Flash Fiction: Our Benevolent Enemies

Posted on 12th December 2008 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation

I don’t think the attack was really an act of hostility, not when you look at the way it changed the world. I get to see stars every night now, in the sky above my head. For real stars. I don’t have to navigate to a satellite telescope web address or anything. I just go outside and look up. Who would have imagined that in my lifetime? Who can look up at that beautiful splash of light across the night sky, the Milky Way, and think it a bad thing?

The half million dead. Sure. They and their families wouldn’t appreciate my joy at the night sky. In fact, most of the world’s 10 billion people tend to remember the brown blanket of smog covering the planet, glowing in the city lights, quite fondly. These clear night skies make them feel exposed, and those twinkling pinpoints of light overhead seem ominous.

From which of those billions of points did the invaders come? Will they come back? Are they watching us now? Why did they attack in the first place? It’s the not knowing that unnerves people the most.

So they turned off the lights. If the aliens can’t see us, then they can’t hit us. But people got scared of the dark. So they huddled together in the cities. Safety in numbers, and all that stuff.

All those people, pushed together like that, it made them smarter. Cities present a smaller surface area, but all those buildings are awfully conspicuous. So they “greened” the buildings, planted gardens on the rooftops and encouraged vines to grow down the sides. They still look conspicuous to me from my window, but the satellite photos make New Hong Kong look like a mountain range.

Then some other smarties pointed out that the city was no longer a heat well, absorbing all the Sun’s light and radiating it back as thermal energy, but we were emitting a suspicious amount of heat in the wintertime. That thermal heat was visible in the infrared, so we had to insulate. The city government flies overhead regularly now, filming in infrared to spot the buildings that are leaking heat the invaders might see.

Then there’s all the interest in space again. New satellites are going up every week, but they aren’t watching the weather or broadcasting television, they’re looking outward. We’re back to the Moon, and we’re really really gonna put a person on Mars this time. We have to; we’re just sitting ducks here.

Environmental stability, reaching out to the stars again, world peace… All for the price of 0.00005 percent of the human population. I know it’s controversial to say so, practically blasphemy, but I can’t help but wonder if the invaders weren’t just trying to shake us out of our apathy. Doing what they did for our own good.

Flash Fiction: A Moment of Uninspiring Clarity

Posted on 28th November 2008 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation

Maybe we don’t see extraterrestrials all over the night sky because they all get absorbed in the virtual worlds they create?

Check it out here.

Wyndallo took an unexpected breath of cold, sterile air. He opened his eyes and saw his exhale condense against the glass door to the capsule, which was smoothly lifting away from him. He registered the air outside the capsule was colder than inside, but his brain was too removed from the otherly sensation to induce shivering.

Last thing he remembered, Wyndallo was enjoying braised antelope with a rich pesto side dish. He was just about to enjoy a sip of a 1986 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Pauillac, when the system had crashed. Now that he was here in the real world, the world of continuity, he could remember that the system always crashed when he tried to taste that particular vintage. The system would automatically report the bug, but it was obvious after all these years that no one remained out there to work on it.

Even if he had wanted to get up from the bed, his muscles had grown stiff and inflexible from decades of disuse. The capsule could overcome this, get him on his feet again, but the process would take months. Just the act of propping him up a few degrees would induce nausea so severe it might kill him. He was content to wait for the software to reboot and welcome him back into its warm embrace.

He could see his surroundings reflected in the capsule’s glass door. Rows of glowing capsules, their occupants obfuscated behind cloudy glass, stretched off into the distance in either direction. His own reflection was laid out in the center of them all, his naked body pale and emaciated. He felt no connection to it at all. It wasn’t his anymore.

His eyes wandered to the ceiling, where a skylight revealed a bit of night sky that was full of stars. It was so uninspiring compared to the night skies the VR software rendered, these were just bland white twinkling points of light.

The night sky the system rendered was full of geometric shapes and patterns, clear proof of a galaxy brimming with intelligent life. Wyndallo’s civilization had wasted centuries searching the skies for even a hint of life beyond their world to no avail.

The system mercifully whirred to life again and the capsule door descended to enclose him. Before the psi-field wrapped his consciousness in its warm illusion, Wyndallo had a moment to wonder if no civilization had ever left its mark on the stars because they were all fated to the same prison of introspection.

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SF Flash Fiction: The Watcher

Posted on 21st November 2008 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation

Some people read the news on their lunch break, but I know the news is just the first draft of history, and my job is the final draft. I’ve read every single Marvel Comic book ever printed over three centuries worth of coffee breaks. You might think that a frivolous way to spend one’s free time, but I get enough real life in my regular work that I’m allowed this bit of escapism. People who understand invariably ask me who my favorite superhero is, and I answer, “The Watcher.”

