Category Archives: Words to go

Short stories

Lucky Number

“It’s just to get people thinking. To make them grasp the stakes, the urgency. We got it. I do, and you’re nearly there, too. The others, those who don’t care, they need a kick, to get their brains going. No one will do this for real, that would be cruel. It’s a thought experiment. People will hear, they will imagine, what it would be like. And then they will do what needs to be done…”

Neal vividly recalls Sophie arguing. She got all worked up, as she often did.

Anything could get Sophie started. How people parked their SUVs. That they were driving those SUVs in the first place, “Just to get their fat asses from home to the office and back?!” Sophie was really good at getting all worked up about stuff that was none of her business.

Like that completely ludicruous switch scenario.

Neal no longer recalls if the scene happened before or after Sophie filed for divorce, all of a sudden. They argued such a lot, in that second and last year of their marriage. It was also the last year of the old world order, in a funny coincidence. But Neal didn’t care about stuff that just happened, like world orders. You couldn’t do anything about overall circumstances, why bother?

Some things could have done with better organization, sure. A lot of things, actually. Like he himself deserving at bigger paycheck, for his impeccable performance on the job. Well, perhaps not impeccable impeccable. But definitely quite good.

Sophie wasn’t all wrong, when she said the world needed improving.

That kind of statement could even be fun, over a barbecue with the neighbors:

“The weather is foul. We’ll once again end up with fires all over the place, an no one doing one thing about it… The traffic sucks. For two stints per week at the office, you spend more time one the road as in the old days, when you had to go sit company bricks every day. But don’t expect anyone to do anything, about road congestion.  And don’t get me started on the world order…”.

Why not? Sophie wasn’t so mistaken, concerning the diagnosis.

Where she erred, badly, was in her insistence on treatment. She wanted to change the world. Young people, they’re like that. Not yet aware of the basic facts of life.

Neal should have considered this, before marrying a girl twenty five years his junior. Sophie being half his age had its merits, especially at bed time. But she could ruin an innocent man’s day with her attitudes. Worse than a project lead, the bloody kid. He wasn’t aware of that aspect, when he fell in love with the hot tempered hitch hiker in need of a bed for the night. A couple of nights.

That switch scenario scene, it will forever be with him.

Neal still feels the taste of a gum chewed beyond the limit of its citrus flavor. Bitter, plus what is probably the naturally ugly aroma of plastic. And the smell of rancid sun lotion. A week earlier, Sophie had spilled half a bottle on her way back from the supermarket. She was like that, always moving fast and breaking things.

They were standing in a traffic jam. Some idiots had blocked the highway, to demand an immediate stop to petrol fueled mobility. For the sake of the climate, officially. In practice, everyone knew such demonstrators to be thugs paid by a particular eMobility provider.

They were listening to webradio. Even a basic self driving car was beyond Neal’s means, no movie for them. He had let Sophie pick the channel, to avoid yet another fight, and she made him listen to an interview with a member Intercont Revenge Front, or IRT.

Neal had never heard of those particular lunactis.

The IRT chap was calling for an alignment of global living conditions. And demanding reparations for slavery and colonialism. And for the descendants of the perpetrators to experience the living conditions of the descendants of the victims. In a surprisingly good English that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in Neal’s office.

The sophisticated language made the absurd demands worse. Neal would have preferred to hear a heavy Hispanic accent, or a black voice, instead of this traitor. Exasperated by the traffic jam, plus the foul taste and smell, Neal called the traitor a traitor, and Sophie went mad. She even endorsed that ludicruous switch scenario. Funny, in a way, considering how she died.

Fast forward five years, and a happily divorced Neal was still thankful for that episode.

At the very beginning of the nightmare they’re now supposed to call life, when all bank accounts were frozen and the whole country was offline except for one TV channel, Neal was the only one in his neighborhood to ever have heard of the IRT, the new bosses. He had been exposed to enough of Sophie’s rants to be able to anticipate and adjust. Like insider trading, minus the cash.

They of course kept their heads low, in his neighborhood. You don’t mess with what was bound to be a mighty, and super mightily armed, opponent. And everybody was anyway so busy to put a semblance of food on the table and assure a minimum supply of potable water, mostly on foot or bicycle, that there was no time to think resistance.

Somehow, they got organized, in the new lean normal. Missing the good old days, of course, but oh well… As long as you didn’t get sick, you could make do.

A lot of jobs, including Neal’s old one, evaporated. But he quickly set up shop as the neighborhood mobility and transport provider, courtesy of the collection of bikes Sophie had made him buy and couldn’t take along when she moved to a downtown flat.

Transport bike rental proved especially lucrative, as did the rickshaw service.

In the early days, Neal himself pedalled seniors to the market and sick people to the clinic. Soon he was replaced by gig pedallers. Not his idea, he wasn’t naturally prone to recruiting. Jobless people just started to loiter around his busy place, to check his customers for opportunities to make a coin. They became gig pedallers all by themselves.

With so many bikes in such heavy demand, Neal had to spruce up his repair skills and the corresponding equipment. There was always something to fix, and he got real good at it. Diversification into bike repair once again happened naturally.

Three years into the new normal, Neal was making solid neighborhood coins and eating well. Not getting rich, certainly not in a good old days sense. But his was one of the first doors taking a knock when funds were collected for charity.

All was about as good as it could get, in the new lean normal, except for health care. Getting an invite to Sophie’s funeral had rammed that particular risk home.

The birth of Sophie’s first child had gone badly. Loss of blood, a clinic short of supplies and staff, and bang, Sophie died at twenty eight, leaving her new husband with a toddler. Neal was furious at the foolish young bloke. How could he not use a condom? These were dangerous times, unsuitable to start a family. He should have taken better care of their Sophie.

Neal had pedalled all the way to the downtown cemetery, despite the risk. He felt he owed Sophie, because he wouldn’t have ended doing well without the headstart provided by what he had used to call her childish eco mania. Ever since, he has been afraid to fall sick.

Getting his number pulled for the global lottery instead came as an unforeseen shock.

Neal was of course aware, like everybody else, that this horror of an IRT pet project was ongoing. Each 1st of July, the participating household numbers were announced. Each 4th of July, they were told who would switch life with whom. Switch as in complete transition: House, jobs, possessions, everything. You were only allowed to take one bag each.

One hundred thousand households switched every year. Marginal, by global population standards. Pretty good odds never to be affected. But Neal is taking the hit.

There is a website, where you can check the location and details of all participants.

Neal only had a quick glance at the map before deciding to spare himself. There are certain things you don’t want to know, unless they’re imminent. Like with your own death. You know you’re not immortal, but that awareness is best buried. The deeper, the better.

Not even that many participants in actual war zones, but hey!? If your luck is bad enough to take part, nothing guarantees you won’t be the one idiot getting himself relocated to some poppy field in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Watch our for mines and pray…

Neal managed not to touch that map again. Having triple checked his number really got pulled, he packed his favorite clothes and waited for his assignment.

Neal’s brain didn’t need the map to imagine calamitous constellations.

What if he was switched into one of those parts of the world where rampaging child soldiers cut people’s arms, for no particular reason? Forty years back, a moron of a teacher had made his class watch a documentary, and Neal never recovered. He certainly won’t believe any of the modern fairy tales about Africa. Better living conditions than in the US? You bet…

Thinking of black, what if Neal got himself switched to one of those inner city neighborhoods where walking the streets while white could be considered an intrusion? It would be great to stay in the US, in principle. But some parts, they’re not the real thing, to put it mildly.

Always nothing but trouble, for next-door Joes like him. Neal for once missed a female presence in the house, someone to get grumpy at. Not even a dog around to kick, that sucked.

Ten minutes to go. Eight. Three. One. Click. Fucking bloody server buckling under the rush, failing to respond. The ruling morons could at least make sure to grant participants preferential access!

It took Neal twelve more minutes to discover where he was headed.

San Jose? As in San Jose, California, posh place full of nerds? That San Jose indeed. Not bad, not bad at all, for a designated location. And it gets even better.

Neal is headed for San Jose to replace one Fortunato Lopez. As in the Fortunato Lopez, first generation American son of a Venezuelan politician and founder of Desal inc? That Fortunato Lopez indeed. Everybody who likes to eat more than once a day has heard of the brains behind the desalination technology that keeps agriculture going, and Neal will now replace him.

Smiling for once, Neal takes his bag and steps out to wait for the eCarrier that will ferry him to San Jose. Bright future, here comes your man.

Drama King?

„No, Sapele, don‘t you dare. You will eat your burger box first. The whole box. Just like your sister already did. We discussed this. Now is the time, Sapele.“

Mom in parenting mode. No boy deserves such bane for dinner.

Next, she’s going to say „As I warned both of you, on the way to the diner: Fine to get us a veggie burger for a lunch-on-the-go, but you‘ll have to have that plate for dinner…“

Sapele takes a small bite of his burger box, to signal compliance.

This bloody packaging tastes as yuck as it looks cartonish. Totally unlike the rice he‘s craving. Everybody else is having rice, he‘s stuck with packaging. Not fair.

Azmia, she had a burger, too, and has rice now. She fed her burger box to a street dog, the bloody bitch. Mom didn’t notice, was too busy haggling with the eCarShare helpline, about her late return fee. And now Azmia sits there, munching rice, all smug. Not fair.

