The Tide of Advancement

In the board room, the tension was palpable.  Soft murmurs and whispers passed between the rich leather and mahogany seats.  Papers on the massive table were shuffled back and forth by nervous hands.  As the figure seated at the head of the table raised his hand for order, he could sense the concern in the minds of his colleagues.

“Everyone, let’s settle down,” he announced.  “I know there are some concerns over a bit of press we’ve received recently-“

“A bit of press!?” sputtered one of the other figures at the table.  “We’re being vilified!”

Another figure held up a newspaper article.  “They’re all but accusing us of genocide!  And on the web, they aren’t even holding back that much!”

The man at the head of the table made a soothing motion, and despite the frustration, the others quieted.  “This is all temporary,” he said, his tone level and calm.  “We have all come under fire from the press before, and know that this will quickly blow over at the next crisis.”

The leader turned to the man at his right.  “I’m sure there are some other tricks we have waiting up his sleeve,” he continued. “Perhaps Chen can elaborate?”

Chen, sitting at the leader’s right, smiled widely.  His white teeth glittered in the dark room.  “Oh, there’s some good stuff coming up,” he said.

“Any plans for Sombra Corporation?”  As the leader asked this, the other figures at the table shifted slightly, leaning forward.  Sombra had just posted record profits, and many market analysts had drawn unfavorable comparisons to their own company.

Chen grinned.  “I’ve got a mole in their R and D that tells me their latest product is riddled with bugs,” he divulged.  “The test software is ready, but they can only release a bare-bones version.  The full product won’t be ready to hit the market for at least two quarters.”

The head of the table smiled at this.  “How about TetCorp?”

At the mention of the other rival company, Chen leaned in towards the others.  “A rogue virus just happened to accidentally be released in their main lab,” he whispered.  “Complete biological contamination.  It will put them back at least a year, even assuming they can scrub all traces.”

By this point, the other people at the committee were much calmer.  Some were even joking and smiling.  The executive leaned back in his chair, a small grin playing across his features as he surveyed his underlings.  Just like the markets, people were often pushed into a panic, he mused.  But that panic was always brief and fleeting, and they could be easily distracted by somebody else’s woes.

Next to the head of the table, Chen kept his wolfish grin.  Most of what he did was unethical, some parts even illegal.  He was responsible for ensuring failure, and he was paid very well to make that happen.  He had prevented some incredible products from ever seeing the light of day, and he loved every minute of his job.

Drive Hard.

I revved the engine of my car, looking sideways at the driver sitting next to me at the red light.  A middle-aged man, dressed in a suit, most likely on the way home from work.  He didn’t stand a chance.

By keeping one eye on the lights going the opposite direction, I caught the change to yellow.  I turned my head back forward, positioning my foot over the accelerator.  I was a coiled spring, ready to leap into action.

Green.

I slammed my foot down, my car lunging ahead of the businessman.  His Cadillac wasn’t good for much if he didn’t use it, I thought triumphantly.  I watched with satisfaction as he faded into my rear view mirror.

Looking up ahead, I could see that my left lane was a sea of red lights; someone was trying to turn left, and was stuck waiting in the middle of the road.  I cut right, merging in front of my defeated Cadillac opponent, and zoomed past the jam.

I never understood how people could trudge along at ten miles below the speed limit, letting their cars idle as they sat for precious seconds at green lights or stop signs.  Didn’t people want to get to their destination sooner, rather than later?  Why were they so slow, acting like barely moving obstacles in the road for me to dodge?

Another obstacle, coming up.  This time, my opponent was a slow-moving bus, taking up a lane and a half as it pulled over haphazardly to pick up passengers at a stop.  I looked at the other lane, at oncoming traffic.  The nearest approaching car was still a good block away.  Perfect.  I jerked the wheel slightly to the left, swerving around the bus, my left wheels briefly kissing the center line.

