Tag Archives: Sci-Fi

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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Filed under General

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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Attack of the Giant Purple Girls – Published Today!

Thirty years in the making, this book was started by my mother, and I’ve finally finished it.  Published using the createspace platform it is available from Amazon today as both a paperback and kindle (see widget to the side for a direct link).

This book is about two boys, Dominic and Jason, who have some interesting adventures on a perfectly ordinary Sunday morning, and end up on a strange world battling Giant Purple Girls, and hunger.

My mother passed away without finishing the story, and after some reflection I decided to pick it up, and find out what actually happened to the two characters, particularly the one based on a young me, and here it is.  The artwork on the cover, and inside, is all my mother’s work, though was not originally planned for the book.

I hope you choose to buy the book, and more importantly, enjoy it if you do.

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Star Donkey

By Jason Gibbs

Kael’s head slammed into the back of his helmet.  The stars spun.  Darkness tried to claim him.  Suddenly he was bathed in light, his little ship had twisted to face the sun, but was still spinning making the sun shift in odd ways.  A headache was building behind his eyes.

“Alpha one, do you read me?  Dammit Jole, what is going on?”

The last thing he remembered was approaching the object.  It was a giant cylinder, pointed towards the sun.  It was the first alien artefact humanity had seen, and all the expectations of seamless joins and matt black smart coatings had been dashed.  It looked like nothing so much as a piece of junk, cobbled together by a crazed inventor.  He’d prepared a speech to rival Armstrong’s, but as he neared the thing the words stuck in his mouth.  Then something invisible reached out and thrust his little craft violently away.  He tried to clear his head.

“Alpha one, please respond.  Where are you?”

“Alpha one here.  Please report Falcon.  Are you alright?”

Relief flooded through him, but, damn, it hurt to speak.

“I’m fine, I hurt a bit, but… no I’m OK.  I don’t know what happened, did you see anything?”

“We saw you approach, and then it was like you were slapped away.  Nothing visible.  A forcefield?  It didn’t affect any of the telemetry.  We saw that ugly pile of junk.  I wonder what it is…”

It’s an automated magnetic flux extraction and vessel reabsorption station.

“Um, was that you Falcon?”

“No…”

I am PK.  I run this facility.  I do hope our automated defence system caused you no permanent damage, but I must ask that you do not approach within ten thousand kilometres of our station.  For your own safety.

It was an alien, a proper real, non-Earth based sentient.  Eloquence was sadly lost, and the best he could manage was: “What?  Where are you from?  What do you want from us?”

All of Kael’s training was failing him.  The xenologists back on Earth had given him so many ways of approaching this, it was First Contact after all.  But none of them had anticipated this, whatever it was.

My planet’s name would mean nothing to you, and you only have a random set of characters naming my star.  We need nothing from you.  This facility will run for ten thousand years.  It’s only a short-term extraction, but with reuse we’ve got the cost of these facilities down to something reasonable now, so it’s net positive on the pay back to roll them out aggressively, even for stars like yours which will play out so quickly.

“Alpha One are you copying this?”

Kael’s brain had overloaded.  He had so many questions, he just didn’t know which one to ask, so he’d resorted to protocol: always make sure you have witnesses to back up your story.

“We copy you Falcon.  We continue to acknowledge your lead.”

Well that was very kind of them, now wasn’t it?

“Um PK, can I ask how you can speak our language and know our units, kilometres and years?”

Exploration did a brief survey of your planet when we agreed to deploy the project here.  I had to update the pack which is why I couldn’t contact you immediately after you were repulsed.”

Suddenly something the alien said jumped to the fore of his mind.

“Wait, what do you mean the star will be played out?”

The extraction engine will have consumed so much of the magnetic energies that the star will collapse.  There might be a mini-nova, but probably not a lot.

“In ten thousand years?”

At most.  Based on the magnetic fluctuations we’re seeing within the extraction process it might be only two thousand, which I can tell you is going to wreck the budget and I wouldn’t be surprised if heads don’t roll.  Still not my problem, I’m off to the next installation shortly.”

“You’re telling me that this machine is going to destroy the Sun in possibly two thousand years.”

I can see why Cultural Assessment decided not to invest any effort in your civilisation.  Yes.  Star, gone, two thousand years.  Look, I’m really busy, and I have to leave shortly.  Wait, I know, sorry about this, I should have played this to you first.  Bye.”