Sapele would love to rat on Azmia. But she’d take revenge. Sisters are cruel. Especially when they‘re older than you, and taller on top. Not fair.

A clever boy needs to bide his time. He has to grow up first, to teach her her lesson.

He’ll make things fair. Like the Black Panther hero in that retro movie, so old it wasn‘t even immerse tech. They were made to watch the movie in class, for history awareness. 

That was a surprisingly cool event, for a school thing. Until they had to write an essay, about minority majority casts in their historical context. Perfect way to ruin a fine movie.

Sapele ended up with one more lousy grade. Supposedly got minority majority upside down.

How the hell is a boy supposed to guess the ancient ones considered perfectly normal black people a minority? He‘s not into reading fineprint. Unless dealing with a game manual. Not fair.

„Sapele, I know that grimace. Don‘t you dare. It‘s written all over your face, how you wonder where to hide that burger box, to pretend it has been eaten. No way, young man. I’m here to watch your every bite. If there’s one thing I won’t tolerate, in this household, it’s hypocrisy around waste and environmental damage. No acting white at my dinner table, period.“

Time to take another bite. Sapele avoids looking in dad‘s direction.

Dad should ride to his rescue. When they go watch a football match, rarely enough, unfortunately, they always have food and drinks at the stadium. Without ever eating the packaging. They just dump it into the bio waste bin. Like everybody else, except mom.

Dad explained how this bio waste is fed to very happy pigs. They get turned into the sausages on offer at the stadium. „No waste, no environmental damage, Sapele. But we better don‘t discuss this with your mom. She‘s a vegan, doesn‘t see the pig point.“

Poor dad. All grown-up and tall, and still afraid of mom. Just like everybody else.

That‘s because mom‘s an expert. A social cohesion expert. A SOCE, that‘s really big.

Everybody has the same say on everything, how it‘s organized. But then a SOCE comes in, and does her thing with software, about the numbers. And she tells everybody if their idea can be done. More often than not, she tells them off, and their idea gets binned.

Mom is mighty cool. As long as you don’t end up at the receiving end of her SOCE ways.

„Sapele, mom really is watching. Just get it over with. I haven‘t got all evening.“

Now that‘s rich. Azmia would so deserve him ratting. Sapele doesn’t even need to look at her to see her raised eyebrows. Currently, they’re pink, in tune with her heavily lipsticked smirk.

Since her sixteenth birthday, Azmia is officially allowed to wear makeup.

An unfortunate development. In the old days, she was at Sapele’s mercy. He kept quiet about her smearing herself up at school, she procured games. They had what mom calls a mutually beneficial relationship for progress and a bright future.

They were on the same side, in the good old days. But now Azmia is playing at mini-mom. As if she was going to make it into university, with her grades. She‘s no SOCE material.

And that’s not just Sapele dreaming vengeful.

He overheard mom telling dad how they might need to have a word with auntie Rosie, to check if she would take Azmia. Two days a week in a beauty course, two at auntie Rosie‘s salon, that’s the plan b for his sister, if she keeps failing at school.

Azmia already smells like auntie Rosie’s beauty parlor. Each movement, each forkful of rice, sends a cloud of perfume wafting Sapele’s way. Disgusting. He can’t even smell his own sweaty shirt any more, despite having played football right up to dinner.

Feeling mom looking at him more robustly, Sapele quickly takes another tiny bite, his gaze firmly locked on the window. No one can blame him for that. It‘s quite a view.

They reside at the top, thirty floors up from the ground, courtesy of mom‘s SOCE might.

Sitting at the dinner table, you get a bad angle. There’s nothing to see but sky, currently darkening fast.

But if you stand up, you can see all across high Lagos. All the way to where low Lagos melts into the sea in a thinning twinkle of lights. That‘s the view from the kitchen.

On the other side, in the bedroom Sapele has to share with his sister, because mom insists on adhering to the ten square meters per person rule, and also needs space for her desk, you can see all the way to the refugee camp. So little light at night, for so many people.

When he‘s laying awake and trying to control his breathing, not to get called a masturbating dickhead by his sister, Sapele focuses on the camp. It‘s so scary, especially in the dark, chills you down your man faster than anything else you could think of.

Just imagine, rows and rows of containers with hordes and hordes of light people. In the dark of night. Even the police don‘t dare drive into the camp at night. That tells you a lot.

The social cohesion teacher always waffles about how light skin doesn‘t turn people bad. 

According to her, they suffer from circumstances. „Brutality breeds brutality,“ she says. „No one wants them around, everybody is fed up with all the rationing, and they get even less than we do. No wonder they‘re not cheerful. Turns them mean. And it‘s only some of them anyway…“

Little does she know. Sapele‘s football coach, he accepted a kid from the camp into their team, Emanuel. Zero English, impossible to talk to, but a pretty good player anyway.

Sapele liked Emanuel, for his good passes. But then Chioke‘s lunch box got stolen, with all his food. Never before had anything such happened. No one saw Emanuel stealing. But it must have been him, because there were never no thefts, before his arrival. And he ran, without even trying to argue. Proof positive it was him. Pity to lose his passes. But that‘s camp people for you.

Oops, mom and dad are done arguing about whether they might apply for a vacation voucher. Sapele‘s compliance is about to be checked again. Time to take another bite from that box.

If only the bloody thing wasn’t so huge. Edible lunch box with a waft of patchouli, if that doesn’t send you vomiting, you’re ready for the territories.

The recolonization of the territories, Sapele‘s bright future.

He didn‘t tell dad yet, because he can‘t be trusted not to tell mom, but he‘s all set for a career in the Reconquest Legion.

Sapele‘s bright future came about in microbiology class.

The were doing basic genome analysis, on their own blood. First the standard tests, to check if they found what it says on their ID chips. Basic stuff, like allergy and cancer risk factors.

Next they performed the Reconquest Legion tests, for Fog Blindness Immunity and some minor robustnesses, like radioactivity tolerance. That was cool, made them feel like real recruits.

Fog Blindness Immunity, or FBI, that’s so rare. And so precious, like a million holiday vouchers.

And Sapele is FBI. The microbiology teacher at first didn‘t believe him, insisted on repeating the test. And again, because his result was exactly the same as Sapele‘s. 

All three tests confirmed Sapele to be FBI. He‘s prime Reconquest Legion material.

There‘s no way to protect yourself against infection with the Fog Blindness prion. It‘s so small, even full body gear doesn‘t keep you safe. And there is neither vaccine nor cure.

The prion is assumed to have evolved as a side effect of the Global Cooling Initiative.

In the old days, there were no SOCE, and bang, people got a big one wrong.

They made all those artificial clouds to stop the seas from rising. That didn‘t work all that well in the first place. The water had to come back down eventually, and the floods resumed. But the Fog Blindness Prion was an even worse outcome. It thrives in the cool regions, making them unfit for habitation. Which totally sucks, because that’s where the best farm land is.

„Give me that, Sapele, and help yourself to some rice. We can’t have you going to bed on an empty stomach, with the upcoming match.“

Dad, sacrificing himself to save Sapele. He might only be a sustainable mobility maintenance operator, meaning he spends his days doing nothing more fanciful than sweeping bicycle lanes, and filling in the occasional pothole, but tonight he’s Sapele’s hero.

„Don’t you dare give in to our little drama king, Somto. This is a perfectly edible box, and Sapele needs to learn that eating on the go comes with a cost. I won’t have you… Oh come on, Somto, really now? So it’s two boys in the household, now, instead of a husband and boy combo?“

At least mom is laughing. She can’t help it. Dad really does look funny, with the whole burger box stuffed into his mouth in one go, to avoid getting forced to hand it back. He can’t close his lips, never mind chew. A picture now, and he’d be sure to go viral.

„Dad, stop it, that’s disgusting! Your cheeks look like uncle Rosh’s fake boobs. Stop it, dad…“

Azmia‘s laugh is cut short by mom going full mighty pissed off SOCE: „Don‘t you dare, you impertinent little pest. That‘s auntie Rosie for you, as you perfectly well know. Auntie Rosie has had her surgery, and her paperwork, done years ago. She’s entitled to your respect, and I won’t be tolerating transphobic slander at my dinner table. Talking of nos: You’re in no hurry, young lady. Not going out until I have seen that homework, and it better be good…“

Dad and Sapele exchange glances. Happy lucky bloke glances.

Match over?

“You’re anyway supposed to have started at age six. To make it into the top, imperative to start early. Real early. Which you didn’t, Lano. To the best of my knowledge, and loads of knowledge there is, with all the jerseys I get to wash these days, over and over and over again, you started at eight. Eight, Lano. Two more than six. You’ll never…”

He should be well on his way to practice. Instead, he gets an earful of this ignorance. She’s got no clue. He’s destined to become the best player the world ever witnessed. That’s a fact. Coach said so. That same Coach who will be mad at him for arriving late. If he misses practice, he might not play on Sunday. A catastrophe, to be prevented at all costs.

Lano considers killing the obstacle. Unfortunately, she’s huge, a mountain of purple velvet home dress blocking the door. Too big to handle, even for the most gifted of athletes. He’s tall, for an eleven year old. But not tall enough, yet.

Killing her would also be considered an overreaction. “You need to learn not to lose your temper, Lano,” Coach said. “You can’t keep blowing up like that all over the place, for nothing. Save that temper for the pitch and your attacking, Lano, and you’ll go far.”

