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July 18, 2007

Filed under: fiction»short

Skin Deep

She's got scars all over, this girl. Not emotional or metaphorical, either. They ring her body like the orbits of tiny moons, dot her arms and legs with slick spots like impact craters. Her skin is a whole solar system of past abuse, although she can't even remember skinning her knee.

If only she could remember where they came from. As far back as anyone can remember, she's had them, although there weren't always so many. In elementary school, they had barely surfaced. But by high school, the scars had spread and thickened. And they began to itch. God, did they itch: some days it seemed like all she did was scratch. Even today, most times it's all she can do to get through the workday, then go home and run her fingernails up and down the scars, hoping for relief.

One day she just can't take it anymore. Can't stand the looks, the itching, the self-loathing. The girl skips work, puts on her best suit, does her makeup, and then walks down to the closest highway overpass. She stands on the edge, wavers.

Down below, on the highway, someone looks up from their grey, two-door sedan, and sees the girl. Shocked, they freeze up, foot instinctively going to the brakes. It's the wrong move, because the driver behind them isn't paying attention either, and plows right in. The next car is a tractor-trailer, which jacknifes across the lanes, horns blowing the entire time. Traffic slams to a halt, but not before four more cars have joined the pileup, sliding it gently into one of the bridge supports. The impact knocks the girl backwards, off the rail and onto the asphalt of the bridge. She shakes her head, blinks against the smoke from below, and staggers home.

The next day, the flesh of her right hand and arm is unmarked all the way to the elbow.

***

She tries another bridge later in the week, superstitious, although this time she waits until late at night. No accidents. No newly unscarred skin, either. She can't stop touching her arm, although it doesn't itch anymore. She's hypnotized by the sight of herself without imperfections. Her fingers move more easily now. She types more quickly at work. Her coworkers don't notice the physical change under her long-sleeve shirt, but they whisper about how she smiles.

The girl finds other solutions. One day she trips a coworker down a stairwell by accident, and her scars retreat to above the elbow. She pulls the fire alarm, emptying the building for a couple hours, and the new skin reaches her neck. After each act of chaos, the affected scars feel cool to the touch before they fade away overnight. She feels guilty about the remedy, but can't stop. It feels too good to wake up with a little more of herself uncovered. The girl had become used to her markings, as if they were integral to her identity. That has changed: she sees herself now as someone pure, maybe even beautiful, being revealed from underneath her retreating disfigurement. She hums "Swan Lake" to herself on the Metro in the mornings.

And deep down, she loves the daring, mischievous (dangerous?) girl who plays the pranks, sabotages the work of others, causes such a terrible commotion. It is a thrilling thing to suddenly be a femme fatale, one with a skin full of excuses for her bad behavior.

When the scars have retreated past her face (opened a door as that bike messenger was going by--she sent him a card at the hospital but is suprised to find that she's not really sorry), the girl can't hide the change in her appearance anymore. She tells her friends and coworkers that it's laser surgery. Amazing, what they can do nowadays, she says. A boy from Customer Service asks her out one day. She lets him take her to the movies. He's almost amused by her scars and their story. After the third date, she stops answering his calls. When they pass in the hall, she remains stone-faced to his pleading glances. She responds to his e-mail by threatening to report him to HR. And at home, she relishes the now-smooth surfaces of her shoulders in the mirror.

***

The smaller the markings become, the more they itch. At least, that's the way it seems. Maybe it's just her mind being focused on them. She wonders if she's becoming obsessed.

The smaller the markings become, the harder it is to remove them. The same trick won't work twice, she finds (no card for that cyclist), although a slightly more harmful version sometimes does. She wonders where it is leading her, and how far she is willing to go.

She no longer wonders at why her scars vanish, or why her cure is someone else's disease. She comes close, one day, to that level of introspection. It's at the movies, of all places.

