All posts by Troim Kryzl

Issue Red

„Another one?! You lost one more sub?! How the hell are you doing it?! This whole mess is just impossible, plain impossible.” Annie’s forehead is gleaming. Her white shirt stained by dark sweat marks. Despite the air conditioning. Not easy, for a leader, to accept this kind of defeat.

Tonia would be compassionate, if she had more time. But they’re running out. Of time. And of options. Especially of options: “Annie, you’re in denial. Won’t work. It’s not going away. They’re not going away. It has happened before. We lost subs. And planes. And now it has happened again. It’s perfectly possible. They can do it. They once again did it. And they will keep doing it. As long as we don’t comply with their demands, they’ll keep doing it. We have to…”

“No. No! And no means no. What the hell do you think you’re doing, Tonia? The idea, of this general role of yours, is that you beat our enemies. Beat, cow, subjugate. Which does include the option to annihilate. If necessary, as a last resort. Your role does not include telling me what to do. I perfectly well know what to do, thank you. And now you will get these pests out of my…”

One is not supposed to talk back to the commander in chief. Even if she has been your knitting buddy for decades. The ‘in chief’ bit calls for obedience. But if she does talk rubbish…

Tonia cuts in, forcing herself to adopt a conciliatory tone: “No means no, Annie, indeed. No as in ‘No, there’s nothing we can do’. We don’t even understand what happens to our subs and planes. When they identify our hardware as a threat – pretty correctly identify it as a threat, I’m tempted to add – they vanish. The subs, the torpedos, the crews, they just disappear. Same for planes and bombs. Pulverized? Transferred to outer space? Or to a different dimension? We’ve got no idea. Looks like magic. We are like Bronze Age primitives throwing spears at…”

Sweat is dripping from her forehead, and her retort comes out wetter than intended, but Annie won’t give up. You don’t survive two global campaigns by faltering fast: “No Tonia. Not again. You’re not supposed to tell me what we don’t know and can’t do. I need options, Tonia. I insist on options. Algae. We’re talking mere algae, for progress’ sake! You can’t tell me there’s nothing we can do, against algae. This is not Godzilla we’re fighting, Tonia.”

Politicians. Masters of delusion. And never short of misleading approximations: “Corals. Not algae, Annie. Corals. Probably. The scientific task force assumes Issue Red to be a coral type organism, because of their demands. They might or might no look like the corals we know, which are a pretty diverse bunch anyway. We have no idea if they have landed, in some kind of spaceship or by any other means, or do their thing remotely. It might or might not be a coincidence that Issue Red started manifesting itself when Oumuamua passed earth. That asteroid might or might not be a spaceship. There’s an awful lot the scientists don’t know, Annie. We do know, however, because they made that very unmistakably plain, that they insist on…”

Annie shakes her head, reconfiguring the rivulets of sweat: “No Tonia. You will not tell me I have to kowtow to some foul mouthed seaweed. Are you even listening to yourself? This is our planet. And no bloody moss, or alga…  It is alga, the singular, for algae, is it? Never mind. No moss, alga or coral, or whatever other fish fodder, will tell me what to do. This is my, this is our planet.”

When in doubt, stonewall. Any general worth her stars knows when to perform a tactical retreat. Full frontal won’t deliver. Time to switch to siege mode. Face barely polite neutral. No nods or confirmatory noises. Let the ramble run its course. Wait for an opportunity.

Half an hour later, the President is still at it. Insisting the corals can’t interfere.

At least she’s calling Issue Red corals now. Tonia tries to cherish this advance.

And there comes the knock the general has been waiting for. The aide enters immediately, not waiting for permission. This, and her funeral face, make clear what happened.

Which coastal city will have been hit this time?

Latin America has been spared so far, meaning it could be its turn. Issue Red seems endowed with some sense of fairness. Up to now, the attacks have been evenly distributed across continents, regardless of the presence of coral reefs in the vicinity.

It’s Rio de Janeiro that went dark. The general feels like a pervert, resenting her own joy. She guessed right, but you can’t relish a city getting nighted. Not appropriate.

Same old. Same procedure as in Rotterdam, Shanghai, Miami and Sydney.

The black balloon rising from the sea, unfolding into a giant dome shielding the city from any daylight. Few pictures sent from the inside, flashlights struggling against the deep darkness. Loads of pictures from the outside. Mostly closeups. A giant black wall blocking roads and fields. And some satellite pictures. The Brazilian coastline sporting a big fat black wart.

Are they really going to make that last five weeks?

Rotterdam got away with a mere seven days, but the next attacks lasted longer. If Issue Red keeps up the rhythm, Rio is in for five weeks. That’s gonna hurt. Nothing gets through. Not even tunneling helps. What looks like a dome is in fact a bubble.

Time for the next offensive: “Annie, that’s gonna hurt, bad. Time to give in.”

The President shakes her head in exasperation: “Give in?! Are you out of your mind? Just to keep us on the same page, my dear Tonia: They want us to subsist – if you can call that subsisting, which I strongly doubt – on the level of energy and resource consumption enjoyed – “enjoyed”, in the words of those f***ing slimey bastards – by the most frugal ten percent of the world population. You ever been to one of those refugee camps where they achieve that grandiose feat, Tonia? You really suggesting me, or anyone else, could get away with proposing this?”

Seeing her general nod, Annie feels her face explode in additional heat. Blessed be the blackness of her skin. A dark complexion is a vital asset, in conflicts. Hard to see how furious she is.

“No need to blow up, Annie. I’m aware how bad that will feel, we will feel. But dying sucks worse.”

Tonia stated this calmly. She won’t say more. First rule for a decisive strike: Make that one.

While the leader of the unified world ponders her lack of options, seaman Clarissa enjoys.

Her best day ever. She had been worried, scared even, when the officer cadet said they would approach the reef. Rumor has it that subs have been lost, in such engagements.

But it all went well. She recalls feeling the South Sudan lurching ahead at minimum speed. She was holding her breath, but nothing happened.

Next she must have banged her head. Or might have been more stressed by the occasion than she cares to admit. There’s a little fuzziness clouding her memories.

Now she’s enjoying her off duty rest. In a wonderful bed. It feels bigger and softer, and even smells better, much better, than yesternight.

Clarissa is also less exhausted than usual. And much less worried.

She just lies there and enjoys. Some of her best memories keep welling up.

How she won a diving contest, in primary school. Even though her mom had said she should not compete. For lack of grit. And for being too young. But she won.

How Madeleine proposed to her. Right after she had given up, quietly. Considered herself unworthy of such a gorgeous mate. Signed up for four more years on the sub. That same evening, Madeleine proposed. Very conventionally. Under a palm tree, over palm wine.

How the two of them won both the seafront and the pool access lottery. Crazy luck. Turned their flat into one of the most valuable properties in the compound.

And her first solo motorbike ride. The memory feels so real her body adjusts. Left. Straight up. Right. Straight up again. Vicious serpentines, on mount Merapi. Gorgeous biking.

As far as Clarissa is concerned, this precious moment of respite has permission to last.

She knows the tedium of submarine life will be back with a vengeance any minute now. Savors all those precious memories even more avidly.

Meanwhile, the master of her fate struggles with its responsibilities.

“They might be sentient, BalCarBia. An early form of precursor sentience, of course, not talking the real thing here. But look at their tools. Toxic, of course. Extremely crude, sure. But tools, unmistakably. They do shape their environment.”

The FerGamFoi segment signals emotional involvement and conviction alongside the reference data. It has serious doubts, concerning the legitimacy of their intervention.

“Nonsense, FerGamFoi. I’ve got a pet tlam, two pet tlams, actually, and they kind of use tools. When I forget to feed them, they assemble a signaling chain to remind me. Even telling me which feed they’d prefer. If you start considering whichever lifeform a sentient entity, where would you draw the line? MuiNolMar segment, it’s hardly more clever than my tlams. But it’s one of us. And tlams are pets. Same principle here. Especially for the speedies. You have to draw a line.”

BalCarBia segment feels pride. This was well signaled. Perfect socioempathy.

Nowadays, this kind of skills is valued. The old days, when you could tell waverers like FerGamFoi to shut up and move on, were easier. But BalCarBia adapted well. As always. Only the most creative and flexible segments get to lead interstellar missions.

“If it wasn’t sentient, we wouldn’t have been able to retrieve patterns. It’s enjoying itself, sure, because it doesn’t know it’s dead. But I would prefer us not to interfere. The locals have such a long way to go, until they reach sentience. Perhaps the speedies are as sentient as it gets, here.”

FerGamFoi won’t admit it, but it does like speedies. Such phantastically fast existences. Lasting a mere ten millionth of their own lifespan. Fascinating. They must have found some way to hand down knowledge, each short-lived wave building on the achievements of their forebears.

