, “Toilets.”

Every word with the same tone, as if the information was clear and equally valid. They turned a corner and she carried on at the same pace.

She stopped and turned to him, “Could you remind me, your keyboard rating was?”

“Ah, um, 98 wpm.”

She stared, nodded and said, “Basic. Yes, I recall, this way.”

He was feeling a bit bruised by her attitude, and was thinking that 98 was really rather good, certainly faster than anyone at his last place, when he was distracted by the sound of music. It was lovely, with a celestial feel.

“Ah, um, Lucy, what is that?”

She turned back to him and answered, “You should teach yourself to stop that.”

“Ah, stop what?”

“The ahs and ums. Inefficient, and you’ll need to be efficient to prosper here.”

She turned again and started to walk off.

“What is the music?”

She rounded on him, nodded and gave the hint of a smile.

“That is the top level communicators. By the sound of it they’re composing a new policy. Now, we must move.”

With this she headed along the corridor again, faster than before. As they went there were further one word descriptions, coffee, admin, supplies and suchlike. Dunstan thought he was unlikely to remember it all, and after three more turns they stopped at a door which said in big black letters “Basic”.

“This is where you will be starting. I’m sure you’ve noticed that we have done a full loop so the entrance is just there,” she said pointing to her right.

“Yes…”

“Good luck, I will see you at the end of the day to gather your feedback, now please go in.”

She was off before he could say anything. He took a breath and opened the door.

Inside the room were desks in rows of three. On the desk there was, as he expected, a large computer monitor. What he didn’t expect was the keyboard underneath it, it wasn’t qwerty, or even Dvorak. It looked rather like a piano keyboard.

He was still staring at it when an imperious voice said, “Sit.”

He did, and then looked around. At the end of the room was a woman on a slightly raised platform. She was petite, with grey hair in a tight bun, the stereotype of a perfect typist of the last century.

“You are fairly fast Mr Howard on a standard keyboard. You will be slow for a while until you have mastered this style.”

“Ah…”

She stared at him sharply, and he swore to himself he would never um or ah again.

“We do not select candidates with piano training, so do not ask. They have learned the wrong language and helping them unlearn it is painful. We used to only take those with no music training at all, but those standards have been relaxed.” It was clear what she thought of that decision.

“Look at the keys. You will see they have letters on them. Some have more than one letter, and most letters appear more than once, some, such as E and S, no less than 8 times.”

He stared down at the keyboard feeling even more at a loss than usual for the first day at a job.

“Carefully type the quick brown fox…”

He started tapping at the keys, using just two fingers. The first key caused a note to play which surprised him, though he guessed it shouldn’t have, but after looking up to see a scowl, he carried on. It was slow, and the sounds didn’t really follow, but he got to the end. He’d normally been able to type that in about three seconds.

“Not appalling. Now, use the left hand for the first word, the right hand for the next and alternate. You’ll see that the letters flow more logically than.”

He did so, and it was faster, and the sounds produced were almost a melody, like they fitted. He looked up at the screen to see that the sentence had appeared.

“Excellent Mr Howard.”

#

They carried on for the rest of the morning. He’d not been able to ask a single question, and at lunch time she’d merely said, “At 1300,” and disappeared. He’d left and found a sandwich shop, bought a sandwich, headed to the park and sat and pondered the morning. He could make neither head nor tale of it.

#

“Mr Howard, can you hear the errors?”

“Yes.”

“Then why are you making them? Do you like torturing your ears?”

“No.”

“Well then, try again.”

It had been a much tougher afternoon. He was now typing more complex sentences. He’d either have a document he’d have to copy, or sometimes dictation, played out of a speaker when he clicked on the icon. At first it had been jarring hearing the words and the sounds he was typing, or should that be playing? He was used to that now, but he was still bemused.

He didn’t know what it was all about, or indeed how to consistently play, or perhaps type? Occasionally the woman, whose name he still didn’t know, would give him a hint, at other times she’d just criticise.

He tried again, using alternating hands and various of the other techniques, and it seemed like he could feel the melody as he was typing. He was starting to enjoy it when he mistyped and the dissonance stopped him short. He looked up.

She looked approvingly at him and said, “I am Miss Eagle. You are progressing very well Mr Howard, I believe you almost found the line there. Now try the next piece.”

#

At the end of that day Lucy had met him at the door, enquired politely as to his progress, nodded and wished him good night. He wondered why. Yet each morning she would greet him, and each night she’d be there to see him out. She never responded to any attempts at further conversation.

After a month of practice he’d not done anything he could identify as work. He’d also never seen anyone else in the practice room.

He was left at the door by Lucy as usual, and he entered. He looked up, expecting to continue as before, but Miss Eagle was just watching him.

“Mr Howard, what was your typing rate before you joined us?”

“Just under 100.”

“98 in fact.”

“Yes.”

“Do you know what you sustained in yesterday afternoon’s session?”

“No,” he said quizzically.

“Just under 200.”

“198?” he couldn’t help himself.

There was a dead silence, and then she answered, “199.98 to be exact.”

“But… how is that possible?”

“You have passed Basic. The theory will be explained after you have passed Advanced. Tomorrow you begin Intermediate. You may take today off.”

She disappeared, and he walked out of the door even more bemused than before. Lucy was waiting, which was unexpected.

“Dunstan, you must read and sign these documents before tomorrow to continue your evolution.”

She handed him a stack of papers, smiled almost warmly, and conducted him to the door.

#

He’d started to read the documents and begun to have a nagging feeling of recognition. He was onto his third page before he realised he’d typed them, and then, suddenly, he just knew the whole document, what it meant and what it meant for him. It was a switch, a sharp refocussing of knowledge.

He also realised it was a good deal for him, more money and benefits, so he signed happily.

If he’d expected Intermediate to be different he was somewhat disappointed. Lucy led him to the same door, and Miss Eagle waited for him. The sessions were similar, though tougher. The dictation was faster, he sometimes had to copy from scraps of paper, and on a couple of occasions had to type up recorded conversations.

Now and again he’d get flashes of knowledge from what he’d written, but not in the same way as that contract. He didn’t know why. But he wanted to know.

The end of Intermediate was similar to Basic. His typing speed was now up to 300, which was unreal, and he could follow multiple lines at once. Miss Eagle even expressed mild approval.

Once again Lucy presented him with a pile of documents, and a real smile this time.

“Dunstan, you are progressing well,” she said. He thought she looked very pretty when she smiled.

“Lucy…”

“You will need to pass Advanced,” was her curt reply, even before he let the question out, but he could see that she was just communicating the rules, and it was not a personal rejection.

He read the document, and before the third sentence the knowledge had refocussed sharply. He now understood the process, and he signed the contract.

#

“Today we start on dissonance,” said Miss Eagle.

For the very first time she was sitting down, at a terminal like his own.

“Let us begin.”

She started typing, and music flowed. He clicked on his typing source file, and voices started and he commenced typing.

At first their lines inter-weaved and the music was pretty, beautiful even, and then, it started to clash. Just a note here and there at first, and then worse and worse. He forced myself to keep going but after only a few minutes he stopped, panting with the effort.

“Good Mr Howard, but you must focus. Hold yourself above the music and you will be able to continue for longer, you have allowed yourself to fall into the lines themselves.”

She was right, and over the next few days he was able to build up his tolerance until he could play with, or perhaps against, her for an hour without needing to stop.

“Excellent. And now true harmony,” she announced one day.

This was different. He had thought it would be a relief, but if anything it was harder. Holding the harmony with hers for long minutes. While dissonance was easy to hold at bay it was tempting to fall into the harmony, and if he did then it collapsed and he would receive a sharp rebuke from Miss Eagle.

“Mr Howard, that instrument is one of pleasure. Do not abuse it.”

He concentrated and improved, and one day while in mid-harmony he came to understand what it was that they were writing, he could actually understand her part too. It was perfect communication, and he began to vary it, and she did too, responding to him. It was like magic.

“Why Mr Howard, it has been some years since I’ve enjoyed a practice that much. Excellent. I believe you will be ready to pass soon.”

Soon was still another three weeks, the harmonies became more complex, and more beguiling, and then he had mixed harmonies and dissonance, and dissonant harmonies. She called these ‘Synthesis’, but he often didn’t know which of them was leading the Thesis.

Then suddenly, “Mr Howard, congratulations, you have passed. You may take a week’s holiday, and then you will be starting work.”

She walked over and shook his hand. She was petite but very strong, and there was a twinkle in her eye.

He left, and once again Lucy was waiting for him.

“Here are your documents. You may take me for coffee.”

They went for a nice coffee. She refused to talk about work, but that wasn’t a problem.

#

He took the week off to relax, signed the contract and went back to work.

Lucy met him and for the first time in months they did not walk to Miss Eagle’s room, instead they went the other direction, to where he’d heard that music on the first day. As they walked she said nothing, and he listened. He could hear documents in the air, and could pick out bits of the words, of the meanings.

“It is probably best that you don’t listen like that too much, it can sometimes be painful,” said Lucy.

He shot her a guilty look and she smiled, “Don’t worry, we all do it sometimes, but it’s just… well, if you get caught by a bad dissonance, it can be jarring.”

They walked on a little further, “This is us.”

She was pointing at an office with two desks in it.

“Us?”

“Yes. We have been paired.”

“Ah, is that good?”

She gave him a withering look, and sat down at her desk, and started to play.

She was using music.

“What?”

He did, and she played.

There was a playful a note in her response.

She continued with a more serious note.

She smiled at him, and her music smiled too.

He smiled, as did the harmony he wove with her. He was way beyond words per minute, he was now able to communicate perfectly whenever he wished, and he would be able to help others do so too.

###

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And Justice for All

by Jason Gibbs

There was banging on the door.

“Jeremiah Donjean, we know you’re there…”

Except he hadn’t come home. I went to the door and it was slammed open, catching me and sending me to the floor. I landed and looked up at the armoured man as he literally walked over me. His boots hurt.

“CLEAR!” he shouted seconds later, before returning to me.

“You are?”

“I’m Thaddeus, Thaddeus Donjean…” I stammered. I was a little stunned.

“Where is Jeremiah Donjean?”

“I don’t know, he didn’t come home last night…. argh that hurts!” I squealed the last bit. The ape had picked me up and thrown me over his shoulder. Powered armour made me weigh nothing to him, but his spiky armour hurt, almost as much as the rough treatment. I’d read somewhere that they were considering adding some kind of sea urchin spine, but weren’t sure how much poison to allow…

“You have the right to remain silent…” said a pleasant woman’s voice. He’d clicked a button to let me hear the recording. He couldn’t even be bothered to say it himself.

#

The hard man stared at me.

“I don’t believe you. I think you’re trying to shelter him.”

“I promise you…”

“It’s too late.”

He stood up, and as he left he slapped his palm against the wall.

The pleasant woman’s voice said, “You are being charged with Conspiracy against the Will of the People. Your trial will be held at the convenience of the Submarine State. A lawyer will be appointed…”

#

My lawyer was a grey man in a grey suit. He’d asked me nothing. I mean, nothing at all, as we waited in the ante room. He just stared at the wall, occasionally looking up at the red light above the door marked ‘Courtroom’.

The light turned green, and the grey man got up, and walked to the door. He opened it and walked into the courtroom. I followed him, it didn’t seem that I had a choice. The room was exactly like on TV.

The grey man waved at me as I looked around. There was a mixture of irritation and fear on his face. I headed over. As I sat down another man appeared at the desk next to ours. The prosecutor. He didn’t look at me.

The Jury filed in. And, after a loud, “All stand!” from the loudspeakers, the judge entered.

He sat down without looking at me. We all sat. The judge reached forward and pressed a button.

“This court is in session. The defendant has been accused of Crimes against the State. How does he plead,” said the pleasant woman’s voice.

My lawyer leaned forward and pressed a button in front of him. I noticed he had three.

“Not guilty,” said the pleasant voice.