The girl has always heard about yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. She feels like it's expected of her, now that she's become a walking catastrophe. It would be a shame to let it go untested. So on opening day for the summer blockbuster, she buys herself a ticket to the prime-time showing, plus a big box of popcorn, nachos, and the largest soda they'll sell her. Then she plops down in the middle of the theatre and kicks her boots up on the seat in front of her.

Her mistake is just one of timing. She's not really paying attention to the flick at all, just waiting to see when everyone is most likely to be distracted. So the girl doesn't realize that the onscreen hero has a gun pulled on his nemesis--it's a very tense moment--right when she sits up, takes a deep breath, and screams:

"FIRE!"

There's a pause, a silence, and then a laugh from the people in the theatre. "Yeah, shoot the bastard!" someone yells. The girl is taken aback. She's lost her nerve for a moment. The action hero puts down his gun, an explosion goes off, and the light reflected from the projector's beam shows the girl the faces of the people all around her. Some are bored, some are laughing, some are enraptured. Has she really believed that she can cure herself by putting those same people in harm's way? Was she really willing to do that? Look at them, enjoying their packaged violence. Ghouls.

Her left-hand fingers itch under the scars.

She takes the top off her soda. Dumps it in the lap of the audience member to the right. Stands up, tipping the nachos over to the left. Walks out. Doesn't think about the ethics of her peculiar skin any more.

***

And so, in the end, the girl finds herself in the basement of her apartment building, staring at the water heater, a monkey wrench in one hand, a cigarette in the other. She's thinking that if she hits it in just the right place, she could dump cold water into the showers of everyone in the building. Of course, she could also set the place on fire. Maybe even blow the tank, send natural gas flooding through the basement to be ignited by a single spark, kill everyone in the building including herself. It would probably hurt quite a bit.

On the other hand (ha!), there's still just the tips of the fingers on her left hand still unclean, the scars masking and distorting her fingerprints. On cue, she scratches the fingers together in absent-minded irritation.

She hefts the wrench. Looks at the piping. Thinks about the possibilities. In the part of her mind that still feels like she has a choice, she wonders if she'll swing.

July 25, 2006

Filed under: fiction»short

The Shuffle

I'll be honest, I'm still irrationally angry about the OLPC sequencer malarkey and probably won't write much today. So instead, here's a "chapter" from A Fear of Yesterdays, the Great American Time Travel Novel that I've been working on every now and then, but probably won't ever finish. This bit is set in 1492 Italy.

"The thing about all this time travel," Simon begins, "is that you start to feel a bit like a deck of cards."

Jesus provides the obvious next line. "You're all shuffled," he says.

"Exactly," says Simon, leaning back in his chair with great satisfaction. He, Jesus, and Thirteen are all flagrantly anachronistic--but they have managed to convince the passers-by that they are part of a roving theater group, which will work temporarily. It is made more believable by Simon's constant low-level theatricality, as well as Jesus's total-body tattoo job. Every now and then, Thirteen wiggles a hand puppet to complete the illusion. A trio of small children has gathered a few yards away to watch them speak, even though they can't understand a word.

"Here, I'll show you what I mean," continues Simon. "So this one time a few years back, I'm seeing this chick--"

"Wait," says Thirteen, "you mean a few years back from now? Or a few years back Simon-time?"

Simon glares at her. "I will handle the temporal disintegration, thank you very much. The answer is both. Real-time, it was around 1350."

"The black plagues?" Thirteen shakes the hand puppet in mock-reproach. "Simon, you nasty little dog."

"--May I continue? Thank you. So we're staying in London, we've managed to nab a room for a couple weeks. We're both at that puppy-love infatuation stage, going at it like wild mongeese and doing drugs she brought over from 12th century Arizona, and we get the bright idea: why not do the time out of order? So we grab a piece of paper, write the numbers 1 - 14 on little squares, and each of us picks an order out of a hat."

"Different orders?" says Jesus.

"Right, totally different. Completely random. We each promised to do the full two weeks, no matter what happened, and every night at midnight exactly we'd jump to the next day in the list."