Some music played.  Kael tried shouting, but the music was drowning him out, and he doubted Alpha One could hear him.  The music faded and was replaced with a melodic, androgynous voice speaking, a message which was repeated endlessly, and over which Kael was unable to make himself heard.

“This is the [garbled] Mining and Extraction Corporation.  Congratulations, your system has been chosen for an extraction pump.  It will mine energy from your star and provide it to the interstellar community and help improve the lives of trillions of sentients across the galaxy.  We determined your civilisation was in a low-value category, and therefore ineligible for either payment or consultation, if there has been an error in grading, please raise it with the local civilisation assessment office.  In the meantime, you may notice some secondary effects in your star, ultimately culminating in its collapse, and we apologise for any inconvenience caused.”

###

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Goatherd

“Ben, I can see my goats from this rock.”

“Yep, I’ve a good view too.  Any wolves come, we’ll stop them.”

“Thanks for helping,” I said gratefully.

“No problem George, that’s what neighbours do.  They take your goats and they’ll be on to mine next.”

I said nothing, watching the goats leap from rock to rock with a grace and insouciance; the capricious creatures were born for it.  They’d tried sheep at first, but damn things kept getting lost and really didn’t like the rocky ground.  Goats on the other hand loved it, gravity never having had much hold on them.

I watched Bill, my favourite goat, taking a bite out of a rock.  She looked at me while chewing happily.  She was a good producer, but cheeky.  I suspected she was the one who’d broken the fencing the day before.  It wasn’t there to keep the goats in, the gap to the next rocks did that.  It was to stop wolves.

“Fleeces look good George, lovely green, and their torso bubbles look smooth.”

“I’m always careful, I popped one a few years ago, and had to bring the injured goat inside to allow the chlorophyll fleece to regrow, and rebuild the bubble.  A real nightmare.  I always think it’s a pity they can’t live off the rocks, but that’s modern mechano-genetic-engineering for you.”

“Totally!”

A pause.

“You listening on the goats’ channel?”

“Nah, only so many ‘maaas’ I can take.  It’s obvious if they spot anything.”

Bill, bored with her position, bounced off, small pellets of pure metals coming out of her behind, and collecting in the little bubble I attached to her daily.  It still amazed me that they chewed into rock and pooed out these metals, but that was the whole point of bringing them up to the asteroids.

“Mind if I ask something George?”

“Course not.”

“You renewed?”

“Another three years.”

“Full term?”

“Yeah, I reckon if I double the flock over the next month, then I’ll be able to get most of the easy minerals out.  You?”

“I’m on rolling six months, I…”

Suddenly the whole flock looked up.  One of them had spotted a pirate wolf, I got my rifle ready, and hoped we’d get it.

“Got it, Sun-side top.”

“Where… got it too.  A single wolf raider.  There must be a back-up somewhere.”

“You take him out.  I’ll hunt the other.”

I aimed carefully and squeezed off a shot, then another.  The first grazed him, but the second was smack bang in the middle of his bubble.  It collapsed, and I could see the pilot thrashing before it exploded.  It was harsh, but if I hadn’t stopped him then I’d find stripped goat carcasses spinning in nearby space within the day.

I looked around to see how Ben was doing, and spotted another raider bubble collapsing.

“Yee-es!  Got the other.”

“Awesome.  I owe you Ben.”

“Beers next time we’re in town.  Unlikely you’ll see more wolves today.  I gotta check my flock, I bet they’ve scattered.”

Grateful, I watched my flock, oblivious once again and eating happily.  Despite the occasional wolf, it was a good life, for them and me.

###

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Dark Sentinel

Goats are very cool.  And intelligent.

 

Dark Sentinel

“Howard, have you eaten all my dinner?”

Course the goat couldn’t answer.  It didn’t even have vocal cords.  Or a mouth.  But I had to speak to someone.  The psychs had said back on Earth, “If you feel like talking, do so.  The sounds won’t escape the asteroid, and it’ll make you feel better.”

I wish I’d had the courage to ask the psychs if they had spent three years on their own in a dark hole.

They’d recruited me after I’d survived a spelunking accident.  Trapped in a tiny crevice for five days.  Just the dripping of water to keep me company, and alive.  Actually they’d recruited me after the second accident.  The first was only a day.  None of my friends had died in either accident, but poor Blakely had broken a leg and sworn never to enter a cave again.  Being trapped hadn’t deterred me, and I was planning my next expedition when Mr Philips approached me.