The judge hit another button.

“Prosecution please proceed,” that same voice said.

The prosecutor looked at the dozens of buttons in front of him and pressed one.

“The defendant was interrogated by an Agent…” said the not-so-pleasant-now voice. It didn’t mention my name. Or indeed anything else.

I was going to ask my lawyer why he only had three buttons to the prosecutor’s many, when I noticed that the members of the Jury had a button in front of them. Just one.

#

“You have been sentenced to permanent marine exile,” said that voice, scraping my nerves with her pleasantness.

#

“Last words?” said the armoured man as he was about to close the inner airlock.

“I want to…”

“Not the worst I’ve heard, but pointless,” he cut in somewhat savagely, and he slammed the door.

###

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Filed under Dark, Flash Fiction

Own the Octopus

By Jason Gibbs

“Basically we want to stop anyone from being able own the Octopus. We want to be free!”

The cry of revolutionaries everywhere I thought. Well, except perhaps for the bit about the Octopus.

“I agree the current system isn’t entirely fair, but…”

“Isn’t fair Brandon? Isn’t fair! We work for almost nothing, while the algae farmers live in luxury. Look at them, up there, on the top vent, wallowing in luxury, while the rest of us struggle just to eat.”

“Luke, they did save us, and I’m not so convinced about that luxury.”

“Propaganda. Lies. They stole from the real algae farmers. Before we had to retreat from the surface the algae farmers were considered peasants. They’d never have been able to build the mechanisms of control our rulers have in such a short time.”

“Look, brother, I understand your anger, but it’s only been a couple of centuries, we can’t go back to the surface.”

He looked at me steadily. Weighing me. Deciding if he could tell me something. When at last the decision was made, it was in my favour.

“I can’t tell you it all, but I will say, it doesn’t involve going to the Surface. Or attacking the Main Bag, if that’s what you think.”

My eyes had swung to the giant algae and oxygen balloon which floated high above the main vent. At this time of day it was quite visible as a glowing green bulb. All our oxygen came from that one frail bag.

Luke pointed at it and said, “The Council of Algae Farmers, our rulers, destroyed all other balloons in the last purge. They now own the only source of life. And with that, our city, the Octopus, is theirs.”

I’d heard it before, and there was no point arguing, but I was worried about him…

“OK brother, but you know what will happen if they even find out you’ve been speaking against them?”

“I’ll go for a naked swim over the lower tentacles. I know.”

We both looked out over the lower city. Each district following one of the ridge lines, particular encrustations near each main vent. I had no idea who had first described them as tentacles, but it had stuck.

It was rumoured that the execution points were at the tips of two of the lowest arms, far away from the main vent. This was in part aesthetic, as allegedly our rulers didn’t want to see dead people floating around their pleasure palaces, but it was also practical, there was the possibility a corpse might interfere with the Bag. There was little chance of that if they were released so far away, as the fish and other creatures who swum at the edges of our realm would consume them quickly once they were released.

I doubted it was true, but I didn’t want to argue with him again. Before I could say any more, he looked at his watch, and sighed.

“I have to go. Keep safe big brother.”

“Keep safe Luke.”

I was worried about him. He was likely to do something foolish.

#

When I was sure Luke had gone I made a call.

“Hi sir, it’s Brandon.”

“Brandon, I have told you before, call me Douglas,” the white-haired man on the screen smiled at me.

“Si… Douglas, thanks. I’ve just spoken to my brother, and I’m worried…”

“Yes?”

“Are you sure he’ll be OK?”

The old man sighed, and said, “Brandon, as long as he doesn’t do anything violent, he’ll be fine.”

“I hope he’ll understand.”

“He might struggle at first, he has been fed a lot of… well let’s call it misguided information.”

I nodded.

He went on, “So now Brandon, let us discuss the plan.”

#

Several hours later, I was staring at a work screen when I heard the front door slam open. I quickly shut down the app I was using, and brought up the news channel. Luke stormed in, and I muted the screen.

“They’ve announced a total shutdown. This is it Brandon, this is where they’re going to purge anyone who disagrees. They know there’s many of us…” he stopped and looked at me strangely. Actually, not at me, at my screen.

I looked at it, and saw a picture, mine next to Douglas. Chief Farmer Douglas to be exact.

“What is this… no… you’re with them… how could you…”

He stared at me, and then ran to the door. It slammed again.

I turned back to my screen, wishing I’d not picked the news channel. I’d lost track of time and hadn’t realised… still.

I turned the sound up.

“… and the farmers believe that this technology will allow us to operate more independently under the water. Several researchers, including…” she gave a list of my co-workers, and then, “… Brandon Bridges, have been working on this, and in some cases have undergone the procedure themselves.”

‘Undergone the procedure’ I thought. Hardly that. Just a few pills and then… symbiotic algae in the lungs. My contribution had been the salt exchange process. And to be a guinea-pig.

My comms chimed, and I clicked a button, Maria’s face appeared on screen.

“Hi Maria…”

“Sorry Brandon, we have no time, we’ve been following your brother, and others. We think they were planning something, and this announcement may have forced their hand. They’re heading towards the Bag.”

“He said that…”

She frowned, and said, “Look, just come to the west main shaft entrance, I’ll have a unit there waiting for you.”

She cut off before I could answer. I guess being head of Octo Security allowed her some measure of rudeness.

#

I arrived at the entrance twenty minutes later, panting. I needed to rest, and also pass on this information to my colleagues. We’d done some exercise tests, but not this high adrenaline combination, or not enough. I shouldn’t be short of breath after such a short run.

“Brandon… Bridges…” I panted to the armoured figure.

She flicked a switch and I could see her face, it was Maria wearing a wry smile. She knew who I was.

“Brandon, I’m sorry, but, they’re in the control area. All eight of the Gang of Four, and a couple of others, including your brother. If they blow the Bag…”

The Gang of Four had started with just four, but grown, and either been unable to agree a new name, or, more likely, thought it was clever to keep the original name. Confuse the authorities.

“Have they made any demands?”

“Yes, the usual. They want the algae farmers put into custody awaiting trial, and all the political prisoners freed.”

“That should be easy… freeing nobody!”

She looked at me witheringly, “This is not the time for joking Brandon. If the Bag goes, we’ll lose…”

“Three quarters of our citizens,” cut in another voice. We turned round to see Douglas standing there.

“Si… Douglas!”

He smiled, “I’m going in to see them. Maybe I can reason with them…”

I grabbed him, “No! You can’t…”

“Why not?”

“The Gang of Four includes Stephen Cran, he’ll kill you, any chance he gets. He’s sworn it.”

He looked quizzically at Maria, “Commander, were you aware of this?”

She looked uncomfortable and said, “There was rumour…”

“My brother saw it, Cran cut his palm as he swore. He blames you for the death of his brother.”

“I see,” said Douglas.

Jonathan Cran had been one of those who had tried to save the auxiliary bags when they had been attacked. The attack was by a school of large fish, attracted by the new lighting we’d put in, and not some form of government purge as had often been alleged on the conspiracy forums. Douglas had shown me the raw footage, and the studies they’d done afterwards. If the farmers hadn’t turned off the lighting in the main Bag… well we wouldn’t be alive. But several people had died in all the confusion. Stephen had never believed it was an accident, and Douglas had been in charge of the rescue effort.

“So what do we do then Commander?”

Maria said, “I think we need to get up there, work out what they’re doing and if necessary knock them out.”

She made it sound easy, but I was worried.

“Agreed, please proceed. Let’s hope they don’t do anything foolish…”

#

“What’s the status Commander?”

A crackle and then Maria’s voice, “We are at the hatches. We’ve connected listening equipment. It’s difficult to determine what is happening, but it seems like there’s an argument going on.”

“Might we be able to take advantage of it?”

“… hope so …”

I wondered why the signal was so bad, Douglas looked at me and shook his head.

“I think they’ve got jammers up. It will make it harder…”

Maria’s voice suddenly came through clearly, “I think they’re going to push Luke…”

More crackle.

“What?” I was shocked.

“Calm down Brandon, let’s just think. Where would they push your brother?”

I took a deep breath. The only way to help Luke was to use my brains. I thought about the control area. There were only three external points, one to come down the shaft, one up to get to the Bag’s maintenance crawl-ways and the emergency hatch.

“The emergency hatch.”

He smiled at me, “I agree. What can we do?”

He liked this Socratic method, and to be honest I usually enjoyed it, but it seemed a little inefficient given my brother’s life was in danger. I took a deep breath and thought.

“Well, I, I could go outside and catch him.”

“With two sets of oxygen, it seems unlikely you’d be able to get to him quickly enough?”

“I… I know. I’ll let him use the oxygen,” I looked him straight in the eyes as I said this. He nodded, gravely, but I could see he was pleased.

“Right, well go then, quickly, you have no time to lose.”

‘And now he wants to rush…’ I thought to myself, but I headed off to the next maintenance point.

As with most adult members of the Octopus I had training in how to use the suits and the emergency hatches, though as Luke often pointed out, there just weren’t enough suits for everyone. He claimed that the farmers had stacks of them in store rooms, but just wouldn’t release them in case the people rose up. I’d mentioned this to Maria once, and she had laughed.

“We barely keep the ones we have properly tested and with enough oxygen. If there was a store room full of them? Well we wouldn’t be able to keep them maintained anyway. It’s not equipment we lack, it’s people.”

“Well maybe we can do something about that?” had been my answer. I smiled at the memory.

I got to the maintenance point, got the suit on, and attached the oxygen. Making sure it was all ready, I hit the button and the airlock started to fill with water. Before I knew it I was swimming up towards the control point.

The water was a little murky, but as I approached I could see the metal clad bulge of the control point. It was on top of a long spine, sitting under the Bag, like an olive under a melon as someone had once described it. All on one giant toothpick.

Suddenly there was a big rush of bubbles coming from one side, and I could see the emergency hatch opening. A body fell out, arms waving. It was Luke. I pushed myself harder to get to him.

I grabbed him, and saw that he was holding his breath. I quickly took my oxygen breather out and pushed it into his mouth. He sucked a breath in. He offered it back to me, and I shook my head. I was looking towards the control area. I could see through the glass. Maria was in there, and someone was aiming something at her. There was a flash, she fell back.

Something took hold of me, a surge of adrenaline, and shrugging off the oxygen tank to leave it for Luke, I kicked towards the emergency hatch. I knew what I had to do. I kicked hard at the safety, and then turned the release and the inner door popped. Air bubbles started to boil out, and the water started to drag me, I tried to kick away, but the current, while temporary, was too strong. I hit my head on a metal plate, once, twice and darkness.

#

“Is he OK?” said Luke’s voice from far away.

“Yes, he needs rest, now please…”

#

“Is he OK?” said Maria’s voice, far away, but closer than Luke’s.

The nurse repeated her injunction, with perhaps a little weariness in her voice.

“Are you OK?”

“For the hundredth time Luke, I am fine. My head hurts, but the doctor said no permanent damage, though if I notice any spots in my vision I need to call him.”

“But your lungs…”

“Yes, are filled with mutant algae, so I can breathe under water for a period of time. Which is at least an hour… but we haven’t fully tested it.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” it was almost a wail.

“I… I don’t know Luke. I didn’t want you to be angry with me, you know for working with the farmers.”

“But…”

He held his head in his hands. He still couldn’t quite get his head around what had happened. He’d believed the Gang of Four had a plan, and followed them into the control area. Once they’d arrived Cran had admitted to him they were just going to threaten the Bag. He’d challenged him, said he couldn’t mean it, and then Cran had hit him. Cran said that he’d rather everyone died then continue to live under the shadow of the Bag. That’s when, finally, Luke had seen the real madness in Cran’s eyes. He’d tried to fight back, but the others still supported Cran and they’d thrown him out of the lock.

They had all drowned when I opened the inner airlock.

“Oh my valiant knight is awake again,” said Maria, and she came and gave me a kiss. Luke’s eyes widened.