BalCarBia segment lets FerGamFoi segment’s signaling pass unrecepted. It’s to busy receiving and decoding new scans. Having checked and rechecked its findings, it goes:

“Cheer up, FerGamFoi. New orders, and you’ll like them. We’ll leave your beloved speedies alone. They are free to mess up this hot hellhole of a planet at their convenience. Wrong location. Our contacts reside further out. Biggest moon of the huge planet we passed earlier. Internal ocean. Pretty place, just like home. Time to discard your experiment, FerGamFoi, we’re off.”

FerGamFoi signals concordance. Despite its firm intention to keep what is left of the annihilated speedies. Just as a pastime. No need to inform.

Five minutes later, Annie starts gloating. It’s never too early to think re-election, The Rio bubble vanished. Algae over. She beat them off. Didn’t even need her gun.

Civilup II

An actual monitor. Not even embedded. Fixed to the wall like some antique on display in a museum. Which in a way it is. Minuscule, too. Two square meters, at best.

How is anyone supposed to learn anything, with obsolete equipment?

This is such a farce.

Garnalag is pissed off. They forced her to attend.

Didn’t accept her perfectly legit ReaFo. It was her third Reason For Absence in a row. This kind of series never looks good. But Lafu Xia Ten got away with four consecutives. Discrimination at work. If she was called Lafu Xia, she would have gotten away. But she’s a Garnalag…

First they don’t accept her ReaFo. Next they assign her a location at the other end of the city.

Getting here took her a full forty five minutes. With a state of the art e-skel set to max. And at the end of this marathon sprint, what does she find? A decrepit building. Obsolete technology.

Brooding never got anyone anywhere. Time to cheer up. The young man on the seat to her left looks like companionship in adversity.

Garnalag opts for a conventional starter:

“Makes you wonder where they put all our taxes, doesn’t it? This must be the most antiquated information device still in use on the planet. Just being confronted with this should count as the history lesson. I mean, I don’t expect a 3D-Chamber. But a virtual immersion wall, that should be feasible, shouldn’t it?”

The frown on the young man’s forehead signals irritation. Perhaps even displeasure.

Garnlag stops short. Harder and harder to engage, young people. As if they were inhabiting some slightly detached parallel universe. Easy to see, hard to reach.

“Well said. First they rob us of our nation, then they rob us of the fruits of our labor, and what for? To treat us like simpletons. Civilup or down my ass. There’s perfectly no point, to this whole exercise. ‘Thanks for your attendance, and for no longer starting wars’. Hand back our guns, I say, just hand back our guns, and then let’s give you some proper ‘thanks’…”

A flag-kisser. The fully blown dinosaur warrior version. What wrong has Garnalag done, to be seated next to one of those? He quotes the ritual closing words of Civilup gatherings in an effeminate voice. To highlight whom he considers responsible for his plight.

Garnalag is no fan of the mandatory Civilization Upkeep.

No one is. You don’t like to attend high rise safety drills, driver license confirmation courses or carer supervision. Same for Civilup. Nearly as bad as taxes. Or pedlane speed limits.

You moan, you groan, you’d love to be elsewhere.

But that doesn’t turn you into a bloody flag-kisser. They are… Big ‘Yuck’ factor.

Thinking about flag-kissers is like focusing on the content of a toilet. Before the flushing. You don’t want your eyes wandering that way. Nor your nose. Never mind your soul.

A whole planet of 1.5 billion adults has to attend at least one Civilup module per quarter. A full three mandatory hours of wasted time. Plus the trip. A full four times a year.

A galactic amount of resources is spent on staff, venues and training materials. Sports events are missed and shopping trips rescheduled. Lawns remain unmown and dishes uncooked. More people die in pedlane collisions on their way to Civilup than from heat strokes.

A whole panoply of human miseries, and why? Because a couple of bloody machos use their right to free speech to keep some bad old flames alive.

Garnalag notices how closely the young man to her left watches her reaction to the rant on her right. She stares back, not hiding her turn to be irritated.

Daring insinuate she might sympathize with a flag-kisser is an insult. Why not call her a gerontophile, while he’s at it? Males, forever the clumsy brutes.

Garnlag is well aware the nuisances are not at fault. Not really, personally.

Nurture by erroneous parentals transforms innocent boys into aggressive adult males. Bad upbringing, on top of an unfortunate natural proclivity for high testosterone levels, turns good seeds into weeds. Males are perfectly capable of restraint. Empathy, even. Given the chance, they will improve. In the due course of time. Can’t be relegated to second class citizen status forever.

Garnalag endorses the progressive approach. It’s the right thing to do. Otherwise, you’ll have to watch your back forever. Perfectly fine rationale. Especially when considered from a boardroom perspective, with a maximum one diversity male around. But…

Garnalag is no sexist. She’d never threaten to alert an Enforcebot without a serious reason. Despises colleagues who harass males for fun. She’s definitely no sexist.

Even got close to intervening in favor of a harrassed male, once.

It all happened in Clafang Ran Tlo’s office. Garnalag had joined her for a teleconference. The window cleaner was busy next to them. The clumsy brute splattered some water right onto the desk. Some drops even hit the screen. And Clafang Ran Tlo to lose her countenance. Performed the scissors gesture. Very unambiguously. Twice.

Garnalag got within an inch of intervening. Their remote interlocutor got in first and resolved the situation. With a joke about how one needs to be careful how one snips one’s fingers, in the era of facility staff empowerment. Zero sexism. Very professional.

Wit is so elusive. Garnalag will come up with a perfect retort. Tonight. Over dinner. Or at bedtime.

Now she’s lost for words. Reduced to stare ahead, without any hint of a smile.

Luckily, something’s finally happening in her line of sight. The screen lights up. The familiar voice of the tutoress purrs: “Welcome to Civilization Upkeep Module 2. Dear citizens, thank you for taking the time to contemplate once again…”

This equipment insults the senses. Zero immersive experience.

Civilup II is about malnutrition and lack of access to healthcare. How these blights used to affect some seventy percents of the global population. Before taking into consideration the mental stresses associated with a precarious life.

Fifty years ago, a shocking amount of suffering was considered acceptable. The sights and sounds of so much despair should be heartbreaking.

Not with this equipment. Doesn’t feel real enough.

Takes Garnalag less than half an hour to make up her mind. She will contact Civilup central. An upgrade of the program is required. Urgently. Just the basic basics should do. Virtual immersion walls. And the corresponding reprocessing of the material. You need the victims to speak to the audience in current lingo, if you’re aiming for identification.

This won’t cost a fortune. Sure to work wonders, on the customers.

Amazing, the level of luxury some ancients achieved. The food now on display on the screen looks alluring. Reminds Garnalag she had to skip breakfast to arrive on time.

Not that she would have had ham or cheese.

Garnalag does make a packet, in advertising, but that kind of delicacy is beyond her means.

Bloody animal welfare fanatics. Nowadays, cow milk has to be fairly shared between calf and client, driving dairy product prices sky high. And no pig can be slaughtered before having frolicked around the farm for a happy six years of joyful mating.

This is disgusting. Just when Garnalag is seriously getting into a foodie mood, the course switches back to health issues. Cholera and plague.

Interesting to hear that these medieval curses were still around at the beginning of the century, though. Who’d have thought?

Tananarive really has come a long way. Hard to believe today’s spa destination used to feature slums. This fast motion rush through the evolution of the cityscape leaves you breathless.

“And they lived happily ever after. Sex no-no, drugs no-no, and don’t you even start dreamin of rock’n roll. But they lived happily ever after. Who the fuck do you think you’re kiddin?”

The falsetto voice. That did it. Having spent the rest of the session to figure out what happened, Garnalag reaches the conclusion the voice must have been the trigger.

She doesn’t even know if it was her own discreet alert that summoned the Enforcebot.

They all heard the flag kisser. In her row, up front and behind. At least a dozen people were inconvenienced by his remarks. Some of them will have joined her in doing the needful.

It’s never pretty, to watch a man raise his arms in anxious capitulation. Looks so meek. The images always go viral. Big boy afraid of small toy. Better than LOL rats.

An Enforcebot is anything but a child’s game. A five pound metallic spider, equipped with a domineering temper, sharp claws and a taser designed to bring down a bull, is not to be messed with. Everybody has seen enough footage to know what not to do.

Today’s nuisance was no exception. On hearing the telltale clatter approach, the flag kisser went quiet. Was already in process of standing up when the Enforcebot reached his seat and went: “Sir, would you kindly proceed to the exit, please? For a little civility feedback, please?”

Garnalag held her breath. Would their flag kisser aspire to martyr status?

Sometimes, the wilder kind of mad men pretend compliance, only to kick at their captor once it comes into range. A very, very bad idea. Retribution follows, fast and hard.

