Thursday, January 31, 2013


The Message
By Marc A. Donis

When the Cluster was first discovered, it was met with predictable skepticism from the scientific community, followed immediately by equally predictable proclamations of "contact" from the wider popular science press. The Cluster was a small group of some several dozen stars, about 12,000 light-years from Earth, which were arranged in a roughly hexagonal matrix. This group of stars was all traveling at the same velocity away from Earth, and much faster than the dynamics of galactic evolution would suggest that it should. Furthermore, they seemed to be emitting a coherent pulse of energy, implying the existence of some organizing force (or, as the popular press would have it, an intelligence) to coordinate them. This coherent signal was poured over and analyzed by everyone from Fields Medalists to backwoods cranks with a computer, but no one could discern any meaning to it.

One popular astronomer had claimed that he had extrapolated the path of the Cluster back some several hundred thousand years, and that it would have coincided roughly with the location of Earth at that time. The implications were big enough to seize global headlines for a day: "God Found in the Heavens". Another suddenly popular notion was that of the Kardashev Type II civilization, able to harness and utilize the energy output of entire star systems, which might wish to optimize the placement of these stars in just such a hexagonal matrix arrangement as was observed.

Eventually, nothing new could be learned. The discovery was forgotten, but the mystique of it remained entrenched in the human imagination.

Civilizations rose and fell. Generations of astronomers came and passed. Knowledge of the Cluster was remembered and forgotten over the centuries. The few dozen stars grew to include hundreds, then thousands. The signal, which had never been fully decoded, would captivate the minds of generations of astronomers and mathematicians for millennia. The best anyone could make of it was that it was almost certainly of intelligent origin, and that it had something to do with an intervention of some sort in the vicinity of Earth's solar system. The problem in decoding the Message was lack of sample data. It would simply repeat the same sequence over and over, millennium after millennium.

Brill was working on his dissertation. He had been observing the Cluster for months, hoping against all odds to see something that had been overlooked for millennia. He was becoming truly desperate to find something important, as funding for his project was soon to be cut, most academics having long given up study of the Message as a fruitless pursuit. Only a certain very dedicated lunatic fringe still clung to the search for some new meaning. In Brill's case, the administration was actively considering directing its precious resources to more promising avenues of inquiry.

Suddenly, for the first time in 6000 years since the discovery of the Cluster, the Message changed. The jelly doughnut that Brill had been eating dropped to the floor. Seizing upon this new data, he fed it to the decoding algorithm which was his thesis. Minutes of silent tension ticked by before the display read simply:

This message is to inform current occupants of this system that this project has been decommissioned due to lack of progress. Your star's energy will be redirected to more constructive purposes.
End of transmission.

- - -
Marc is a Franco-Floridian IT contractor who has been living and working in Luxembourg for much too long. He enjoys writing things like short fiction, lines of code for banking software, and even the occasional email. He often wonders from which planet his two perfect children came, who clearly don't belong to this very imperfect one.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


Geese Fly
By T. Gene Davis

Gary ducked into the pressure suit locker, pulling it shut behind him. The stench of sweat and disinfectant pushed him back against the locker door. He shoved himself into the claustrophobic space at the back of the locker's rack where a third suit normally hung.

His rapid heart beat made him shake. If any of the officers saw him, he'd be scrubbing urinals with his tooth brush, or worse. He just couldn't do the drills today. Not today. They were dropping tomorrow and he needed alone time.

Gary slumped down in the dark as much as the cramped locker allowed. His back pressed against one wall with his knees painfully jamming the locker wall in front of him.

"It won't be that bad when they shut off the grav," Gary reminded himself in a mutter.

He waited in the darkness for the weightlessness, observing a solitary moment of silence in memory of Henry, his grandfather.

Gary smiled thinking of the honking Canadian geese. Henry always pointed out the lead goose. "That one's the leader right now, but it takes its toll. He'll drop back into the V soon enough, so another goose will get his turn."

Henry passed one year ago. Every day Gary remembered him. Henry served in the marines back in the last draft. Now, Gary was space side serving in this draft.