“George, I hope you don’t mind if I call you George, I wonder if you’d do me a favour and come and see me after your trip.  I have a job offer which might interest you.”

I didn’t want a job.  However I realised that given the state of my finances it might be sensible for me to listen to his offer.

“You want me to live in a hole, on my own, for three years?”

“Yes, and we will pay you handsomely.  Tax free, and you won’t be able to spend it.  You’ll come back a very rich man.”

“Assuming I come back, and come back sane.”

“Your profile shows you can cope with the stresses.”

I didn’t realise how desperate they were.  Of course I’d heard about the Istanbul attack.  Some kind of ravening alien thing had flown out of the sky and strafed the ancient city, before landing and sending out creatures which collected everything they could get their hands on.  Animals, trees, cars and people.  Everything was taken to their ship.  Which then flew off again.

Why did they let it get away?  They didn’t let it, they just couldn’t touch it.  The Turks launched missiles and fired rounds at it, nothing even scratched the paintwork.  There was consternation.  Not only were we not alone, but ET was a rapacious and apparently invincible rapscallion.

The great powers, for a brief period before they went back to their Great Game bickering, agreed on two measures.  First, they set up a technology program which was to design better weapons, and secondly, they would create a detection mechanism to provide advance warning of any future attacks.

“So you see, we’d like you to be in the outer ring of the warning shell.  In the Oort cloud.”

My astronomy was poor, but I was pretty sure that was a long way away.

“It will take five years for you to get there.  But you’ll be asleep, in deep hibernation.”

Perhaps this is the point where I should have started to get a little suspicious.  In a way I did as I demanded, and received, more money.  But I missed the fundamental point, which was, after all the effort to get me out there, why would they bring me back after three years?  I think the psychs had found that people would balk at being told it was longer.

I’d been in my new home for more than a year before I named the goat.  Before then it had just been an organic machine to me.  The first time I’d spoken to it was a few months later.

“Howard, you know you’re a goat don’t you.”

Nothing.

“A goat spider squid I guess.”

Still nothing.  I decided to explain to him what he was.

“You see Howard, you are a genetically engineered life form, designed to spot the things in the darkness, which is why you have so many eyes, you see, all over this rock.”

I waved around our little hole, though I was indicating the outside.  I also pointed at the fleshy trunks which snaked out of Howard’s holding box.  The brain just sat there.  Probably, hopefully, still staring out into interstellar darkness, to spot the monsters.

The memory of how I’d found out that I wasn’t the important member of the crew stopped my garrulous flow.

We, the chosen few, had been sitting down for lunch.  Morris was mouthing off again.

“You know we’re just going to be glorified shepherds, don’t you?”

“Goat herds,” grunted Simmons, someone who I could relate to, even if I couldn’t pronounce his Croatian first name.

“Whatever.  We’re just there to look after them.  Feed them, protect them from wolves or whatever, and wipe their bums.”

I must have looked a little confused, as Simmons explained, “You haven’t had the lecture yet about your companion.  They’ll tell you this afternoon, but, well, it’s basically a goat brain, hooked up to some extra sensitive eyes, which will stare into space and spot any intruders.”

“They hope!”

“Yeah.  They hope.  We’re there to keep it fed, set up the eyes and, if it does see anything, double check and then report back.”

I’m glad Simmons explained it, as I didn’t get half of that from the lecture that afternoon.

To be honest it was Simmons who stopped me from being one of the seventy percent who failed.  His brotherly attitude meant I could keep up with what was going on.

The first time I apologised to Howard was something which still made me wince.  The problem was that the only thing either of us had to eat was a high calorie liquid, of which they had tons.  There were also some flavourings, but after two years they were getting old in every sense.  Some of the other recruits had talked about the other option.  Goat.

Not all of Howard’s tendrils grew properly, or could be directed to an open area of the asteroid.  I was supposed to try my best to find a use for them, otherwise I was to surgically remove them and put them into the waste hopper, which would, organically of course, try and recover as much food value as possible.  Or, one could, well, eat it.

Problem number one with eating Howard, apart from the fact he was my best friend, was that I wasn’t really supposed to use any heat sources in the cave.  Sure I was many feet under, but the theory was that if I didn’t make any additional heat, then there was no way it could leak out.  Still, there were a few ways.  If nothing else I could use the hot side of the waste recovery tank.