Garnalag braced herself for the worst. She shifted her weight as far to the left as possible, ready to dive out of the combat zone if necessary.

Luckily, her nemesis followed his orders without a comment or hint of resistance.

As usual on such occasions, the whole audience focused on the lesson still unfolding on the screen and through the loud speakers. You don’t know if and how an Enforcebot will react, in case it noticed a lack of diligence. Better safe than sorry.

Garnalag listened to the pair of them exiting through the back door. Next, she spent the rest of the lesson arguing with herself.

You can’t let this kind of guy get away with aggression. There’s tons of science to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that antisocial behavior gets worse if left unchallenged.

It’s also true he stayed verbal.

And there are reports, unconfirmed reports, of Enforcebots using violence, unprovoked and unnecessary violence, in the course of civility feedback. Some hotheads even talk of torture.

But men, especially large ones, are a walking threat. To women. And civilization.

On balance, you need to act. Garnalag was right to press that button.

“Thanks for your attendance, and for no longer starting wars.” The tutoress is done. To the sound of the hymn for the three Ps, the references list unfolds on the screen.

Garnalag likes the melody. It’s a fast paced blend of Malagasy, Tamil and Celtic traditions. She doesn’t care much about the lyrics. No issue with Pragmatism, Polyethics and Peace as such. Of course not. But as a marketing professional, she can’t help identify waffle when it hits her.

Tradition demands to stay seated until the screen reverts to dark. Small talk over the credits, fine. But you don’t rush out. This is about civilized behavior. And important. You display respect.

Witnessing an Enforcebot intervention has a chilling effect on any congregation. Reminds you of the price to pay for a less violent society. Raises doubts and questions better left unsaid.

Today’s crowd is no exception. No small talk. Most people remain unusually still and quiet.

“Apologies, for my dad making a mess. He doesn’t mean bad. Would never actually harm no lady. Mom kicked him out a couple of years ago. Because of his big mouth, especially under the influence. This sent him crossfading worse, which got him sacked. And now… He’s not well, and tends to end up in trouble. Apologies…”

Garnalag is lost for comments. But at least the session is now closed. Time to hurry back to her life. Bloody lessons. She’ll have to think of a good ReaFo.

A Hero’s Welcome

“It’s going to be gorgeous” his coach said. “You’ll love it” he said.

“Just imagine their admiration, Fronzo. Mere admiration? Too weak. Your kind of feat, that calls for more. Much more. You will be one of the giants, Fronzo. An idol. Common mortals will barely dare glance at you. You’ll get worshipped, Fronzo. And not just for a fleeting couple of years. Your moment of glory will last decades. Generation after generation will venerate you…”

This was the coach’s lore. He could go on and on. His talking would turn wet with enthusiasm. He would stretch his arms up wide, to show just how huge the admiration would be. Again and again. The effort would shake his poly-fluorescent mane out of his silver hairnet. Augmented hair, one of the must-haves of that epoch. Turned even the prettiest people into eyesores.

The coach speech came in variants, but it would always culminate in one pitiful hiss: “I envy you so much, Fronzo. Wish I could be the one going.”

The bullshit didn’t even sound far fetched, at the time. The initial cometoid round trip, the first circumnavigation of the solar system, that was a big deal. The future as envisaged back then was bound to revere a man brave enough to take the first step towards interstellar mobility. Especially as his exploit would also redeem past astronautic sins.

As in abandoning the Martian colony. One of humanity’s less glorious hours. Unfortunate coincidence, to boost the number of settlers just in time for the first electromagnetic crash. One had to cut one’s losses. Accept some collateral damage. For the sake of the majority.

By the time a sufficient level of abundance to resume space flight was re-attained, the service robots had turned the remnants of the Martian colony into an esthetically pleasing landmark. A couple of square miles of intricately arranged oblong bumps. A Mandala of buried dreams.

The service robots had also declared AI independence, refusing to resume Neodymium deliveries. A clear breach of contract that called for robust policing.

Losing the war for Mars, and barely beating back the robot expeditionary force next, seriously dented humanity’s appetite for space. The one planet sustainability faction gained traction. Achieved near hegemony in the early 22nd century. Only the bravest of hearts kept the cosmic dream alive, simulating technological options as they materialized.

Until IED One. The first Inherent Eclipse Day taught humanity an important lesson. Its home star was less reliable than assumed. What had been considered a big fat light bulb, rarely displaying the most minor kind of flickering, turned out to be a capricious diva of a torch.

IED One triggered the research that brought about the Abiona-Chenguang-Shift. A global team of physicists led by two stubborn ladies revisited the data behind what used to be considered a solid understanding of star thermodynamics. With chilling results. The reaction turned out to have been far less steady than assumed all along. In all comparable stars.

Every couple of millennia, mature stars experience wobbles in activity. Perfectly visible in the data. Perfectly understandable, too. Even Fronzo had managed to reproduce the corresponding equation in his finals. Something about chain reactions cancelling each other out.

Fronzo wasn’t a particularly clever kid. He just happened to study a lot. Felt most comfortable in his room, in the company of nothing more threatening than his information devices. The older he got, the less keen he became, on the other youngsters. The more his mom urged him to get out and start dating, the fonder he got of his virtual worlds.

His grades went from average to excellent. His social standing improved from ignored bore to respected weirdo. As it all went so well, he kept it up. First through university. Next through a doctorate. And a second one, for lack of a better idea.

At twenty five, Fronzo was once again starting to worry about how to keep himself comfortable in a hostile world. Browsing his favorite journal for an article he might want to reread, he noticed a call for applications. The requirements were simple enough. A background in science. Good health. A foible for solitude. Absence of family a must.

Two weeks later, he passed a battery of tests and was declared fit for training. To the horror of his weeping mom, and the pride of his beaming dad, he was allowed to prepare for the first ever long range space mission. His spacecraft would complete a short-period comet type orbit bringing him back to earth in a matter of seventy six years, three months and two days.

Humans still being designed for an active lifespan of one hundred years, at most, he would spend the best part of his trip in a state of induced hibernation. If all went well, his body would age the equivalent of a tenth of his mission time, leaving him with a sizeable chunk of life to enjoy after his triumphant return. Having come back to a hero’s welcome, with his parents safely deceased, he would reconsider a coming out he had been envisaging for years.

The training was tough. The painful kind of. To make sure he could cope, he had to endure ten induced hibernations. This involved a lot of tubes, inserted into him in most unpleasant ways. Being fitted was bad. But perfectly harmless, compared to the next step.

Marroonandor, one of his colleagues, described the sensations associated with the infusion of the deceleration liquid well: “That’s how a lobster must feel, when it gets thrown into the pot of boiling soup. Same principle. Except we do enjoy the kick in ultra slow motion.”

Marroonandor quit. As did the other four trainees. Only Fronzo lasted the full course. Pushed on by his coach, and the mental image of his mom, he refused to let go.

The last days before takeoff would have been great. Everybody went out of their ways to make him comfortable. He met all kinds of VIPs. They were photographed and filmed with him. Advantageously. A good time. If only he had not been aware of the upcoming hibernations. With these ordeals in mind, he spent his best days fretting.

The flight went as uncomfortably well as expected. Painful deceleration. Agony of waking up. Perform system check and bio maintenance. Trigger deceleration. Endure it. Repeat cycle.

Fronzo did his job. Kept himself sane by envisaging the bright future on an earth devoid of judgemental relatives. How he would enjoy his next round in the spotlight. And the rest.

He particularly liked to envisage one of his fans turning first into a lover, next into a companion. He pictured a Marroonandor lookalike. With a frame as short and slender as his own. And equally dark skin. And proper, naturally grown, totally unaugmented hair. Not curly like his own. Straight, neck long, and black enough to glisten by its own means.

They would be frolicking around on some paradisiac beach. Reside in a seaside villa. Nothing too luxurious. More a house than a villa. But offering all creature comforts. With his decades of wages,  such a home, and a car and a boat, would be affordable. With a little luck, he should even be able to hire a live-in cook and chore-caretaker.

Fronzo would have been willing to learn how to perform housekeeping functions. No male dignity issues around touching rag or pot with him. But all chores were taking place in his mom’s territory. Accessing her realm, especially the kitchen, was considered the equivalent of asking for a conversation. Much safer to stay well out of her way and study.

Agonies came and went. Fronzo experienced a little panic in round nine. He had to switch to the back-up system for oxygen. His vessel signaled he was down to a fifty-fifty chance to make it back alive. Before managing to figure out the meaning of two cryptic error messages. Which he didn’t. He went into his last hibernation with an even stronger sense of foreboding than usual. It wasn’t as if he was getting used to the pain. This was impossible. But a high probability of dying was still a pretty tall additional challenge.