“Um… Commander, Brandon, um, what?”

She laughed and then winced. Her shoulder was bandaged from the shot she’d taken. Fortunately she had been wearing a protective vest, but apparently it still hurt. She hadn’t drowned as she was another of the guinea pigs with algae lungs, though she had complained, playfully I think, about being knocked about a bit by the water.

Maria turned to Luke and smiled, and said, “So this is my future brother-in-law?”

He spluttered.

#

Luke was sentenced to six months of additional maintenance work, with the judge taking into account his attempt to stop the Gang of Four from destroying the Bag.

When he’d finished his sentence he took the algae pills. He lives just along the tentacle from us.

We have two little ones now. They have algae lungs too. I look up at the Bag from time to time. We still need it, for the moment. But soon we won’t, and we’ll be able to expand across the sea floor as far as we like. We will no longer be tethered to the Octopus, like pets to an owner.

###

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Filed under General

Malthus Was Right!

By Jason Gibbs

“Why are you so dissatisfied Jacob? We live in a perfect world.”

“I know, I know, and yet…”

They’d had this argument so many times, Jacob just didn’t know how to explain. In this utopia he felt like an ingrate, or worse, a serpent, looking for the apple of truth which would ruin it all. At first he’d tried to explain his unease to Zelia, but she’d just stared at him in incomprehension. Then she’d accused him of becoming too wrapped up in his old books. Orwell and Huxley had made him question his world.

“Anyway, there’s something I need to tell you Jacob.”

“What?”

“I’m having a baby with Ruthius.”

“What? But, I didn’t think you knew him or…”

“We’re friends on a different plane, and well, he and I have become close and he proposed and I said yes. That doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends on this plane, or whatever. But it does mean that we won’t ..”

“Be having a baby. Or a future.”

In his heart he’d known this was coming. She’d been spending more and more time on other planes. But Ruthius, that was a kick in the guts. He’d been looking forward to turning a hundred and being allowed to have a baby, but now, that was gone.

“Jacob, are you going to be ok?”

“Yeah, sure, fine. Look I need some time. I’ll ping you.”

He cut the connection and the space around him reconfigured to his personal homespace. He just floated, wondering what he could have done, and also why he felt such a sense of relief. A crazy plan had been building in the hidden parts of his brain, and it now took centre stage.

#

“Jacob Alliere 237634298?”

“Yes.”

“It says on your application that you’ve been studying engineering for six months.”

“Yes.”

“Real?”

He had to think a little, but he knew the question was designed to knock him off guard. Many planes ran at slightly different speeds, so six months could feel like four, or ten.

“Real and experienced, I was on a normal plane. It was a retro plane, which is why I can also speak like you. Actually I’d spent several years in retro planes, which is how I found your… advert. Text. I thought it was a quest or something.”

The man looked sceptical, but continued, “After this interview you’ll be run through several more tests, but so far you seem to have what it takes. Why do you want to be an Engineer?”

This was the real test. How could he answer? With the nearest to the truth he could manage.

“I feel something is wrong, in the planes. Or I’m wrong for the planes. It’s like I’m always out of tune. But it all seems so ethereal, irrelevant even. You, the Engineers, are the only group who ever do anything Real.”

“What about the researchers?”

“They’re just playing a different type of game on a different set of planes, but it isn’t Real.”

The man leaned back in his chair, rocking a little, a movement which seemed odd to Jacob who’d spent his whole life in a world where gravity did what he wanted, and which was always smoothly under control.

For a while the man just stared, and Jacob could think of nothing else to say. Then the man rubbed his chin.

“You’re the seventy-eighth applicant we’ve had this century. The first seventy-seven were more than eighty years ago, and we rejected all but five. You’ll find out more about them when you go through. I’ll be honest, the main reason I’m passing you is that we need new blood, but I don’t think you’ll last. You sure about the full term? I can give you the probationary two year option.”

“But then I’ll be in a mechanical won’t I?”

The man nodded.

“In that case I’ll go with the twenty year option, that way I know I’ll succeed.”

“Maybe. See you on the other side.”

The man winked out, somewhat rudely, Jacob thought, and he was led through several more exercises. His pod informed him that it was being asked to provide detailed medical information, and he gave his assent. Usually it was only required for procreation, but he wasn’t going to be worrying about that, or Zelia, for a long while.

#

The video finished and the light came up. The group stared at each other across the table.

“Are you sure he’s going to help?” said the first.

“He’s our best shot. We just don’t know how to communicate with them anymore, you heard, he thought our advert was a quest, we’re archaic to them,” answered the man at the top of the table who was known as Control.

“What about Felis?”

“It’s been three years since she last called. We’ve lost her, just like the previous ones. It’s a different world in there. Or worlds. Enticing. Intoxicating.” He shook his head sadly.

“Well Control, we’re running out of time. If this doesn’t work then we’ll have to discuss the Euthanasia protocols.”

The first time the protocols had been mentioned there had been gasps of shock, this time they all just nodded and avoided each other’s eyes.

“I know. I’ll rush him through as quickly as possible, but he has to bond. He has to want to stay with us.”

#

“He’s ready, everyone visited him in the first two weeks. He’s had every bug we’ve got. His pod and nanites handled most of them, there were a couple which looked a bit worrying, but we got him through,” the doctor looked strained, she wasn’t happy about this. She’d held them off for a week to give the boy, man, a chance, but they needed to get things going. Opening the pod each time one of their community had come to visit had been a chore, much worse was watching his vitals waver as he developed immunities she’d been born with.

“Thanks Doctor, can you bring him out of sedation, gently, and we’ll get him into training with Sasha. We’ll need you when, if, we bring him out of his pod.”

The Doctor’s eyes widened a bit, but she nodded and went back to her patient.

#

“How long do I have to stay in this place?”

“Until you learn how to move without trying to control gravity. In the Real gravity pulls one way, down, and there’s nothing you can do about it. If we let you straight out you’d fall over and hurt yourself.”

For three weeks Jacob had been living in this hell hole. It was a set of tunnels weaving through machinery, and it was hot, and he just couldn’t get comfortable. He’d always been able to have gravity changed around him so he’d be held perfectly, now he stumbled, cracking his head against walls, and grazing his shins. That was another thing.

“Can you at least allow my system to damp the pain?”

“We are. You’re at around 50% at the moment. As an Engineer, in the Real, you’ll need to be able to cope with normal pains, and you won’t have your pod to molly-coddle you.”

He could hear a slight sneer in her voice, he felt it was always there. It was clear she felt nothing but contempt for him. She wanted him to fail. Well, he’d made his decision, and he was going all the way.

“When will it go to 100%?”

“When you stop complaining.”

“How long did it take the last few applicants?”

A pause. Perhaps she didn’t know? Or it wasn’t a pleasant answer?

A man’s voice interceded, “Generally they took four to five months to reach the stage you are, and then another few months to complete. You are doing well. Continue.”

So there was someone who wanted him to succeed, and he was apparently doing well. His time in the rougher planes, where war was simulated, was paying off.

“I will, but why is she so hostile?”

Silence and then the woman’s voice, “Get back to the task, we have five more after this.”

He ducked down and started crawling along yet another path between whirring machinery. He’d spent the last weeks learning how to fix these machines. He kept bumping his head, scratching his arms and knocking his shins, but he was slowly getting better.

“Remind me again why we can’t use machines for this?”

There was a grumpy sigh in his ear, “We can, but we also need to do it ourselves. Machines tend not to cope with new or slightly different situations, when they happen, an Engineer has to be sent in. And before you ask the next question, yes we do send in remotes sometimes, but we’ve found that being physically on site makes all the difference. I’ve told you this before, and I’m not going to tell you again.”

He’d been surprised she’d answered at all, maybe the man’s interruption had helped. He got his head down, and followed the tasks he’d been set.

#

“Well congratulations on passing the tests and being born into our world. Welcome to hell,” said Sasha. He’d only found out her name the day before, and he’d hoped it meant she was mellowing. It didn’t seem so.

It wasn’t what he expected. Despite all the training he still tried to stop the gravity which pressed him into the bed. It felt like he was working twice as hard to breathe, and to top it all he was greeted with sarcasm.

“Ah… yeah… hello.”

“Hmm, shouldn’t you be adjusted?”

“Yes, but… it’s… the shock. Give me a moment or two.”

“OK, but we have work to do.”

Jacob nodded, took a breath and stood. It took all his willpower not to fall straight back down, but he managed to stay up. He nodded again and she turned and stalked off. Clearly she still hadn’t forgiven him for whatever it was he’d done. Or not done.

He couldn’t believe it, but for the first time in his life he actually walked.

The next few weeks were hard. He was working in the Real. The Real! But he didn’t get a real chance to properly appreciate it. At the end of every day he was so exhausted he fell into bed, and was asleep before his head hit the pillow. He met a few other people in passing, but they were mostly taciturn. He still didn’t know exactly how many Engineers there were and Sasha still didn’t say much.

One night as they finished she said, “Right, you’ve passed. Tomorrow you have a break, and then we start real work.”

“What have we been doing?”

“Simulations, damned expensive ones. Good thing we did too otherwise you might have lost a leg.”

He ducked his head abashed. He’d not noticed the steel door closing, and Sasha had dived to save him. He had wondered how she’d been able to stop such a heavy door.

“Thanks again.”

“Any questions?”

He had so many!

“Lots. What do we do? Who decides the jobs? Why me?”

She shook her head.

“We supervise the machines, and occasionally fix things they can’t. Control decides the jobs. Control will tell you. You’re meeting him tomorrow.”

“Great. Was he the one who intervened in my virtual training?”

She frowned and nodded.

“Night.”

She was gone. As she walked away he wondered if they’d ever be friends.

#

He was summoned to see Control by a small message bot which travelled the corridors on wheels at high speed, often bouncing off walls or the occasional person.

“Jacob, welcome to the Real, and welcome to the Engineers.”

The man who greeted him was old. Jacob was shocked. No one in the planes would be old. Oh they might pretend sometimes, but it was rare. The man had wrinkles, and grey hair and was a little stooped.

“Ah thank you.”

“I am Control. Voted for, and with another decade to run on my term.”

“Nice to meet you. Um.”

“I know, you have questions. Can I show you in the Virtual?”

“I didn’t think…”

“Oh, not a plane. I’ll show you.”

The man waved him over to two couches, and indicated he should sit down. Once he had, the man gave him some headphones and a pair of bulky glasses. When he put them on he could see a very poor resolution virtual world and hear a slight hiss. Seconds later the old man appeared next to him, looking a little blocky.

“Not what you’re used to, but all we need.”

“Why don’t you use a plane?”

“We have tried, but we find it becomes addictive, and we lose good Engineers.”

“Oh.”

“Let me show you what we do.”

Suddenly they were floating above the ground. Only he could still feel the couch. This really wasn’t like the planes. Below them was a surface covered in shiny panels.

“This is part of the planet above us. Those panels are solar collectors. At this point more than seventy percent of the surface of the Earth is covered in them.”

The back of his mind tickled, he did know this, but he’d forgotten.

“We used to only put the panels on the land, but some centuries ago we found a way to platform across the oceans. Now the only places not covered are the poles, partly due to low solar absorption, and partly for more technical weather control reasons, and the nature reserves. We are next to a nature reserve here, and on your next rest day you’ll be taken out for a tour.”

“I can go outside?”

“Yes, but not for long, your skin will not be ready for it and we wouldn’t want you to get burnt. But we do want you to meet the animals.”

“So why do we need all the solar panels?”

“We need the power, to keep the planes going. Each panel supports, roughly, one person. Their dietary requirements, warmth and everything else, including medical. We have some other power sources, but the complexity and risk have made them unreliable. Solar is best. The energy allows us to create food, clean water and everything else.”

“But that means, well many millions of people are in the planes.”

“Approximately thirty billion, and growing, though slowly.”

