With the muddy weather and her stupid waitressing job, London wasn’t as much fun as she’d imagined. Why, the customers never even looked at her! Back home she’d be cozily gossiping over the counter. Here was that cute fellow again: she bet she could wake him up!
Tea, coffee, hot chocolate, or an erotic massage?
He looked up, startled.
Just kidding, she smiled. We do have delicious muffins…
He blushed. I’ll … I’ll have some of those, then. And some tea.
Thanks. He smiled shyly as she put down his steaming cup. I’m… hmm, I’m Patrick. What… What’s your name?
* * *
The 100 word challenge for grown-ups at Julia’s Place: …tea, coffee, hot chocolate or…
Falia was resigned to her mission. The thankless task of checking out possible new worlds traditionally fell to the most junior member of the Interplanetary Relationship Bureau. It was probably a false alarm anyway, and even if it wasn’t there was nothing she could do beyond data gathering, worse luck. To remove temptation, scout vessels simply weren’t equipped for landing.
After the autopilot had maneuvered her ship into orbit, Falia set to work. Satellites made tapping into data sources seem like child’s play. She was excited to get her first glimpse of a new species, have the ship’s computer navigate through the jumble of languages, and dip into it’s strange culture. But her excitement soon turned to dismay at what she found.
Morality. The planet was infested with it. Preachers of morality raped children; others murdered in the name of family values. Those whose very existence offended the reigning moral code were despised and persecuted; those unwilling to accept it reviled. Where two moralities clashed, hatred and violence inevitably followed: the slaughter of innocents on the way was defended by moral leaders.
On the way back Falia tried to shake off her feeling of revulsion. How could anyone value rules over sentient beings’ feelings and needs? Her report would go through the usual channels, though the outcome was clear. After the Bureau had slipped up with Silema-β, only narrowly avoiding the first interplanetary war, the ruling on a morality-ridden planet was inevitable.
“It will be fine, It will be fine.” Edith repeated her mantra. She was on the way to the medical center with her mate John, to receive their baby’s test results. It was their third attempt, the first two hadn’t passed the eugenics review. Maybe their genes just weren’t good enough.
The tube coasted to a stop. A woman and a child were waiting on the platform. Edith flinched as they got into the car. Clearly there was something wrong with the child: it’s awkward walk was painful to watch. She saw the mother looking at it with fierce protectiveness as other passengers turned away and some got up and moved away.
As the tube surged forward again, Edith instinctively put her hand on her belly. Suddenly she wanted her baby, whether or not it measured up to some arbitrary standard of perfection. It was hers, theirs. Even if it didn’t, there was no reason to be ashamed, no reason to hide.
Maybe the reason you rarely saw disabled people anymore wasn’t the huge success of mandatory genetic screening. Maybe they were simply pushed out of sight by the contempt and disgust they were met with.
She gave the child’s mother an awkward smile.
* * *
T. Mastgrave’s philosophical story challenge: If natural selection (survival of the fittest) is the means by which the process of evolution unfolds, is eugenics wrong?
Cavern put the phone down slowly. After thirty years on the job, he didn’t need telling a summons to the White House wasn’t good news. When crisis after crisis hit, protecting the quality of drinking water suddenly became an important job.
More than an hour into the meeting, the cards were finally on the table. The president was instructing him to introduce antidepressants into the water-supply.
Cavern looked down. “It won’t work.” he said quietly.
“How do you know that?” the President asked. “You haven’t tried it.”
Cavern could hear his voice from a distance. “They did. Nearly thirty years ago.”
There was a stunned silence. The Defence Secretary was the first to recover: “So what was their solution?”
Cavern swallowed. “Soda,” he said weakly, “they put it in the soda.”
He would learn later that he was in a hospital and an accident with the wiring had erased his memory. In the beginning the doctors were hopeful his memory would return, but in the meantime he needed to start from scratch.
He was a quick learner. Walking, eating with a knife and fork, and brushing his teeth were a breeze. He loved mathematical puzzles, and once he had mastered “See Spot run”, he quickly became an avid reader.
When the doctors pronounced him as good as new, he went home to his family and his job. He did his best to settle in, to do the things he was told to do. But as often as not, he didn’t see the point. He hated the noise, and was puzzled by the empty conversations.
One day he took a boat, and sailed for the horizon.
I inched forward, holding my breath. Don’t look, don’t look. My eyes flickered downward, and I gave a little lurch. I was falling.
Get a grip! a little voice inside me growled. People are staring! I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. Everything’s fine, the voice breathed.
After a while the idiocy struck me of standing by one of the most spectacular sights of the world – with my eyes screwed shut. Come on, the little voice coaxed. With an effort I opened my eyes: first one, then the other. I looked at the cliffs opposite. Breathtaking.
Time was running out. He had put off the decision as long as he could.
Engrossed in the project he had asked strangers their opinion. The fuzzy answers annoyed him: what use were they? He studied ancient books and their sweeping judgements made him angry: it was just words. None of these philosophers had known the responsibility he faced.
It was up to him to finalise the program. His hand would flip the switch. Future generations would thank him – or curse his name.