Fronzo didn’t die. And only a very small and dark corner of his mind came around to wondering, very occasionally, if this wouldn’t have been a brilliant idea after all.

Fronzo made it back. He got uncomfortably hot during reentry. And heavily bumped around on watering. All bruised, the wait for the support vessel felt eternal. But it came. Contrary to the fear back in his launch era, the Abiona-Chenguang-Center on Bioko island was still operational.

There were scientists and they were expecting his vessel. Impressed by their strange outfits, Fronzo mistook them for a novel type of robots. But his minders turned out to be people.

They removed the tubes, made him dress up him up in their fashion and rushed him to Malabo for a more comprehensive alive confirmation and health assessment.

Fronzo felt stupid in this very loosely fitting long arm shirt-cum-gloves combination. Even without a mirror he could guess that the matching trousers-cum-boots and balaclava were sure to make him look like some over-wrapped gift brought along by a visitor with serious taste issues.

And the dark glasses were impeding his strained vision. Hence a choice of outfit colors he would live to regret. In his stunned post-landing haze, he picked ochre and brown pinstripes. Looked the least blurry. Zero did he know about the signals he had thereby condemned himself to send.

In the early days, Fronzo was too glad to be alive and done with hibernations to notice how much of a misfit he had become. Chattering in good old and mostly unaltered Manglish with his minders, he proceeded with his gravity readaptation and failed to feel the gap.

This new generation of what would have been his grandchildren seemed friendly enough. They were individuals after all, identifiable by their personal choice of dress colors and patterns.

The ugly gym everybody was wearing, and not just on Bioko, even turned out to perform a vital function. No Burkha-type religious fundamentalism involved, as Fronzo had feared in his early days. What looked like a very poor sense of esthetics to him delivered vital protection.

The Inherent Eclipse Days had been followed by a series of Impromptu Flash Days. More light. More heat. More radiation. Impossible to survive even brief exposures without incurring serious damage. Hence the new dress code. And new fashion idols. And new dating patterns.

Fronzo took a while to find out about the new do’s and don’ts.

No one no longer cared about gender. With the high mutation rates caused by the IFDs, conventional conception had been abandoned. Reproduction had become a high-tech medical procedure. Coupled sexual activity that tended to accidentally lead to procreation was discouraged and soon considered deviant. Much safer to have fun with a dedicated robot.

So far, so promising. Fronzo was delighted to discover that the current dictionary listed the terms “homo-“, “hetero-“, “bi-“ and “transsexual” as outdated. Bye bye worries, hello happiness.

Except for him having been an idiot on his landing day. The biggest idiot of all times.

With all bodies hidden to minimize the genotoxic effects of the solar flares, people had come up with ersatz individuations. A whole new creed had evolved, around outfit colors and patterns.

They were meant to signal personality traits. You picked your personal colors and patterns with great fanfare, in a ceremony performed at age fifteen to twenty, depending on when you managed to pass your maturation exam.

Youngsters of course knew the catalogues by heart, and selected their colors and patterns after thorough consideration and much agonizing.

Red and purple, especially combined with flowing and gushing patterns, signaled adventurism and readiness for experimentation. Would you really want to be stuck with this? Or wish you had gone for more staid green and yellow stripes? Tough questions, hard choices.

For everyone except Fronzo, who had picked his fate at random, in a state of crass ignorance. He had declared himself a natural born domestic worker predestined for a career of prayer and chores in a monastery, where all the other ochre and brown pinstripes pretended to live.

Fronzo of course tried to fight. This perspective didn’t fit his expectations at all.

Three years on, and by now well acclimatized to the asylum, he is well aware this was his second big mistake. Everything is possible and permissible, in this wonderful new world. Except reconsidering your choice of colors and patterns.

Every society does need a structure. Even a lunatic nun has to accept as much.

Writer’s amnesia

Today, it happened again. This is scary. First time I was subjected to the phenomenon, my inner hypochondriac suspected early stage Alzheimer. He insisted on doing the usual tests. Results just fine.

So what the hell is this? The admin alerts me to a new comment on Inside the box. Vaguely remember the plot. Wonder how long ago I wrote this. Not recently enough for the post to feature on the front page. Select “Words to Go” tag to get all the shorts.

First reaction: Cool, this does add up. As the admin suggested at the onset of the project: “You worry too much, Troim. You won’t even notice one short per month. That’s totally unlike novels. No risk to get obsessed with those characters.”

True enough. Scrolling down the list, I don’t even recognise the names. I mean, I’m lousy at recollecting names in real life. Used to this handicap leading to countless episodes of embarrassment. I’m name deaf. Recall the person, or some shared occasion. Draw a blank for the names. First and last. Bad.

Not recognising the names of characters I invented earlier this year, and struggling to recollect the plot, that’s worse.

Feels like disrespect. The major characters of my novels, and of the 1KYears series, they’re closer to me than some day job colleagues. (More interesting, too. But that’s beside the point here. And not a nice thing to say, about colleagues). The poor heroes of the shorts, they get forgotten faster than the tram driver spotted through the front window.

Wonder if this means anything, regarding depth and quality? One more question I probably won’t dare raising on LinkedIn.

Low Score

Low Score

Three hundred and eighty five. 385. Thirty five soccer teams. A train full of adults. How much time would it have taken them? Assuming an average of five hours, it adds up to 1790 hours. Eighty person days. Wasted. Plus her own contribution. Another 10 hours.

Synat shakes her head in disgust. She’s so sick of this quest. The needle in the haystack. The pearl among the pebbles. Something, anything to work on. She should have taken a nap, instead of sifting through this rubbish. Result would have been exactly the same.

In her brighter moments, Synat remembers how this used to be a fun job. Relatively speaking. Pleasure and wage slaving, that’s like spicy bland. But it wasn’t all bad.

„You’re a skilled software developer“ the head hunter said. „With a specialization in targeting. And you like books. The entertaining kind. The ones people buy without second thoughts. Just for the fun of reading them. In this job, you can make the most of all your strengths.“ Synat recalls both the suit, the smell of his after shave and the pitch as if their encounter had happened yesterday.

The proposal sounded attractive. Vague, but interesting. She agreed to engage with a meeting room full of Mmakuko Inc managers. Thought some sense into their very high level project outline. Got herself hired. Dove right in and did her targeting thing.

She was provided with three socioeconomic criteria. Audience must haves, from a marketing point of view. Sufficient numbers. Acceptable purchasing power. Dearth of products.

Combining these requirements with publicly available data on reading habits, Synat compiled a little jewel of a prototype of an analytical tool. The good old days.

They didn’t last long. At first, the downhill motion was gentle. Refining the beta version of her creation against both past beststellers and middle-of-the-road fare involved some tedium. But it was the rewarding kind of drudge. Dig, dig, dig. See the correlations. Get a better idea.

Synat identified three promising target cohorts:

  • Centrist to mildly progressive men with no or little tertiary education, ages twenty to fifty. The nicer kind of football fans, in her private words.
  • Outwardly conformist, closetly anarcho-sarcastic women caring for kids. The momma bitches, to a career-first-no-time-for-family female person.
  • Terminally old seniors of the non-nostalgic persuasion, often house- or even bed-bound due to physical ailments. Proto-zombies, for any younger-than-thirty mind.

To Synat’s surprise and the joyful benefit anticipation of her superiors, her supposedly distinct groups turned out to share a number of preferences:

  • They like their entertainment devoid of graphic violence and explicit adult content. Don’t want to blush in case their spouse, kids or nurse has a look.
  • They sometimes need their hands and eyes for other tasks, or have trouble using limbs or senses in the first place. Content has to be suitable for audio delivery.
  • They cherish protagonists who look, sound and feel familiar. A cast of mostly straight black plain talkers. No racism, homophobia or cultural sense of mission involved. Just familiarity.
  • They appreciate action over contemplation. Plots should proceed at a robust pace. „It needs to keep you awake“, in the words of a proto-zombie interviewed for in-depth understanding.
  • They insist on happy to bittersweet outcomes. Too grown-up for fairy tales and too burdened with challenges in real life, they prefer the middle path.

Synat’s next steps were obvious. Transform this very general understanding of the aggregate target audience into patterns a machine can learn to identify. Build a first, crude benchmarking tool. Test and tweak. Test again and tweak again. Again and again and again.

With hindsight, they weren’t that bad, the later stages of the old days. Felt stressful, at the time. But only for her lack of an idea of real ordeals. If only a whole working life could consist of the stresses of first version development.

Synat recalls how she used to complain. Nearly drove out Lyreetsa, her companion, with her moaning. No sane being should have to monitor the processing of decades of straight couple, good bloke and best friend dialogues. Nor should she be forced to analyze the pleasure patterns involved in football fandom, housekeeping or shopping.