“Wow. So we have to keep all of that going?”

“Oh no, the robots do the vast majority, we just deal with glitches and strangenesses.”

“How many Engineers are there?”

“Twenty thousand or so, scattered across the globe in half a dozen different settlements, all of them on the edge of a nature reserve.”

Jacob tried to work out how many panels each Engineer was responsible for, but the sheer size of it overwhelmed him.

“And you want me to help with this?”

“At the moment, I’d just like you to become a proper Engineer. Learn what we do, meet the others and understand the Real. I’d like you to go out and visit the animals as well. Once you’ve settled we can talk more about what else you can do.”

“You were the one who interrupted my simulations.”

“I was.”

“So what did happen to the others who joined from the planes?”

Control sighed.

“They went back. Not a single one completed their stint. We had to let them back.”

“It’s that bad.”

“It’s that different. As you already know. You will start to feel the weight of it soon. If you need to talk I’m always here.”

Jacob turned to leave and then turned back and asked, “So all the Engineers…”

“Were born in the Real. They’ve never experienced the planes. It’s been that way for several generations. Some from every generation elect to join the planes, we don’t stop them. They never come back.”

Jacob left thinking that the answers hadn’t helped him much.

#

“Why are you looking so happy?”

“Morning to you too Sasha. I am happy because I spent yesterday outside. With the animals.”

“Right.”

“No, it was amazing. I can’t explain how amazing they were. In the planes we have simulations of animals, but, they just aren’t the same.”

She grunted.

“I even learned to ride.”

She looked at him in surprise.

“Well I started, I can’t do much more than walk a horse round, but it was astonishing.”

Her expression softened for a moment, but then she shouldered her gear and nodded at him. It was the longest non-work conversation they’d ever had.

#

Over the weeks he met other members of the team. One of them, Tomi, was particularly friendly and they were soon swapping jokes and stories. Tomi showed him where the bars were, and introduced him to alcohol. The first few times it didn’t work out so well, but after a while he became used to it, and began to look forward to going for a drink after work.

“How was Sasha today?”

“Grumpy. As usual. I don’t get her problem with me, it’s like it’s personal.”

Tomi laughed.

“What?”

“You still haven’t figured it out?”

“No.”

“Well, you know Perri?”

“Yeah I guess I’ve met Perri a couple of times.”

“Well, Sasha and Perri were going to be work partners, and Sasha was hoping they would also pair up.”

Jacob looked confused.

“What do you mean pair up?”

“You know, like get together. Marry, that sort of thing.”

“So why do I prevent that?”

“Well, it’s kind of assumed that work partners will pair up. It’s been that way for a while, which is why Control takes such an interest in new pairings. Clearly you’re the one for Sasha!”

Tomi laughed at his look. Jacob had truly never considered it.

“Well Jacob? Don’t you find her attractive?”

“Um, well not really.”

Jacob was uncomfortable with the questions, but Tomi carried on.

“Oh. Are you, uh, you know, interested more in men? Were you a woman in the virtual world?”

Jacob said nothing, just looked away and shuffled on his seat. Tomi realised something was up.

“Sorry Jacob, I didn’t mean to pry, I was only…”

“No, don’t worry Tomi it’s fine. It’s just that where I come from it’s very rude to ask those questions. At least until an approach has been made.”

“An approach?”

Jacob sighed. “I guess I should explain. On the planes we meet each other and we may, or may not, have an obvious gender. Some people, possibly many, operate as different genders on different planes.”

“What, you mean be a man on one plane and a woman on another?”

“Yes, as a simplistic example.”

“Ugh.”

“It’s quite fun actually.”

Tomi stared at him.

“Look Tomi, that was normal. The planes are only limited by imagination, and some people have great imaginations. I could go on about all the combinations, but I was trying to explain. Generally we try to partner with someone we like, and then we can discuss the virtual physical side. That’s the approach.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Crudely, if you find the right person and want them to look different they can. Say you prefer girls and the person you meet is a boy, you could ask them to change. Depending on how deep the relationship is it can be fine. They might change totally in that plane, or they might just allow you to see them as a girl and everyone else sees them as a boy. Or they might suggest that you only meet in a different plane where they happen to be a girl.”

It was clearly blowing Tomi’s mind.

“But one thing we almost never ask is what a person’s real gender is, even in a deep relationship. It’s kind of taboo. Often the only people who know are their parents.”

“But surely people will see you naked as you grow up. I mean, it’s impossible to hide it.”

Jacob blushed a little.

“Well, it has become usual for children to appear be genderless. And have no genitalia at all.”

Tomi just stared at him for a few seconds and then said, “But how do they, um, go to the toilet?”

“It’s all handled in the machine, behind the scenes, so they never know. Until I did my orientation training I’d never consciously had to go to the toilet.”

Tomi looked at him, and laughing said, “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Then he carried on laughing. Jacob smiled too, though he wasn’t seeing the joke. He waved over another couple of drinks, and managed to steer Tomi to more mundane topics.

#

“Jacob stop what you’re doing.”

He’d been replacing a power unit and thinking about his next day off. He was going to go outside of course, but should he go riding again, or hang out with the goats? Desmon had offered to take him on a mini safari. Off in a daze he hadn’t clocked the flashing red light on their communicators.

“Wha..”

Her outstretched hand silenced him. She was listening to the radio. She nodded and then clicked it off.

“This way, now. There’s trouble. Peretina is caught in a breach.”

With that she started running. He began to follow. While he’d learned how to run they hadn’t done it much and he felt very awkward. The service tunnel wasn’t the smallest he’d been in, but he still had to duck and dodge to avoid decapitation or losing a limb. Sasha was soon well ahead of him.

He heard a wail. It must be Sasha, he raced ahead again, narrowly avoiding concussing himself, and rounded a corner to see her banging on a steel door.

He tried to gather his breath to ask her what was wrong when she threw herself at him and started sobbing. He just held her, and then saw the tell-tales on the door. It was showing water pressure and an electric surge. If Peretina was behind the door, then she was in big trouble.

Sasha gathered herself, remembered it was him and backed away, turning around to stare at the door.

“Can we open it another way?”

“No.”

“How long will she survive? How long have we got?”

She turned to him in disbelief.

“She’s dead.”

“But she can’t be… I mean. Surely we have time…”

She just continued to stare at him, and the truth of what she’d said hit him. It was like the whole world rocked around him. Suddenly he was overtaken by blackness.

#

“I didn’t think he knew Peretina?”

“He didn’t.”

“Why did he react like that then?”

“We’ll have to ask. I think he’s coming round.”

Jacob opened his eyes to see Tomi, Sasha and a doctor, not the one he knew, looking down at him.

“Jacob, I’m Doctor Fisal. How are you feeling?”

“Um, ok. Tired. My shoulder hurts a little.”

“You bruised it as you fell. The good news is that you’re ok, the computer has cleared you.”

“And Peretina.”

There was a brief pause, then the doctor said, “She’s dead Jacob, she died instantaneously. She was working on a water pressure system and something failed, engulfing her in water and shorting the local electrics. She would not have felt much pain, or awareness of her situation.”

“But. She’ll come back?”

The doctor shook his head sadly.

“No. She’s gone.”

Jacob stared at him again, and then slumped back. He wouldn’t respond again and the doctor gently shuffled the others out.

#

“So why did it affect him so badly Doctor?”

“Sasha, it’s taken me a while, and it’s only a theory, but I don’t think he’s ever know anyone die.”

“What? How?”

“In the planes they live for a very long time. They each live in a hermetically sealed pod. The machines have pretty much eliminated disease. People don’t interact physically any more so diseases can’t be passed, and the nano medicine deals with the vast majority of internal problems. They don’t do anything in the physical world, so accidents, or deliberate acts of violence just aren’t possible. The only real possibility is something genetic, and even there I think the majority are screened out when the babies are produced – they’re all in vitro as you know.”

Sasha stared, and he continued,

“From what I’ve picked up, it seems that as people age they move from one group of planes to another. The new groups might be mostly contained of planes which run a little slower, or aren’t as exciting. When they move from a group they don’t drop off, but they fade away. They still contact people occasionally, but they’ve moved to a different life. Jacob last spoke to his parents about forty years ago.”

“They realised what an idiot he is?”

The Doctor frowned, “No, not at all, they just moved to another group. They’ve faded out of his life, though he thinks they’re still alive. If he had been closer to them he might have followed them to a new group.”

“There must be something, some external threat.”

“Like Peretina? Sometimes things happen. Meteorites we don’t catch, or a blow out like with Peretina, but they’re not always fatal and they’re very rare, and among the billions it’s not a surprise that Jacob wouldn’t know someone who’d died that way. Even if he did, he might just think they’d moved and not told him.”

“So he didn’t care about her.”

“No. Not in a personal way, but he cares that she’s gone. It’s touched him at his core. Changed him. Made him grow up perhaps.”

She snorted and shook her head.

#

“You have to get him to answer the question Control. Enough with this bonding. Playing with animals is not solving our problem.”

“I want to give him more time to get over Peretina’s death,” Control frowned at Benson, who was currently second Control.

“He didn’t know her.”

“Yes, but her death has shocked him. I worry that, well, that it has set him back. If we ask him to help and he doesn’t commit, or care, he’ll just go back to the planes. What do we do then?”

“If we had time I would agree with you, but you know where we are. We have no time. We have to discuss the protocols. Even if we slow the planes we have no more than ten years before the planes will literally be out of power, and none of us know what will happen then. We could lose millions. Billions.”

“I know. I know. I’ll get him in. Let’s see if he will help.” Control looked drained. The worry and responsibility was weighing heavily on him.

#

Jacob walked into the room and slumped into the chair. He didn’t even seem to notice the others in the room.

“Jacob, I’ve asked you here because we need your help,” began Control.

“What with?” Jacob answered, with a slightly detached air. Control looked at him worriedly. Tomi and Sasha exchanged a look, this is what they’d been dealing with for the last few weeks.

“We have a problem. We’re going to run out of energy for the planes. Soon, in a few years, if the population continues to grow, even as slowly as it is. At which point we have a number of hard options.”

“Such as?” Was that a spark of interest in Jacob’s eyes.

“We could sacrifice the animals.”

“No!” There was steel certainty in that no.

“I agree, and it wouldn’t help much, maybe give us another three years’ growth. If we slow all the planes we can buy another ten, maybe fifteen, years, but then we’ll have nothing.”

“What else have you considered?”

Control paused.

“Euthanasia and stopping childbirth for a period of time,” said Benson, a little gruffly.

Jacob looked shocked.

“But…”

“What else can we do? Not that they’ll really solve the problem.” Benson challenged.

Jacob had been thinking, and he felt stupid asking, but it seemed obvious to him. They must have already discounted it for some reason.

“Why don’t we gather more energy?”

“I’ve already explained. We’re getting the most we can from solar, and we’ve had to limit the geothermal and nuclear options. We can’t get any more,” answered Control.

“We could get more solar… if we put out some sails above the Earth. Or maybe mirrors to focus energy onto collection spots.”

Control brightened and said, “So you know how we could do that?”

“Um no.”

“Well then what good is it suggesting them? We need practical suggestions of what we can do!” the strain Control had been under was starting to show.

Jacob didn’t really notice, he was finally coming out of the fug he’d been in, he continued, “But we could ask one, or more, of the research planes. They’ll work it out, and we can just make it happen.”

This was the nub of the problem.

“I’ve asked. And asked. And pleaded, begged. Dozens of times. I’ve tried everything. Either they aren’t interested, or they come up with ridiculous suggestions.”

“I quite liked the perpetual motion engine,” interjected Tomi.

Control quelled his amusement with a look and turned back to Jacob.

“We’ve sent people in, they don’t come back. So you see, they can’t help. We’re Engineers, but we haven’t been able to come up with a solution. We need their help, and yet…”

Jacob thought about it, and then said, “Perhaps you’ve been approaching it the wrong way. They probably view it as an abstract, and not particularly complex, problem.”