The second problem was the lack of any utensils apart from the surgical scalpel.  Howard was pretty tough, and my teeth and jaws hadn’t been getting much of a work out.  Still, I managed to cut the excess tendril into chunks.  I felt so guilty.  In fact, in the end, I just put them into the waste hopper, and I spent an hour apologising to Howard.  It’s not that he’d have missed the tendril, I’d just been worried I might like it too much, and then I’d have been doing much more maintenance on Howard than was really appropriate.

“You men, will be the first warning of danger for the human race.”

I don’t know why there weren’t any women, perhaps they were being trained in a separate facility?

“The great sacrifice you are making will be valued by everyone on the planet.”

I hadn’t realised I was making a big sacrifice, and I really wasn’t sure that anyone else knew or gave a damn.  The graduation, that’s what they called it, carried on in a similar vein, with me adding silent commentary.  Simmons had disappeared so I didn’t have anyone to whisper to.

The last time I saw Simmons was during a practice run.

“This suit is disgusting.”

“It’s a living creature.  It will form a symbiosis with you, keep you warm and safe.  It will be your second skin for your sleep out and back, and the three years you are active.  Trust me, you will get used to it.”

“Notice he isn’t wearing one,” I whispered to Simmons, who just cracked a small smile.

The instructor ignored us and went on.

“It will provide insulation, it will protect you from radiation and it will, if necessary, keep you alive for up to two weeks in hard vacuum without additional tanks.  It is a miracle of modern gengineering.”  He paused for effect.  “Within a couple of days you won’t even notice it.”

We all stared at the giant jelly baby like blobs on the floor.  They looked as if they’d been attacked by equally gigantic slugs.  The thought of putting one of them on was revolting.

One of the cockier recruits stepped forward and started putting his on, to groans and commentary from everyone else.  The instructor started chivvying the rest of us along and soon we all were wearing them, all except Simmons.  He couldn’t touch it.  Even with the instructor screaming at him.    He wouldn’t, or couldn’t perhaps, explain why he felt such terror towards the suits.  He was taken off the program and moved to a support role.

After that day we lived in the suits.  They made us into clumsy marshmallow men, but we were assured that with practice we’d soon get used to them.  To be fair, I haven’t been cold since that day.  They recycled our urine into drinkable water, and our other waste was dried into pellets which we could easily put into the waste hoppers.

Howard couldn’t move.  He was more of a plant than an animal in that sense.  Occasionally, when I was bored, I’d taunt him.

“Not much of a goat are you Howard?  Can’t see you leaping from boulder to boulder in that shape.  You need to get some exercise mate.”

He just stared at me, with his single eye.  I’d let one grow in our living cave.  Strictly against orders, but after what might have been two years I didn’t really care.

I always felt guilty after I’d been mean, so I’d read to him.  We hadn’t been allowed to bring any electronics.  Nothing which might have any form of EM signature at all.  But we did have quite a large weight allowance.  I used mine on books.  And a ‘Go’ set.  Half the books were favourites I’d happily read again, and the other half were new to me.  Five hundred books.  I hoped I wouldn’t have to re-read them more than once each before I was recovered.

One morning Howard’s warning screen lit up.  It wasn’t really a screen of course.  Our instructors called it a luminescent biological dot matrix light communicator.  Simmons, who’d still been with us, tried to explain it.

“Look, you know that it’s part goat, part squid and some other stuff right?  Well you know squid can change their skin colours?”  I didn’t, but I nodded anyway.

“What they’ve done is sort of wired up the brain bits of the squid which could do that, to an organ which will grow mostly flat, and be able to produce luminous dots.  These will then be used to spell out messages.”

“Such as ‘Maaaaaaa’.”

“Funny.”

Gallows humour had set in.  We thought that we were the first soldiers in the war.  In earlier times we might have been called cannon fodder.

“But really, things like, enemy detected and then the coordinates.  Our job is to then double check the coordinates before sending the signal back to Earth.  If possible we should gather data on size, quantity etc.  But reading between the lines, the warning will be enough.”

I miss Simmons.  At least I have Howard though.

The morning the screen lit up I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do.  Was he telling me there was a space invader nearby?  I walked towards the screen with not a little trepidation.  It said, “Go.  Please.  Black.  4, 4.”

It didn’t make any sense!  Was it telling me there were 44 ships? Or 8?  Where did it want me to go.

I looked around our tiny space in confusion, until I saw that Howard’s eye had moved a little, and now was hanging above my Go board.  He must have been watching when I played myself.  I often described my moves, and created characters.  I tried not to be biased in who I let win.  Now Howard wanted to play.