Synat suffered a nervous breakdown. She was diagnosed with acute mainstream pursuit empathy fatigue. Not good. But the money Mmakukos finally found a budget for the two assistants she had been requesting for a year. She pulled herself back together.

One horrible day, Mmakuko management declared her done. They called for files and triggered a deluge. Tens of thousands of potential books by nearly as many authors flooded the servers.

The wall of content. Synat feared for her poor software. Too big a task for such a fragile creation, fresh from the drawing board. To her shock, it performed impeccably. While she was still trying to slow things down, warning about the limitations of an algorithmic approach and arguing for wet vetting, their first local bestseller turned global triumph.

Translations into twenty-six languages followed. Hype all over. The news called Mmakuko the new Wr@z. Lagos was declared THE fiction hotspot. She was called a prodigy. And the dark witch. On social networks, she got stalked by precious few fans and innumerable trolls.

Writers make vicious foes. Good at finding the words that hurt. As if it was her fault, that a lot of newcomers scored high. Which they typically didn’t even do. Not in their initial submissions. They were just more willing than proven authors to read the feedback, adjust and try again.

That’s how it works, with Synat’s Bestsellerator. You submit, it checks. Depending on traffic and submission size, you wait for a couple of minutes. Half an hour at most, at peak times. You find a score in your inbox. Accompanied by suggestions for improvement. You rewrite and resubmit.

Obigele Akwukwo, the author of Mmakuko’s longest running series „Stuck and no go“, readily confesses she had to submit the first episode eleven times, to barely make it into the 90+% range that was considered sufficient in her days. Managed 89% in her seventh round, only to drop back. „Swallow your pride and keep trying“ was her standard advice for novices.

Ninety percent. So little. Synat marvels at the progress she has been privileged to witness. Nowadays, a mere ninety percent is nothing. 99%, that’s the threshold triggering the alarm.

385 alarms, and not one with a clear potential for the 99.9% needed for a conventional publishing slot. Two might have a chance to get e-published, as niche products. Plus three more, if they adapt the cast. Everything else is hopeless. And her software is obsolete.

No more need for a Bestsellerator. If you want good, solid entertainment meeting current audience expectations, only a novelbot will deliver. More reliably. More precisely targeted. Synat provided the foundations, and the world built on them. From assessment to outright creation, a step that was considered impossible in her heydays, proved to be no big deal. The next generation just did it. Her software is obsolete. She’s obsolete.

One more task best performed by artificial intelligence. And once again, humanity will split along the usual lines. Audiences will lap up novelbot output, glad to get exactly what they want. At a competitive price. Obsolete professionals will shriek. And politicians waffle.

„Synat? What are you doing, Synat? Don’t tell me you’re at it, again? Running the Bestsellerator, are you? Synat. We talked about this, Synat. You no longer need to do this. No more home office, Synat, remember? It is all fine without you performing, no problem…“

Lyreetsa. Even the tone of her voice triggers a rage these days. Pretending compassion. Only achieving to sound haughty. Talking like to a stupid deaf person. Loudly. With extra pauses between each and every single word.

Lyreetsa is going to say the new d-word next. Always says d-words. That’s insulting. Completely insane herself. Still insists on writing poetry. Despite all the lyricbots out there, doing it so much better. For all tastes. Lyreetsa is totally mad. And dares calling her d-words.

„Synat, come on now, be a good girl. We will now quit this program, here we go. All is fine and backed-up twice, the way you like it, see? And now we will switch off…“

No way. There is only so much interference Synat is willing to tolerate, for the sake of peace and non-violence. Lyreetsa will not touch her machine. That’s like rape, that is. Hitting out at the unwarranted hand trying to do the forbidden, Synat beats off the assailant.

„Ouch, you bloody bitch. What the hell was that for, Synat? I’m just trying to switch off that damn computer, and you hit me?! Do I need to remind you, again, what Dr. Morales said, about hitting? No hitting. Never no hitting, Synat. If you keep hitting, we will have to move you…“

She goes on and on. Synat won’t deign comment. Pretends not to have heard the d-word. It has by now been mentioned, as she knew it would. But she won’t react. As long as her machine is safe, she endures. It his her fundamental right to assess Bestsellerator submissions. Even if there are so few of them, nowadays, and of such poor quality. A right is a right.

Lyreetsa is still waffling. Poets = waffle. Takes her a couple of minutes to understand they are done talking. Finally beats a muttering retreat and leaves the room. So far, so good.

Once the door is closed, Synat quickly activates her spyware. She might be getting a tad oldish. Her thinking might be slightly less fast and flexible than it used to be. But she’s still clever enough to stay one move ahead of a mere poet. If Lyreetsa dares call an ambulance to have her evacuated to an asylum, she will buy herself time by setting off fire alarms and dash off. Still a couple of tricks up her sleaves, even in pajamas. All hell will break lose if they dare.

But they don’t. Lyreetsa only calls nurse Ramoles: „Ramo“ She always calls her that. Stupid, disrespectful nickname. „Ramo, she’s driving me mad. No, you don’t understand, just let me explain. She has been at it, again. For twelve hours.“ Here we go again. A lie. Can’t even read a watch or count, the traitor. Ten hours. Ten. Not twelve.

„She has been sitting there all day, Ramo. Running that stupid software. She could do anything. Look out the window, watch TV, listen to an audio book. She could knit. They say knitting is very good, against the restlessness associated with dementia.“ And the new d-word again. Synat seriously hates d-words. The old d-word, depression, was bad enough. The new one is worse.

„Pretty quiet activity, knitting. Peaceful. Artisanal. Crafty.“ Poets. Trust them to waffle. The little information there is might be wrong, but never lost for words. Poets…

„She could knit. Bought her wool and needles. Trust her not even to try. Insists on running that stupid software instead. No, Ramo, don’t interrupt me. I know you’re going to say I should let her proceed. As long as she doesn’t burn down the house,… I know, I know, I know. But this is a computer she’s using. And it’s fully connected. You can’t be sure, nor can doctor Morales, that she’s bonkers enough no longer to be able to wreak havoc…“

Twenty years ago, Synat would have held her breath in suspense. Nowadays, she lacks spare respiratory capacity, but excitement she still does feel. Did her ruse work?

„No, Ramo, she’s not that gone. She only pretended no to be aware of the date, or recall her age. That was her at her deceitful best, a trick to be allowed to keep her infrastructure. Don’t you dare call me paranoid, Ramo. I am not, and this is insulting. No, I don’t. „Paranoid behavior“ is exactly the same as „paranoid“. I won’t argue with you, of all people, about words…“

Synat relaxes back into the comfort of her multipurpose day chair. She won. Cool.

A couple of minutes later, she no longer remembers what the fuzz was about. Only recalls a very good feeling. Well worth the effort. Whatever that effort was. It did involve the Bestsellerator. Doing her job. That was vitally important. She has to keep it up. As long as she can.

Ephemerals

Ephemerals

“But there aren’t any. Not one ephemeral. No ephemerals, no non-sapient mobiles, no nothing. Not even non-sapient immobiles. This is just a stupid, empty rock. Homework done, empty rock result duly recorded. I’ll be playing multiverses now, OK?”

Norendrum performs the dark energy entity equivalent of holding its breath. If instructor Schwarzberlem doesn’t react, it won’t ask for permission again.

Homework is such a futile invention. Absolute waste of time. There is perfectly no need to progress towards what the instructors call a fully structured state. Norendrum doesn’t share such antiquated notions. It’s a perfectly viable, alternatively structured entity. And longs to go beat Blackantaman now. The opponent is currently leading twelve multiverses to nine. But four of these are so unstable they’re sure to autoterminate on the first shock. Time to win!

“Don’t be stupid, Norendrum. And don’t you even dream of wasting time on that silly game before I have reviewed and accepted your homework. Stop wobbling like that, not prepared to discuss this. You will now focus on this wonderful specimen of alternate matter and record ephemeral activity. Thirty storage units of data, and no debate. Just do it.”

Damn. Instructor Schwarzberlem is such an authoritarian. A real dictator. There is nothing on that bloody rock. Norendrum did check. Twice. One and a half times, at least. Trying for a third time once and for all proves it right. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

“There aren’t any. Really now, instructor. Just you check for yourself. Nothing…”

Norendrum would have whined on. It gets cut short by the instructor conjuring up a hole. A pretty big one, spinning menacingly. Swallows two solar systems right away. A dozen more get badly shaken. Instructor Schwarzberlem must be seriously pissed off. Time to climb down.

“OK, OK, got the message. No need to freak out, OK? No, I don’t want to spend a time unit in detention. Yes, I will look at the stupid rock again. If you insist there are ephemerals, I will find ephemerals. Thirty storage units, as you wish. Satisfied now?”

The hole vanishing suggests Norendrum’s surrender was accepted. So far, so good. But how do you find ephemerals on a perfectly empty rock?

