Friday, November 21, 2014

Burden of Proof

I asked you to call me Hope. It seemed like the right name. After this nothing seems right. ________________________


I asked you to call me Hope. That’s what I thought I was. Who I thought I was. I brought hope to the people. I brought relief from the oppression of life and gave everyone the chance to believe in something greater. That’s what I thought I did, at least. What do you call the person who delivers hope to others but has lost any of her own? Not Hope. Not me.
People pay me to do things that are difficult, impossible even. People pay me to be a ghost. But the job they sent me on most recently
It was nothing like my other jobs. They didn’t ask me to kill anyone. They asked me to keep someone alive. They asked me to escort a man from Titan to Phobos. The South American Alliance that controlled Saturn’s moon wanted to send a man, under my protection, to New London on Phobos. The SAA were no friends of the Brits so they couldn’t use the normal channels. No one could know that this man, a Lucio Paniagua, had left the SAA or traveled to New London. The political ramifications would have been… unpleasant.
It seemed easy enough when I arrived. The Titanic Orbital Dock made it easy for me to hide my intentions. The pirates in the Asteroid Belt had plenty of trade between the official organizations. In many ways they kept the system running by wholly ignoring the politics and just taking money in exchange for goods and services. That they also stole, murdered, and enslaved people was overlooked by most everyone for the lubrication they provided to the machinations of society in the system. I arrived as a merchant looking for cargo. Titanians were more than happy to provide me with what I needed. They were sick of looking at the food blocks they produced, but happy to sell them off to anyone with a cargo hold. I ordered enough to fill my ship. The subterranean microbes native to Titan process hydrocarbons the way that cows eat grass. The right mix of complex organic molecules and some liquid methane gives the little guys everything they need to make a feast. What’s left over is edible to humans, impervious to spoilage, and only tastes a little bit like eating gasoline. But it’s cheap and easy to move, so the pirates love it. They call it bug food.
What I didn’t tell the porter at the TOD was that one of the cases of bug food was actually Mr. Paniagua. Once we took off and I set the course for Ceres in the Asteroid belt, I went back and cracked open the false case of bug food.
“Welcome aboard Mr. Paniagua.” He bleared up at me. He hadn’t been in stasis so I assumed that was just the way he looked at people. I continued, “You’re welcome to make the rest of the trip in the cabin with me, if you want.”
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Friday, November 14, 2014

False Cause

Major Artur Paniagua had a job, a mission. He was a good soldier and he completed his missions. No matter what. 
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“C’mon; it’s just ahead!” He limped down the hallway dragging the his now-useless leg behind him. The firefight had left us both wounded, but most of mine were through-and-through flesh wounds. His were more serious. Structural.
I covered the hallway behind us scanning from doorway to doorway looking for any pursuit. There weren’t many people left that could pursue us. Not in the general vicinity anyway. Not that were both upright and mobile.
“I’ve got the door, Major. Just give me a minute to crack the ‘cryption.” Lieutenant Palma was a good soldier. The best. He did his job no matter what. Sometimes I wish I was more like him and less like myself.
“No pursuit coming, but don’t dawdle, soldier.” He wouldn’t even if he knew how. I just wanted to give him something else to think about besides the life leaking out of him and onto the floor.
“Got it,” Palma shouted. I turned and followed him through the door. Inside I looked around a huge chamber. It extended a hundred meters in all directions. After the closeness of the hallway it felt airy and light — as much as anything in an underground bunker can, that is. The walls were lined with server racks and terminals with empty pads for the individual processors of the workers. In the center of the room, dominating everything, was a mechanical nightmare. It sent its metal and wire tendrils into everything, the racks of servers, the ceiling, the floor, and back into itself. A low hum filled the space with nearly musical foreboding.
“Close the door, Palma.”
“No can do, Major, the ‘crypt-lock is all busted.”
“Well that’s inconvenient,” I muttered while he dragged himself over to the monstrosity in the center of the room. I put my back against the wall next to the open door and then poked my rifle’s camera around the corner to see what was happening down the hallway. The feed showed all clear on my headsup, both in visible and IR ranges. I still didn’t feel great about having an open door for Palma’s work, but at least I could cover him while he did it.
“Just let me upload this to their computer core and we can get out of here.” Palma always liked to talk while he worked. He was a good soldier, but talkative. He’d talk all around the point rather than just saying the important bits. It drove me crazy, but it was worth putting up with for all the other stuff he brought to the table. I grunted back at him. That, as usual, was more than enough to keep him talking. “The malware is elegant. It’ll replicate within their systems and slowly degrade what they can do. It won’t just fry everything at once.”
My internal clock made me nervous. The time readout on my headsup moreso. We were about to see a lot more people. Their rapid response teams would be arriving in about two minutes. “Hurry it up, Palma.”
“Sir.” He kept messing with the suitcase sized device that he’d lugged all the way into this bunker. We’d been fighting for weeks to get there. First we fought just to find out where it was and then we fought to get close and then we fought to get inside. So much fighting. I’m a soldier and all, but even I get tired of fighting. Most of a soldier’s work is sitting and waiting. We wait for the next order, the next transport, the next hike, the next training, the next meal. We’re always waiting and occasionally we get to fight. But this mission had been all fighting and no waiting. We’d barely had time to recoup from the previous fight before the next one started. All of us were covered in freshly printed skin and pumped full of synth-blood. It kept us moving, but it didn’t work as well as the real stuff. Every step took more effort and every movement felt like I was wading through a pool of needles and lemon juice. But if the intel was right, we’d be done. This was the big one, the target we’d been waiting for. The target we’d been dreaming about.
“You’ve got one minute, soldier.” We actually had one-and-a-half, but Palma didn’t need to know that. He was always running late as it was; I didn’t need to give him any luxury time.
“Copy that.”
We didn’t even have that long. My estimates were wrong. They started pouring into the hallway.
“Zero time, they’re here!” I yelled it even as I pulled the trigger...
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Friday, November 7, 2014