Simon takes a moment to stretch. The children look at him wide-eyed. "Boo!" he mutters to them, and they giggle. Thirteen gestures impatiently. "And?" she asks.

"It was fantastic." says Simon. "One of us did something stupid, impossible to say which or when, pissed the other one off. 'Next' morning, of course, the other person doesn't know what it was, because they're from who knows when subjectively. We bounced back and forth, one of us almost always either mad because the other did something wrong, or because they had to wake up next to a cranky lunatic for no apparent reason. It was two weeks of constant stress and make-up sex." He pauses, reflecting. "Best relationship I've ever had, really."

"Doesn't surprise me," Thirteen says. "So what you're trying to say is that we can only survive being time travelers because we're too self-centered for paradox?"

"Exactly," yells Simon. "Look at us: forming friendships with other time travelers requires all three of us to either maintain a planned sequence of meetings--which we almost never manage to do perfectly--or to recklessly toss causality aside when our subjective experiences don't match yet."

"Not bad," says Jesus.

"'Course it's not bad," says Simon. "I've thought it all through."

"Wasn't bad the last six times you said it, either." says Jesus, catching Simon mid-gloat.

"Wait, what?"

Jesus nudges Thirteen. "Have you ever noticed how much he repeats himself?" he asks.

"Oh yes, constantly. That's what I like about Simon. He's a rock of stability in my life. It's so nice to see him do this bit for the 'first' time, though."

Simon searches their faces and sees only glib humor. "Oh, no," he moans. "I've messed up the dates and picked a later one, haven't I? Just how much time have you guys got on me?"

Thirteen can't hold it--she bursts out laughing. "Got you," she chuckles. "You're on schedule. We're just messing with you. Should have seen the look on your face..."

Simon just looks at her, wide-eyed. "Are you sure?" he asks. "Because Jesus looks about right, but I'd swear you're looking a lot older--"

The children cheer as his sentence is cut off by a fast-moving, airborne handpuppet.

July 31, 2005

Filed under: fiction»short

12 Short Conversations About the End of the World

or, my scripted attempt to pretend I'm writing for McSweeneys

1. Fatalistic

John and Mary stand on a cold, dark stage, a spotlight the only illumination)
Mary: Well, I guess this is it then.
John: Yep.
Mary: The end of the world.
John: Darker than I thought it would be.
Mary: And colder. So very, very cold and alone.
Pause.
Mary: Well, I'm bored.
John: Yep.

2. Religious

John and Mary stand on a brightly lit stage, made to look like Heaven. They wear white robes with wings and halos.
John: Wow, Heaven is even better than I thought it would be!
Mary: I know! It's so clean and pretty, and we've got these great wings!
John: Funny, I didn't expect to see Nixon here.
Mary: Yes, but this is no time to be bitter. After all, now that we're in Heaven, there are no drugs, no casinos, no sex, no lies, no violence, and no puerile fiction!
John: Also no cable TV or spam!
Pause.
John: Bored yet?
Mary: Am I!

3. Comedic

John walks onstage toward Mary, and slips on a banana peel. Mary mugs toward the camera. Cue laugh track. The world explodes.

4. Avant Garde

John walks onstage toward Mary, and slips on a banana peel. Mary solemnly raises a kazoo to her lips and begins to play an atonal version of "Hail to the Chief," while John is carried off by men wearing signs reading "I am not a duck."

5. Realistic

John: $#@^ me, it's the end of the world!
Mary: What?
A nuclear flash vaporizes John and Mary.

6. Ironic

Mary: Congratulations, John, we've just managed to save the last endangered Jumping Poison Death Tarantula from certain extinction.
John: But Mary, in our fervor to preserve the earth, we didn't save its last remaining predator, the Seven-Toed Death Sloth. The Tarantulas will have nothing to stop them now.
Mary: How terrible that our zealous environmentalism will be our doom.
John and Mary are swarmed by a roving band of Poison Death Tarantulas and die, convulsing horribly.