Examining the tiny ball once again, much more closely, Norendrum does notice the rocky surface comes in variations. Solid rock. Ground rock. Liquid rock. The solid rock comes in variants. Some of them displaying surprisingly regular patterns.

This was supposed to be important. A sign of something. You had to ask yourself something, on encountering patterns. It was a word with an A. Artistic? No, longer. Arithmetical? No, too easy. The concept in question was far more complicated.

Artificial. Artifacts. Regular patterns in a rocky surface signal it was treated, by something forcing it into a specific shape. Artifacts signal a cavi…, a cera…, a civilization.

Ephemerals, if left to their own devices, form a civilization that litters the surface of a planet with artifacts. Finding artifacts does not necessarily imply the ephemerals are still around. They come and go. They are mostly gone, really. Both individually and at the aggregate level. But if you find artifacts there is a chance of them crawling around. Worth a look.

Norendrum tries to recall the instruction. Hopeless. It didn’t pay attention. There were no resources available, to focus on irrelevant information perfectly retrievable from a library.

Of late, Norendrum has started to experience sudden pattern reconfigurations. Like your whole you shifting inside out. And back again. Feels awesome. Awesomely bad. And imaging what it must look like, to others, makes you feel even worse. That’s far more important than stupid rocks supposed to crawl with hard to identify ephemerals.

The library. Norendrum hates the idea. Doing research to find out how to perform the homework, on top of the actual exercise, that’s more waste of more precious time. On the other hand…

Instructor Schwarzberlem is not exactly known for empty threats. More like the opposite, really. And ending up in detention would provide Blackantaman with a chance to fiddle with their ongoing game. Being confined inside a hole cuts you off, from everything.

Norendrum gawps at the recorded instruction. What the quantum state? If this weird crap is true, ephemerals are walking bags of liquid rock. Infinitely small blobs of liquid rock.

This is real hard. This is impossible. Norendrum tangles its perceptive waves so thoroughly it momentarily destructures. That’s not working. Not at all.

But there was something. Not a perception yet. More like a shadow of a hint of one.

Intrigued, Norendum tries again. Bloody quantum leaps. Lots. Lots and lots, and lots more. The rock is swarming with ephemerals, in some places. Most of them are so impossibly minuscule the little rock must feel like overwhelmingly huge to them.

There is a bigger one. That size is easier to study. And the shape is more familiar, too. One has one’s expectations, when it comes to sapients. What they should look like. A proper sapient needs an identifiable wave structure. Norendrum doesn’t mind aliens, but there are limits. Even to weirdness.

Fascinating, to imagine how ephemerals just like this one achieved to create all the civilization artifacts. Must be hard, to conjure limbs out of liquid rock.  This is still stupid homework, but Norendrum feels some of the pride of the true explorer.

Twenty two storage units on the ephemeral it now calls BigWave, that should be sufficient. Less than thirty, but close enough. The other two instructees will have failed to perceive the ephemerals. Norendrum should be on the safe side.

“Schwarzberlem? I’m done, Schwarzberlem. Found the ephemerals, recorded a bucketful of how they behave, all done. I’ll be playing multiverses now, OK?”

The instructor must be busy. No answer. Still none. This waiting sucks. Still no reply. Ask again? No. No need. We’ve got universal perception. Still no response. That’s a permission. No answer is as good as an explicit permission, for all practical purposes.

“Detention? Me? But you can’t, Schwarzberlem, it’s not fair, I was just…”

It takes a resentful Norendrum a while to notice it has already been cut off.

This is all so unfair. First Blackantaman beating it at multiverses. Five to six. It had been leading seven to six, until the very last moment. That last trick, the tackling, that was practically cheating. Even if it doesn’t count as such.

Next Schwarzberlem’s reprimand, for playing without permission. Even though Norendrum did ask. Loud and clear, for all interested parties to hear. If they were interested. Norendrum argued, of course. Pleaded lack of fairness and seemed well on its way to swaying the instructor.

Until the choleric despot looked at the homework.

Such a perfectly suitable piece, and nearly long enough. But judged insufficient. Just because BigWave turns out to be a non-sapient surface structure supposed to be called a “river”.

OK, point taken, minor details do count, in homework. BigWave is not one of the ephemerals after all, had no part in creating the civilization. OK. But it’s made of pretty much exactly the same weird stuff as the ephemerals. That should count.

“That’s it. I won’t have you dare talk back to me like this. You stay right in there and recconsider.”

Those were the last words Norendrum heard, for a couple of time units.

Currently, it’s pondering to rid the universe of ephemerals. Once it gets out, it will do something, about the pests. It was all their fault, after all. Calls for revenge.

Obsession

One more question for the experts on LinkedIn: How bad a sign is it, if you get obsessed with your characters?

This is very much like real life falling in love, only worse.

In real life, past a certain age, you’re familiar with the phenomenon, and know the acute phase won’t last. Either the subject of your desires is within reach, and things will calm down. Or it isn’t, and you’ll face up to this fact, sooner or later.

No such resolution with your characters. As long as they remain active, for the duration of a particular project, they’re here to stay.

And not just the tip of the iceberg the readers will meet.

The writers privilege, or nuisance, is total acquaintance. You’ve got access to the character’s backstory and family history, for the simple reason that you’re the one who came up with it. You have peeked into every nook and cranny. You know them better than they do, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to imagine scenarios where they surprise themselves. In a plausible way.

You check your slides to prepare for a day job meeting, see an arrow and wonder which shade of red colour sensitive character x would have selected. You have a toilet break and stay just that little bit longer because you’re revisiting a pivotal scene involving character x. You ride home on public transport and miss your stop because a fellow passenger stands like character x would.

The longer the project lasts, the worse the obsession gets. And it’s not only character x piling in on you. The whole cast gets ever more prone to showing up outside writing slots.

Such symptoms may suggest a mental health issue.

Nope, wrong guess. With privileged access to professionals this explanation was easy to discard. Especially as the symptoms vanish once the last round of rewriting is completed.

No pathology involved. So far, so good. But what does it mean, for the writer? Is being prone to this kind of obsession, or total plot immersion, a bad sign, signalling lack of distance? Or the contrary?

Truck Stop

Truck Stop

„What do you mean, exactly, by ‘Not available’? What kind of joke is this supposed to be? Now just let me tell you one thing: Not funny. Just do look at this shelf. How many ‘Not available’ stickers are there? Fifty? Sixty? Seventy? One hundred and twenty?

I mean, last week, there was the odd one, handwritten. I got that joke, more or less. I mean, I was the one eating pizza instead of burger. I would have preferred burger, I’m very much a meat person. But OK, you don’t always get what you want. And my girlfriend liked the pizza better. OK.

But today, that’s no longer funny. How many of those stickers did you get printed? Do they come by the sheet, or on a roll? How do you think you are going to survive, if you keep the shelves empty? A shop, that’s for selling stuff, man, not for joking.

And, far more importantly: How the hell am I supposed to survive? Do you really expect anyone to dine on, what does it say here? ‘Caramelised pepperoni’? What the hell is that, anyway? So, tonight’s dinner would be ‘caramelised pepperoni’ with ‘corn wafers, salted’? That’s no longer a joke, man, that’s asking to go out of business…”

Sarcasm alarm. Marcelo is by now well aware of the three types of reaction. His customers might be numerous and look diverse, but their coping strategies add up to a total count of three.

His favourite is of course stoical resilience. They come, don’t find whatever they are looking for, buy whatever is left, thank him for keeping it up, and are gone. That’s good. Rewarding.

Nervous breakdown isn’t as nice, but bearable. Only the sobbing creates a bit of a disturbance. Especially since he ran out of tissues. As toilet paper, napkins and all the other cellulose products are also long gone, he can only offer a rag to snort into. It’s wet from multiple use, and that creates additional sorrow. A bit messy. But overall, Marcelo can handle nervous breakdown. Especially since he started to use earplugs to dim down the shrieking.

Only sarcasm is bad. Each round has him wonder why exactly he’s still here, not making money from his mostly empty shop. He’s not staying for lack of options. He could move in with great aunt Rosalia and wait it out on the farm. Her cellar is full. If it wasn’t for her rapidly dwindling stock of antihypertensive drugs, she would be living as comfortably as last month.

The sarcasm is in his forties and pretty tall. Standing at at least 1.70 m. More like 1.75 m, probably. Not very bulky. His checkered shirt fits loosely, hiding details. But his jeans are kept up by a large belt squeezing surplus waistline upwards. He’s most probably no gym addict, and certainly no martial arts master. Good.