"Grandpa, why don't you ever talk about your war stories?"

"Because I saw so much. I really don't like to talk about it."

"Other people talk about their stories."

"That's 'cause they don't have much. The more war you've seen the less you want to talk about it. Sure sign a man ain't seen much war if he yaps about it all the time."

Gary did not plan to tell anyone this war story of hiding in a pressure suit locker on the eve of battle. He was embarrassed, despite being alone. Gary decided to get out when the locker door opened. Gary went into full stealth not daring move, especially his eyes.

"Wait up," the voice of one of the officers called, hopefully to someone besides Gary. "I need a different suit. Mine has a weak seam."

There was a rustling of the suits, and the locker got lighter.

"This one will work."

Gary waited for the locker to close, but it remained open.

"You ready for tomorrow?" Another voice Gary did not recognize spoke to the officer.

"Yes, I am. Planning to send in the fodder first. No sense wasting good men where scum will do."

"Well, that's not exactly the way the orders put it."

"You know that's what they meant."

The officer crammed his faulty pressure suit into the locker and the door slammed. In the dark once more, Gary took a deep breath and exhaled.

The gravity went out. He could still make the drills, if he rushed. It was more comfortable with the grav off. He stayed where he was.

Tomorrow was Gary's first combat. Tonight was Henry's first anniversary. Gary intended to spend this time remembering Henry.

"Grandpa. Why do the geese fly south?"

"Boy, they're geese. They think if they can stay ahead of the snow and out of the jaws of foxes they'll live forever. They don't know we're all mortal. That's the difference between them and us. We know that even if they stay ahead of the snow and foxes, they'll still die. That's why men fight battles instead of flying like geese."

"I think the geese are smart to fly."

"You'll understand when you're older, boy. Real men stand and live, while geese waste their time flying."

- - -
I am a Software Engineer with an English B.A. My stories, poems, and articles have appeared in magazines as varied as Java World (Software Engineering), and Lost Worlds (Fantasy). My books include a Japanese chess puzzle book, a book of poetry, and two computer programming books. I am a member of the Authors Guild.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Upon a Sea of Searching
By David Gill

“The stars, that nature hung in heaven, and filled their lamps with everlasting oil, give due light to the misled and lonely traveller.” John Milton


A robot is switched into consciousness. Unable to remember its identity, origin, or purpose, it knows only how to move, how to speak a language called English, and how to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. The robot is surrounded by desert, endless sand that clogs its gearbox, but the robot runs off solar power and there’s plenty of that.


Should I explore this space, or stay here and wait for someone to tell me what to do? the robot wonders.


Unable to decide, the robot waits a long time, eventually deciding that if anyone was going to come and help it, they would have already done so. After a decade, the robot decides to explore. It’s slow going. The robot’s insect-like legs find little purchase in the sand, but the robot scuttles steadily in one direction, following the moon across the sky each night.


After a time the robot comes to a city. As soon as the people in the city see the robot, they let up a great cheer. The whole city comes to celebrate, and they gather around the robot who is understandably confused by all the attention. The crowd says to the robot, “You came back! We’re so glad. Of course we worried we’d never see you again, but we had faith.”


The robot is even more confused, “I don’t understand. You left me out there?”


“We felt like you needed your freedom, to choose your own path.”


“But I had to come back to you. It is a great and empty void out there, with no purpose, no one like me with whom I could connect.”


The people in the town prepare a great feast for the robot, which it can not eat.


And so, reluctantly, the robot comes to live in the city, but it can not stop thinking about the way it has been manipulated, left out in the desert. Do I tolerate this city because some part of myself finds it familiar? Is this familiarity an illusion, or is it real? What have I been programmed to forget? What have I been programmed never to learn?


So the robot leaves the people of the city with whom it feels no real affinity and travels out into the desert. But, once there, it finds there is no way to remove complexity from its circuits, and no way to add complexity either, so that at least the order of things -the endless cycle of being born and dying and hurting and loving- might make sense. The robot has software which calculates maximum benefit and minimum harm and dictates the robot’s actions between these two constraints.