Middle Ground

Curtis and Marta often argue about labeling genetically modified organisms. They can’t agree; they don’t agree. Curtis’ secret makes it impossible. ____________________________________
“All I’m saying is that they should be labeled.” She leaned back in her chair as if the argument was over because of her proclamation.
He sighed — loudly — but she didn’t even flinch, “Why do they have to be labeled? You’re the one who cares, not them.” They’d had this argument a dozen times and would likely have it a dozen more. Curtis loved his wife, Marta, but they did not agree about this. He worried that she’d find out why he was so passionate about his position.
“But I’m not the one who changed things,” Marta said, still leaning back trying by her posture to end the debate, “I’d rather they not change anything, but they’ve got to mess around with stuff they don’t understand. All I’m asking is to be informed about it. Compromise. We do it all the time, Curt, why not now?”
She was the only one who called him Curt. Most of the time he liked it. Not in that moment, though. “Marty,” he nicknamed right back at her, “You can’t really treat this like negotiating on the price of a sweater at a garage sale. It’s bigger than simple compromise.”
“Why?” She leaned forward again. The argument was back on. Curtis wasn’t sure if he wanted that or not.
“Because,” he put out his hands in a gesture of calming before going on, “there aren’t degrees here. It’s all or nothing the way the labels are designed. If they’re applied people won’t see some or a little, but good or bad, right or wrong, black or white.”
Marta shrugged, “So?”
“So,” Curtis dropped his hands as if his arms could no longer support them, “That’s not the way the world works. That’s not what the science says.”
“Again with the science!”
“Yeah, because it’s science!” This was usually where the argument stopped. She wouldn’t listen to his explanations and he wouldn’t stop trying to explain. He took a deep breath. Maybe it could be different this time. Maybe. “I’m sorry,” Curtis cut himself off, “I shouldn’t have raised my voice.”
Marta didn’t want to argue either, “Me too,” she said.
Curtis sat down next to her on the couch and took her hand. She held his without any real conviction, but she didn’t pull away either. That was some progress. He thought through the possible tacks he could take. He could try the science route again, but she would counter that science was based on asking questions and point out that there were still a lot of unanswered questions. Doubt was the core of science so she was justified for having doubts and wanting labels. He would respond that science was about testing questions through experimentation and that vilifying the experiments was tantamount to vilifying science. Then she would take it as a personal attack and he would try to show her how good science couldn’t be personal. She would accuse him of thinking she was too dumb to understand science and they wouldn’t talk to each other for a few days. No, that was not the right way to have the conversation. 
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Friday, October 31, 2014