Whenever something big was going to happen in the Marvel Universe, the Watcher would appear, this giant alien bald guy in robes. He didn’t do anything; he was only there to watch. There were a few single-shot issues given to the Watcher, but you can probably understand that there wasn’t much demand for stories about a guy who stands stoically and observes great events in time, never getting involved.

I admire the Watcher, his resolve, as I spend my days at the chronoscope, sifting through the moments of history. My job is generating digital archives of historical events, and it took decades of training to get certified to use it. There are ways to hack the chronoscope or use it clumsily enough, that one might disturb history, and so we few professionals process requests from academic institutions, historians, and scholars for digital facsimiles of time periods and events.

Most of this is very rewarding, the moments of discovery, evolution, revolution, and improving quality of life all the way up to our own times. I love researching these best of times, and, for the most part, it is the most constructive periods that historians are interested in.

But sometimes not, and I haven’t slept for days for what I saw recently. I sat through the reign of Caligula, the Spanish Inquisition, and Adolf Hitler with clinical detachment, but this chance incident, not even part of my assignment, has wrecked me.

I know why I followed her story out of the village, because she looked like my daughter. I didn’t know where it would go, or how quickly it would end at the hands of those bandits. I watched the body vanish, decaying into the field without anyone ever finding it until I happened upon it 3,000 years later looking through a portal in time.

Masochistically, I watched it over and over in horror. Hoping that somehow through the Heissenberg principle, the photons from my observations might somehow alter the outcome. Such a senseless loss, committed by a few thugs who would die without leaving any measurable consequence on the world on a girl who hardly anyone would notice was gone.

Really, if you think about it, the Watcher was affecting the outcome of events. By the mere act of showing up, he signaled to the superheroes that big things were about to happen. The heroes knew they were being watched. If those bandits only knew I was watching them, recording their actions for future generations, their great grandchildren to the hundredth power to witness, they might have shown mercy and dignity. How we behave when we think no one’s watching, that’s our true character.

I could change that moment in ancient history, just that one moment so that she could live. But I mustn’t think like that. It’s a momentary shock, and time will help me overcome it. Until then, I’ll lay awake at night, and pray for the strength of the Watcher.

SF Flash Fiction: Virtuals

Posted on 14th November 2008 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation

“Hello Mr. Chasbak,” Vyonray tapped up the volume on her bluetooth. “How are you today?”

“I’m well thanks,” the soft-spoken gentleman was as unenthusiastic as ever today.

“I was just following up with you to see if you had the opportunity to review those listings I forwarded last night?” Vyonray managed to sound chirpy despite having just arrived at work and not having her morning coffee. It was important to catch Mr. Chasbak before his family’s bedtime.

“I did thanks,” Chasbak’s painful cordiality was typical of people who had so little real-life social interactions. “I’m afraid they aren’t quite meeting the specifications I laid out at our initial meeting.”

Vyonray gritted her teeth involuntarily, but remained polite, “I realize that and I’m sorry, it’s just very difficult to find a two-bedroom house these days. Are you certain a three-bedroom wouldn’t better suit your needs? It’s cheaper and this way each of your children could have their own space–”

“My children all ready have plenty of space. We just need somewhere to park our bodies in Meatspace–I mean…” Chasbak stuttered for a moment, trying to find the right word. “I’m sorry, we just don’t want all that room. It’s a burden.”

“I understand Mr. Chasbak,” Vyonray lied. “I’ll keep looking. I’m certain a two-bedroom home under 900 square feet will turn up eventually.”

“Solar-powered…” Chasbak reminded her. “The more energy-independent the better. I make a lot of money and want the best for my family.”

“I understand Mr. Chasbak, and I really do have your best interests in mind. I’ll let you know once the right home comes on the market. You have a great day now. Thanks. Bye,” Vyonray hung up and pursed her lips sourly.

“Any luck?” Araana smiled, setting a fresh cup of coffee on Vyonray’s desk.

“Virtuals,” Vyonray practically spat in reply, and Araana shook her head in sullen understanding.

Vyonray sighed back into her chair to sip at the steaming mug and stare at the photos of mansions covering the far wall. All of them were priced like they were two-bedroom townhouses, and all of them were rotting away in real life while the world had moved online.

Flash SF: Social-Engineering Simulacrum

Posted on 7th November 2008 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation

“Where did you meet Ms. Antaran?”

“In a chatroom.”