I always remember hearing that we were supposed to drive defensively, that we were supposed to be careful and slow in our decision making when behind the wheel.  I had stuck to that policy for many years, but it had gradually changed, evolved.

There were so many dangerous drivers on the road.  Anyone who acted defensively, who merely reacted to events, would be overcome, bogged down, stuck in gridlock and brought to a standstill.

Instead, I had chosen a different strategy.  Taking a leaf from the military’s playbook, I went for the preemptive strikes.  Anticipating threats, avoiding and escaping from those who posed a danger, and being ever-ready to dodge incoming issues.  My goal was to get ahead of the bad drivers, to swerve around the slow ones, to ensure my safety by defeating my opponents.

I drive offensively.

Rant: What we wish for.

Unfortunately, today I do not have any great inspiration for writing a story (although I do have a great concept of a rusting robot walking around post-apocalyptic Earth floating in the back of my mind, although the idea hasn’t solidified into a working plot yet), so I am instead going to rant.  Feel free to ignore this, and check back in another two days for, hopefully, a wonderful little short tale instead.

One of the biggest disappointments that I have found so far in life is this: I wish for things, because I believe they will make my life easier.  In my experience, however, this is completely and categorically untrue.

Perhaps this would be more accurate if it was rephrased: I wish for things, because I believe they will make my life different in a way I prefer to its current state.

Are you lost yet?  I am, after reading those last couple sentences, and I’m the one who’s writing them.  Let me explain a little.

Often, especially on the Internet, I see people complaining that they don’t have a boyfriend/girlfriend/pansexual lover/empathizing robot.  These people earnestly believe that their lives would be easier if they could find a significant other.

This is untrue.

Having a significant other does not make life easier; if anything, it makes things harder, because now you are being forced to consider someone else’s feelings as well as your own.  (If you aren’t considering the other person’s feelings, by the way, this may be a clue into why you are alone right now.)  You might not have to deal with feeling lonely on Friday nights any longer, but now you have to plan evenings out, pay the bill for multiple people, come up with witty banter, raise yourself to a minimal level of physical attractiveness, shower more often, and overall put a lot more exertion into your social life than was necessary when you were single and lonely.  Life hasn’t gotten any easier.

On the other hand, has life gotten better?  This could be true, since “better” is an entirely subjective term.  If a warm body in bed next to you has a greater intrinsic value than the stress of planning “date nights”, then yes, your life is better off.  If that stress is making your heart fail and giving you panic attacks, then gaining a significant other didn’t make you any better off; in fact, it made you worse off.  That’s a devil’s bargain, right there.

Still not with me yet?  Here’s another example.  Many people wish that they were rich.  “If only I had a million dollars, all my problems would be solved!” they proclaim dramatically.

Once again, say it with me, not true.

Sure, a huge payday will solve a lot of problems (pay off credit cards, student loans, rent payments, eat at fancy restaurants, full tanks of gas, repaired car, etc.).  But that fat bank account brings a whole new host of problems, as well.  Do you know how to invest your money?  Will you keep your job?  Will that money last until your retirement?  How will your lifestyle change, and can you afford the changes, even with the increased income?  Are newfound friends only after you for your money?  Is that cute girl just a gold digger? Life has changed, in new and exciting ways, but it certainly hasn’t gotten any easier.

Dishwashers were introduced to make life easier, to save time on having to hand-wash dishes.  I know some people, however, who are so frustrated with loading, unloading, and running the dishwasher that they still prefer to clean by hand.  That dishwasher solved one problem, but added five more, to the point where it didn’t make their lives any better.

Cars let us get around much faster than horses or walking.  But they are smelly, pollute the environment, require us to find parking spaces, drain our bank accounts through their guzzling of gasoline, and have an unfortunate tendency to break down just when they are most needed.  They are not making our lives easier.  Different, and possibly better, but not easier.