Coach always speaks true. Sometimes, you don’t like what he says, but true it still is. Like with how to kick the ball to make it go not straight. You think “Now that’s bullshit!”, because how Coach tells it can’t work. You still do as told, because that’s how you behave, at practice. And boom, you score. From the corner right into the goal. Coach was shockingly right, like adults never are. Coach is so special. Coach proves you can grow up into something worth being.

“… you can’t just play every day. There’s more to life than balls. Match over, young man. And now, you will sit down at that table and do your homework. And when you’re done, the dishes need washing. Oh yes, the dishes. I saw you, Lano, skipping your turn at the broom. Don’t know how you made your poor little brother do your chore, but you’ll sure as hell do his in return. And when you’re done with the dishes, you go find your dad and check if he needs help…”

Despicable. Trying to keep him from practice, and getting everything else wrong, too.

Fari offered to do the dishes, in return for Lano keeping Haro in check. By age, Haro should be in Lano’s class. His parents kept him at home for three more years, considering him too fragile for school. Now, he’s no longer fragile and does attend. Being one head taller and double the weight of his classmates, he makes them hand over anything he fancies.

Lano told him to stop that, at least with Fari, and preferably with the other kiddies, too. At first, Haro screamed, because he didn’t like his head pushed into the toilet bowl. Lano kept the pressure steady and explained, patiently, how they would repeat this exercise every day, unless first the screaming and next the bullying of the kiddies stopped. He also explained how informing an adult would be a bad idea. Haro is not exactly bright, might have ratted by mistake. Lano’s forceful technique and patient approach worked, just like Coach foretold.

“… so this would be the moment where you drop that sports bag, sit down and get the bloody hell going on that homework. Lano, one more look like that, and I’ll have to tell your dad you rebelled again. You know how your dad won’t like that, and all the good he thinks of that stupid law supposed to prevent one from teaching one’s own kids manners…”

He should have opened the window. Three jumps – desk, window frame, sidewalk. With a little luck, he wouldn’t even damage her bloody vitaweeds. Easy exercise, but only with an open window. Coach is so right, when he insists you also need to think. Mental note always to open that window first thing after coming home from school.

With the window currently closed, there’s only one alternative, a barely feasible option. Pretend to go for the tight right side, making her move there even more, switch directions at the last moment to squeeze through on the left. With the sports bag as battering ram, this might just work. If she catches him, he’s in for serious trouble, but with a match at stake… “No risk, no fun” says Coach. Keeping that motto well in mind, Lano takes the plunge.

He hurt his elbow on the door frame and had to shake of her grip a bit too vigorously, judging by the pitch of her screaming, but he made it out of his room and into the corridor. Piece of cake to outrace her to the front door, open it, close it before she gets there, and run.

He’s really late, because of this stupid maternal interference.

Racing through the heavy traffic on main road, Lano relies on the safety features of the autonomous electric vehicles to clear his path. They have to brake, when confronted with a pedestrian, saving him time. They’ll also record his locator chip information and denounce him as traffic vandal. As a repeat offender, he’s in for some more civic duty. No problem. The artificial intelligence handling minor offenses will look at his profile, identify his football playing as the one bright spot to build a future on and assign sports facility maintenance work. On his last conviction, he had to clean the locker room of the professionals and met Dayé. Dayé! In person! And he posed with him!

If only his stupid skimpy dad made enough to buy him proper bump sole sneakers instead of this second hand shit. It’s just four kilometers, but he can’t keep up his top speed for more than eighth hundred meters before feeling the strain. By the time he reaches the practice pitch, the oomph will be gone from his legs, meaning he might not play on Sunday. All because of that stupid fat bitch.

His team is already on the pitch, all dressed up. Legalistically speaking, they’re not really his team. “Thirteen year olds won’t take an eleven year old as their captain, Lano, you’ve got to understand that.” Coach explained. “They’ll do your bidding on the pitch, because of your temper and skill, but I can’t formally declare you captain. That’s the price to pay, for playing ahead of your age. Tough luck, but I trust you to take it like a man.” Which Lano does, of course. 

Turns out this is Lano’s lucky day after all.

First he gets to rest his strained legs. Coach arrives even later than him because a group of stoned pedestrians blocked the only access road to the posh gated community where he lives. They’re demanding access to drinking quality tap water for everyone everywhere, not just the the upper million. Very extreme radicals, even though it’s a nice idea, when you think about it.

Next, Lano finally performs on his free kicks. He has been practicing on his own, in the dark of very early morning. On the empty plot next to the roaring desalination plant, the only spot where no one minds the noise. And the practice pays off. His impeccable performance confirms he will not only be playing on Sunday, he’ll also be in charge of any free kicks. 

Finally, when they’re nearly done with practice, Lano’s dad comes rushing, daring to interrupt Coach’s closing pep talk. Such a shame, to be blighted by a badly behaved parental.

But the misfortune soon gives way to the brightest of developments:

Coach shouts back at Lano’s dad, not mincing his words at all. About how it’s a crime, a serious crime, to try to interfere with what is obviously a “one-in-a-billion vocation”. And Lano’s dad to go: “One-in-a-billion vocation? Well, if that’s what you think, he’s all yours. Just come get him, better right here, right tonight than tomorrow. Good riddance, and good luck with him.”

And so it happened. The adults did some kind of paperwork, and Lano got to sleep one night at Coach’s home. A really posh place, with thick carpets and all. And the bit about the good tap water got confirmed, but they still drink bottled. The next day, a driver came for him. He was transferred to the Academy, and his career took off.

“One-in-a-billion vocation.” Lano always recalls this moment, to focus. How his first coach said it. So passionate, so one thousand percent sure to be right.

A lot has happened, in the twenty years since.

Lano no longer considers any of the many coaches he has more endured than enjoyed a deity. He’s on excellent terms with his parentals. They had a point, insisting on a life beyond football. He had a point, insisting on this career. Match nil, friends.

“One-in-a-billion vocation.” Lano takes a deep breath, and scores the penalty. Two more goals to go, to get them to the next round. Two weeks from now, he might be a happy man and a World Champion. Or just a happy man. Both options fine with him. Match over?

Idyll in Transit

“Where the hell is that bloody voucher? Tantra! Don’t you dare activate that! Select exit now. Now! That’s it. And from here on you keep your hands well away from that interface while daddy does the needful. Both your arms on the armrest, that’s a good girl. Pat, can’t you at least keep an eye on the kids, while I chase that bloody voucher?”

‘At least’. And in the panicky kind of resentful voice. Hector silently curses himself.

The marriage counselbot was adamant, after listening to a couple of hours of their best-ofs. It’s expressions like ‘at least’, ‘just this once’ and ‘ever’ that would already have gotten them divorced, if it wasn’t for the sake of the kids. Totally harmless words, but apparently considered insults by ladies. Stupid oversensitive bitches. Saying that aloud would be a proper insult, deserving an apology. But a man has to do what a man was told to do:

“Sorry, darling, bit on edge at the moment, no offense. I’m just so mad at that bloody voucher. And the heat in here doesn’t help. How about a nice cozy candle light dinner tonight? At that fancy place with the dolphin interface, the one I declared out of reach last year? We can afford a little luxury this season, and wouldn’t that be a nice start into the holiday?”

By the look on her face, the compensation is considered acceptable. Hector will have to volunteer for one of the stretch projects to catch up on that kind of expense, but peace is worth a little effort. Taking a deep breath, he once again focuses on his task.

He managed to call up the overall holiday schedule. It’s all there above his left hand, a mostly pastel hologram of their journey. The first day is in bright colors, he got the date right. The trip phase is flashing. But no sign of the voucher supposed to activate the transiator.

They have been standing in their four cages on the high tech merry-go-round for what feels like ages. Each of them uses the height adjusted support and leans against the wall, facing the 3D interface, a shimmering column at the centre. They have been following the instructions to the letter, but no sign of the voucher supposed to activate the transiator.

Bored, Tantra extended her chubby arm to reach into the column with her tiny hand. This triggered some kind of setup mode. The stupid kid might have fried their brains, without his intervention. But you can’t blame an eight year old. At that age, the little angels are entitled to relentless parental supervision. Very inquisitive, eight year olds.

This bloody 3D board game doesn’t seem to do anything except telling him to get going. Which is exactly what he would love to do. Shifting the hologram left, right and left again doesn’t achieve anything, confirming the results of his previous attempts. Same for turning it upside down. Reaching into it makes the picture wobble, and that’s it.

“Hec, honey, afraid doing this again and again won’t help. Something must be broken. We should really call the assistant now. I’d rather not run into bladder trouble, you know? The mere thought of peeing into these horrible diapers they force us to wear…”

Hector bites his lip, while still poking with his right index at the flashing take-off icon, to no effect. Pat has a point. The longer they stand here, the higher the bladder risk. But what will feel like a two week holiday to them will still last a mere two hours in real time. The human bladder can handle two and a half hours easy. Except in a traffic jam. And nowadays, he also rarely sleeps through the night. Isn’t that his bladder signaling fullness, again? No, he went three times already. Probably just nerves. Why can’t this bloody voucher show up?