“May I ask what kind of chatroom?”

“It was…” Mr. Langbacher twiddled his thumbs uncomfortably and sniffed loudly. “It was a dating… It was a chatroom for meeting single women overseas.”

The detective scribbled the words ‘Mail Order Bride‘ on his notepad and nodded thoughtfully, “And she came to visit you?”

“Yes,” Mr. Langbacher nodded. “About a week after we started talking.”

“A week?” the detective raised an eyebrow. “She was able to obtain a visa in a week?”

“I–ummmm…” Langbacher frowned at this. “She didn’t say anything about a visa. We we’re just so happy to…” he sobbed once, “I don’t understand why…

The detective frowned and pushed back from his desk at this, “I understand that getting stood up at the altar is a crushing experience, but you are also the victim of a felony–”

“My life savings–”

“–and my job is to bring the perpetrators to justice. So any information you can give me about Ms. Antaran would be helpful. Do you have any idea how she came to possess your bank account numbers?”

“She…” Langbacher shrugged slightly, “It was part of our marriage plans. She gave me the information for her accounts.”

The detective nodded, looking at the absurd figure listed on Ms. Diante Antaran’s overseas bank account statement, “Mr. Langbacher, did you ever see Ms. Antaran eat?”

“I–I’m sorry?”

“Eat. Did you ever see her actually swallow food.”

“I… We…” Langbacher squinted his eyes, remembering. “We went to several dinners… I remember her playing with her food, but the plate was always full when the wait staff came to clear the table.”

The Detective squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed the bridge of his nose, trying to appear thoughtful. In fact, he was being thoughtful. He was trying to find a thoughtful way to explain to Led Langbacher what an incredible dunce he was.

“Mr. Langbacher, I’m afraid you’ve been the victim of a pretty common scam. Ms. Antaran, the woman you hoped to marry, never existed. She was an AI, probably one of those fourth-gen Real Dolls with hacked chatbot software. In fact, I am certain the robot is certainly being disassembled in a warehouse as we speak.” The detective sighed heavily, “These crimes are very difficult to solve.”

“But… you mean…” Mr. Langbacher’s eyes were welling up with tears. “Lacy wasn’t really daughter to the late treasurer of Freedonia?”

The detective grimaced and slouched in his chair.

Flash SF: The Illusian

Posted on 31st October 2008 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation

Jwandry was just about to take a break from digging her husband’s grave when she caught the movement out of the corner of her eye. Two hours of chiseling away at the rock-solid soil had produced only a shallow indent. At this rate, it would take days to complete it.

There were no schools here to donate Tawney’s body to science. There wasn’t enough fuel to blast the old man into orbit, per his second request, and she couldn’t spare even a little fuel to cremate him, lest she freeze to death before the presently tardy supply craft arrived. The only microbes on the planet were the ones they had brought with them, so Tawney would probably mummify in the moistureless environment. The Offworld Program did not say life would be easy here, but they didn’t say it would be suicide either.

Now Jwandry was staring hard at the nearby rocks, wondering if she was seeing things on this lifeless world, but after a moment she caught another glimpse of it, a fluttering, fuzzy tentacle. Unmistakably, it was one of them. But this was a Terran world, and the illusians only colonized planets with four times the gravity and denser atmospheres, better to convey the vibrations or changes or whatever it was they sensed in the molecules surrounding them. Scientists hypothesized the illusians understood their universe by sampling the molecules around them, like humans with taste and smell, only far more advanced.

On a planet that now had a population of one, what was it doing right here? Jwandry watched as it wiggled and writhed around the rock pile, tendrils radiating out in all directions, feeling over everything. There was no sign of its ship anywhere, which were believed to run on dark energy. She noticed the glint of metal and pattern of electronics mixed within its jumbling tangle of appendages, a spacesuit, and Jwandry realized this wasn’t a colonist, it was an astronaut.

She wondered what she should do. It had to know she was in the area, for why else would it land here? Should she do something to announce her presence to it? Jwandry took a few hesitant steps toward it, momentarily forgetting her dead husband under the nearby blanket, and the illusian seemed to direct its movement in her direction.

When they were within a few feet of each other, Jwandry sat down cross-legged, resigned to whatever would happen next. The illusian wriggled up close to her, and she watched as tendrils within tendrils unraveled with mystifying motion, until a crystal object emerged and was placed before her.

“For me?” she picked it up carefully. It was a geometric shape of incredible complexity. With shapes inside it, interwoven so they appeared to dance with one another as she turned it over in her hand. It was a gift of goodwill, a recognition on the illusian’s part that it knew how human senses understood their world. This illusian wasn’t an astronaut, it was an ambassador.