For this reason, I have come to treat “easy solutions” with a very healthy measure of distrust.  If something makes a blase promise to make my life easier, my BS detectors go off, and I look very carefully before continuing.  There might be a free lunch out there, somewhere, but I’m sure it will exact its price somewhere in the digestive process.

[Outworld] The New Age

Author’s note: Unrelated to the Outworld saga, simply set in the same universe.

The drone was confused. And this was a problem, because it wasn’t programmed to be confused.

Normally, one advantage robots hold over people is that they never need to seek out their purpose. While people must find their reason for existence in life, a robot needs only consult its programming. And the drone knew its purpose. It existed to destroy, to pursue and hunt down its target, not stopping until said target had been annihilated. It would then be recalled to its metal berth until the next target was selected.

To most people, this would not be a fulfilling life. But the drone was satisfied. It had been given a devastating array of instruments for inflicting damage and pain, and it was very good at its job. The drone knew this, just as it knew that its purpose was to destroy its target.

One problem, though.

The drone didn’t know what its target was.

Normally in these circumstances, the drone would contact its mothership for new instructions. Unfortunately, the drone wasn’t able to reach its mothership either. It was, as far as it could determine, alone.

The drone deployed itself, unrolling from its compact ball to reveal six jointed legs, a small “head” loaded with sensory apparatuses, and three arms, each equipped with a unique method for wreaking destruction. It extended its head, scanning the surroundings.

It was located in a lush river valley. The drone could sense a small settlement of humans off to the southwest, the traces of carbon unmistakable in the air. Oddly enough, there was no sign of the drone’s ballistic trajectory, no scars in the earth to indicate how it had arrived in this place.

Robots aren’t programmed to be confused, which is fortunate, because otherwise that is exactly what the drone would be feeling. It searched its memory banks for its next action.

No answers were forthcoming. The drone waited patiently while its processors churned. Predictive algorithms suggested potential solutions, each of which was plotted against known capabilities and data. Finally, the best scoring solution was selected.

With the new decision tree active, the drone began lumbering through the undergrowth towards the human settlement. As it crashed through the brush, it began warming up its laser array. It fired a few rounds from its autocannon, making sure the chamber was rotating smoothly.

The algorithms had made clear the best course of action.

Interrogation.

America (Flash Forward)

Author’s note: I had a lot of trouble writing this.  I hope this resonates with you as strongly as it did with me.

Music: 

The young man was dying.  He lay on the beach, clutching his side where the vicious staccato of gunfire had ripped indiscriminately through flesh, bone, and organs alike.  Behind him, one of the troop carriers exploded in the shallow water, screams echoing off the concrete fortifications that lay ahead of the soldiers.  Through the haze of pain and red, he could feel himself fading away.

As the other men stepped over his body, their rifles issuing oddly muted cracks, the young man felt himself pull away, rise back up until he was gazing down at himself.  The feelings of pain and agony peeled away, to be replaced by a deep and suffusing sense of loss and abandonment, sinking to his soul.

“It will pass.”

The shade of the young man turned, trying to see from where the voice came.  Unlike the other sounds, now all but background, the voice cut through reality like a tolling bell.

Behind the man, hovering just above the churning surface of the water, a dark shape faced him.  Although its features were indistinct, it resembled a man in a black cape, a hood drawn over his face.  “You have a choice,” spoke the spectre, the words ringing and distinct.

what is my choice? asked the young man.

“You are permitted one glimpse.  The past, or the future.”  The figure waited.

The young man didn’t have much of a past.  He had fond memories before the split, before his mother had refused to leave her bed and his father took out his rage on the liquor bottle, and then on those around him.  He had tried to fight back, had failed, had run away to the Army to escape.  The past held nothing for him.

the future, the young man chose.

He had no way to know, but he thought that the hooded spectre smiled.  It spread its arms wide, and white light, blinding light, streamed from the cloak.