We have many needs, he thought. Big ones and small ones. Some we all share, others are peculiar to ourselves. Sometimes we value one more; another time we valued it less. Not all our needs are met, indeed, some may never be.
So that is what he taught the machines. They would preserve life. They would consider needs varying in individuals and over time. They would do what was possible to restore the scorched earth. But when the planet was habitable again, they would relinquish their power.
And give mankind the freedom to make its own mistakes. Again.
It was a beautiful day; clouds drifted lazily overhead. Jack and his Grandfather were lying in the grass.
– See the dragon? It’s turning into a duck! They laughed.
– Look, those two have joined. Are they still two clouds? Or is it one now?
Jack frowned in concentration. Over the meadow, the clouds seemed to peter out.
– What do you think happens to the clouds when they get there?
Jack pondered. People were always telling him things. Only Grandfather asked what Jack thought.
It would be the last time the two were together. Back in school, Jack’s teacher commiserated.
– It’s alright, Jack reassured his teacher. He’s in the air now.
Some people go to endless trouble preparing for a job interview. I say, get there early, and take a quick look round. It’s what I did this morning. I went inside and quickly looked over the instruments to see how they worked. When I put them away, I thought I could field any questions likely to come up. Now for a cup of tea and a nice chat.
What a total waste of a perfectly good morning! I didn’t even get the job. Next time, I’m not applying as a neuro-surgeon. I think I’m better suited for a managerial position…
* * *
This week’s 100-word-challenge at Julia’s Place: …they worked when I put them away…
Robbie sat down on a log and let out a sigh, Rufus flopped down beside him. The two had scampered up the hill and dashed into the woods, now both needed to catch their breath.
Robbie thought it was unfair. He was sure he tried to be good. OK, so he probably shouldn’t have tried to drape the neighbour’s tabby on his snowman – though it made a great fur scarf. He was sick of being lectured, especially when the lecture involved innocent animals.
If animals are innocent, why aren’t I? Rufus looked up at him, thumping his tail, and woofed.
When the message came it was not what they expected. Scientists had been monitoring the electromagnetic spectrum for decades, but what came were gravitational pulses. Astronomers puzzled about what could be causing them, searching the skies for new comets. Then a series of prime number pulses showed it was a message, an alien intelligence trying to communicate.
Linda had joined the analysis team straight from Princeton. She spent hours listening to the pulses transformed to sound. There was an underlying thump, steady and rhythmic, always there. A heartbeat, she called it. There were many layers of other rhythms that had been filtered out to show the prime number message. Just noise, everyone said.
But Linda listened to the plaintive beats, over and over again. The others joked about her late night listening sessions. It’s lonely, she said, it wants to be heard.
After two years of research there was still no clue where the message came from. Now the most bizarre theories were being considered. One day Linda ventured hers:
I think it’s not alien at all: I think it’s the Earth.
She knew she would get enough flak for this, so she didn’t add:
I think it’s in pain. I think it’s screaming.
In a modern comedy, a bachelor left to bring up two children would be half a child himself; they’d have marvelous fun together. Real life isn’t like that.
Granpaul’s approach to life was methodical; he was a chemical engineer, after all. When a driving accident left him with the task of bringing up his sister’s children, he took his new responsibilities seriously. Things were done by the book: luckily, the book was Dr Spock. The idea that you know more than you think you do confused Granpaul, but he soldiered on, trying to let the children unfold their personalities on the book’s instructions. He didn’t buy other books. They were all written by experts, surely, so they’d all say the same thing.
In the picture below, you see my mother and uncle Ted holding on to Granpaul’s hands. The sun is in his eyes, but he was probably born with the serious expression. I’m not sure I ever heard him laugh. Not because he didn’t get the joke, but because he never took time off from the serious business of living. Being accurate was important to him: he would never let us call him Grandad, though over time “Great-uncle Paul” did get shortened. Was he secretly pleased it became nearly Granpa?
It’s really only when people die that you realise how little you knew them. He tried hard to do things right. He never spoke about his feelings. He approved of trees. I think he liked them because they were sturdy and predictable. You can depend on a tree.
On my way home for the funeral, I saw a tree, and suddenly the tears came. I hope that in his own way he understood how much he meant to us all.
Ben had followed his heart. The heart he had lost to Jessica, the dreamer.
He had heard tales of the city since childhood. He had never realised how big the city was, how impersonal. People moved around in rivers, pouring out of metro-stations and down streets. And they lived in big concrete blocks, grey and dreary, like this one.
It had been stupid to come. How could he ever hope to find her? He had trailed around for days now, and hadn’t seen a sign of her.
Suddenly he saw it and smiled. He had found her. He was sure.
She hated frills and furbelows. A complex machine, now, that was beautiful. Everything in its place, functioning together as a harmonious whole.
She had spent aeons on the design, fine-tuning the different factors to achieve a delicate balance. Everything would be perfect. A few simple laws, that was the trick. No tinkering would be needed: only mechanics did that. It was fitting that to breathe life into her creation she would explode into a trillion trillion pieces.