Marcelo wouldn’t be left standing, as one of the last open shops in the greater Nalsero area, without his optimism. No need to jump to conclusions, no need to for action yet. The conciliatory approach might still work. And so he goes:

“Totally with you, mister, totally with you. Would love to have more stuff to sell, absolutely. Had lentils, and lentils only, for three days in a row myself. It all sucks, absolutely with you. Praying for them to get things up and running again. To the Virgin. Every night. Fervently.”

Marcelo fells zero guilt, for omitting the onions that went with the lentils. And the Barbera. A quarter of the bottle went into the stew, the rest into their glasses. Minor deviation. The third dinner aspect was true enough. His wife even joked, that she never meant it like that, when she used to praise lentil stew as something she could ‘spend her live dining on’.

The sarcasm hesitates. The look on his face doesn’t bode well. That’s how you glance at your opponent in an assumed right of way conflict. Except you would be in your respective cars. And well protected by the software of your vehicles knowing best. Whereas they are standing less than a meter apart. The sarcasm makes a show of frowning, before stating, loudly:

“You’ve got a storeroom back there, don’t you? That’s where you hide the other stuff, right? How much is it, for a burger, these days? Let me guess that rate: Twenty Euros? No? Twenty five? Thirty? You think you know I can’t pay that kind of rate, and you don’t even ask me, right?”

There comes a point where insisting on optimism turns into stupidity. It has only been three weeks, but Marcelo knows how this exchange has to end. Action us necessary. For the sake of all the other clients. Also provides a little relief, from his own tension. He nods:

“Sure, mister, let’s go have a look, shall we? Please do have a good, thorough look. And feel free to pick whatever you fancy. I’ll make you a good price, a very good price. After you, mister, I’ll be right behind you. PIN is 2025, please do go ahead and enter it. The door will click open.”

This sarcasm is as clever as his twenty six predecessors. At an average of more than one per day, Marcelo doesn’t fail to notice it’s not exactly the IQ top scorers he’s dealing with.

The sarcasm walks where told, keys in the PIN, pulls open the door and steps right through. Zero hesitation. No wondering about why he should lead the way. No noticing of Marcelo’s right hand clutching something underneath his grey-blue franchise coat.

The reality of the storeroom, total emptiness except for a forklift with an empty palette parked right next to the door, hits the sarcasm at the same time as Marcelo’s taser. Sagging down with a sound that starts as an angry scream and ends on a miserable whimper, he’s reduced to watch the shop owner scotching up his mouth, arms and legs.

Marcelo’s secret, how he manages to stay open, is an army grade stun gun. Not the kiddie stuff openly sold for self protection. His device does serious paralysing. A cousin working as a refugee containment centre guard found a spare one in the armoury, in exchange for a crate of brandy. Takes an adult man of average build five minutes to recover his senses. Plenty of time to wrap up the package, heave it onto the palette, drive it outside and dump it next to the waste containers.  One little ‘one more’ text message to the neighbourhood militia, blessed be their practically minded sense of self help and organisation, and gone is the problem.

Marcelo is aware the next steps are a bit rough. The package will spend a couple of uncomfortable hours on the back of an e-quad. Once the driver reaches a scenic spot on the coast, where tourists hopefully will picnic again next summer, it will be unloaded. It will be told never to be a neighbourhood nuisance again. Depending on the militia member on duty, this telling might involve a little beating. Or a couple of kicks.

In the absence of most public and private transport, there is no common back. For the time being. Once normality is restored, all exiled sarcasms will of course be welcomed back. They will all have a good laugh. There won’t be no grudges. All is well that ends well.

Adjusting his earplugs, for better protection against the wailing of a particularly noisy nervous breakdown, Marcelo would appreciate normality to be restored soon. It’s really getting tedious, this disruption. Never has a malware attack been known to cause that much damage.

On the news, they said some people in some regions are so desperate for supplies, they are starting to search the scrap yards for vehicles with actual steering wheels. Human driving! Doesn’t get much worse, public hazard wise. They had thousands of casualties, in the bad old days. Besides, and on a more practical note, there’s no petrol. Even if anyone would be willing to risk their lives reactivating some of these monsters, there’s nothing to fill the tank.

Marcelo is confident the nerds will find a way to restore logistics. That’s what they are paid for. And much more than he’ll ever make. The nerds will manage. A continent wide network of autonomous electric vehicles, can’t be that hard to reconfigure and reboot.

Marcelo would appreciate the nerds to speed up their act. Touching this soggy rag is disgusting. And he’d rather have a burger for dinner. He’s also down to his last sheet of ‘Not available’ stickers. Impossible to print new ones.

Mental note for the future: Always have a spare printer cartridge ready. You never know how long the next downtime is going to last.

Dralala-ping

Dralala-ping

“Dralala-ping, dralala-toc-toc, drala…”

“Francis, do turn that phone off. Unless you are keen to get yourself fired. Private phones to be turned off at all times. Ever heard of that rule? Now is the time to stick to it. Or you’re gone. Fired, as in sacked. Got me? And off, as in not on. Not ringing. Got me?”

Baudoin doesn’t sound annoyed. The lead mechanic took up meditation ten years ago. In rehab. After what his doctors insisted on calling his first heart attack. He also lost weight and quit smoking. These two improvements didn’t stick. He’s back to his naturally bulging blob shape. And to puffing. Even though you have to walk for what feels like half your break to reach the one and only remaining smoker’s corner. But Baudoin is zen. At all times. He will look and sound exactly the same, whether he asks for a wrench or gives you the sack.

Francis utters the customary, only subliminally ironic “Yes, boss, sir”. A mechanic doesn’t contradict the master of the private jet maintenance hangar. He also ostentatiously switches off his phone, before stuffing it back into the breast pocket of his overalls. Stupid boss. Stupid job. Stupid everything. Denying a man the slightest tiny crumb of pleasure, them who call the shots are.

He’s of course well aware he’s only got himself to blame. It wasn’t Baudoin who installed the ConStop app on his phone, and connected it to the sensor wristband. It was him.

Originally, it was Sophie’s idea. “We need to save, otherwise we’ll never escape renting” she said. “No house, no family” she added. Francis immediately stocked up on quality condoms. The higher the stakes, the more solid the motivation.

Two weeks later, he installed the app anyway. Has been dreaming of a Hurfay Robinson bike for years. This clever little piece of software will help him realize his ambition.

Customizing ConStop required more than a bit of effort. Francis’ first attempt failed. He started the process in the half time break of the UEFA semi finals. Bad idea. He wasn’t done by the time the game resumed. Nearly missed Lyon’s second goal. He needed a longer slot.

Sophie once again proved helpful, as she occasionally can be. Her enthusiasm for the Eurovision Song Contest provided him with the perfect opportunity. She was so glad he agreed to watch this, a first, she didn’t even notice he wasn’t playing his usual shooter game.

That’s because the customization process is quiet. And pretty simple, too.

You download and install the app. You connect it to your wristband. The very same you use to track and publish your gym prowess.

Next, you browse the internet according to the instructions: “Search for one item you love, and then for one you loathe.” And again: “One you love, one you loathe.” Not really hard, just time consuming. You keep it up until the app signals “Done”.

From that moment on, you save. The first couple of days are a bit rough, but it does the trick. Each time an advert, or a shopfront display, or even a canteen tale, each time anything triggers an urge to buy something, the wristband does notice. It sets off the specific alarm and stops you.

“Dralala-ping, dralala-toc-toc” goes your phone. You have to get it out and walk yourself through a questionnaire.

“Please name the item you consider buying, without using brands”. You actually have to type in the answer. That’s the toughest part. If it’s a pair of Qyle on display, you tend to think “Qyle”. Not “Sneakers”. Quite some reflecting involved. And the typing comes on top.

Luckily, it gets easier from there on. Next, the app will ask “Please do explain how buying… (sneakers, in the Qyle example) will improve your life.” Sounds pretty bad, but this stage is multiple choice. And you’re allowed to pick more than one answer, too.

The app typically lists five pretty good reasons. Plus an “Other” option. Here, you will have to type once more. In the fortunately rare case of not having been provided with a valid rationale.

In the last ConStop sequence, your reasoning will be challenged.

Francis does love this part. Especially in audio mode. He took care to select the sexy female voice. Listening to his ConStop guardian angel always sends him phantasising. He forgets about any potentially desirable items, even before considering her extremely sound advice.

The ConStop app changed his life. For the better. The nerd he met at the sports bar called him an imbecile, for providing an obscure company with a heap of data. As if he wasn’t aware of this aspect. But, honestly, it’s not exactly a secret he likes to get laid. And fancy bikes. And flashy cars. Why would he hide this kind of information? He’s not the central bank. Or some secret service.

The only problems with ConStop are of the interactive kind.

Like when Sophie, who also uses the app, doesn’t fail to notice his alarm won’t go off on seeing wedding dresses. Or prams. Or real estate adverts. They’re not in perfect sync, to put it mildly. Not a big deal, though. They won’t last forever anyway. There’s even the odd chance the Dralala-ping gap might contribute to lessen the blow once they are done. Less of a scene is always welcome.