“So how would you approach it?”

He started to describe how he’d get them involved using words like network dominance, disintermediated interest groups and quite a number of words which none of the others had ever heard of. He was in full flow when he looked up and realised he’d lost his audience.

“Um, let me see if I can explain in Real language. I think perhaps we should propose it as a sort of competition, maybe post it to one of the space mechanics planes and let the other planes hear of it, then they’ll want in. As long as we specify the starting conditions to be as if they are in the Real, and we may have to emphasise that, then hopefully they’ll give us some great ideas. I’m sure one will work.”

“What would the prize be, we can’t offer them anything they want.”

“Kudos. Perhaps say it’s the first of a decennial competition, and we could name it after Peretina.”

He stopped a second, thinking about the accident, then continued, “Then it has Real history as well. Also to have something built in the Real? That might be just unusual and odd enough to encourage even more to apply, and the more we get the better. I think they’d go for it.”

“I don’t know. But we’re desperate, let’s do it.”

And the Peretina Fal Yurlins Award was born. Jacob worked tirelessly to set it up, staying in the Real, but using all his connections on the planes. When it was officially announced the scientist planes went crazy. At first they thought the Engineers were restricting it to just the space mechanics plane, as soon as it was made clear that it was an open competition all sorts of crazy ideas flooded in.

#

“You were right Control,” Benson said, and there was no rancour in his admission.

“I was lucky. We all were.”

#

“It is my great pleasure to award the second Peretina Fal Yurlins Award from the physical manifestation of the first award.”

Control did sound pleased as his image was projected into the Planes, and the virtual award flashed into life.

While the speeches were going on, Tomi nudged Jacob, “Look down there.”

Jacob looked, though he’d been looking down all day. They could see miles of the planet below. The solar panels winking at them and the shadow from the beanstalk slowly swinging across.

“I can’t believe we’re on a giant plant.”

“And it’s still growing. I can’t wait to see the sails.”

The stalk climber continued up the giant beanstalk, taking them up smoothly despite its many legs and the roughness of the beanstalk.

A while later, after the ceremony had completed, Jacob nudged Tomi back. The climber was slowing as they neared the end, where the stalk was still green and growing. On each side huge silvery sheets spread out, like giant petals.

“They’re breath-taking.”

“What are?”

“The solar sails stupid.”

“I never believed they’d happen,” said Jacob.

Control leant over, “Without you Jacob, they never would have. The world of the planes had become too self-indulgent to save itself. No, that’s unfair. We’d just lost the ability to communicate with them. With your help, and this latest effort we’ve not only bought ourselves many more decades of gentle growth, but a new way of communicating. Of making friends.”

Jacob ducked his head, slightly embarrassed, and the looked at Sasha who was at the other window looking at. She turned to him and smiled slightly.

He smiled back, and said, “Or starting to…”

###

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Brain Hack

By Jason Gibbs

“Gerald? Is that you… I’m in the kitchen.”

The door slammed, and she heard his footsteps. They sounded heavy, and she hoped he hadn’t had a bad day.

“Dawn… I’ve… I’ve been in an accident.”

“What? Gerald, are you OK? Sit down…”

She pulled a chair out for him, and went to get him a whisky.

“Tell me about it.”

“I was driving home, work was hectic today and I was thinking about a presentation I needed to do on… well I can’t remember, but anyway, I turned off the motorway and then, then I hit something. Someone.”

“What?”

“I don’t know, but there was blood I think, and… I’m here. The car is…”

He slumped, and slid off the chair, falling almost gracefully to the ground before Dawn could get to him. She didn’t know what to do. She took a deep breath, put Gerald into the recovery position and signalled a call. An emergency services avatar appeared in the chat box in her eyespace.

‘How may I help you?’

She blinked a photo of her husband, and quickly summarised the issue.

‘Paramedics are on the way. Can you confirm the OS and version your husband is currently running?’

She’d worried about this, not that it should be a problem, but people were funny about these things.

‘He’s a natural. No implanted OS,’ she answered.

A pause before the response, ‘We will send police as well.’

‘What? Why?’

‘They will explain. Thank you for your call.’

The avatar shut down and a feedback box bounced into view. She irritably flicked her eyes left to send it where it deserved, and then sat down staring at Gerald. She absent mindedly drank the whisky she’d poured for him. She was worried, and wondering to herself, why the police?

#

Thirty minutes later the paramedics were loading Gerald into the ambulance, assuring her that all would be well. The police woman had been very polite, and stayed out of the way while the paramedics were working on him. Once the ambulance had pulled away she looked a question at Dawn, and Dawn sighed inwardly and went over to speak to her.

“I’m Officer Fisher. I’ve reviewed the report Mrs Richards, and I’m concerned. There are a few things which don’t make sense.”

Dawn stared at her. She’d been holding it together up to this point, looking after Gerald, but now… she started to cry.

The police woman didn’t move, but looked sympathetic.

“Now don’t worry Mrs Richards, I don’t think your husband has done anything wrong… quite the opposite in fact, I think he might be a victim. Is this Mr Richards’ car?” she asked as she pointed to the grey box Gerald had been so proud of getting.

Dawn sniffed a bit, then nodded and the police woman walked round it, then carefully looked under it. She nodded, to herself it seemed and then returned to where Dawn was standing.

“As I thought, no obvious damage. Would it be possible to go inside…”

Dawn looked around, and realised that some of her neighbours were loitering. She could see in the corner of her eyespace that there was a queue of messages in her neighbour channel. She nodded to the police woman, turned and went in. Officer Fisher followed at a respectful distance, and flashed a do not disturb message across all the local comms networks.

#

Officer Fisher sat quietly as Dawn busied herself making a cup of tea for them both. She’d wanted a glass of wine, but didn’t think it was entirely appropriate. Eventually she had to sit down and face the police woman.

“Thank you for the cup of tea Mrs Richards.”

“You’re welcome,” said Dawn somewhat woodenly.

“Now, you told the dispatch bot that your husband had no OS… and the request was shunted to a human. That is why I was sent. Now I have to ask this question, it may seem strange, but are you sure your husband is a natural? Some people claim they are, but…”

“Oh no, he’s a natural. You see we went to school together. I was there when they were testing us. He was the only natural in the school for a couple of years. We all knew. He… well he struggled a bit for a while.”

“It is hard for naturals, when they start to be shut out from the social aspects…” said the police woman sympathetically.

“He’s definitely natural.”

“Yes, I see, well that explains it. Please wait one second.” She stared left politely, then went on, “I’ve spoken to the paramedics and they are performing a series of diagnostics, similar to the OS testing you had at school. Hopefully they’ll find out the, um, semi-code and be able to help him.”

Dawn looked are her blankly, then said, “Please, just… I don’t understand, will he be fine?”

The police woman smiled reassuringly, demonstrating that the empathy courses were still in vogue. “He should make a full recovery, based on the other cases I’ve seen, but of course the doctors will need to confirm.”

“But what happened?”

“Your husband was hacked,” said Officer Fisher simply.

“But he’s a natural…”

“I suspect the hackers didn’t know that. They’ve started to use some aggressive techniques recently, and it may have been one of those. In essence they blank all the receptors, and in the case of some naturals, well, it gets partially through, along with a lot of noise and confusion. I believe that is what happened to your husband.”

“Do you mean like a blast attack for us?” Dawn had never experienced one of these, but knew of people who had. They said it was like receiving every message they’d ever had at the same time, and some of them had taken days to get back online.

“In essence yes, though as he had no training he would not have had any context. It’s fortunate he made it home before collapsing. These days blast attacks are much rarer, the underlying architecture has been improved somewhat.”

“I, I think I understand. And don’t I know that they’re still working on the Brain OSes. I had a version upgrade last year, it was pretty confusing. I have to admit I thought Gerald was the lucky one for a few days, I can tell you.”

There was a pause. Then Dawn asked, “What were they trying to do?”

“Oh, well you said he mentioned an accident? I think they were trying to plant the idea he’d been in a car accident. They try to plant it in the back memory of an OS-enabled person so it’s not obvious. It makes it much easier when they follow up a few hours later with a call, you probably know the kind.”

Dawn thought, and then smiled thinly, “Oh yes, the ones which say something like, ‘Hello, I believe you’ve been in a car accident which wasn’t your fault…'”

###

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Virtual Death

This story explores another aspect of part of the future timeline described in Post Scarcity Blues (and probably would have been one of the stories in the book if I’d written it then!).

Virtual Death

By Jason Gibbs

It had been a long time since he’d physically visited a friend.  At least a decade, there was no need with modern implants and full immersion virtual reality.  Philip couldn’t explain why he was doing this, there was just an itch at the back of his mind.

The hall was dimly lit, as indeed was the whole block.

“Why am I doing this at night?”

Yet, once he’d decided he just had to go.  Also, he’d been on US time zone, so had thought it was late afternoon.

“Five flights of stairs.  Eric could have told me his building lift was broken.”

Though he hadn’t actually told Eric he was going to visit him, they’d just agreed to meet in the Dell, their usual place.  And anyway, it was unlikely Eric knew the lift was broken, he probably hadn’t been out for years either.

“Fifty-eight, fifty-nine… here he is.”

Philip knew he was only talking to himself to try and dispel the creepiness around him, but couldn’t stop.

“Oh is Eric going to be surprised!”

He knocked.  Nothing, and again.  He pressed the buzzer.  Nothing.  He tried the handle.  The door wasn’t locked.

“Ah, Eric probably disabled his physical alerts, I bet he can’t even remember the last time someone used them.  Eric?”

He opened the door into dust and gloom.

“Eric?”

He tried the light, but though he flicked it nothing came on.

“Eric, your lightbulb is out.  You should get maintenance to take better care.”

He walked into the living room.  It was lit by a few green flickering lights.  But Eric wasn’t in it.  The kitchenette was off to one side, and a short corridor with two doors was on the other side.  He walked gingerly towards the corridor.  The dust was thick on the floor.  This wasn’t a good idea.

“This place is a tip Eric, don’t worry I won’t tell anyone.  Eric?”

It was a standard apartment, so the bathroom would be to the right, and the bedroom to the left.

“The dust is just as thick here.  I wonder when the last time Eric actually got up to go to the toilet.”

Taking a breath, and trying to ignore the smells of staleness and slight decay, he pushed open the bedroom door.

He realised he’d closed his eyes and he opened them to look in, expecting, well he didn’t know.

There in the centre of the room was a standard VR coffin.

“Hmm, nice, a Paradise 23, or is it, no I’m wrong it’s a 24, top of the line before they stopped producing them.  Nice one Eric.”

He walked up, and checked the control panel.  All lights were green, and the panel indicated all was well with a cheery “Systems OK!” message.

“Right then, what was the protocol.  I think I press this, tap that…”

“Beep.  Please vocalise a message to explain the wakening.”

“Oh yes, this was to stop people being shocked.  Um, look Eric, it’s me Philip…”

‘Beep’.

“Damn.  I wonder if I can re-record.  That button.  No.  Um.”

The lights had started to flash red.  That didn’t seem right, and then there was another ‘Beep’, though this one sounded less friendly.  There was a hissing sound.  Philip stepped back.

“Why am I doing this…”

It was too late, the coffin had started to open up.  Philip wasn’t sure what he expected to see.  He wasn’t sure what he wanted to see.  When the hissing stopped he realised he’d closed his eyes again.  He opened them, and saw the side of the open coffin.  Nothing moved.

After a pause he said, “Eric?”

Nothing.  He frowned, and edged forward.  He could see the edge of the coffin, and then the lining, a sort of red plush, comfortable, though flashy, and some tubes, and then…

Then, nothing.  The coffin was empty.

“What?”

Philip heard something behind him, but before he could turn around blackness descended.

#

“Philip?”

“Um.. gargh.”

“Philip!  Are you alright?”

“Yarg, Eric don’t shout…”

It was Eric, but he’d seen, what had he seen?