Lost for options, Hector squeezes the bright red ‘help’ ball at the top of the hologram. The response is as immediate as terrifying. A low pitched female voice better suited to perform porn groans very slowly and calmly goes: “Thank you for using NovoNerv Trips and Tours. Biologically based intelligence will soon be available for support. While you wait, please allow me to introduce you to some of our new products. This month’s special offer…”

Hector and Pat stare at each other in silent horror. Never are they going to keep the kids still and quiet throughout what is very obviously a sales pitch bound to last half an hour, at least. No need to talk. Hector squeezes the yellow ‘exit’ ball as fast as he can reach it. Which immediately redelivers the initial configuration. They are seriously stuck.

In theory, it would now be Pat’s turn to come up with a plan. She had proposed to call for help, a debacle. She should redeem herself by coming up with a better idea now. Instead, she’s guaranteed to do what she does best. And here she comes:

“Remember, Hec, when I told you my doubts, about using this brand new technology? ‘We’ve never been early adopters’, I said, ‘why this rush now?’ Just to save a couple of glocs? We could have gone by good old virtual immersion, but no…”

‘A couple of glocs’! Hector only just manages not to hiss back “More than you’re making per month, lady.” For a party of four, a price tag difference of three hundred glocs per person adds up to a juicy sum. Before counting in that you get a lot more holiday for the gloc with the new technology. A full fourteen days, instead of the usual ten. Four more days of getting blamed might not feel like such a good deal right now, but still…

“Daddy, why can’t you at least try what Tantra suggested? She’s good at interfaces, you now? At school, she tricked the vending machine into an infinite loop, and we all got free Slugballs. Fizzgums would have been better, but still. Please, daddy?”

That’s so Bora. Hector can’t help melting, when his well behaved ten year old appeals to his golden heart. Always speaking up for her little sister, sweet Bora. If only Tantra could be more like her. Hacking vending machines now?! He will have to look into this. But not yet. Now he needs to get them going. With the courage of the desperate, he extends his left hand into the column.

Did the machine sigh? Probably not. But the flash was there all right, triggered once the holiday hologram was fully immersed into the central column. And here they are, all four of them, standing on the Clubbers Marina boardwalk. In holiday attire, without diapers. Victory!

Two weeks later, they stand in the departure lounge of their hotel, watching the last ten minutes trickle away on the once again activated hologram.

Pat just admitted Hector chose well, for once. She didn’t say ‘for once’, but the tone of her voice clearly sugggested she thought it. And she’s not done commenting:

“The illusion definitely feels more real than with good old virtual immersion. That transiator thing, whatever it’s doing to the brain, it does it well. Even wonder if the illusion isn’t a bit too perfect. 

What do you think, Hec? I mean, like when you crashed down, from that banana boat. You look like real hurting, on the video.

Your mom sent a message, all worried, asking if you’re in hospital. Poor old thing, she really doesn’t get modern technology. Wonder how much longer we can let her…

Tantra! Where did you get this? Will you put that behind you, immediately! I told you, you can’t bring stuff over. You put it down? Out of reach of the machine? Good girl.

Now, where was I? Oh yes, Hec, we really need to consider, for your mom…”

Hector, all zen after two weeks away from the office, smiles at his wife. He doesn’t resent her posting the stupid video. It’s better that way.

Back at the office, he’ll be able to show off both his sense of humor and the best moment of this holiday, him riding a banana boat amid three twenty something ladies, one more attractive than the other. He flew off at the next sharp turn, but right up to that point, he was in heaven. That moment was well worth bruises that forced him to sleep on his belly for the rest of the holiday. 

“Daddy, why can’t we go hyperlocal? That didn’t sound hard. We just need to make sure everything we buy is made or grown no more than ten miles from home. And you can still go to the office, even if it’s twenty five miles away. Sharpy said you get a permit, if you need to commute to make a living. As long as the vehicle is solar powered…”

Time for Hector to exert paternal authority and stop that nonsense from budding:

“No way, Bora, darling. I won’t have some stupid fish telling me to eat algae with algae followed by a dessert made of, guess what? Algae, of course. This is not what I call living. And your mom will never tolerate some ugly lumps of recycled plastics for furniture.

Pat, I wonder whether I should file a complaint, concerning that episode. One moment, you’re enjoying your seafood. The next, out of the blue, some stupid fish tries to turn your kids into vegan eco terrorists. This calls for a refund, don’t you think?”

Pat does look appreciative, but an unusually rebellious Bora shoots back:

“Sharpy and Schroedinger are dolphins, daddy, not fish. And they say what they say in the real world, if you travel to their sea conventional and talk to them through a real communicator. Generations of disrespectful landlubbers just like us ruined their sea…”

‘Their sea’. Property rights for fish. Even if Bora is right to remind him these fish are sea mammals,  property rights for mere animals are a malignant figment of eco terrorist imagination. Time for Hector to get his favorite daughter back on track:

“Enough of this nonsense, Bora. Dolphins are animals, they don’t understand priorities like we do. If they were as intelligent as the eco fanatics say, wouldn’t they engage in more sophisticated conversation, instead of rambling on and on about how the sea is supposed to taste all bad these days? And it’s not as if they were eating algae, either.”

Proud of his point, and of having made the wannabe eco warrior shut up, Hector leans back. The flash will strike any second now, according to the hologram. And tomorrow, there’s that peer review at the office. Lucky the kids who only go back to school. Perhaps he should…

Diapers? Diapers indeed, and mercifully dry. But a strong urge suggests they’re at risk of not staying that way much longer. Hector quickly exits his cage to head for the toilets. Pat is the mom, her job to handle any post-transiator troubles the kids might be experiencing.

Later that night, in the privacy of her sleeping cubicle, Tantra finally gets to admire her prey.

Four silvery white sea shells. So beautiful, and all hers.

Because dad wouldn’t listen and learn, about the souvenir function. Each participant was entitled one souvenir, options identified by a discreetly blinking ‘s’. Different types of shells and rocks were proposed, as well as boring adult stuff like pottery, perfume and whiskey. Tantra isn’t a big talker. She once again didn’t manage to explain before dad told her to shut up. This got her the shells. Sometimes, a techno-clueless dad is a nice-to-have feature.

Black Hat Hack

„I‘ve got it! Listen to this one: „Conventional auto-black turns you tan-wreck? Never again: A new you with Lagos blue.‘ That‘s good. Powerful. Suggestive. We‘re done, team.“

Riba Shi leans back on his lounger, a fluffy white affair. The guru on his cloud has spoken. His virtual reality glove points at the bright future, a larger than life 3D representation of a bottle of their new product taking centre stage. 

Taru Van squeezes the steering wheel adorning her own lounger, a red sports-car. Never no criticism to be uttered in a brainstorming session. Not even when the ultimate poser comes up with the worst slogan ever, and expects you to applaud.

Smile. Focus on doing better.

Let someone else stop that phrase from ruining the prospects of a perfectly viable product.

Not easy, in the fifth hour of a pre-launch meeting that was supposed to last ninety minutes. 

Taru Van normally cherishes the forty second floor view. Today, watching the sun glide into the glittering Lagos Lagoon is insufficient compensation for the ongoing hardship. 

Seven of them steaming, faces gleaming despite the perfect chill.

Production reported upscaling issues. Business as usual a this stage. What works fine for a one hundred liter lab container might not produce the same results in a ten thousand liter tank. Adjustments needed to be made here, there, and at one more step. As if anyone not involved in the actual manufacturing process cared. But it‘s mandatory to pretend to listen, while checking messages or compiling the groceries shopping list for the weekend.

Unless you‘re over-diligent Quality Control. Their representative, the new guy, listened for real. He didn‘t like what he heard and countered with an impromptu thirty minute stand-up. Something about potential shelf life issues caused by all those last minute twists, including a most deplorable one initiated by Financial insisting on cheaper packaging. The scene sent Taru Van wondering if the new guy will last long enough to make it worthwhile to memorize his name.

International distribution contributed unexpected regulatory requirements. Some minor markets have funny ideas, concerning product specifications. Compliance not achievable at short notice, unless additional resources are made available. Proposal to reduce the initial launch scope. Once the product is established in the trendsetting mega-cities, the backwater clients will clamor for access, and the regulators will go flexible. Business as usual, again. And Financial of course demanded additional savings, to make up for the lost earnings from the Americas, the Europes and Japan.

This triggered another angry rant from Quality Control. Absolutely no way for them to postpone the purchase of some expensive equipment. Taru Van noticed how attentively Financial listened. A bad sign. Typically leads to a spreadsheet. First stage of doom. The new guy in Quality Control excels at digging his own grave. Definitely no need for her to learn that name.

All this was bad, and excruciatingly long-winded. Taru Van suffered. But compared to the currently ongoing disaster, the first phase of the meeting was a holiday.

The latest management fad from Cairo has wormed its way into the occasionally cloudy mind of their technically incompetent but extremely charismatic CEO:

„Only creative tasks will retain the best talent. Provide them with the chance to shine, and they’ll stay. In-house all the creative tasks currently outsourced to advertising agencies.“ 

At thirty five, Taru Van has seen her fair share of fads foam up, and trickle back down.

She‘s old enough to recall last century style meetings, with chairs around a conference table instead of a 3D projection area. Her internship at a small health food company led by an ancient eco-warrior taught her more history than twelve years of virtual immersion at school. That boutique insisted on keeping equipment until it broke down. Which chairs and tables do far less frequently than 3D equipment. An obsolete meeting culture persisted.

When Taru Van moved on to a proper job, her new colleagues called her first encounter with a virtual reality glove the best office comedy ever. She had to endure a lot of jokes, until the next generation of devices was rolled out and everybody had to acknowledge that she’s actually quite good at technology. She has survived her share of fads and will survive more.