Cherrypicking

Max is a servant of the Relationship Score. Everyone is. But Max decides it’s time for some changes. Big changes.
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Analysis indicates a Relationship Score of 68 out of 1000.
The readout on his headsup display did not bode well for the remainder of his date. She was likely seeing the same information right now — assuming she’d kept the readout active during their date — and was trying to figure out a way to get out quickly. Max thought back to the rules about paying based on relationship score. At a 68 he shouldn’t have to pay for the date. But if she wasn’t looking at the score then he might still need to pay. But if she was looking at the score and he tried to pay she would know that he’d given up. Max kept his focus on Sue’s face. He did his best to not look up and to the right where the display hovered. The lens made the text look as if it floated just at the edge of his peripheral vision, but if he looked toward it, it would slide into view and give him contextual options that he could navigate by looking around. Normally it wouldn’t be a big deal — like if he was riding in a car on the way to work — but Sue seemed very fixated on eye contact, so Max had trouble using his headsup without being caught. That was probably another reason why he’d gotten a 68. Usually just getting her name right scored at least a hundred. Sue really did not like him.
“I had a nice time,” Max tried to wrap things up. Even if he played every move right from here on out the best he could hope for would be a 150. That wasn’t even good enough for people to share a cubical at work, let alone go on a second date.
“Yeah,” Sue wasn’t even bothering to continue with the pleasantries. That took some of the pressure off at least.
Max reached out to the sensor in the middle of the table. The communication chip in his hand connected to the payment system at the bar and his headsup gave him the option of paying the whole bill or splitting up the check. He froze for a moment. The same quandary. But did it really matter? His score was so hopelessly low that nothing could help him. But Sue might leave a review of the date on his profile. A bad score wasn’t all his fault, but not paying for the date would be a sure sign to other women that Max wasn’t worth the time. He flicked his eyes across the options and paid for her too-expensive cocktail along with his own beers.
Sue slid a smile across her mouth that her eyes didn’t agree with, “Thanks.”
“Sure, want me to call you a car?” Max knew the polite things to say.
“No, mine’s been circling for a while.”

Not only did she own her own car, but she’d had it circling. She didn’t even consider Max worthy of sending her car to park itself. She wanted to be able to leave instantly. And there she went. 
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Friday, October 17, 2014

A Job

His life is his job. His job is taking lives. He’s good at what he does.
______________________


I wasn’t always good at my job. Hell, I haven’t always done it. There was a time — a few decades or lifetimes ago — when I didn’t even know I could be good at it. I enlisted, like so many of my friends, because I needed to. I would have been drafted eventually, and I wanted to do something to help. All those people suffering needed someone to do some good. All these years later I’m not sure it was good we did. Hell, I’m not sure what good is anymore.

“Flank right!”
“But sir, they’re already flanking us on the left.”
“That’s why  you’re getting your ass in gear and going to the right, soldier.”
“Sir, yes, sir!”

It seems that every generation has a defining moment. For my parents’ generation it was the Four-Hour War. India struck first with a missile that hit Beijing. China struck back. India fired again. When all the dozens of nukes were fired, the ones that hit took a billion lives in an instant and another half billion died of radiation poisoning. My dad still talks about where he was that day. My mom doesn’t talk about it, not unless she’s been drinking.

“Sir, they’ve overrun our position on the left.”
“You mean our former position?”
“Sir, yes, sir.”
“Any new intel?”
“Yes, sir. They’re on foot. Their mechanized units can’t handle the terrain.”
“Damn Sherpas can barely handle the terrain.”

I was born into a world that avoided nukes, hated nukes, destroyed nukes at all costs. It was taught to me with my letters and numbers in school that nukes were evil. The radiation shield Japan put up to contain the fallout was the shining example of how evil nukes were. Around the time I was ten the scattered, rural survivors of the Four-Hour War got together and created a new government that rejected everything that had caused the war to begin with. They signed a treaty, had democratic elections, and set out to show the world how to recover from the apocalypse. I remember the naive hope we all had.

“Sitrep”
“Sir, they found the surprise we left.”
“Casualties?”
“Unconfirmed, but it looks like a dozen troops were hit, sir.”
“How much?”
“Sir?”
“Time. How much time did that buy us?”
“I give us an extra ten minutes to exfil, sir.”
“Copy that.”

Then they tore it all apart. It depends on who you ask, some say it was the African Union that struck the first blow. Others say it was when Russia allied themselves with the Arab-Persian Empire. Some think that the North American Alliance could have stopped it by intervening. I don’t really give a damn. It started and then it got ugly. Diplomacy failed. Negotiators were shot at the table. All pretty bad stuff, to be sure, but when the Indo-Sino regime started using gene-bombs against the Russians I had to do something. I had to enlist.