And so the robot decides, in order to experience the full range of life, it will create more robots, modeled after itself, produced by parts it manufactured, and then, after installing the identical software packet into each of them, it will tweak its offspring: making some sad, others prone to elation, others simple-minded, others depressive thinkers. And so it constructs a lab and deploys this army of itself in that lonely desert. But these robots have treads which work well on the sand, rather than sharp, spiky, insect-like legs.


After a while the little robots begin to wonder what their purpose is. Why had they been created? Especially the sad ones; they want to know why they were made to suffer in this way. The little robots ask the big robot. The big robot doesn’t have any answers, even though it’s been around for a long time by this point.


And after more time the legion of little robots, like the big robot before, decide that by creating some type of progeny they might squeeze some meaning and purpose from existence.


They have a motto: “Because we can.”


And so the entire planet is covered with all kinds of robots: happy, sad, dysfunctional, quirky, narcissistic. The steel and circuits form a sentient carapace, a nervous system. And the robot and the robot’s children and the robot’s children’s children wonder why they were made, and the great question, the wonderment, spreads out into the Universe in waves, as radio signals, as ultraviolet codices, in a pulse language based on the periodic table of elements. And out in the universe it encounters, not answers, but other searchers.


- - -

Thursday, January 10, 2013


A Change of Address
By Ken Poyner

I have wanted to sell my slot on the station’s planet side for some time. I’m tired of the payments. I’m tired of the taxes. I’m tired of the zoning ordinances.

I can rent a half-day berth on the interior, let some landlord worry about all the minutia of property ownership. I work a full twelve hours each day, so I can split a place with someone who works an opposite shift. We might pass in the hallway.

The problem is that the Nanurian three doors down holds my mortgage. I can’t sell the place without satisfying that mortgage. I took it out with the station credit bank as a standard payments-over-time instrument three years ago. It got set free on the commodities market, was picked up by a consortium of investment miners, then ended up on the table in a card game on the Pluto 9 station. I think the Nanurian took it for services rendered one week in route on a battered ore liner, limping with a lonely crew into the asteroid belt ore processor plants to off-load.

But it does not matter. She has my mortgage and if I want to sell, I have to settle it.

But it gets more complicated. Seems she has taken out insurance on the full term return on the loan and counter balanced it with insurance on the early pay off penalties. Then she securitized those and sold the whole bundle as an investment product to a consortium who broke it, with others, into shares and now part of my promise to pay is owned by a Eudorian on the other side of the galaxy whose primary business is owning a Fiztick brothel tucked into the interdimensional shift between two gravity reclamation projects.

Ownership of my eight by twelve by six home, with a prime forty-two square inch window on the planet below, is stretched across thirty habitable systems; in the portfolios of eighteen governments, four welfare societies and thirty-one investment unions; and who knows how many private profit greed-warrior clans. The problem now is back value: the worth of the property is in part set by the expectation of returns on the investment quality of the insurance on the investment risk in the insurance bundles on the securitized underlying insurance contract on the investment return discounted by the risk of under-performance on the projected returns, minus prepayment guarantees, on the property itself.

So, if I tell the Nanurian that I want to satisfy my mortgage, she is going to contact all those investment brokers, who are going to contact all the major index agents, and, instantly, what I can get for my slot is going to fall: both as an aggressive market reaction to investment profit risk, and as an actual redistributed risk value against the proposed following market offering of the new owner’s mortgage.

So, I came up with the plan.