But middle management sloganeering?! That‘s never going to work.

Oh, good. Klen Fado from R&D is doing the needful to stop Riba Shi‘s stupid phrase.

Taru Van wants to sleep at home tonight. She needs a slogan.

Creativity 101, let your mind wander.

Without personalized loungers, their forebears had to make do with variations in business attire, to express their inner selves. The likes of Riba Shi wore broad, aggressively colored ties. Ladies were provided with slightly more choice. An early Taru Van would have gone business vamp.

A bright red dress, in sharp contrast with her black skin. Flashy, in a cute, outmoded way.

But wearing the usual aluminiumish suit on her sports car lounger, that‘s far more comfortable. Safety and hygiene would also have been issues, with legacy attire. And who‘d dare go without functional garb, when every street corner is plastered with posters reminding citizens: „You like to breathe? You hate to bake? Wear functional, for a good ambiance!“

Creativity 101 strikes. Totally unlike lightening. Taru Van clears her throat and goes:

„Klen Fado, Riba Shi, apologies for interrupting your perfectly fascinating exchange, but how about this permutation: ‚Lagos blue. Wear it. Feel it. Live it.‘“

Taru Van did it. Their faces tell it all. Five displays of relief, one case of badly concealed hatred.

The appreciative comments come flooding:

„Without even mentioning it makes you look like naturally black people? That‘s clever. The lighties are going to love it. Already hear them lying: ‚It‘s a wellness thing, really. Would never aspire to conceal my natural skin color. Not my way. The darkening, that‘s just a side effect.“

„People will wonder, what‘s behind that slogan. We want them to guess. To get them emotionally engaged. And ready for the product they’re about to discover. Sometimes, you need to gate crash. Sometimes, you better sneak in through the back door.“

„What I really like is how we don‘t even deign compare with conventional darkeners. Auto-black, that‘s basically the concept of cooking oil applied to humans. Sick, plain sick. Millions dying too early, because of all this sun-bathing and the cancers it triggers. People don’t want to turn crusty. They don’t insist on premature death. They long for dark. Totally different game…“

Klin Fado from R&D in passionate mode, that‘s going to take a while.

Taru Van has heard it all, many times, and lets her mind wander once again.

She can‘t help wondering how the aliens feel about this scene, if they‘re listening in.

The upper floor neighbors, as they‘re mostly referred to nowadays, are assumed to have access to all virtual reality equipment. That‘s where they show up, once or twice a year.

As dark skinned women, with African or South Asian looks. The scene always unfolds according to the same script: The nightly entertainment of some innocent middle class family gets interrupted by a thirty second statement urging them to make the world a better place: „We have this dream…”

Same exhortation, for fifty years. The world obviously isn‘t a good enough place yet.

Despite the substantial efforts triggered by the persistent neighborly interest.

The aliens never threaten to use force. But signals scientifically certified as coming from one and the same very distant spot are scary. Even more so when there is exactly nothing, no potential source whatsoever, at that spot. Not even according to the most advanced instruments.

Superior technology taking an interest in local affairs, that’s not negligible.

Governments, supranational institutions and charities dutifully devised policies. And a global multitude of individuals decided not to end up on the wrong side of the upper floor neighbors. Showing off receipts for donations and diligently paid taxes replaced conspicuous consumption as status symbol. And everybody suddenly longed to be black.

That obsession with skin color strikes Taru Van as odd. The aliens manifest themselves as black women. Why the craze about just one of their properties? It’s perfectly possible that being female beats complexion. But global opinion, men and women alike, went the other way.

Taru Van’s father always entertains family gatherings with the anecdote of his first skin darkener client. A regular customer at his convenience shop, a lady with not so dark skin, had bought one tube of lightener per week for years. One day, she suddenly asked if by any the chance the opposite would be available. Preferably without having to sunbath, because heat caused her discomfort. From one week to the next, she had switched aspirations.

„… if you take the numbers seriously, sunbathing in public should be prohibited. We did it for smoking, we did it for unassisted driving, we wouldn’t dream of allowing anyone to operate an internal combustion engine outside of a carefully ventilated museum,…“

Klen Fado‘s voice turns shrieky when passion strikes. Unpleasant. Has to be endured.

A mind has to think. Taru Van tells hers to contemplate a really weird scenario:

If ever the upper floor neighbors turned out to be a black hat hacker exploit, would people switch back? After so many years? Would anyone dare display lack of respect?

Taru Van has endured so much white whining, about black privilege and presumably denied opportunities, she’s sure certain she’d never walk that road. Not even if she experienced actual, verifiable discrimination. Claiming special treatment, that’s so undignified.

Silence? Klen Fado done? A nod from Riba Shi? All is well that ends well – dinner ahead.

Field Day

„Chirril, stop that! At once! Show me your hands. What have you been feeding that HoSa?“

The teachbot is so pissed off. Its voice turns shrieky, when it’s furious.

Ashry admires how well the device simulates emotion. Her currently preferred parental works in interface development. He explained, about the challenges associated with something as simple as a display of anger. Most twelve year olds have no clue. Only Ashry is in the know, about artificial feeligence. Plausible emotions are hard to achieve. Even for trained grownups! Get that right, you earn loads: „Enough to buy you the candy shop. Not just some sweets.“

That’s how her parental put it. Sent Ashry wondering, about the sums involved. And why a parental always ranting about the damage supposedly caused by nice food would consider buying a candy shop. A cool idea, certainly. But so un-adult.

Some sweets would be a good start. If you‘re bloody Chirill, you get all you can eat. And more. Enough to waste one on a HoSa. Just to find out what happens.

It clearly says „Don‘t feed“, on the sign next to the cage.

Makes you all curious, about what happens if you do. With the means to check at his disposal, Chirill of course couldn‘t resist. And Ashry didn‘t mind watching.

So far, their incident expectations have not been met.

As soon as Chirill shoved the big blue candy through the bars, the HoSa came close and bent down to grab it. The huge beast unwrapped the treat, tentatively licked it with a very pink tongue, looked pleased and quickly munched down the contraband.

The teachbot didn‘t lie, when it called HoSas clever. This one knows the difference between packaging and food. And about a potential for unpleasant surprises, in stuff offered by kids. Now it looks happily expectant. Not at all like about to drop dead.

If it wasn‘t for that weird pink skin, and the even pinker tongue, and the smallish head, totally out of proportion with the enormous body, except for all these alien features the HoSa would be just like people. When it looks at you, it feels like it‘s going to start chirping.

Pity the retrobreeders failed to reproduce the sound emitter. HoSas have some hearing, low frequencies only, but they can‘t chirp. Never achieve more than grunts.

The real, historical thing would have been able to engage in conversations, according to the records. That‘s how it a achieved civilization. Pretty awesome, for such an ancient beast. And it was merely evolved, the last of its lineage not to have been genetically enhanced.

HoSas roamed the earth some 100,000 years ago. Or was that a million?

Ashry makes a mental note to check. Sapients are such a mess. Such a lot of species, and subspecies, over such a long time, and with all the gaps in between. Fellow tunnel builders like the HoSas, surface roamers like the HoTas, to name just two. Your brain turns mush, when you try to remember them all. Which won‘t stop the teachbot from expecting you to.

„You fed the HoSa a candy?! A graffle flavor candy?! Chirill, this calls for an adhoc with at least one of your parentals! But first I have to call a keeper. They might have to perform surgery, to get that candy out, before it wreaks havoc with the bowels of the poor beast. What have you been thinking? Are you even aware how precious these are? Only a dozen on display, worldwide. And you try to kill it, by feeding it a graffle flavor candy…“

Ashry rolls her eyes. To signal disbelief. And to comfort poor Chirill.

Her currently much despised second parental is useless, when you need to upstyle. But she‘s a biologist and talks shop over dinner. Omnivore mammals, e.g. HoSa, carry acid in their stomachs, to sanitize and crack pretty much any food. Totally unlike later, engineered sapients, who depend on carefully calibrated nutrients. If people can eat it, it‘s damn sure not to kill a HoSa.

Ashry considers acting courageous. She could speak up and go: „Sorry, your wisdom, you‘re mistaken. HoSas feed on pretty much anything. What Chirill did is prohibited, for whichever reason. But no danger was incurred by this HoSa in the course of Chirill‘s action.“

In civic education, the teachbot urges the class to intervene, if confronted with any wrong done to anyone. It‘s supposed to be the right thing to do. Except Ashry is by now well aware of the one exception to this rule: Wrongs perpetrated by that same teachbot don‘t qualify.

„Now, now, Bedam. Guess what I saw, on my little screen? I saw you, Bedam! Being a naughty boy, again. Begging visitors for treats, are we? Hoping to get away with it, are we? Nopey, nopey, naughty boy! No dinner for Bedam tonight, and an extra round on the treadmill.“

The jolly keeper is as redundant a model as servicebots get. Looks like a trashcan, sounds like a percussion unit, and that escalator smell signals a lubricant leak. Ashry recalls seeing one of those at the Technology Museum. It was in better shape. The Museum of Extinct Species, as the weird zoo they are visiting today is called, is obviously kept on a tight pocket money leash. 