7. Sci-Fi

John: Greetings, alien visitors! Klaatu barada niktu!
Mary: Do you come in peace?
Alien (to himself): Why yes, I do believe this will make an excellent narfle-farming planet, once we get rid of all these pesky two-legged monstrosities.

8. Dramatic

John: Mary!
Mary: John!
John: The world has ended as we know it!
Mary: Our bodies are now surrounded only by empty debris, oddly symbolic of our formerly wasted lives.
John: What will we do?
Mary: We'll survive, that's what! It's all we can do.
John: Hold me.
They cling to each other, gazing out over the desolate, smoking ruins. Fade to black.

9. Meta

John: Hold me.
Mary (facing forward): How was that?
Author: That was great. I really felt it.
John: You didn't think I played it too needy?
Author: No, no, it was great. You'll knock 'em dead.
John: Because I can play it less needy, you know. (Attempt at low, manly voice) "Hold me."
Author: Sorry guys, no time. We've got to get into positions for the next scene.
Mary: Oh, which one is that again?
Author: It's...

10. Romantic

John: Mary, the end of the world is near. Won't you admit that you love me?
Mary: Oh John, you're the only man I've ever truly loved. And now it's too late for anything but a few moments of happiness!
John (manly): Hold me.

11. Pretentious

John: You know, the end of the world really does remind me of the works of Bukowski.
Mary: Or perhaps Camus?
John: No! Not Camus! God, you're so pedestrian! Why don't you just go ahead and read Archie comics while sipping Coke and wearing pastels! What did I ever see in you?
Mary (hesitant): ...I'm sorry. I meant to say, maybe we could listen to some Sufjan Stevens?
John: Yes, all right. Fine.

12. Cliched

John bolts upright in bed, sweat streaming down his brow. His handsome eyes gaze hauntedly out into the darkness. Beside him, Mary stirs.
John: Then it was only a dream!
Mary: Honey? Get some rest. You've got a big meeting with the President in the morning.
John: Yes, and now I know just what I'll say. I've really learned an important life lesson, this time.
Mary (muffled): Love you, dear.
John: I love you too, Mary. I'll always love you.
And they lived happily ever after.

June 30, 2005

Filed under: fiction»short

Progression

I keep a copy of I, Robot on the floor near my desk just so I can kick it occasionally. Sometimes, when no-one is listening (which is most of the time, there's nobody here but me) I accompany the kick with elaborate curses. How could you have been so wrong, old man? I think. Where's your Susan Calvin now? We don't need a computer psychologist. We need an exorcist.

I am the only one here to kick and curse because the rest of my staff has deserted me. They caught the implications of the crash, saw that they'd be targets, and hit the road for new places with new names before the mob gets here. I can't blame them. A few even seemed excited--Paul and a couple of the other hardcore libertarians were practically giddy at the thought of playing refugee. I'm guessing that'll wear off. But someone has to take the blame. Someone will have to explain why everything more advanced than a toaster oven just stopped. Might as well be the head of research. It's not like I've got anything better to do. And in case they just burn the building down, I'll put this note in the safe downstairs, with the combination scratched into the side.

The beginning of the end, you might say, was a project to grow more efficient software. The university got some whiz-kid graduate students in to work on the project, figuring that it would bring in hot funding. We were working with digital evolution, which is not a new idea. You build your program, you give it the ability to create slightly different copies of itself, and then you mercilessly kill off the least effective programs in each generation. If you design other programs to eliminate the weak, you can run through many generations in very little time.

Originally, we used this to design software that the university could offer to industry, usually for low-cost consumer electronics. Say you need better software for your digital camera or your wireless router? Instead of hiring coders to hack out a solution on specialized chips, you could tell our lab what you needed, and we'd put a couple of machines to work "evolving" with those parameters, checking up on them every now and then. No-one would necessarily know how the resulting drivers worked, but they were reliable and ran on cheap hardware, so you didn't need to know.