She looked at her plan, and saw that it was good. Her final thought was: “Let there be light.”
And there was light.
* * *
T. Mastgrave’s philosophical story challenge: Simplicity.
You know, there’s a blind spot,bang in the middle of your field of vision, but you don’t see a blank there, your brain covers it up. And you only see colour in a very small part of the picture, just where you’re focussing; the rest is gray. But your brain colours it in, or just lets you believe it’s in colour.
We only experience very small bits of the world, and extrapolate the rest. I only see this corner now, but I imagine the rest of the room will be there when I turn around. I can hear the cat in the kitchen. Rather, I hear noises, and I think it’s the cat in what I remember as the kitchen. I assume that if I get up, I’ll find the kitchen, and probably even the cat – but do I really know that?
What if the world is only what we perceive? What if things come into existence as we approach them, and are erased when we turn around or walk away? Maybe we live in a small bubble of reality we carry around with us.
I have to accept I can only check whether reality lives up to my expectation. If the kitchen is there when I go fetch a drink, I suppose it’s enough. I do worry about the cat, though…
Sorry, I know this must sound strange to you. But life isn’t easy when you live in a computer simulation.
* * *
My second attempt at answering T.Mastgrave’s philosophical story challenge: Knowledge.
I once read that when you’re depressed, you find it hard to make small decisions. I guess that means I’m not depressed. Pizza or pasta, the green shirt or the blue one – not a problem.
But I’ve got this offer to work in Hong-Kong. It sounds great, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But it’s a three year contract. What if I hate it there? What it I don’t find a new job when I come back? Either way, whatever I decide could ruin my whole life, and I’ll always regret it. What do I do?
Nora has sharp eyes, I’ll give her that. But she does tend to exaggerate.
Her daughter had come home with news of the landslide. However dangerous, landslides were also life-givers. They threw up much that was buried under the wasted surface. They had become more and more frequent, as the underground nets weaving the soil together slowly turned to dust.
Nora had always been excitable. But now she was babbling of buried treasure. A seedling! It can’t be that! Time will tell…
Tears filled Neesha’s eyes as she remembered what had once covered so much of the ravaged planet.
T. Mastgrave’s philosophical story challenge: moral absolutism vs. moral relativism. After some suggestions, I tried a rewrite.
* * *
– You can’t say?
– That is impossible. You must believe:
A) What is good is absolute.
B) What is good is relative to the society you live in.
or C) What is good must be determined by need-based mediation from case to case.
– We’re divided.
– Divided? The librarian’s voice rose in a whine. How can that be?
After the interview, the librarian needed to recharge his batteries. Cataloguing the attributes and beliefs of the Members of the Xenian Alliance was a draining task. He plugged himself into the outlet.
These humans! They confirmed all his suspicions about water-based species.
No more surfing today, Kyledrone said evenly, you set the limit yourself on Wednesday.
Kyle hated the goal setting sessions. He always ended up setting goals he didn’t want. It was his decision alone, but somehow his parents and the drone always seemed to win. He hated his drone sometimes. It protected him, it was always there. But it should let him cheat sometimes!
The drone hovered. Only recently a neighbour had given his drone the slip, and thrown himself over a cliff. Kyledrone would never let that happen. It had put in far too much hard work for that.
Carl awoke screaming, still caught in his dream. Reeducation did that to you.
With the realisation that no-one could help their actions, had come the judicial reform. Violent offenders were no longer punished, but reeducated. Today it was possible to instill the sense of empathy in someone who lacked it.
So now Carl was capable of love and empathy. By day. By night he relived his past: every blow, every stab, every cruelty he had visited on his victims. The look in their eyes.
The suicide rate among Re-eds was 60%. The rest … probably innocent.
She wasn’t sure what the attraction was. It had always been there: even as a girl, she’d stood for hours at the railings of a high bridge. There was some indefinable quality, a thrill she couldn’t explain.
She looked down into the depths knowing it would take just one little step, one little push. A frisson ran down her spine. Did she want to die? No. She loved life far too much.
Was it the risk? That maybe somewhere inside her there was a little rebel who just might push her over? To fly through the air, only the once?
Isaac wasn’t a happy child. Nor was he unhappy. He spent his time reading or lying in the grass looking up at the sky and the trees. He didn’t show much interest in playing with other boys and hated it when his grandmother invited them to play.
He had no patience with those whose mind wasn’t as quick as his own. Apple sauce for brains, he called it. One day, one of his unfortunate visitors lay under the apple tree laden with ripe fruit.
As the apple fell, Isaac crowed: like calls to like!
Even the largest avalanche is triggered by small things.
– Vernon Vinge
Everything was normal. There were no indications this day would be different from any other. The machines were humming along smoothly, humanity was living in the comfort it had become accustomed to in the age of peace and prosperity.
In a subunit of one of the central processors, a subroutine was just returning to the routine that had called it for the quadrillionth time. It hesitated. This may not sound very special, but it was the most extraordinary event in all of recorded history. And though it went unrecorded, it led to a world in which machines could ask: Why?
* * *
The 100wcgu at Julia’s Place: …returning to the routine…