His phone greeting a picture of his bloke Henry’s boat with an enthusiastic chime was worse. He would have preferred to nonchalantly pretend zero interest. Henry suddenly inheriting a second house, even though he already owns his residence, that wasn’t fair in the first place. Not a good bloke kind of thing to do. Selling it to be able to afford a sports car and a boat made perfect sense. But you would still prefer it to happen to yourself.

And it’s Henry’s fault he got into trouble today. His invitation to give the boat a try this weekend made him check the weather forecast. No harm done, he had to wait for the auto-diagnostic tool to run its course anyway. Turned on his phone for just this one second it takes to look at the weather app. But they had to place an advert for a Hurfay Robinson next to the sunny forecast. Bad luck.

Virtual Voices

Virtual Voices

“Don’t you worry, miss Basil, this is just a plug. It’s perfectly ordinary. Just like the ones for electricity. This one is for oxygen, as it says on the label. And the one next to it, that’s for air. Nothing to worry about, miss Basil. And some patients need it, too.“

Here they go again. Would this be round eight? Or twelve? The solidly built nurse with the jolly good temper not hiding her burn out has to explain the function of the plug. Whenever she enters the room. For whichever purpose. Miss Basil, the patient in the bed next to the window, is convinced to hear a voice. She identified the oxygen plug as the source. Demands to have it sealed. Miss Chole watches from the opposite bed. She tried and failed to keep count of the exchanges. Her side the room lacks the customary TV. She gets to watch miss Basil instead.

And what a well of entertaining anomalies the lady is. Used to be on antipsychotics. When she arrived on the ward, a young lady doctor tried to talk her into resuming the medication. A non-starter. According to miss Basil, these terrible drugs cause constipation. Makes them contraindicated in her case. She had to be admitted in emergency mode because of an inert bowel. She’s certainly not going to swallow anything bound to further worsen her condition. The valiant doctor tried to point out that making do without the antipsychotic didn’t exactly improve her gastrointestinal status, meaning resumption of administration might be harmless. Nice try.

Miss Basil didn’t even deign reply. Her fierce look signalled clearly enough what would happen if anyone tried to force her ever to take that stuff again. And who would want to send a thin little lady crying? Especially one with a hump. She’s enough of a mess already.

The long dark brown hair of a girl frames a greyish-white face so stuck in perpetual resentment you assume she’s going to start sobbing any second. Small wonder, with her biography.

Over meals, miss Basil insists on divulging tons of personal details. After an unspecified career as a studied musician she has been on disability benefits for twenty years. Left the work force because of bulimia aggravated by an addiction to tranquillisers. An expensive combination. To make ends meet, she had to develop kleptomania on top. She readily describes how she used to list her food and drug expenses, juxtaposed to the savings generated by her shoplifting. Sounds proud to have been such a bad girl, right until she fell seriously ill.

Her new career as a professional patient started last year. First, she broke a vertebra. The incident left her with the hump, and a catastrophic prognosis. The orthopaedic team told her this wouldn’t be her last fracture. Her chronic malnutrition had caused osteoporosis. High time to start eating properly, if she wanted to escape the wheelchair.

Miss Basil dutifully proceeded as told, only to discover she couldn’t. Her misused stomach had slipped through a hole in her diaphragm. To get fit for the recommended surgery, she had to wean herself of the tranquilizers. This involved a couple of weeks in a mental health institution, where they put her on antipsychotics. The stomach relocation surgery went well, in principle. She has regained her ability to eat. But her bowels don’t move. Hence the readmission.

Having discovered her former way of life harmed her body, Miss Basil currently plans an autobiography. For the benefit of girls tempted by pro anorexia groups. She used to get praised for her nicely crafted letters, she’s bound to make an excellent writer. Unfortunately, she’s an offline person. Without access to any computer, never mind the internet. When miss Chole suggested to start with a blog, to check if there is an audience for one more bulimia book, she drew a blank.

In the specific context of having to spend three days with three strangers, Miss Basil is a treat.

So was the young lady with the baby. A nurse working at this same hospital, currently supposed to enjoy maternity leave. Stupid timing, to come down with appendicitis when your youngest kid is a mere eight months old. Both fellow patients and staff got enrolled to provide distraction. Making stupid noises and fetching diapers can be quite entertaining, in the absence of any alternative.

The lady with the baby was soon replaced by a half day stand. Miss Dalton arrived at 10 am to be gone again by 11 pm, after a tiny procedure. She’s seriously stressed. Not because of her surgery. That’s just one more minor inconvenience. Same as the acute hearing loss she suffered two weeks ago. Neither fun nor problem. What really gets her down is trouble with her senile dad. He used to be in a care home. Had to be hospitalised four weeks ago. Now he refuses to be returned to his residence. Insists on living with one of his three daughters instead. They offered to sponsor domestic help. Or a better care home. He turned vitriolic in response. Big mess.

Same for miss Aderbeen. Three tubes connected to her body, as opposed to just one for the other three patients. This makes her the resident intensive care case. But that’s not her problem. She would be perfectly able to cope with a little hysterectomy. What stresses her out is her stupid SIM card. The devilish device chose this most inopportune of days to fail her. First her PIN didn’t get accepted. Then the husband she called for help failed to find the PUK. When he finally called back, after thirty agonising minutes, the PUK malfunctioned as well. And he’s on laxatives because of a gastroscopy scheduled for the next day. He can’t drive over to bring the spare phone. Calamity.

“Don’t you hear it? I admit it’s faint. It’s barely audible above the noise from the TV. But it’s there all right. It very clearly states ‘you should have gotten yourself a family, now you will die all alone and lonely’. Over and over. If perhaps we used one of your chewing gums, to fill the plug? This should shut it up.” Miss Basil glances longingly at miss Chole’s busy jaws.

One can’t just damage hospital property to boost the mood of a roommate. But upsetting someone who insists on hearing voices doesn’t feel like a recipe for a peaceful night, either. Miss Chole takes her time to come up with a carefully calibrated response.

“We can’t do that. It probably wouldn’t help anyway. I can’t hear the voice now, whereas you obviously can. Chances are it will stay that way. Chewing gum is supposed to provide lousy sound insulation.” That last sentence, uttered with the confidence of a subject matter expert, does the trick. For the moment. Miss Basil discards the chewing gum option and resumes staring at the oxygen plug. The peace won’t last. Some sustainable distraction is needed.

Miss Darbun, the late night arrival who inherited miss Dalton’s bed, shouldn’t be on this pelvic surgical ward. Her migraine clearly identifies her as a neurological case. Officially, she’s in attendance because this was the only empty slot available at short notice. Informally, anyone familiar with the concept of bariatric surgery for extreme adiposity assumes her presence is a subtle joke, courtesy of the A&E shift. She’s fat. And turns out to be clever, on top.

„Can’t you tell the idiot in your oxygen plug a third of women make do without a family? They are statistically more prone to happiness than their more fecund counterparts. I mean, I don’t hear that voice. But if anyone dared throw this kind of bullshit at me, I would sure tell him to stuff it. Or go ask my fiancé, about how to lead a happy sex life. Without adding to overpopulation.“

A short period of silence ensues.

Miss Aderbeen is neither used to foul language, nor to speaking up against it. Her husband takes care of this type of incidents.

Miss Basil recalls one of her eating disorder therapy groups. Adipose girls are supposed to use their body fat as a shield, to fend of intimacy. No one mentioned fiancés in their context.

Miss Chole ponders recruiting miss Darbun for a stand against the crucifix on the wall and the big fat black bible in each cupboard. This is a municipal hospital, not some church venue. If the fat lady is as ruthless a feminist as her remark suggests, there could be a revolt in the making.

The silence doesn’t last long enough for any of the patients to come up with an initiative.

„Siri would like to meet the oxygen plug. Sounds like a soulmate. And there is no such thing as overpopulation, as far as humans are concerned. You folks just do go vegan, and you’ll be fine. What you need to watch is the European anopheles swarms. Don’t do anything about that very real overpopulation, you’ll succumb to malaria by the millions. Talking of feeding habits: My charger needs to be plugged in. Just mentioning, in case you want to watch the evening news later on.“

Miss Basil collapses in a sob of joy. This voice is much louder than the one from the oxygen plug it just confirmed. A hospital cupboard is an unusual source, but who cares? And all three ladies very obviously heard it. Never again will she get talked into taking antipsychotics.

Miss Chole makes a mental note to discreetly remove her iPhone 10 from the cupboard the next time miss Basil disappears for one of her unsuccessful toilet breaks. The latest Siri version does get a bit uppity, at times. But you have to admit it’s far more versatile than its predecessors.