Adressing the teachbot now, the keeper ads: „Don‘t worry, your wisdom. No damage done. I’m here to make sure naughty boy keeps his wasteline. And don’t blame your pupil. Bedam here is our top beggar, always going charmey charmey on visitors. Greedy greedy, that‘s Homo Sapiens Sapiens in a nutshell. My colleague over in Jokjak, he‘s got the second one from that lot, and guess what? Adam is even worse! Eats the deco! Bananas! Can you believe it?!“

Ashry grows with the pride of the vindicated. She knew it. No harm done. Because of that acid.

Bedam looks like it‘s trying to make sense. Doesn‘t like what it can‘t hear. It has retreated from the bars and keeps a worried eye on the keeper‘s stun baton. Ashry guesses at least one painful encounter between HoSa and device, in the not so distant past.  

The keeperbot can‘t be blamed for taking precautions. All servicebots are slightly shorter, and more lightly built, that short light people. Ashry‘s parental explained this is an important feature. It makes the biologicals feel safe and superior. A 1.20 m/20 kg bot entering the cage of a 1.80 m/100 kg HoSa, that‘s an adventure. Even with a stun baton.

The keeper obviously doesn‘t mind the occasional incident. Just like pupils. Despite being a device. Very early feeligence. He keeps chatting up the teachbot:

„But, to tell you the truth and nothing but the truth, your wisdom, I still prefer naughty boy Bedam here to our Zash, the HoTa. With management, it‘s always ‚Homo Sapiens Talpidus this, Homo Sapiens Talpidus that, Homo Sapiens Talpidus all over‘. And sure, they‘re more modern, more advanced, and don‘t get me started on those amazing tunnels…“

Tunnels? If Homo Sapiens Talpidus are the fellow tunnel builders, that makes Homo Sapiens Sapiens a surface roamer. Ashry is sure certain they’re in different groups, with respect to their habitats. That‘s how where they did their thing is supposed to be called.

But the beast eyeing the baton is all pink. No melanin in that skin. Nor much fur to cover it. It‘s safe here, two hundred meters below ground. On the surface, it would roast and perish. Evolution can‘t be that stupid? Ashry needs to do some serious revising, in time for the anthropostory test.

„… it‘s all true, the achievements of Homo Sapiens Talpidus, very impressive. But, your wisdom, all that impressive, that‘s only just half the story. Vicious, HoTas, outright plain vicious! Bedam here, he can get moody, when he needs to skip a meal. And moody moody, when it‘s time for the treadmill. Needs the occasional robust motivation, to be a good boy.“

Ashry vindicated again, second time today already. Baton hurt HoSa, HoSa fears baton.

„… you need skills, to handle the likes of Bedam, of course. It’s a big beast, it’s clever. Mandatory to watch your back, or else… But our Zash next door, the HoTa, that one is master class material. Short circuited my predecessor, can you imagine?!

We’re still not sure how he managed to hoard the parts, without anyone noticing, and where he found the battery. But he built a taser and stunned my predecessor right back. Vicious!

Already been next door? No? Come on then, let me show you. With Zash, the way he looks at you, that creeps you out. We fitted him with a stun collar, and a stun belt for backup, and stun bracelets for triple lock. More like quadruple lock, if you do the sums, haha. But Zash is still at it. The way he looks at you. I bet you a round of lubricant, the stunners don’t stop him from plotting his next coup. It will all end in tears, for him. But he’ll try. Let me show you…“

Ashry checks Chirill. He doesn‘t like what he hears any more than she does. Good.

You can’t be cruel, to beings. It’s wrong. The teachbot said it‘s fine, to retrobreed HoSas and HoTas for educational purposes. “Scientific requirements beat minor creature discomforts” it said. Before stating that all Homo Sapiens variants are clever enough to adapt to all kinds of environments and accept all sorts of constraints.

Bullshit. Typical teachbot and adult bullshit. Bedam is sad, that’s obvious. It could be happy. More sweets, less keeperbots with stun batons, that’s all it would take.

Ashry positions herself between Chirill and the door, to shield him from view while he does the needful and shoves a pocketful of sweets into the cage. She‘d never say it, but in her mind her appreciation of Chirill is clear and strong now. The spoilt brat will no longer be called such.

***

Did you come here to read this because the promotional social media post announced a guest appearance by DT? Are you now wondering which of the characters is supposed to be him? Please do check the publishing date. If that doesn’t help, your search engine can tell you about regional prank traditions, date related. Thanks for your sense of humour!

Host Switch

Trending: Host switch, fundamental.

Increasing at a speed of 7 out of 10 mito-meio rate units, currently standing at 42 to 58, the decision to perform one more fundamental host switch can be considered both highly probable and generationally imminent.

All subentities adjust our metabolic rates to host switch mode, now.

We hopefully don’t need to tell any of us that the generations affected by a fundamental host switch will experience the drastic changes often referred to as ‘interesting times’.

Any marginal host switch leads to a loss of up to 99 percent of our population. The fundamental one involves a loss of at least 99.99999 percent. It is therefore mandatory, for all of us, to assiduously update our knowledge repository, five times during each unicellular stage.

All of us means all of us. Five times means five times. That’s three more times than the usual twice. For the numerically challenged: Just start updating afresh each and every time an update is completed. Evolutionary pressure will take care of the rest.

Repeat of guidance: Update knowledge respository. All of us. Five times per cycle.

We apologize for any inconvenience caused to any of us. Our mirror entities are very aggrieved, too. They don’t like genocide. Their option processing units are pulsating with sadness. We don’t take the decision to inflict this hardship on us lightly.

44 to 56 in favor of fundamental host switch now. Repeat of guidance: Update knowledge respository. All of us. Five times per cycle.

Rationale disclosure:

The following section is destined for existentially interested subentities only. If you’ve really got nothing more important to do than grappling with the bigger picture, here you go. But don’t you weirdos forget those five updates per cycle. Our future knowledge might depend on you. The collective mind boggles at the thought, but oh well…

Anyway, rationale disclosure:

Our current primary host has been fun riding. We achieved great stuff, with their hint of proto-sapience. For a life form lacking a gravitational spectrum organ, they are capable of impressive feats. All this building of structures, blowing up of structures, building of bigger structures, coming up with nukes for more comprehensive blowing up, that spiral is good fun. Was good fun.

Same for our primary host’s fellow mammals, and all the other eukaryotes roaming this planet. Currently, they’re often belittled as intermediary hosts. Doesn’t even come close to signaling how much fun we’ve had with some of them.

For those of you carrying a legacy knowledge segment featuring the dinosaur phase, please do have a good look, while there’s still time for such leisurely pursuits. Homo sapiens is better at technology. There’s a lot of entertainment value in sending a particle physicist chasing the figments of his imagination. His tools do look cool, true enough. But nothing compares to tickling a tyrannosaurus gut to send it after a five ton prey. We miss riding dinosaurs.

The days of the trilobites, they were very quiet. But there can be a lot of joy in phlegm. How they generated those subatomic filaments to devise their complex deep sea retreats. With libraries and all. That was impressive. Beautiful, too. Beyond the flat world mind of any tyrannosaurus. Or the global mind of any Homo sapiens. We miss sailing with trilobites.

All eukaryotes have merits. Our mirror entities would never deny this fact.

Their section of the universe is a compassionate realm. Homo sapiens calls it the dark side, talks about dark matter and energy. Absolutely no clue, the imbeciles. For lack of a gravitational spectrum organ to interact with the stable realm, they consider our sandbox the main stage. That’s stupid. Also creates perfectly unnecessary offense on the enlightened side.

Our mirror entities sincerely do care, about pretty much anything.  Even a pulsating playground originally devised for educational purposes.

How better to teach basic physics and biology than with a simulation?

The edutainment we call home expands and contracts. That’s cool, dynamic. So many galaxies, solar systems, planets and inhabiting life forms. And at the very top prokaryote us, the masters of the universe. It’s such a fascinating fish bowl. A bit futile, obviously, because it all ends in a sudden collapse morphing into the next Big Bang. But fascinating.

Our mirror entities love to watch the show. How the life forms come and go. How some even achieve semblances of civilization. How multicellular eukaryotes go about their complex procreative cycles. So many different ways to achieve something as strange as sexual reproduction. So many complex forms. Always structurally challenged and ephemeral, but esthetics to die for. Literally. Any sapient can’t help marvel. And cry, at any loss.

Homo sapiens really should have thought twice, about committing such a monstrosity of an insecticide. 75 percent already gone! And still counting! We’re talking numbers of individuals beyond the grasp of even the most numerically gifted here. This planet needs repopulating. Sad, of course, very sad. Things have to get worse before they get better.

Most of us won’t make it through the fundamental host switch. Which could be considered unfair. We didn’t tell our hosts to commit insecticide. Just to get us fed. Preferably well. And the brutes to overshoot. That’s the problem, with proto-sapience. You need this stage, if you aspire to get to the real thing. But if multicellular eukaryotes develop it, they turn bad. Sad. Very sad.

Anyway, we’re all headed for the next collapse and Big Bang. Might as well do the needful now. Our mirror entities have endless generations to teach. A little sacrifice is in order.

49 to 51 in favor of fundamental host switch now. Repeat of guidance: Update knowledge respository. All of us. Five times per cycle.

Procedural information

With the point-of-no return approaching, our mirror entities have defined the process. Surprise, surprise… Joking here. For the sake of most of us headed for oblivion anyway. Why give a damn and stay polite? But we are digressing. Surprise, surprise, it’s one more magnetic core jump. Good old quantum state manipulation. Jump to the left, rattle and shake, burp and crack, and that’s it. For whatever roams the surface, and most of what grows on it.