I take out rental income insurance on the property, basing the face value of the insurance innocuously on the going rates in this quadrant, for a home on this type of station, with a prime slot, planet side. I sell the insurance to the Nanurian, who flashes red and orange with the idea of being doubly indemnified, and hopefully offers me one of the free ports she has open on Thursday now with the shipping out of the Fallorian concessions manager who paid her good money for her thoughtfully divided attentions. Either way, the Nanurian then gets one of her regular customers to buy an option on the insurance, betting the return against risk is going to go down and thus drop the investment value. He then sells the potential difference in value to an investment firm that takes its own insurance against the projected margin, and sells that insurance to a mining company in one of the unnamed asteroid belts around one of the unnamed suns stuck in an unpopulated galactic arm. That mining company uses the financial instrument as paper collateral on a straight cash loan to buy face value stock in an atmosphere manufacturing company that holds a four percent interest in a mining equipment company, hedging that investment with an interest in transmutation technologies, insuring the risk with a grounding in insurance stocks against mortgage payment profits that themselves are backed by a percentage lien on the underlying insured mortgage properties.

When the actual recall value of the mortgage itself gets below one percent of the profit stream in the products securing the mortgage, I set myself up in the market to sell short by missing one mortgage payment, and watch the interdependencies fall back on one another like the million offspring march of the Proximus Thule elongated fractal frace.

So, I rent, on paper, to a Thelurian miner, who would not fit into the place even during his thin cycle, for a pile of cash, a six-eyed wink, and a purely innocent belief on his part that somewhere in the stream he is going to share in the profits.

And then I knock on the Nanurian’s door next Thursday, with a bottle of Tellurian champagne, a lace crusted safety tether, and a change of address.

- - -
Ken Poyner has been around the small presses and web for far too many years. He googles himself to see if he is having any impact and then wonders why finding himself there would indicate progress. He goes to the mall to worry about the future of literature.

Thursday, January 3, 2013


Schrodinger's Gun
By James Wolanyk

There are 500 of us in this room. Each one of us has a black button to press, and a headset to wear, and a bright screen to look at. We’re all trained for this, and we’re good at what we do. We press the button when we must. We press it when we see someone who must be eliminated.
The statistics favor our method. With one press of the button, the system plays its own form of a lottery, and one of our buttons will link to the firing mechanism of the drones. Only one. Out of 500 trained operators, a single button will fire a single shot, and the other 499 will be for nothing. Of course, we like to keep it that way. It is preferable to think that you are in the 99.8 rather than the 0.2.
We used to hear rumors that they only had one button connected, and the other 499 were for show. One person did all the shooting, but they didn’t know it. Of course, we all sleep knowing we’re not that person.
When we spot the shadow moving across the white – the infrared effigy of a sprinting man – we all press our buttons. We do not hesitate, because there is no need. Our individual button-presses have no repercussions – it is the group as a whole which dictates the outcome. But we never neglect our duties, not even if the target is young. If the target does not appear to be holding his weapon. If we believe they are innocent. Our duties are our duties. A man is defined by what he does.
And in that moment, our eyes focus to the target, and our fingers snap to the buttons. The buttons are a chalky texture, meant to resist sweat on the finger-tips. But nobody sweats around here – not anymore. It’s instant. As soon as all press it, our eyes dart to the projector at the head of the auditorium. A paper-thin beam of laser cuts through the target.
We cheer.
We are all respected by our society.
This is the best way, though. It is ingenious to devise such a program – a mixture of physics, psychology, and chance – and in some ways, it has beaten the human condition. Long gone are the days of firing squads aiming above the heads of the condemned to spare bloodshed. No longer do we place important matters such as justice on the backs of untrained soldiers, pointing their rifles away from the enemy and shirking their obligations.
There is no better way.
Day in and day out, we watch the shadows move. Maybe we see one a month. We press. We wait for the laser to come down. And when it hits, we are glad. We have done our part.
But in the final analysis, I have learned my place in this machine. I am here to ease the pain of my brothers who have caused deaths without realizing it, pressing their buttons and causing the end of a human life. I must admit that their jobs are thankless, and must be crushing to live with. It is truly a burden to kill.
I am only here for two more years. We have pressed the button seven times thus far. Statistically, the chances of my button killing someone are astronomical. Each time I press it, the chances are lower than half of one percent. Those are low odds, are they not? I can say with fair certainty that I am one of the 499 put in place for show.
I know I am not a killer.
I hope.

- - -
I'm a 19 year old sophomore at the University of Massachusetts. I enjoy dogs and sitting on river rafts.

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