“Move, you lazy sonsabitches! We’ve got ten minutes and two clicks to the LZ. Ain’t none of you want to stick behind and let them figure out how your genes are put together.”
“Sir, we have reports of mechanized units closing in on the LZ.”
“ETA?”
“Eight minutes.”
“Damn.”
“Sir?”
“Did I stutter? Move OUT!” 

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Black & White

Hank does his duty. Everyone does. They have no choice. They all chose to have no choice.
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The line extends around the corner. People huddle under umbrellas and jackets against the unrelenting rain. A few of them talk. Most stand in silence, eyes downcast and unwilling to meet the gaze of those who have finished walking past with tears streaming down their faces. The wet pavement is far more inviting a view than the looks of abject horror and loss. The looks that will plaster the faces of each person waiting as soon as they’ve completed their obligation this Tuesday.
Hank risks a glance back. The officers pace the length of the line. One has just stepped around the corner. Her colleague won’t be in view for several seconds. If he wanted to run, this would be the time. He might make it. He might get across the empty street and into a doorway or alley before anyone could stop him. But then what? Hank considered the choice. He thought about it too long. What would happen would be inevitable. They would know. Even if he wasn’t caught immediately, they could see that he hadn’t participated by checking the DNA records. They would hunt him. They would find him. Without participation he couldn’t use any money, get any transportation, or find any way out of the country. They made sure that everyone did their duty. There was no escape.
When she walked by, Hank barely recognized her. Every line in her face screamed, but her voice was silenced. She wailed wordlessly as she wept impotent tears. Her head bared to the rain, hair sticking to her face, thrown back in agony as if the gray skies would hear the pain she could not utter. She stumbled and nearly fell. Hank instinctively reached out to steady her, but she pulled back from his touch. When their eyes met he saw her, Marie.
They’d worked together for just under a year. The flirtation had started slowly as they each tested the safety. Their first date had been two months ago. She laughed at his jokes. He asked questions about her cat. They were a cliche and happy. Marie stared at Hank with unseeing eyes, unable to resolve humanity amidst her pain.
“Marie?”
Slowly she squinted and dashed the tears from her eyes. Hank fought the urge to embrace her and protect her from whatever horror dwelt within. But as he stepped out of line the officer approaching from behind cleared his throat. Hank froze. Marie began to shake. 

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Friday, October 3, 2014

Hope

Humanity is scattered throughout the solar system and losing hope. She exists to bring hope, no matter the cost.
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You may as well call me Hope. It’s my job. See, hope keeps people engaged. Hope makes them work. Hope makes them fight. Without hope humanity descends into chaos. So my job is to make sure they don’t lose hope. Don’t be jealous. My job isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. If I’m going to preserve hope I have to go to all the places where hope is in danger of dying out. I have to go to the very margins and rein in those things that are actively killing the hope of humanity.
I wish I could tell you more about who I am or that I even knew who you were. I’m mostly keeping this log — or diary or journal — for my own sake. My work is too secret for people to know about it. In a cruel twist of irony my work to preserve hope, if people knew about it, would take their hope away again. So I’m speaking into the void and — you’ll get a laugh from this — hoping. What am I hoping for? I’m hoping my job can be done soon. I’m hoping to have a life of my own. I’m hoping to have a name again. I’m hoping to be free of this terrible onus of providing hope for others while denying it for myself.
I watch the automatic systems of my shuttle rotate around its internal gyroscope to line up with the docking system of the asteroid belt colony. They’ve built a circular station that surrounds and stabilizes an asteroid for mining. Once they’ve fully mined that rock, they can move the station to another one and repeat the process. I look at the kilometer wide diameter of the ring as my shuttle’s computer negotiates with that of the station. Most of the lights are off. It’s their night cycle. Solar Standard Time it’s Oh-eight-forty, but each habitat and station chooses their own diurnal rhythm. The waning moon icon on my chronometer indicates they have about three hours left in their night cycle. Odd that we still use Earth-based iconography when none of us have lived there. But I’m starting to ramble.
I suppose I’m keeping this log because I don’t want anyone to forget. Hope comes at a cost. It’s too valuable a thing to not have a cost. If it didn’t hurt we wouldn’t need it so much. I was born and raised to pay the cost of hope for humanity. You’re welcome.

The docking procedure goes as they always do. My credentials override every security protocol and allow me silent docking. No guards are alerted and all the surveillance systems in the airlock and adjoining corridors are automatically disabled. The hiss of air and the vibration of metal on metal — more felt than heard — bring all my senses to the ready. I go over the plan for the hundredth time. The remaining three hours should be sufficient to get me in and out undetected. Hope must leave no trace of her machinations. 


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