“I’m sorry I don’t have anything for…” Jwandry trailed off and looked over her shoulder, to the figure under the blanket rippling gently in the breeze beside the shallow grave and smiled for the first time in weeks.

Perhaps Tawney’s body would make it to space after all.

Flash SF: The Meme Virus

Posted on 24th October 2008 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation



“Status! Now!”

Chiandrii practically jumped out of her spacesuit, “I-I’m sorry. I’m here. I’m here. I just wasn’t expecting a status update for another ten minutes.”

“I’ve lost three Information Scientists on this expedition all ready,” Director Kawlah’s displeasure was clear. “So when I request status, I don’t care how early it is, you respond. Do you understand me?”

“Understood,” Chiandrii kept her voice cool, but did not cease her efforts with the control board. Sparks flashed and the octagonal door spiraled open, “I’m entering the objective.”

She edged slowly into what they surmised was the power control station, her vision obscured by the censor displays in her helmet. These allowed her enough sight to get around, but blocked her from seeing crucial passages in the alien epigraphics written all over the building. Without those key passages, it was all nonsense, but, as the last three information scientists discovered, reading those final passages led to insanity.

Every centimeter of the entire planet was covered in the scrawl. Even the endless fields of radar dishes the inhabitants had devoted all energies to constructing were covered in it. They had gone so far as to tear down their hive-like dwellings, communications networks, and other facilities too alien to understand, all for this single-minded purpose.

But this epic feat of communal engineering was nothing compared to the solar array they had wrapped their system’s star in, hiding it from the rest of the galaxy. The Planetary Dynamists on the team believed the civilization had actually consumed two whole planets in this effort to harness all of the power of their white dwarf star, all of which was being beamed to this frozen, dead planet.

Chiandrii thought the planet was like Easter Island back on Earth, where the inhabitants became consumed with erecting massive statues in honor of their gods. They chopped down all of their trees, destroyed their environment, turned to cannibalism, and went extinct trying to please their imaginary deities.

Chiandrii surveyed the control room. Piles of dust, the remains of the planet’s inhabitants, were scattered about. A diagram of the system, which encompassed the entire planet, stretched along the wall. She knew the system well enough to know what she had found.

“This is it,” she reported to Director Kawlah. “This is where they were going to turn it on… and begin broadcasting the code to the rest of the galaxy.”

“Thank the Cosmos they never succeeded,” Kawlah replied.

“It was on at some point,” Chiandrii brushed the dust off the frozen gauges, drew a gloved finger along a black scar in the console, and saw similar burn marks around the room. “There was a battle. The system doesn’t appear damaged, but the–OW!

“Status! N–shhhzzzt!” Kawlah’s voice was lost in static.

“Hold on, I’m… dammit!” Chiandra cradled her hand where the exposed wires in the console, apparently live, had shocked her. She looked around the room, listening to the static, and trying to figure out what was different. Too late realizing that her suit had shorted out, and the vision censors along with it.

She could not erase from her mind what she saw then, could not force her self to not understand it, not even had she wanted to. It was intoxicating, too beautiful to keep to herself, and she immediately set to powering up the consoles to channel the star’s energy to the broadcast arrays.

She had to share this with the entire Universe.

Flash SF: The Philanthropist’s Dilema

Posted on 10th October 2008 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation

“At this stage, Mr. Haro, we have exhausted all options,” the doctor was explaining softly. “It’s time to settle your affairs.”

Haro nodded slightly from his prone position, where numerous tubes and wires bound him to the bed, which he now knew he would never rise from again.

He waited for the electrodes to stimulate his diaphragm, inflating his lungs, and spoke through the exhale. “All is settled,” he paused for the inhale. “There is only this matter…” The word faded off as his breath failed him.

The doctor leaned in slightly, “I have several recipients lined up. Your eyes will restore one person’s vision. Your kidneys will save two lives, and your liver will be divided up to save the lives of numerous people. Additional recipients will have their quality of life improved with your other organs.”

“Mr. Haro,” the man in a business suit sitting across the bed, interrupted, and the doctor flashed an angry look. “Your condition may be incurable now, but medical science is potentially only a few years from a cure. I can almost guarantee you would be in stasis for less than a decade. Then you could continue your charitable work, saving millions of lives rather than just the handful your organs will save.”

“Mr. Haro,” the doctor countered, “If you are resuscitated ten years from now, you won’t have the assets to continue your work. Everything you own now will be redistributed according to your will following your death.”