I didn’t recall anything about this from my long ago training.  I wasn’t sure how long, because they wouldn’t let us bring any timekeeping devices, too much metal apparently.  There were no days, and I had deliberately not marked the walls, I didn’t want it to feel like a prisoner.

Still, was this allowed?  Howard repeated his message, and then said, “Howard beat you.”

That was it; I wasn’t going to allow this jumped up semi-goat squid taunt me.  We set to.

He wasn’t very good.  He’d watched a lot, but didn’t really know the rules.  But I taught him, and eventually he was good enough to beat me.  He would write, “Howard beat.  Howard beat.”

The whole screen would go green and then pink as he celebrated.  I didn’t like losing, but I did like the challenge.

He’d also ask me to read to him, so I did.  My reading light was bioluminescent, and they’d done something to make my eyes more sensitive to light.

That’s how we lived.  Howard and I.  Our dark little hole was home.  It was a natural crevice in the asteroid, we’d been careful to avoid anything artificial.  It was long and narrow, with only a small bulge to form the main room.  But it was ours.  The supplies were in another cave further along the asteroid, with a small fissure connecting it to our cave and I’d put in a set of organic pumps so that I didn’t need to go out whenever I wanted dinner.  We had lots of food supplies.  Much more than I had expected.  They’d explained it away as preparing supplies for the next man.  Now I wasn’t sure.

The constant dark should have intimidated me, crushed my spirit maybe.  Instead it felt like comfort.  Whenever I wanted to see light I’d climb up to the surface, and watch the stars.  They were so bright, and beautiful.  They’d make me cry, partially in wonder, and partially due to my now super sensitive eyes.

Time rolled on.  Howard started beating me consistently at Go, and then started letting me win occasionally.  We made quite the odd couple.  I kept time by my books, a complete cycle being when I’d read all those I was happy to re-read.  Some 423 books.

Had Earth forgotten me?  Was it still there, or had the invasion come from another angle?  I stopped worrying about these unanswerables, and let myself get lost in my books, or playing Go.

This morning my vigil ended.  Howard had a message.

“Multiple objects sighted.  Angle 134.34 to 156.02.  No Go.”

No Go indeed.  I had to get to the surface to check the sighting, but I had to do it taking advantage of the asteroid’s spin, and then hiding in one of the prepared hides.  I checked the rotation schedule, and got ready to go out.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been out.  Possibly one book cycle ago.  I looked out, and shut my eyes from the brightness.  I was facing the sun, and even though it was just a dot from here, it was still extremely bright.  I felt my way out, and crawled to the hide.  It was really just a hole with a stone grill above it, but it in theory would allow me to look out without being spotted.

The asteroid spun, and the region of space Howard had identified came into sight.  Normally there were stars galore, instead it was black.  There was nothing.  I’d have thought I’d gone blind, except around the edges I could see the occasional star.  Whatever was approaching it was large.

Why had Howard waited until they were upon us before telling me?  I wondered if he’d been concentrating so much on our Go games that he’d forgotten his job.  I didn’t think it would be fair to castigate him, he was, after all, just a goat.

I watched the edges of the blackness, and over time caught movement of entities leaving and re-joining.   In the faint starlight I strained to make out their shapes.  Eventually I was convinced they looked like the craft which had attacked Istanbul.  This was it.  This was the invading host we all feared, and if it reached Earth unchecked, then it would obliterate the planet.

I was supposed to signal Earth to tell them that something was coming, and give basic details.  This was via a system of flares which I could set off on the Sun-facing side of one of the static asteroids.  I just needed to get across to it and pull the appropriate cords.    It was close enough that I could jump across, and back again.  Hopefully unseen, though the aliens might investigate the source of the flares, and find me.  It wouldn’t matter as the message would be flying towards Earth at lightspeed, and my mission would be complete.

I asked Howard where the asteroid was as I couldn’t see it where I thought it should be.

“Flare Asteroid is 400km distant now.  Drift after collision.  Many kms per book cycle.”

Disaster.  How could I warn Earth?  I sat in the bulge, staring at Howard’s screen in despair.  Until I wondered to myself, perhaps he could help me?  He was clearly intelligent.

“How do we tell Earth Howard?”

“Tell what?”

“That the invaders are coming.”

Silence.  I tried asking the question in different ways.  Eventually he answered.

“They know.  Ships came from Earth.  Go?”

###

 

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