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Thread: Awesome Goddamn Short Stories

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    Darth Small Macheath's Avatar
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    Awesome Goddamn Short Stories

    I just read this and it made me tear up. It's called "The Gentle Seduction," by Marc Stiegler. That title alone kills me, in retrospect. The story concerns the "singularity" you hear about in science fiction.

    While I'm posting sci-fi short stories, I need to find "The Last Question." It's kind of similar, but it's by Asimov, so it's even more awesome. But this is pretty awesome. Read it if you have half an hour to spare.

    Edit: some search and replace wizardry to turn their terrible HTML into [i] tags

    He worked with computers; she worked with trees, and the flowers that took hold on the sides of the Mountain.

    She was surprised that he was interested in her. He was so smart; she was so ... normal. But he was interesting; he always said something new and different; he was nice.

    She was 25. He was older, almost 33; sometimes, Jack seemed very old indeed.

    One day they walked through the mist of a gray day by the Mountain. The forest here on the edge of Rainier glowed in the mist, bright with lush greens. On this day he told her about the future, the future he was building.

    Other times when he had spoken of the future, a wild look had entered his eyes. But now his eyes were sharply focused as he talked, as if, this time, he could see it all very clearly. He spoke as if he were describing something as real and obvious as the veins of a leaf hanging down before them on the path.

    "Have you ever heard of Singularity?" he asked.

    She shook her head. "What's that?"

    "Singularity is a time in the future. It'll occur when the rate of change of technology is very great--so great that the effort to keep up with the change will overwhelm us. People will face a whole new set of problems that we can't even imagine." A look of great tranquility smoothed the ridges around his eyes. "On the other hand, all our normal, day to day problems fade away. For example, you'll be immortal."

    She shook her head with distaste. "I don't want to live forever," she said.

    He smiled, his eyes twinkling. "Of course you do, you just don't know it yet."

    She shuddered. "The future scares me."

    "There's no reason to fear it. You'll love it." He looked away from her. His next words were bitter, but his tone was resigned. "It pisses me off that you'll live to see it and I won't."

    Speaking to the sorrow in his voice, she tried to cheer him. "You'll live to see it too," she replied.

    He shook his head. "No. I have a bad heart. My father died young from a heart attack, and so did my father's father. If I'm lucky, I have maybe 30 more years. It'll take at least a hundred years for us to get to Singularity. "

    "Then I'll be dead before it happens, too. Good," she said.

    He chuckled. "No. You'll live long enough, so that they'll figure out how to make you live long enough so that you can live longer."

    "You're still only 7 years older than I am."

    "Ah, but you have your mother's genes. She looks very young."

    She smiled, and changed the subject. "I'll have to tell her you said that. She'll like it."

    There was a long pause. Then she confessed, "My grandfather is 92, and he still cuts the grass every week."

    Jack smiled triumphantly. "See?"

    She was adamant. "I'll live to be 80 or 90. I don't want to live longer than that."

    "Not if you're crippled, of course not. But they'll find ways of rejuvenating you." He laughed knowingly. "You'll look older when you're 60 than when you're 120" he said.

    She just shook her head.

    Another time, as they walked in the sun along the beach of Fox Island, he told her more about the future. "You'll have a headband." He ran his fingers across his forehead; he squinted as the wind blew sand in his eyes. "It'll allow you to talk right to your computer."

    She frowned. "I don't want to talk to a computer."

    "Sure you do. At least, you will. Your computer will watch your baby all night long. If it sees something wrong, it'll wake you." Wicked delight widened his smile, and she knew he would now tell her something outrageous. "While you're laying in bed with your eyes closed, you'll look at your baby through your computer's TV camera to see if it's something serious."

    "Ugh."

    "Of course, there's a tiny chance, really tiny, that an accident could scramble your memories."

    The thought made her dizzy with horror. "I would rather die." She grabbed his arm and pulled him under the bridge, out of the wind. She shuddered, though unsure whether her chill came from the wind or the fear.