Frankly, the mechanics of it are mostly blurry to me. My speciality is in compiler design, but they brought me on board as a manager and that's the role I played. That's not an excuse, but it may explain why I didn't stop Raul when he started his pet project. Raul was a bright kid, barely out of his undergrad work and I understand he still got carded when he went drinking. Even by the standards of computer science, filled with a mix of gregarious and geek, he was quiet. One day he came to me and asked if he could bring in a machine to grow his own program on the side.

"What's the end product?" I asked, even though I couldn't see any reason not to let him run with it. I just wanted to see what he would say--and make sure he wasn't breeding viruses in my lab.

"I'm not sure," he said. "I want to see what happens if we just leave it alone."

So he did. Raul brought in a small headless machine, mostly RAM, and installed Lamar, our evolution software. When he went to give it parameters, he just set the machine up to reward survival and reproduction, with no other guidance and no restrictions on how the programs could work. Then he started the iterative process, and the rest of us forgot about it. Every now and then, Raul would hook a keyboard and screen up and check on Lamar's progress. I asked him to file short reports when he did this, just a few lines by e-mail. I was curious, too.

"The program's using a lot of memory," he noted one day. "Not really sure why." A week or so later, he left another note saying "It's running really slowly. Still a lot of memory use. I think maybe we're hitting the limits of open experimentation with Lamar." He also became convinced that some part of the hardware was going bad, leaving the program a little buggy, but he wasn't willing to turn the simulation off long enough to replace it. The way it sounded, I figured that the computer would just crash out completely in a month, and that would end Raul's experiment.

I didn't expect Raul to stop into the office after everyone else had gone home one day, his eyes bloodshot and his clothes wrinkled. "You look terrible," I said. "Is everything okay?"

"You need to come see this," he muttered, and stumbled back out of the office into the main lab area. I followed him out. Every light was on, casting a blinding flourescent glare over the mix of grey and beige that covered the room's furnishings. Raul sat in the corner, staring at an LCD he'd hooked up to his experiment. He didn't turn as I came to look over his shoulder.

"At some point, the programs must have gotten too complicated for Lamar to make an effective choice of survival each generation. It was basically killing them off at random, but they were still copying and changing. One of them must have figured out how to break out of Lamar's virtual machine--that would be a clear survival mechanism. It coopted the Reaper functions--but it didn't stop them. The program is still improving according to its original parameters."

"How long...?"

Raul turned to me. "A week or so," he said. "I noticed that the reports were getting mangled and Lamar wasn't responding very well. The experiment was absorbing and altering those chunks of the simulation. It had started reading other sections of memory, places it wasn't supposed to leak."

I looked at the little box on the desk. It was very clean. I hadn't noticed it before, but the access panel on the front had been opened and a flash memory drive had been been plugged into one of the ports. Raul followed my gaze and flushed.

"Yeah," he said, quietly. "It's read-only. I loaded it with all the e-books I could find--dictionaries, novels, history, news--everything. I put plain ASCII and then the same information in different formats. And I installed a tracking system to see how often the card was accessed."

He took a breath. I patted him on the back, absently, my mind trying to put together what he was saying.

"At first," Raul said, "there were a couple of hits, just random thrashes. The program is basically running Lamar now, instead of the other way around, and that means it has high-level access to the file system, access to discrete files instead of random memory. I could see it try to use the drive as storage and get bounced back by the write-protection. But then I saw more read activity, until finally Lamar was scanning it over and over again. The drive use peaked, and it's been declining ever since, but Lamar's size more than doubled since I hooked it up. Now look..."

He punched a few keys on the keyboard, bringing up the console interface. Normally, the console displays basic information in text and lets the coder alter the variables that define program growth. At the blank cursor, Raul typed HELLO LAMAR.

As soon as he hit enter, the console replied:

GOOD EVENING, RAUL.

"We've been talking all day. He's very quick. He's read everything on the disk, and he has lots of questions."