“Philip, you really worried me there, you came to meet me in the Dell, and then just faded out.  I’ve had to connect into the emergency controls on your virtual unit.”

“What…”

Could he do that?  Wait, they’d signed something, like an emergency order, so they could look out for each other, it had been Eric’s idea.  But there was something he was forgetting?

“Come on Philip, say something sensible!”

“Ok, ok, stop with your yabbering.  What were we doing?”

Eric sighed, “We were at the Dell, catching up and then you just, like, disappeared, liked faded or something.  You alright buddy?”

“I, I thought I’d come to see you…”

“Like a dream or something?”  Was that hope in Eric’s voice?  Suggestion?

“No…”

“I think it must have been a dream Philip,” Eric said, with more of an edge in his voice.

“The coffin was empty, you weren’t there… what, where are you?”

“Cut the power!”

Darkness.

#

“Philip?”

It was a voice he didn’t recognise, a woman’s voice.

“Yes.”

He felt fine.  Disoriented, and it was dark all around him.

“You’ve had an accident Philip.”

“What?”

“You’ve discovered something you shouldn’t have…”

“Eric…?” asked Philip.

“Yes, Eric.  He’s dead Philip.  He has been for a while.”

“But, but I see him every day.  He’s…”

“The Eric you’ve been seeing is part AI, part actor.  Designed to fool you.”

“But…”

“It’s true I’m afraid.  We needed him to be alive for the funds to flow…” said the woman.

“Funds?”

“Eric is, or was, a very very wealthy man.  He paid us to… keep him alive.  And we failed.  Or, succeeded, depending on your point of view.  He paid us a lot.”

“I don’t understand, is he dead?  Or alive?” asked Philip, feeling a little confused.

“His physical body is dead.  Burned and scattered in case you wondered, but with no attachment to it, he was treated as an unknown, his ashes scattered in the sea.”

“I remember him saying that’s what he wanted.”

“Ah yes, well actually it happened before he said that, his actually wish was to be buried under an apple tree on the old family property, but that would have been a little tricky to hide, so… we had to make some decisions.”

“You are?”

“His… carers.  Yes, carer is the best term.  Part bodyguard, part nurse, part… well part many things.”

“And you replaced him?” said Philip.

“No, we just didn’t let his online presence die.  We kept him alive.  We hired an actor, and the best AI people, and we kept him alive.  It had all been going so well, and then you… you decided to visit him.”

“When did he die?”

“About five years ago.”

Philip was so shocked he said nothing.  Then he suddenly realised, he was in danger, wasn’t he.  They’d killed and replaced Eric, they’d do the same to him…

“Philip, calm down, I can see your heart rate has spiked.  Don’t worry, we don’t mean you any harm.  Really, in fact we have a deal for you.”

Could he believe them?

“What deal?”

“We’d like you to carry on being friends with Eric, as if nothing had happened.  You see, you are a vital part of the proof web which keeps Eric alive, and the money flowing to us.”

“But you could just replace me!”

He could feel the hysteria building, the darkness didn’t help.

There was a sigh.  Silence for a minute, and then the light came on, he was in his apartment.  His virtual one.

“Sorry Philip, the darkness was a mistake.”

The woman in front of him had few obvious markers.  She had red hair, a fifties figure and stylish clothes, but he realised that these were all actually off the peg.  She was anonymous.

“Um, who are you?”

“We are carers Philip, as I said, and we care for Eric.  We will not hurt you.  Cannot hurt you in fact.”

“But the…”

“We hired a security service to bring you in, they were more robust than expected, they have been reprimanded, and you will find a generous settlement from them, as well as a full apology.”

“Oh.”

He was confused.

“I know you’re confused Philip, so I’ll leave you the details here, and you can decide what to do.  Ultimately, we’re in your hands.  If you agree to work with us, we will provide you with a generous income, which will cover some of the things you’ve mentioned to Eric you would like… If not, well, no money, and Eric will be gone.  We will feel some pain too, but I’m sure legal will cover us.”

Philip thought she didn’t sound entirely sure, but he nodded.

She left a virtual dossier on his table, smiled at him, and said, “Goodbye Philip, hopefully we will not meet again.”

Philip pondered what he was going to do.

#

“Philip!”  said Eric, with surprise, and perhaps a hint of trepidation in his voice.

“Eric, lovely to see you.  Apologies, I’ve been a bit sick the last few days, how have you been?”

“Not great, had a few worrying things going on.  Better for seeing you though!  What shall we do today?”

###

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Peace in Our Time

This is one of the first short stories I wrote after Pigs, Poultry and Poo came out.  I’ve dusted it off, and tidied it up a bit, and am now releasing it into the wild… it’s original title was something like ‘Superhero Dutch Disease’, but I prefer this title.

Peace in Our Time

by Jason Gibbs

The war had been dragging on for years.  Sometimes we were in the ascendant, other times we were being pushed back, but never did it seem like it would end.  The dead were legion, and all lost over a strip of land mere miles wide.  We two enemies were too closely matched.  Though once powerful, the endless fighting had sapped our energies, and the other nations on our borders were waiting to pick over our bones, even if they had to help finish us off.

At the start of the eleventh year of the war a rumour came that the enemy had developed a super weapon which would finally end us, and the war.  Some were afraid, others merely laughed off the story as enemy propaganda.  In the event we were the ones blessed with a super weapon.

Jondril arrived one day in the capital.  He approached the war office building and told the receptionist he was there to end the war.  As you can imagine he received short shrift, and was thrown out, literally.  Two hours later an armoured figure, twice the size of a man, approached the war office and tore down the wall.  Security went crazy, and opened up with all their weapons.  The figure calmly stood, bullets bouncing off.  Lasers sitting on the armour’s shoulders knocked rounds out of the air and then destroyed the weapons facing him.  When the firing had all but petered out, the figure stamped its foot smashing the road and sending rubble in a widening circle of destruction.  Once more Jondril spoke, his voice booming as it was enhanced by the suit’s speakers, “I would end this war!”

The minister for war decided to play for time while the heavy weaponry was brought in from the outskirts of the city.  He walked out to talk to Jondril.  A brave man the minister, and one who would have still been at the front had he not lost an arm and an eye.

He and Jondril talked.  And talked more.  The weaponry arrived, and the minister was given the signal.  He ignored it.  The suited figure nodded its head, and split down the front, and Jondril climbed down.  The suit closed up again, and not a seam could be seen.

The minister guided Jondril into his building and to his office, and there they had coffee, and talked more.  More happened on that day, some said he should be imprisoned, others pointed out that he had not hurt anyone deliberately, though a few soldiers had been hurt by flying debris, but most hailed him.  He’d brought a suit which was all but impervious to our weapons, and also therefore to those of our enemy.  We heard that his father had been a scientist who had been working on such suits for many years.  He’d finally succeeded, but had sadly died before he could see his life’s work used for its true purpose, bringing peace.

The very next day Jondril walked to the front, and waded into the fight.  Again and again the enemy attacked him, but their bullets could not harm him, and their missiles didn’t bother him.  While he was untouched, every shot his suit fired was true, and the enemy soon found that all their weapons melted, or fried, or in some unfortunate cases exploded.  Jondril never once targeted a person, he only wrecked weapons.  As he explained to us later, “I wanted to stop the bloodshed, not become part of it.”  The enemy tried heavy weapons, but these too could not touch him, his suit was able to deflect heavy shells out of the air, and seemed to cause missiles to veer away sharply, or explode, as if by magic.  There were some who thought it strange that not a single heavy missile actually hit him, but the majority were just dazzled by the impact on our enemies as they fell back in disarray.

The enemy were, however, both brave and foolish, and regrouped to continue to attack.  But after two weeks they had made no progress, and Jondril had destroyed all of their armaments on the front.  Our generals wanted to plough through the now defenceless enemy and take their revenge, but Jondril was firm that he would not allow that.  He wanted the war to stop.  They realized they had no choice.  Like our enemies, there was nothing they had which could beat him.

Three weeks after Jondril’s appearance an armistice was signed.  We were at peace.  At first nobody could believe it.  Then came the celebrations, with parades and parties galore.  Then the hangovers from the celebrations, combined with effects of the war started to take its toll.  The government wanted to keep the armed forces on alert, in case of a resumption of hostilities.  Our people took to the streets to demand, quietly but firmly, that their sons and daughters should return home.  They did not riot, they did not march, they just accumulated around the parliament buildings, standing, and made their demand by their very presence.  Still the politicians did not relent.  Until Jondril joined the silent crowds.  He too said nothing, but his intent was clear.

Within days the soldiers were returning home, first a trickle and then a flood.  Some injured, some battered, and many scarred from the constant warfare.  It was a hard time for them, and their families, but also a joyous one.

Our weapons were stockpiled.  Our munitions factories converted to creating tools, toys and gadgets.  A year passed.  Peace reigned.  Our former enemy became a trading partner, though sadly only of a few fripperies.  There was hope for more.

Then, to our horror, two other neighbours invaded.   They had watched, and seeing our weakness had allied to dismember us.  We woke up, and at once the weariness of war crashed down upon us.  But also rage.  How dare they take fragile hope from us.  Sons and daughters rushed back to the barracks, ready to rearm and send these cowards home with their tails between their legs.  One young man was already prepared, he had watched our neighbours and realized they might harbour perfidy in their hearts.  Jondril marched out again, and as before none could stand against him.  Our neighbours tried half-heartedly to stop him, but soon realized that he was as untouched by their weapons as he had been by ours.

Many thought Jondril would stop at our border and let that be a lesson to all.  He did not.  He took the minister for war with him to each of the capitals, and ripped down the walls of the presidential palaces.  He then watched, silently, as a peace was negotiated, with each of our neighbours agreeing to destroy all their weapons, and pay us tribute.  In response we would destroy all but a token few of our remaining weapons.  Though truth be told there weren’t many left since the factories had not replenished what had been used in our latest battles.

Jondril stood over the pits of weapons, watching them burn and melt.  Had the suit had a face it might well have smiled, one can only assume Jondril was smiling inside.  His work was done, peace was assured.

A month passed.  Then another.  Peace became normal.  The few guards at the borders became more concerned with improving their volleyball skills than watching their peers over the border.

Suddenly our original enemies brought all their armies to our border.  While we had been enjoying the peace, they had quietly rebuilt their war machine.  They formed up and marched across, all the way to the capital.  There was no one to stop them.  They stopped in our main square, and the enemy president walked forward to meet our president.  The enemy leader was a brave man and showed no fear, even though Jondril was standing next to our leader.

Before either president could speak the suit cracked open again, and out stepped Jondril.  He walked to the enemy president, and embraced him, “Welcome sir.  The war is over.”

#

That’s not how it was.  I mean, yes, it sort of was.  Sorry, let me explain.  I was Jondril.  Well, Jondril was the suit, but it was me inside.  And it wasn’t exactly like that.

I should start at the beginning.  They said that I should just write what I remember, and then at some stage it will be released, and everyone will know the truth, or I guess, my version of the truth.

The beginning is tricky.  I can’t tell you my name, not least because after this I’ll be getting a new one, hopefully.  Jondril is not exactly a popular person amongst our new subjects.  I wasn’t a soldier.  I was a scientist.  Am a scientist.  I work with brain to machine interfaces, and before Jondril I’d been working on one of the many war efforts to find a new weapon.

The idea was to turn our soldiers into walking tanks.  We’d give them each an army’s worth of guns and send them off to wipe out our opponents.  The problem was that it didn’t work.  The suits were too slow.  While we’d been successful with bulking the armour up, and making it almost invulnerable to small arms fire, one decent missile, and blam: many millions of expensive tech up in smoke.  We added anti-missile technologies, shrunk high powered lasers and improved the targeting.  It still wasn’t enough.  Our simulations gave the suit wearer a survival time of between three and four hours in the first deployment, and less than fifteen minutes in all further deployments.