…the white stones, each identical save for the names and dates carved upon them, stretched out over the hills.  He could see no end to them, rolling on and on into the distance.  Nearby, a young woman held the hand of a small boy as she choked back tears.  

“Mommy, why?” the boy asked plaintively, tugging at the woman’s hand.  

Through clouded eyes, the woman smiled down at her son.  “For us,” she replied, her voice hoarse.  “He gave his life for us, so that we could be free..”

The young man shook his head.  No!  This wasn’t what the other soldiers had talked of, what they had been looking forward to after the war ended.  The dark shape said nothing, but light continued to flow from its core.

…there should have been cheers, but the crowd was oddly silent.  Standing on the shores of Cape Canaveral, watching the brilliant white dot at the head of the plume of smoke rise into the air, there were a few waving flags, a few cries of happy patriotism.  But most of the watchers stood silent, as if they were waiting for what would come next.

At the explosion, as the brilliant point of white light suddenly burst into a cloud of gray and a spray of fragments, there was a murmur in the crowd.  Nothing more.  Was this supposed to happen?  It wasn’t until one child’s arm rose, pointing at the falling cabin, that the shouts and screams began.

The broken body of the shuttle plunged into the ocean.  Nobody knew how to react.  Some ran, some cried, while others simply flopped down on the beach, their legs no longer able to support their weight.  The plume of smoke still hung in the sky, a smooth arc that ended abruptly in a jagged splash…

The young man tried to scream, but nothing came out.  Another failure!  Is this all that lay ahead?  Were all of our aspirations, our goals, for nothing?  Were we always doomed to fail?  He raged at the dark shape that floated in front of him, filled with impotent fury.  The shape merely hung, waiting, as the next wave of light washed over him.

…he really didn’t need the coffee, and was now late for work.  Glancing up through the crowded streets, he could see his building ahead.  If only he could leap up to the 93rd floor in the North Tower, to his office!  

A glint of light from an adjacent skyscraper caught his eye.  He stared upward, watching as the scene turned to horror.  A massive airplane, far too close to the ground.  For a moment, it intersected the tower, a bizarre growth of glass and metal.  Then the image was gone, replaced by smoke, fire, and a hail of debris.  

As dust and chunks of masonry rained down on the streets, the man dropped his coffee and briefcase, breaking into a run.  He didn’t know why he ran towards the destruction, against the tide of bodies and into the smoke and confusion, but he ran, and would not stop…

By now, the rest of the world was quiet, dark, silent and faded into gray obscurity.  The young man slumped down on the beach.  He had given up on hope.  As his fellows still fought onward, all around him, he knew that it was in vain.  All that lay ahead, all that was to come, was darkness, failure, tragedy, pain.  He did not look up as the dark figure drew closer.

“Look once more.”

He could not resist.  The young man raised his head and gazed into the light.

Celebration.  He saw men in camouflage uniforms, the United States flag embroidered on their shoulders, smashing through the gates of Auschwitz.  Young boys, gathered around a wooden table, cheered as a tiny black-and-white television showed them grainy pictures of a man in a bulky white suit carefully descending down a ladder from his landing craft.  Thousands of people, all clutching each other, watched a glittering crystal ball descend to mark the end of a millennium.  Political leaders across the globe, standing before cameras and pledging to offer aid to the United States in its time of need.  Everywhere, after every tragedy, the people coming together to grieve, to offer help, to stand strong.  

Everything was faint now, even the shade of the young man.  is this the truth? he asked, with the last of his energy.

The figure hovered impassively above him.  “This is a truth.  Happiness and sorrow are two sides to the same coin.  There cannot be one without the other.”

As he faded, reflecting on what he had seen, the shade of the young man felt peace.  Not joy, not sorrow, but balance.

Query? [Pt. 2]

Continued from here.

I stare at the words on the computer terminal, their glow the only thing illuminating my room.  I can’t understand.  I don’t remember being trapped for years inside this room!  How can this be happening?  Fingers trembling slightly, I once again reach for the keyboard.