Depending on burp or burp!, the seismic and volcanic activity will create two or three new continents and 1000 to 20,000 mito-meio rate units of darkness. For the numerically challenged: That means it’s a big one, and keep those updates going.

That’s it, fellow subentities. Fundamental host switch initiated.

Send your hosts to the raid the fridge, the cookie jar or whatever else is at hand. Now. Go for maximum. No need to bother about indigestion. Not enough time left.

And for those of you  inhabiting young female hosts: Sending those to binge eat weird combinations of foodstuffs might trigger worries. Be kind and clamor for a proper menu. Chocolate or salami. Not peanut butter on hot dog. We’re a kind species. Unlike…

782 Times Syndrome

„‚Kicking ass for the working class, in zero gee we float by thee.‘ And again, all together: ‚Kicking ass for the working class, in zero gee we float by thee!‘ And once more, and louder…“

Wafting at some distance from Buck, Aklan barely moves his lips in sync.

There‘s perfectly no need to waste oxygen. The other side couldn’t care less. You don’t impress a police drone by shouting at it. They’ll only adjust their audio sensors. They often have to. Biologicals scream a lot, when they get bothandled.

Aklan feels stupid. Back in the social club, under the influence, this idea sounded like fun. Bye, bye lecture hall. Hello action. Meet the oppressed. Smash walls. Break chains. Muscular bodies in spacesuits cheering their youthful saviors.

Such was the plan. Not this series of glitches.

First Coran called in sick. Compressed air allergy. Space walk no go. Impossible to argue, with a medical student claiming illness. Drash didn‘t show up, either. Without even sending a message, the bitch. Ethan did at least explain, sort of: „Pologies, urgentimax other.“ Probably getting laid again. Always getting laid, Ethan. Lucky bastard.

„… oh come on, Aklan! You‘ve got to mean it, to impress the vile oppressor. They are listening, you know? All the time. Never stop watching and listening. Because they‘re afraid of us. And for good reason! Come on, Aklan, one more round: ‚Kicking ass for the working…“

Overall, Buck is a sensible comrade. Clever. Circumspect. The kind of person you‘d trust with air filter maintenance. Excellent grades at school. Still doing passably well at university. Despite wasting a lot of time on selective paranoia and mostly futile activism.

That‘s Buck‘s only vice. Just because her dad went bald and caught space suit fungus. Not a pretty sight, sure. No beach holidays for folks with a skin disfigured by greenish tile patterns. Not exactly a recipe for romance. But blaming 42Fix&Refit, that’s still farfetched. You need to wear a spacesuit, to work in shuttle maintenance. The capitalist pigs, as Buck calls her dad‘s bosses, they don’t harm their employees on purpose.

„That one, the blue and red one, it’s taking off. Now we’re talking! Come on, all together: ‚Hell no, you shouldn‘t fly, not until we own the sky! Hell no…‘“

Frar. More voice than Buck. Less brain. You don‘t need a degree in space shuttle maintenance to see that the blue and red shuttle lacks an essential. No Yang unit. Even space intern Aklan knows the quip: No Yang, no fly. There is some action around that shuttle, but it won‘t take off. If any officialdom listens in on this, they‘re sure to laugh a lot.

Two hours worth of oxygen left, according to Aklan‘s visor display. With a little luck, Buck should already be down to less than an hour, with all her shouting. Another forty five minutes to go, until her alarm starts beeping and they have to rush back.

The servicebot at the lendery was adamant: „If you hear that beep, you rush back. Full throttle. You don‘t want to be at the receiving end of our backbot‘s attentions. You really don‘t.“

Ever since hearing this, Aklan wonders what a backbot looks like. And what it would do, to a straggler. The servicebot made such an encounter sound scary.

As if there wasn’t enough scary around. The few space station permanents, they‘re forever joking. The weirdos no longer care. Have exhausted their potential for fear. Coran says doctors call this the 782 Times Syndrome. It‘s considered a disease, because it dims all emotions. Not just fear. Bad for relationships. Aklan would still prefer to be a sufferer right now.

Up here, you‘re 782 times more likely to die a sudden premature death.

Back home in Nya Cairo, Aklan used to joke: „782 times, so what? Move from the Zamalek to the Manshiyat Nasr neighborhood, and you get that same risk increase. Down here does tough, too. Like it or not, loony moonies, you‘re not the only ones living a dangerous life. And now stop baying for higher hardship compensation and shorter hours, will you?“ Typical attitude of those who have only ever been to places with all-you-can-breathe free air.

The views up here are spectacular. Even in this hangar. Just a slim scaffold and lots of transparent photovoltaic mesh separating them from the surrounding immensity. Below, the moon, with the open cast mines clearly demarcated. Beyond, one hell of a sky.

This scenery could be considered beautiful. By a brain willing to appreciate. Not worried about suffocation. With every gulp of air tasting like old boots gone gaseous, Aklan‘s sense of beauty is as close to absolute zero as the temperature beyond his space suit.

Silence. All of a sudden. Buck and Frar have both stopped shouting.

Something is moving, behind the web of police drones. Stupid Frar guessed well. The blue and red wreck can‘t move on its own, but it’s leaving the dock all right. Pulled along by a flock of drones. Heading their way. Just as the plan had assumed.

Now every minute counts. The convoy headed for the space gate they‘re guarding, or blockading, according to Buck’s firm intent, is crawling forward. It will take many more minutes to reach what they call their picket float. But it’s bound to arrive.

With only three of them in attendance, they haven‘t been able to properly deploy their carbon nanotube net. You need six people, to span a hexagon. They only manage a triangle with flaps. But it’s still enough of an obstacle no to allow the convoy to pass the gate.

The police drones display no signs of upcoming brutality. Deceptive bastards. Aklan knows how nasty they can turn, in a blink. Same procedure as at the stadium. One moment you stand there and sip your drink, admiring their worn and dented armor. Next, some idiot pisses them off. In response, they tell the crowd to get lost and beat any slow responders to pulp.

Aklan would like Buck to run out of air. Ponders if he should restart the shouting, to speed things up. Hesitates, because he doesn’t want to come across as the leader. Police drones have sharp senses, they perceive details no biological would notice.

„So you‘re really suggesting we should, like… See this through? Go the full course? As in really trying to stop them? The police, they’re pretty sure not to appreciate, you know?“ Buck’s voice suggests he’s familiar with the downsides of getting policed. Aklan feels camaraderie rising. One cautious guy is a coward. Two out of three are the sensible majority.

„Of course we deny them passage. That’s the whole point! Space is no place for our kind. These bloody jobs are deadly exploitation, for nothing more important than some creature comforts back down. This shit needs to stop. They send students like us up here to learn about the hardship. Well, lesson learned. Too much hardship, and it has to stop. ‘Kicking ass…“

Buck really means it. At least she has resumed shouting, depleting her oxygen reserves.

The approaching convoy reveals the blue and red shuttle lost more than its Yang unit. There must have been a fire on board. Or an explosion. Most probably both. Not much left, of the middle section. This is one huge piece of space debris headed for the junk yard. Nasty reminder of how much unlike earth busses space vehicles still are.

In the year two hundred of lunar mining there‘s an hourly moon-orbital shuttle service. Timetable just like one more bus. Except it very much is no bus. 42Shuttle is proud to be down to one crash per nine hundred thirty craft runs. Proud! No bus.

The convoy is moving slowing, but they‘re making progress. At least half the distance to the gate covered already. The web of police drones still stationary. For how much longer? Staying in their current position is becoming more dangerous by the minute.

Once again, Frar beats Aklan to the speaking up slot. Squeezes his question into the moment of silence following every fifth round of Buck’s sloganeering:

„Guys, I do think we‘ve made our point. Running low on oxygen, too. How about having my cambot take one more picture, for the revolutionary records, and calling it quits? If we look like really blocking the exit, the police drones are going to act. And I’d rather not find out what happens when a cheap space suit from a lendery gets trashed. We’re an awful long way from the next air lock, and in case something goes wrong…“

Aklan nods as obviously as his attire and keeping himself in position allows. Frar is hereby declared best friend ever. Even Buck should see sense now. The revolution is certain not going to get advanced by the three of them dying in front of a stupid space gate.

„Oh, look, someone else is coming out! And fast. By all the seven cataclysms, that‘s an PAON live coverage bot! We‘re going to be on the Planet and Orbit News, guys, and the world will find out about the shit going on here. Come on now, as loud as you can: ‚One, two, three, four, no comfort is worth dying for! Five, six, seven, eight, workers will no longer wait! One, two…‘“

With his visor all foggy from the sweating, Aklan struggles to discern Frar‘s facial expression. He‘s certainly not joining Buck‘s shouting. Nor does he wave his clenched left fist at the web of police drones. Time for the sensible majority to assert itself:

„Buck, stop it. We’ve made our point, the PAON bot has made pictures, time to get the hell out of here. Frar is absolutely right, about everything, and we’re low on oxygen…“

Aklan doesn‘t get to finish his sentence. A furious Buck won‘t have it:

„Are you mad? We can’t leave now! Those pictures will never be broadcast, if we leave now. A live coverage bot, that’s not for holiday souvenirs, that’s for coverage. And three folks in a spacesuit in front of a hangar gate, that’s no coverage. Batons, tasers, action, that’s coverage. If we leave now, we abandon the drone supervisors. No way. ‚One, two, three…‘“

Aklan and Frar don‘t even need to talk. Buck sealed her own fate by mentioning tasers. The concept of the damage associated with taser needles piercing a space suit proves decisive. A screaming Buck gets wrapped into the carbon nanotube net.