There was really only one successful part of the project.  My bit.  No, I’m not being arrogant, I’m just telling it the way it was.  We succeeded, I succeeded, in subconscious human to machine control.  What does that mean?  It means that I could control the robot’s actions just by thinking, but more than that, I didn’t have to think ‘move knee up, swing foot forward, drop foot down’, instead I just thought about moving forward.  The suit became an extension of my body, and one which felt, after some practice, natural.

The success was only partial however, as only I could interface with the original suit.  The only one now, I guess.  But we had worked out what we needed to develop next to allow others to do the same.

Our last test failure came just before the funding round.  We all knew what would happen.  I couldn’t face it.  I wanted there to be something out of all the years of work, over eight of them in fact, with me joining with the suit every day for the last five.

I was desperate.  I proposed one last gamble.  Something which would show the worth of the suit, and hopefully allow us to continue our work.  I promised to lead the enemy into an ambush.  We’d be able to turn the tide.  And if I failed, all they’d lose would be the suit.  And me.

I think I struck a chord.  The war was making us less human, and there were some who were desperate for it to be over, one way or another.  One of those was the general in charge of intelligence.  I suspect because he knew just how closely matched we were with our enemies,  despite all the propaganda, and therefore just how permanent our stalemate could be.

So, our plan was born.  I would persuade our enemies I was on their side.  Pretend to wipe out a section of the front, they would charge in, and we’d annihilate them.  I wasn’t comfortable with being instrumental in all that death, but it was going to happen one way or another, perhaps I could save some lives in the long run.  And the program of course.

I don’t hate our former enemies.  I didn’t hate them then.  I felt nothing.  My brother had died at the front, and my father.  My mother just faded after my brother’s death.  I didn’t blame the enemy, I couldn’t see the point, they were losing just as many sons, daughters and parents as we were.

The night the mission started I was a mess.  My heart was in my throat; my bowels had turned to water.  Fortunately, I was in the suit, so no one could see my face, which I’m sure was pale with fear.  I was dropped, in my suit, twenty miles from the enemy capital in mountainous territory.  The drop went without a hitch, and as I unfolded from the ball the suit had formed on landing and checked the systems, I could feel the adrenaline kick in.  This was my chance.  I power ran to the edge of the capital, using the darkness to hide me, aided by the stealth we’d built into the suit.

Taking the suit off was harder than I expected, but I knew I had to make the first approach in person to have any chance of getting them to talk to me without just wiping the suit from the planet.  I felt naked.  Alone in a country of enemies.  I’d spent some weeks being subliminally trained to use the correct accent and speech rhythms, so I would not stand out.  I had the right clothes, and enough money to get to and from the war office.  And buy some food.

It soon became clear that I was just as invisible on the streets as everyone else.  Indeed, I could easily have been in my own city, there was really little between us.

The events at the war office have been described often enough.  There’s only one thing I would add.  The suit was standing serenely, taking the punishment.  Inside I was panicking.  I had never been shot at before, and now the rounds were pinging in from everywhere.  My original plan had been to take some initial punishment, and then shelter next to a building to carefully pick off the weapons firing at me.  However, in my panic my ability to communicate to the suit failed.  I was trapped inside it, and its systems went to automatic protection.  Fortunately, I’d instructed it to avoid fatalities, otherwise there would have been a blood bath and the minister of war would have had to call down an airstrike, and I wouldn’t have enjoyed that.

Our talk.  I can’t tell you much.  He was, is, a brave man.  Some say he would have been the next president.  Perhaps.  He asked me what I wanted.  I told him peace.  He then asked me how, and I said I’d disarm our enemies.  He looked at the suit silently for a while, and then asked me to step out.  I nearly didn’t, but I knew this was my chance to persuade him.

I stepped out, sweating, but managed to hold myself straight.  He looked at me.  Said something about young men and war, and then offered me a coffee in an office, and we walked inside.  We didn’t talk much more then.  He didn’t quiz me about where I came from; he didn’t test my cover story at all.  I like to think he just trusted me, but of course he also knew that others would be interrogating me on those things later.

We had the coffee in his office.  I was then escorted into a comfortable, but locked room.  Some hours later I was visited again by an officer.  He wanted the keys to the suit.  I explained that it would only work with me.  He threatened me.  I repeated my statement.  He went away.

Oddly, they never did properly test my cover story.  I was pretending to be one of their scientists from a facility which had been blown up a year before which we knew had been working on suits.  I’d somehow made it to my nearby home and finished up my work and hey, here I was with a weapon to end the war.  It was the weakest part of the story, but it was only intended to hold up for a day or so, not long enough to be properly checked.  They created their own propaganda.  Possibly because they didn’t want to admit to having had a facility blown up, or maybe they were incapable of releasing the truth.

The next day I went to the front.  I’d told them I wanted to make a difference and that I’d clear our enemies.  I waded in, destroyed every weapon pointed at me, and defanged all my opposition.

Here was a tricky bit.  I knew that the suit couldn’t withstand true heavy weaponry, as of course did those in charge of my new ‘enemies’, but we had to pretend.  And be convincing enough that my new allies would buy it.  I was in constant communication with my old bosses, and they helped me manage such a show.  Every time a missile got too close they’d force it to self-destruct, and I’d point my arm at it just beforehand.  The artillery systems were surprisingly inaccurate that day, enough so that I could walk in between the paths.  It was all very convincing.

We managed to keep it going for two weeks.  The enemy forces fell back, leaving plenty of broken weapons in their wake.  Many of these were obsolete, but it wasn’t that obvious once they’d been sufficiently burnt, and both sides had been using obsolete weaponry for so long it probably wouldn’t have stood out.

How did I keep talking with my bosses without my new friends finding out?  Easy really, my suit was constantly chatting on every available network, wavelength and direct connection it could sense.  It was like a shining ball of communications, which meant that it was impossible to track any of it.  Especially as it was constantly shifting channels.  My new allies did try to hack it, as expected, but to them it always seemed one step ahead, and even turned the hacks around.  This was because it wasn’t doing anything with most of the information it was getting in, it was just scrambling it and feeding it straight back out again, like a crazed router.

With my former nation now appearing to be in deep trouble and on the run, my new friends were keen to take advantage and drive every spare man and woman they had, all the way to the capital to perform the coup de grace.  I was supposed to let them.  But I couldn’t.

I’d never before been at the front.  I’d not seen the dead and dying happening in front of me.  Sure I’d seen it on TV, but that’s TV…  As much as I was doing to try and spike weapons around me, there was still fighting, and blood and death, and it sickened me.  This was one of the reasons I failed the combat psych test and was allowed to continue in research.  And I wanted it stopped.

So instead of letting the fools walk into the giant trap I’d set up for them, I insisted they didn’t.  I further insisted they push for an armistice.  By this point I was a hero, and they couldn’t argue.

Unlike my former bosses, who were threatening all sorts.  There was much swearing, accusations of betrayal and suchlike.  I ignored it for a while.  And then told them of my new plan.

I’d realized that everyone wanted the war to stop.  I believed, rightly as it turns out, that the country I was in was desperate to stop.  The people had run out of fighting spirit.  I told my former bosses that if they agreed to an armistice, within a year the land I was in would be toothless, and they would be able to walk in unopposed.  All they would have to do is maintain combat readiness but keep it low profile.

The key was that my new best friends viewed me as an army on my own.  They wouldn’t need to retain troops if they had me.  The more sensible generals thought this foolish, and tried to keep the army together.  But the people soon stopped that.  Helped by some apparently ad hoc campaigns on social media.  I judged the appropriate time, and joined the standing demonstrations.  Within days the war machine was being dismantled with enthusiasm.

Why did my bosses not invade now?  In part because they wanted to rearm properly.  The last few years had left both sides armies exhausted and equipment and munitions were short.  In part I think they wanted to make sure that the old enemy was truly quietened.   And in part they needed to maintain control of their own people, allowing some peace, but not too much.  I also did my bit in staying their hand, by telling them that there were still many fit and trained men and women in this ‘adopted’ country of mine, and we needed time for their war skills to atrophy.

Months passed.  How did I avoid detection?  I told my new friends I needed space, and that I would be available if needed, but would respond badly to unnecessary contact.  I provided written responses to some questions from the news people, and then hid in the mountains, using the stealth on the suit to hide me.  In truth I did want the space, and the mountains were soothing.  I felt the burden of the deaths I’d caused.  Not directly, but I’d certainly changed the dynamic, and many of my countrymen had died.  Perhaps they would have died soon anyway.  The war would have chewed them up.  But the difference was that I had helped.  I didn’t want to face the probability that I would cause yet more death.

I spent all my time in my suit, and it became more and more part of me.  I slept in it.  It fed me.  We were one.

After a year my former homeland had recovered.  The armies were ready.  There were fewer men and women in arms, but those left were well fed, well-armed, and ready for a fight.  My pleading that the war not be restarted fell on increasingly deaf ears, and I was becoming desperate.  I was close to refusing to be any further part, but then, we all knew that I wasn’t needed for the planned slaughter.

Then fate intervened.  Two smaller nations on the borders decided to ally and pick over the weakened beast I now lived in.  They invaded, but tentatively.  Which was their mistake.  A year of peace had not healed all the wounds, and the anger of the people was frightening.  As soon as news of the incursions hit the media channels there was an eruption.  The people would not have their peace taken from them.  Vengeance and death were offered up by people who but days before were discussing poetry competitions and flower shows.

I made sure my erstwhile bosses were made aware of all of this.  They could see their enemy was weakened, but not defeated.

Then I saw a positive option.  Perhaps true peace was possible?  I joined in the defence.  Recklessly diving into the combat.  Fortunately, the two nations were weak, and hadn’t brought any proper heavy weapon support otherwise I might have been destroyed within hours.  Instead they fell back before me.  I continued to push them back, rolling over their armies, destroying any arms brought against me, but avoiding fatalities as far as was possible.  I also told my friends to let me do the work, and save themselves.  This would reduce the potential for death on both sides.

My actions in forcing the peace are well documented.  Suffice it to say the defeated nations were in such shock that they would have signed anything, and the peace they were offered was far better than any they would have given.  As all three sides destroyed their weapons I rejoiced.

Did I know my old bosses would take advantage of the situation?  Of course, I had presented the option to them.  They would win, and take over not one, but three nations, becoming a much more powerful empire.  One which could not be threatened by any of our more distant neighbours.  Was I comfortable with betraying my allies?  I never did.  I ended the war.  I gave them peace.

###

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Brain Ports

by Jason Gibbs

“There is no such thing as a soul!”

“Well, that was emphatic.  Can we at least ask…”

“No, that was the last question I am willing to take.”

With that, the minister stormed off the stage, leaving the press shaking their heads and laughing.  It was a game they liked to play with the new appointees, and normally they didn’t get such a good response.

#

“Minister Roberts…”

“I know Simkins, I should have held it together, but those press people, they’re like rabid…”

“Don’t worry minister, here is your coffee.  Also, Mrs Youre is on the line.”

“The Prime Minister?”

“Yes, minister.  Here she is…”

With that Simkins switched the mirror over and Roberts was face to face with his boss.

“Roberts.  What do you have to say for yourself?”

“Ah, Prime Minister, um, I, I’m sorry, I should have been prepared…”

She laughed, and then smiled at him.  He realised she was having as much fun as the press people.

“Don’t worry Roberts, that was actually perfect.  Your last two predecessors were too cool, I think the press were starting to wonder.  Your, let’s call it a performance, yes, your performance was brilliant.  They’ll be chuckling to themselves for months.  And not bothering about the other stories,” she stared at him.

“Yes, Prime Mini…”

“Your job Roberts, is to keep them off the scent for as long as possible.  We know this is going to get out, but we’ve managed to keep a lid on it for three years, and we’d like a little more time.  My people tell me they think they only need a couple more months, but they said much the same last year.  You hold on.  Do whatever is necessary.”