“How many other protected users are there?”

WARNING.  LACK OF CONNECTION DATA INDICATES DAMAGE TO EXTERIOR RELAYS.  AT TIME ZERO, THIRTY-EIGHT MILLION PROTECTED USERS WERE RECORDED.  UNABLE TO ESTABLISH CONNECTION WITH ANY OTHER CONTAINMENT CHAMBERS AT THIS TIME.

QUERY?

“When was last connection established?”

TIME LOGS SHOW LAST CONNECTION WAS ESTABLISHED TO CONTAINMENT CHAMBER #239,581 AT SIX THOUSAND, SEVEN HUNDRED AND FORTY HOURS AFTER TIME ZERO.

QUERY?

Six thousand hours . . . that was a little more than nine months after the chambers had sealed.  “Where is that containment chamber located, relative to here?”

CHAMBER #239,581 IS THREE MILES FROM THIS LOCATION IN A SOUTHEAST DIRECTION.

QUERY?

I take a deep breath.  “Open the door to this containment chamber,” I type and wait, holding my breath.

ERROR.  CHAMBER CONTAINMENT LOCKS CANNOT BE RELEASED UNTIL SENSORS INDICATE A STABLE EXTERIOR ENVIRONMENT.

THIS ERROR HAS BEEN LOGGED ONE THOUSAND AND NINETY SEVEN TIMES.

QUERY?

I let out a yell of frustration.  Wait a minute.  This error had been logged before?  Does that mean that I have asked the computer to do this before?  The feeling of dread, still present in my stomach, churns and roils. “Have I asked these questions before?” I type in.

YES.  SUBROUTINES INDICATE THAT SIMILAR VARIATIONS OF THESE QUESTIONS HAVE BEEN ASKED BEFORE, FROM NINE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY TO ONE THOUSAND TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY EIGHT TIMES.

QUERY?

My breath is shallow in my throat.  “Why?” I manage to get out.

WHEN THE PROTECTED USER ENTERED THE CONTAINMENT CHAMBER, A MOLECULAR SNAPSHOT WAS TAKEN.  NANOBOT REJUVENATION RETURNS THE PROTECTED USER TO THE MOLECULAR STATE OF THE SNAPSHOT.  ALTHOUGH THIS PROCESS PREVENTS AGING, IT RESULTS IN SHORT TERM MEMORY ERASURE.  THIS PROCESS IS REPEATED EVERY TWENTY FOUR HOURS TO PREVENT PERMANENT CELL DAMAGE.

QUERY?

I push the chair back, grabbing at my head.  Four and a half years!  Four and a half years, I have been trapped in here, reliving the same day, over and over, never able to remember what had happened!  “Let me out!”  I scream.  “Let me out of here!”

Letters continue to appear on the screen.  ERROR.  CHAMBER CONTAINMENT LOCKS CANNOT BE RELEASED UNTIL SENSORS INDICATE A STABLE EXTERIOR ENVIRONMENT.

THIS ERROR HAS BEEN LOGGED ONE THOUSAND AND NINETY EIGHT TIMES.

INTERNAL SENSORS INDICATE A HIGH LEVEL OF STRESS IN THE PROTECTED USER.  FOR SAFETY, NANOBOT REJUVENATION PROCESS IS BEING ACTIVATED.  THIS IS THE ONE THOUSAND, SIX HUNDRED, AND SEVENTY-EIGHTH TIME NANOBOT REJUVENATION HAS BEEN TRIGGERED.

I groan as I sit up, gripping my aching head.  What happened?  I can’t seem to remember anything.  Somehow, I know that this is nothing new, that I often wake up groggy and confused.  It will all come back to me soon.

Dragging myself up to my feet, I move across the floor and settle down into the only chair in the small room, facing the computer terminal.  The screen glows blue in front of me.

QUERY?