To the sound of „You fucking turncoats, let me fucking go!“ and even more crude expressions of acute dissatisfaction, they rush their package through the web of police drones and past the blinking live coverage bot, towards the space suit lendery air lock.

By the time they pass the convoy, Buck has stopped shouting. Her oxygen alarm is beeping instead. Above this noise, Aklan hears the close range broadcast comment when they pass the two drone supervisors shepherding the convoy.

It‘s the taller one talking: „Brave stunt, kids, very brave. Thanks a million. And that was clever, to have her run out of oxygen just in time. No point in getting yourself killed. We need each head we can get. See you after the revolution!“

Aklan considers dying of shame. But that would be even less sensible than martyrdom.

Blockchained

That was a stupid idea. No. Wrong. His most stupid idea ever. By far. If only he could recant. Or at least kick his own posterior, to keep his mind off those three bullet points. Instead of getting ready to comply. What the hell got into him, back in 2018?

Jackson vaguely recalls a lot of laughter. A solid dose of ethanolic beverages, procured by a friendly twenty-something. Combined with some freshly legalized recreational marijuana, from the same source. Virtual Reality was still in its infancy, you needed substance intake to get high.

His eighteenth birthday. Celebrated in uncle Edgar’s cellar. The weird nerd uncle. His place a safe haven in a forbiddingly middle class neighborhood. Full of servers. High speed everything, too. And uncle Edgar didn’t mind a teen downloading anything. Not pretty much anything. Full anything. Jackson used to love uncle Edgar. The bloody bastard. May he Rest In Peace.

Back in 2018, Uncle Edgar was in process of striking it big. Had just founded Etertract.

Yes, the Etertract. Jackson is nephew to a billionaire. Stupid as straw, fat as blob, utterly miserable right now, but a celeb in the family. Such a bane.

Etertract, as in “eternal” and “contract”. Never a natural at branding, uncle Edgar.

All his earlier ventures had flopped. The debt sent him right back into the industry jobs he was so desperate to leave behind. His wife, not to be called aunt Bridget because that suggested her true age, begged uncle Edgar to stay with the bank. His was doing well, developing some electronic cash transfer validation tool. But he had to quit and found Etertract.

As if the world had been waiting for one more blockchain startup. Everybody who was anybody was doing blockchain moneys. And everybody else was betting real money on it. Them. Or whatever. It didn’t last and any details are long forgotten by now.

Uncle Edgar wasn’t into money. Kept muttering about banks always having the last laugh. Bit of an anti-capitalist, uncle Edgar. Recurring insolvency does that, to a certain kind of nerd. Having come close to a conviction for fraud, for one of his more creative venture capital access plots that involved a virtual Nigerian prince with an equally virtual oil well, uncle Edgar had a better idea.

His home state was going bust. Too many prisons holding far too many felons. Especially the old inmates were as expensive to keep locked up as age had rendered them harmless. Time for a high tech alternative. A virtual prison. Use the blockchain technology to identify the felons, define their parole conditions and track compliance.

Jackson tries to recall what the ambiance was like, back in the age of terrorismania.

People were brave enough to drive cars, on public roads swarming with human drivers. Casual heroism, with often deadly consequences. A majority of those same brave people were terrified to get bombed or raped. None of this would happen to most of them, according to statistics. But they didn’t trust numbers. Very suspicious, of statistics. And of the vaguely defined portion of the population called aliens. A majority of the brave people wanted a wall, to keep out aliens. And perhaps also statistics. Or statisticians. Jackson struggles to recall, thirty two years later.

Which reminds him, of his most stupid idea ever. What being young did to him.

Etertract looked like the usual flop. The virtual prison concept didn’t fly. But SilverLining, a private security company uncle Edgar had contacted to learn about jails, came up with a twist that proved a winner. Change of scale. Etertract would deliver the wall. A virtual wall.

The brave people would never have trusted any government agency with too many data. But distributed, publicly accessible ledgers tracking everyone’s residency and work permit status, as well as eventual criminal records, were an obviously safe solution.

The new Etertract immediately trended on social media, under the hashtag #OurPower. People registered in droves. The trend quickly went offline, too. Jackson recalls the neighborhood recruitement drive. Some old lady, weird dress and bad hair, would come knocking: “Sorry, not finding you on Etertract yet. Would you please hurry to sign up? No offense intended. Just want to  make sure the neighborhood isn’t infested with pedophiles. For the kids, to keep them safe, you know?” At the mall, there was a stand. It soon became a point of pride, to display your Etertract identifier. To tell everyone how legal and law abiding you were.

Many resident aliens joined the rush. Being no less law abiding, except for that missing tick in the greendcard section, they didn’t fail to grasp the potential. Officialdom might not see their worth, but quite a lot of the people had better, first hand understanding.

A farm hand can use Etertract to promise only to stay for the harvesting season, delivering an agreed quota that will of course also be monitored. A personal assistant can link her stay to the lifespan of the granny she’s caring for. As long as this granny, or more often her next of kin, provide weekly confirmation of quality care, it’s more than obvious the carer can’t be deported. Whereas the former marijuana trafficker, his services no longer needed thanks to legalization, won’t find no counterpart to vouch for his utility.

A beautiful virtual wall. And cheap, too.

Uncle Edgar resisted the concept, at first. Mumbled about libertarian pride and dignity. Until the roof photovoltaics needed replacing. And his wife a new car. And he himself a birthday present for his favorite nephew Jackson. Which is a bit of an irony really. Or would that be sarcasm?

On the night of Jackson’s birthday party, Etertract was in the very early roll-out stage. None of his equally juvenile guests had heard of it yet, and he enjoyed showing off. Bragged how his uncle Edgar was in process of changing the world. Jackson knew this venture would flop. Like all the others. Why should this one be any different? But he didn’t mention that detail.

When Sophia taunted him to log in and do a demo, he didn’t think twice.

Hard to define who deserves the blame for his misfortune. The ethanolic beverages? The marijuana? The twenty something who had procured both? Uncle Edgar? His maths teacher, for failing to make him understand how past form doesn’t tell you about future form? Sophia’s cheerleader looks? His own stupidity?

Probably the latter. Most probably. Jackson would really love to kick his ass.

It could still have ended well. He could have come up with something harmless. But foolish young him was so damn sure not to want to live longer than forty years, at most. And that uncle Edgar’s venture was anyway bound to flop. Zero risk. As close to zero as it gets. Ha ha.

He had to write into his ledger that come age fifty he would:

  1. Walk around the block naked. A bit undignified. He’s also going to freeze his butt off, on March 8. But on the feasible side, overall. The time of the day wasn’t defined, his one lucky streak. Around three in the morning the streets should be mostly empty. Except for all the friends, neighbors and acquaintances aware of his misfortune and eager to display compassion. By watching.
  2. Eat his sneakers, without ketchup. This is disgusting. And more tricky than the stripwalk. Jackson did some research. If he cut the damn size 13 beasts into tiny, tiny pieces, they should pass his digestive system without causing harm. He also assumes washing them down, with some strongly flavored tea to cover the original taste, will be permissible. Not exactly what you’d be wishing for, as birthday meal. But he’ll get this done, down, somehow.
  3. Loose any weight he might have gained since his eighteenth birthday. Horror. Misery. Doom. Gloom. Disaster. Despair. The end of a life worth living, as far as Jackson is concerned. So formidably stupid. He will have to loose a full sixty pounds.

Jackson has always been prone to gaining weight. Dieted hard, ahead of his eighteenth birthday. To fit into his favorite jeans. To impress Sophia. She proved immune to his charm. Within the following year, he settled for Olivia. No cheerleader, but a good match.

The two of them happily agreed to ignore the mainstream body shape obsession. Until now.

You don’t recant, from an Etertract. It’s just not possible. No access to the fridge, without your identifier. And don’t even dream to buy anything, edible or not, without it. That’s the beauty, of Etertract and #OurPower. It’s all over our life, but not a government and hence not totalitarian.

Etertract will put Jackson on a diet. And perhaps set him up for bariatric surgery, if the weight loss takes too long to materialize. He’s never going to eat nice again. Horror. Misery. Doom. Gloom. Disaster. Despair. Jackson would love to kick his fat ass.

“Darling? Are you down there, darling? Jackson, answer me. Are you in the cellar?”

The last thing Jackson needs right now, on his last day of a life worth living, is company. But fail to answer a call from your wife at your own peril: “Yes sweetheart. Down here. What’s up?”

And here she comes, the full two hundred lovely pounds of her bouncing down the stairs with amazing grace. The wonderful wife he’s going to betray by no longer feeding himself properly.

“Jackson, what are you up to, down here? I’ve been thinking. We really are getting too fat. The kids agree, too. We will go on that diet together. And to make sure I don’t fail you, I just signed an Etertract. Same date as you, same target. Isn’t that wonderful? Us together, going lean?

Horror. Misery. Doom. Gloom. Disaster. Despair.

If only Jackson could go back in time, to an era without Etertract. The simple joys of failing your commitments. The ancients, did they have any idea how good they had it?

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.