“Only because the courts do not recognize the potential for life. You might be clinically dead, but not permanently dead,” the finely dressed man leaned in and gently squeezed Mr. Haro’s hand. “With the wealth of your estate, we could easily prevent the redistribution of your assets for ten years, and when you are resurrected, we will set an historic legal precedent.”

“What if…” it was the doctor’s turn to lean in now. “What if you do set a precedent? What if everyone stops donating their organs in hope of being resuscitated? You have the opportunity to live on in others.”

“Our company isn’t offering to extend your life metaphorically… as spare parts in other people.”

“I was talking about your ideals.”

A long, cold silence filled the room. “Doctor please…” Mr Haro paused as his lungs inflated again, and he gestured at the salesman. “Remove this demon… from my shoulder…”

Flash SF: Information Entropy

Posted on 4th October 2008 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation

The complete dismantling of universe Hexonia was a tragic, however necessary evil. It was a series of genocides numbering in the hundreds of billions, but all of the matter within our own Universe was all ready consumed in our ultimate computation.

The question naturally arose, in those brief moments when there was sufficient processing power and memory briefly unallocated to consider it, of why we could not chose a universe devoid of life? But only a universe with similar environmental constants could produce the up and down quarks necessary to interface with our systems. 

In every Universe like our own, life inevitably flourished. Hexonia’s life was too young to understand the dark forces by which its galaxies winked out of existence, one by one. When their universe’s bubble of space-time finally collapsed, there was only our computer to remember them… so long as we could spare the resources.

Hexonia’s streams of quarks were now flowing through the system. Up quarks and down quarks, constituting a binary language of ones and zeros trillions of light years in length. It was enough to last us another hundred billion years, if Moore’s law held true. Only when we come to the end of that computational cycle will we consider the unthinkable once again.

We must continue computing in order to learn what we are computing for.

Flash Fiction, Wage-Slave Avatar

Posted on 26th September 2008 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation

A short short story where a human avatar for real life is confronted with another client’s superior robot avatar. Posted to 365tomorrows, you can read it here.

Ng’s eyes were straining as far as they could go in their sockets to get a look at the brand new shiny avataris sapiens parked at the end of the conference room table. His client’s attention was on the current speaker, a real-life sales person local to the building who was selling some sort of recently evolved market indexing algorithm. Ng was a real-life person also, but not in the context of this meeting. The avataris sapiens was not real-life in any context.

Ng had gotten a good look at it coming into the room thanks to his client lingering on it for what seemed like an eternity before greeting the other meeting members. The avataris sapiens was elegant in design and motion as it stood to greet everyone as they arrived, mimicking the motions of it user.
Ng’s suit was impeccable; his makeup and hair stylized so much as to render him almost artificial to everyone in the room, but the avataris sapiens was even less human. No matter how much Ng sculpted his body at the gym, lasered and tattooed his eyebrows into perfection, or whitened his teeth, the avataris was truly artificial.

Ng stifled a yawn, pursing his lips together tightly with a long, deep inhale so as not to draw any attention to himself. The client had brought him online at four this morning, which was four in the afternoon Eastern Standard time. This six am conference meeting was a natural compromise between timezones, but so was the six pm meeting Ng had attended for another client the previous night. He was fatigued and his stomach was grumbling for missing breakfast, but suppressing these human needs were what made him such a good avatar. Besides, the avataris did not need food or sleep at all.
“What are the metrics on this AI?” Ng came alert as his user’s voice came through his speaker, questioning the sales rep “What kind of return can we expect from its investment choices?”

“The best,” the sales rep answered confidently. “In simulation, our AI can outperform the greatest stockbrokers in the world. We are even planning a public demonstration of its superiority. It will be like when Deep Blue beat Kasparov at chess, historic.”

“And so another human chore will be automated,” a voice to Ng’s left said.

Ng’s visor-harness flashed, and Ng turned his head as his user’s attention was drawn to the speaker. It was the avataris, beautifully artificial, replicating its user’s speech and movement with more grace and elegance than any real human could perform.

The sales rep replied with a jovial quip that Ng did not hear because his user was focused on the avataris. Ng’s breath caught in his throat as he imagined his user admiring it, as if admiring a private jet or corner office. Ng knew he was to the avataris sapiens as renting was to owning, and he was the medium through which his client was seeing the next best thing.

Then, to his horror, the avataris turned its head slightly, noticing his stare, and it smiled at him with otherworldly perfection. Was it acknowledging the unspoken compliment in Ng’s user’s fascination? Or was it a knowing smile, intended for Ng and his obsolescence?

Ng’s heart pounded in his throat, and his stomach grumbled.

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