“Yes, Pri…”

She cut off.  Roberts was tempted to swear but held himself back.  She might reappear, and his day had been getting worse since she’d called for him that morning.

#

As he was driven back to the ministry he stared into the middle distance, remembering the brief feeling of joy when he’d received the call.  He was finally getting noticed.  He assumed it would be a junior position, but, the only way was up.

Instead she’d sat him down and told him straight, “Roberts.  You are cannon fodder.  The likelihood is you’ll do this and be consigned to the back benches for the next decade.  But your country needs you, I need you, are you willing to do it?”

There was obviously no answer to that.  He’d nodded, trying to look serious and ministerial.

“You are going to be our new Minister for Galactic Transport.  The fourth in 18 months so my aides tell me.  The last three are… well the wilderness would probably be preferable.  They slipped up.  You must not.”

He just stared at her.  The job was a poisoned chalice, and yet nobody knew why.  Ministers just didn’t last.  Maybe it was the souls thing?

“Now, I only have five minutes, so I’m going to give you the fast brief.  Your team in the ministry will give you background, but this is so important you need to hear it from me.  Firstly, the official line is that there is no such thing as a soul, and YOU WILL STICK TO IT.  DO you understand?”

There was a sharpness to her smile.  He nodded understanding.

“We have had some issues with the replication technology with teleports, this is true, but we believe that it is the central computer.  There’s a bug, a switch set to one, nothing more.  And you will not entertain any notion otherwise.  Got it?”

“Yes, Prime Mini…”

She’d stood up, and ushered him out, newly minted, a proper minister, and yet, a sword hanging over his head.  The previous minister had lasted 17 weeks, so at least he had a target.

#

“Right, so, Simkins, can you explain to me what the difference between the official line, and the unofficial line actually is, so that I might avoid abject humiliation next time I’m up in front of the press?”

“I’m afraid not Minister.”

“What?”

“There is no difference.”

Butter wouldn’t melt.

Roberts took a deep breath.  “Fine, tell me what the issue is, and why people keep mentioning souls.”

Simkins eyed him, but then clearly decided to take pity on him.

“Well Minister, do you know how the transportation works?”

“Yes, yes, brain ports, we get one put in, it maps the brain, a plug sucks the map out, spits it across the communicator and then we’re printed by a giant 3d meat printer at our destination.”

Simpkins nodded, though Roberts thought he detected a slight grimace.

“Quite so minister.  Though we tend not to use such… colourful language.  We’ve been doing this for some years, more than a decade of commercial licence in fact.  In the beginning we had strict rules, only one copy of a person at a time.  Obviously when the original person was, um, transported, they ceased to exist in their first location…”

“Why?” Roberts asked, he’d always wondered.

“We believe it’s the mapping process.  Nonetheless, from a legal perspective it makes it easy, one legal person, transports to another location, no duplicates, no… dare I say it, clones.”

They both shuddered.  Not worth thinking about that.

“Right, so what about the souls.”

“Minister please let me explain,” said Simkins sounding a little pained.

“Yes, sorry Simkins, go ahead.”

“And then two years ago there was the De Freito case, and suddenly the floodgates opened.”

Roberts looked blank.  “Um, if you could just remind me?”

“De Freito claimed that his human rights were being violated, because of the restrictions he was unable to be at home with his family and travelling at the same time.”

“Ah yes, I seem to recall something…” said Roberts, though he really couldn’t.

“So, they tried to send him to his destination, and a copy back round, and it failed.  He threatened to sue, it got a little ugly, and then… there was a small mistake and he ended up at a terminal station, which is at least a decade away from being able to send him back.”

“A mistake?”

“Yes, minister.”

More butter.

“Souls?”

“Of course, minister.  The tests didn’t stop there, they just found some more amenable subjects.  But what they found was that no matter what they did, there could only ever be one copy of a person in the galaxy.  The data would duplicate, triplicate or whatever, but whichever copy arrived first would be the person, even if the time difference was almost nothing.  The other copies would just… fail.”

“Ah, this is that glitch the Prime Minister mentioned, something to do with a switch.”

“That is the official line, Minister.  They are concerned about the fallout if people start thinking they have souls again.  Can you imagine?”

The wars of religion had been brutal, and religiosity was frowned upon in these enlightened times.

“What do they think it is?”

“Well, they have performed many experiments, even putting two ports into one candidate.  Nothing worked, no matter what they do, only one copy of a person can ever exist.”

“Do they know why?”

“Yes, they’re fairly certain now.  Empirically, there is a single point, a sort of essence of a person, which cannot be duplicated.”

Roberts nodded wisely.

“Ah, excellent, and what are they proposing to call this?”

Simkins looked at him with an expression approaching pity.

“A soul, minister.”

###

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Our Man on Earth

By Jason Gibbs

Seriously, what in the name of anything which can be named were they thinking when they sent me here?  Look at this place, it’s… it’s despicable.

“Anton?”

What?

“Anton?”

“What?”

“Are you alright?  You seemed to zone out for a moment or two there.”

“Um, yeah fine.  Where’s that waiter, I’m ready to order.”

She looked at me, and two frown lines appeared above her eyes.  Her beautiful brown eyes.

“We just finished… and I’ve paid.  Again.”

“Ah, yes, sorry, just joking, and I’ll pay tonight.”

I look around, and realise it is night, and the frown is spreading.

“I mean tomorrow.”

“Yes Anton.”  She shakes her head, her hair, like long black snakes, almost alive.  She is beautiful, and yet… not.

“Sorry Sula, it’s been one of those, um, diurnal cycles.”

“It’s a day Anton, and it’s not funny, your way, you’re… I don’t know what it is.”

She stands suddenly.  Pushing back her chair with a sound which makes me flinch.  Hate it.

“Well?”

I get up, slower, and making sure to lift my chair.  No pain there.

“Let’s walk, and perhaps I can buy you…”

“A flower?”

“A drink?”

“We’ll see.”

I reach a hand out, and she twirls away, her short white dress swirling up a little, showing her long dark brown legs to their best advantage.  And no knickers.  I knew I liked her for a reason.

She catches my stare, winks and pauses long enough for me to catch her hand and we walk out into the hot Cairo night.

When we met, we were two strangers, foreigners, lumped together.  The locals view us all the same, no matter our different racial backgrounds.  So, we were forced together, and forced in a way to behave as the locals assumed we would.  Not that I didn’t enjoy it.

“Anton?  Anton!  Are you alright?”

“Sula?”

An intake of breath.

“No, it’s Rita.”

That’s right.  Sula’s gone.  Cholera?

“Sorry Rita, I…”

She looked closely at me.

“No, I know, it’s the shock.  The car hitting you, and yet, you are fine.  But…”

Oh, the car.  Yes.  I must stay in this time.

“It just tapped me, it was the angle.”

She frowns.  Her lashes are so long.  Dark, covering her eyes.  Blue, not like Sula’s.  But then Rita is very different from Sula.

Why am I here, in this purgatory?

“What?  Purgatory?”

“Ah… maybe I will have a drink.”

“There it is.”

I look down, and she’s right, some dark brown liquid is sitting in front of me.  I take a sip.  Scotch, single malt, Highland by the taste of it.  This place has a few advantages.  Women.  Whisky.  I can’t think of a third.

“Look Anton, I’ve been meaning to say, and after that… I mean with the car.  Maybe it’s not the right time.”

“What?”

“Anton?”

“Lea, how wonderful to see you here.  How have you been?”

Her beautiful face glows with a smile.  Brown eyes, so dark they’re black, twinkling.  I used to love making her smile.

“I’m well.  I…”

She’s remembered.  How we met after Rita left me, and the brief burst of fire and then… she was a doctor, she knew I should have died.

“I’m glad to see it.  Look Lea, I have to go…”

“No Anton, please.  I’ve thought about you a lot.  I want to talk to you.  I want to try and understand.”

I should run away.  I’ve run away before.  I’ve done other things too.  But this time, I can’t.  It’s too much, I’m so tired.  Tired of this place.

“We can talk, but you won’t understand.”

“Try me.”

I get a twitch.  Damn, not now, not when…

Anton.  Report.”  It was second control.  She was always prying.

“Now is not a good time Control.  Can we twitch later?”

“No need.  I just wanted to tell you that your latest request to return has been denied.  You must complete your mission.  Out.”

“But.”  She was gone.

“Anton!”

I looked up at her.

“Lea, why are you staring down at me?”

“You just collapsed.  Hitting the corner of the table, and then lying there, mumbling.  Look, let me check your head.”

“Um no, it’s fine, really…”

“If you’re sure… though given the fire.  Yes.”

Damn, the fire.  Right, what do I do now?

“Do you have any alcohol?” I ask as I pull myself up.

“Anton, this is a coffee shop, no alcohol.”

“Oh.  I don’t think I can tell you without a proper drink.”

She sighs.

“Fine, we’ll go to my place.  Yours will be a mess, and probably crawling with… well anything.  I have some scotch.  I blame you for introducing me to it.”

She takes my hand and leads me out.  It’s different from before, it feels like I’m an errant child being led home by a brood-parent.

“Here, something a bit peaty, I think you’ll like it.  Now tell me.”

“Yes.. Ree… I mean Lea.”

She frowns, but says nothing, and looks at me, her eyes hard.

“Right, yes.  So, um, the fire.”

“Which should have killed you.  Yes?”

“Yes, but this, corpus?  Corpse?”

“It’s not a corpse until you are dead Anton.”

“This body, it is, designed, yes designed to be robust, to protect me.  From everything.”

“Fire, flood and plague?”

“All the biblical scourges.”

“Who designed it?  A government?  A corporation?”

I laugh, choking on my whisky.  After a brief cough I take another slug, swirl it round my mouth and swallow the sweet burn.

“So?”

“Sorry Lea, no, not them.  I’m not sure you’ll believe me.”

“Aliens?”

My look of surprise makes her laugh.

“Once you’ve ruled out the impossible… and I looked you over when you were out, you are not something that would be easy to make.”

It’s out.  My secret is out.  Maybe second control will take another request.  Wait, no.  If my secret is out I have to stay, and they’ll start the life timer.

“Anton!”

“Lea, look, it’s supposed to be a secret, and if my controllers find out… I’ll die here.  On this miserable excuse for a…”

I look at her frown, and change tack, “Lovely planet I mean, great place, lovely people.  Nice whisky.”

“Why are you here?  Are you going to invade?  Steal our resources?  Turn me into a fifty foot giant?”

I knew I liked her for a reason, calm and still making jokes.

“Well, technically I’m here to ‘survey the local civilisation and report’, but honestly, it’s punishment for… well best not to say.”

“Was a girl involved?  Or your species’ equivalent?”

“Um, yes, more or less.”

“Ha, not a surprise.  You didn’t answer my question.”

“No offence, but there is literally nothing of value on this planet.  Once you get a space industry you’ll realise how poor the planet really is, but anyway, all I’m really here to do is try and prevent you lot from killing yourselves off.  Not because you’re special, there are thousands of similar planets and sentients, but because we’re sentimental that way.  Possibly several millennia of wiping out any other species we encountered, it’s amazing what trillions of deaths will do to a species’ guilt complex when it finally arrives.”

“How is it going?”

“Oh, well, I haven’t really tried, I mean, why bother?  If you lot want to kill yourselves, go ahead.  I just want to get home.”

“And when can you go home?”

“Only when I produce evidence you’re all stable and not likely to explode at any moment.”

“That’s it?”

“Or…”

Or… now that is interesting.

“Or what Anton?  Anton?  What is that gleam in your eye?”

“Lea, I have to go, sorry.  I’ll probably not see you again.”

The plague ripped through the population without mercy.  Billions died.  Civilisation collapsed, and the few who were immune to the bioweapon died in the ensuing chaos as a result of starvation or other prosaic killers.

Second control passed on his report.  The response was swift, “Well Anton, you failed.  But you can come home.”

###

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