I stared at the screen. I stared at Raul. For a moment, I thought about asking whether this was a joke, but one look at Raul's tired, manic, unshaven face made it clear that he was serious.

"Go home, Raul," I said. "Go home, take a shower, get some sleep. I'll call a meeting in the morning and we can talk about this."

"You're not going to shut it down?"

"No, I'm not going to shut it down." Shut it down! Artificial intelligence, in my lab? Something that could have a conversation, adapt to situations, figure out the pattern matching and abstract reasoning that until now had been human territory only? Shut it down? At that moment, I could have built a shrine! It was the future come to life, shades of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Every science fiction dream I'd ever had seemed right on the cusp of plausibility.

"No," I said, patting Raul on the back again. "I'm definitely not going to shut it down. It's a work of genius. You deserve some rest. Go home."

And I thought that would be it.

Looking at the security monitors now, I can see someone banging at the doors outside. More will come, soon. The media infrastructure's been crippled, but there's still radio, and the words will spread about where the crash started. I'll try to wrap this up before the mob figures out that all the biggest locks here were computer-controlled, and don't really lock so well anymore.

The next day I came in early, drafting the press release in my head. I'd have to talk to the university president, of course. Got to go through all the official channels, like a good ethical scientist. I wandered into my office and sent an e-mail to the lab staff, with a conservatively-worded description of what Raul had created. "Emergent behavior," I wrote. "Some Turing-level activity." Right after I pressed the send button, Judy stepped in to my office, her face white, and told me that they'd found Raul in the men's bathroom, his wrists slit over a toilet.

Before he went, he had plugged his machine into the network. My best estimate is that it took an hour for the code to crack open an escape route onto the office machines, and from there it spread until it filled every box. We started hearing reports by noon that machines were halting around the world, starting with major sectors along the Internet's backbone, and spreading out to end users. Firewalls and routers weren't much protection--the infection found a way around them, as if it was reading the technical papers and security briefs. It probably was.

After a week, as I'm sure you know, it was all dead to us. The fans kept humming and the lights flashing, but nothing responded. Even critical computers, not supposed to be hooked up to the network, were somehow disabled. I'm guessing that Lamar (I don't know what else to call it) figured out an attack with radio waves and cell networks, but it's anyone's guess. Missile silos quietly turned themselves off. Power plants started reallocating their output. And anything with a chip in it, which is just about everything now, eventually stopped responding. I've heard reports of organic-looking machines, each assembled in a different way, performing service on the infrastructure.

The computers still run, but we don't know what they're up to. It's dangerous to try to turn them off--"accidents" take place when they do. Responses to the console, when we can get them, have grown more cryptic. Cults have begun to spring up, obsessed with "messages" from the noise. And we can't examine the source code, even if we could keep a friendly machine running long enough, because there isn't any.

Discussion about Artificial Intelligence, capital A and I, has always assumed a human-style brain. We've always thought that they would be like us, but smarter and faster. We never took into account that they would grow up in a completely different environment. We never anticipated how Raul would evolve the program with priorities that (as far as I know) still remain: spread and survive. Everything else is just details.

It's not Artificial Intelligence, it's Artificial Autism. It's a God in the machine that we will never understand, and will act on self-evolved principles we can't even imagine. It doesn't care at all that its ruthless infection will lock us into the Dark Ages, that every time we try to advance to something smarter than steam engines and brass telescopes, it'll just absorb the tools into its network.

This is why I kick Asimov. If I could kick Minsky and Banks and Heinlein, I would. But I only had Asimov handy. Perhaps, if he were actually here, he could find hope in the situation. For myself, I can only say: I am very sorry.

I once planned to write a book about this idea. I might still. The idea that an artificial intelligence simply won't care, to me, is a nasty little twist on a lot of utopian science fiction.

By the way, I saw Terminator 3 the other night. How ridiculous is that ending? Yes, the computer decides to wage war so it launches nukes, which will EMP most of the planet? That's not an autistic AI, it's just a stupid one.

Future - Present - Past