    He changed his tack. Pointing at a scattering of elaborate seaside mansions across the water, he asked, "Would you like to live in one of those?"

    She studied them. "Maybe that one," she said, pointing at a beautiful old Victorian home. "Or that one." She pointed at another, very different from the first, a series of diagonal slashes with huge windows.

    "Have you ever heard of nanotechnology?" he asked.

    "Uh-uh."

    "Well, with nanotechnology they'll build these tiny little machines--machines the size of molecules." He pointed at the drink in her hand. "They'll put a billion of them in a spaceship the size of a Coke can, and shoot it off to an asteroid. The Coke can will rebuild the asteroid into mansions and palaces. You'll have an asteroid all to your self, if you want one."

    "I don't want an asteroid. I don't want to go into space."

    He shook his head. "Don't you want to see Mars?You liked the Grand Canyon; I remember how you told me about it. Mars has huge gorges--they make the Grand Canyon look tiny. Don't you want to see them? Don't you want to hike across them?"

    It took her a long time to reply. "I guess so," she admitted.

    "I won't tell you all the things I expect to happen," he smiled mischievously, "I'm afraid I'd really scare you. But you'll see it all. And you'll remember that I told you." His voice grew intense. "And you'll remember that I knew you'd remember."

    She shook her head. Sometimes Jack was just silly.

    They never made love, though often, they fell asleep in each other's arms. Sometimes she wondered why; she wondered if he also wondered why. Somehow it just didn't seem important.

    He seemed so at home in the deep forest, he so clearly belonged on the Mountain, she first thought they might stay together forever. But one day she went with him to his office. She watched as he worked with computers, as he worked with other people. He was as natural a part of their computer world as he was a part of her Mountain world.

    Working in that alien world, he was a different person. In the woods, he was a calm source of sustaining strength. Here, he was a feverish instructor. His heart belonged to the forest, but his mind, she realized, belonged to the machines that would build his vision.

    One day he received a call. A distant company gave him an offer he could not refuse. So he went to California, to build great computers, to hurry his vision to fruition.

    She stayed by the Mountain. She walked the snows, and watched the birds fly overhead. Yet no bird flew so high that she could not climb the slopes of Rainier until she stood above them.

    He would come to visit on weekends sometimes, and they would backpack, or ski cross country. But his visits became less frequent. He would write instead. That too decreased in regularity. One letter was the last, though neither of them knew it at the time.

    A year passed. And by then, it just didn't seem to matter.

    ***

    She married a forest ranger, a bright, quiet man with dark eyes and a rugged face. They had three small children and two large dogs, friendly dogs with thick soft fur. She loved all the members of her family, almost all the time; it was the theme that never changed though she thought about different things at different times.

    Her children grew up and moved away.

    Erich, the beautiful red chou, went to sleep one night and never awakened.

    A terrible avalanche, from a seemingly safe slope, fell down the Mountain and buried a climbing team, her husband among them.

    Haikku, her mighty and faithful akita,whimpered in his old age. He crooned his apology for leaving her alone, and that night he joined Erich and her husband.

    She was 82. She had lived a long and happy life. She was not afraid to die. But she stood outside in the snow and faced a terrible decision.

    Overnight, a thick blanket of new white powder had fallen, burying her sidewalk. Standing in the snow, she stared at a mechanical beast her children had given her years before. It represented one possible choice.

    In one hand she held a shovel. In the other hand she held a small capsule. The capsule was another gift her children had given her. They had begged her to take it. Until now, she had refused. The capsule represented another choice.

    Her back was aching. It was an ache that sometimes expanded, shooting spikes of pain down her legs. Today the pain was great; she could not shovel the sidewalk.

    The mechanical beast was a robot, a fully automatic snow remover. She could just flip a switch and it would hurl the snow away, but that seemed grotesque; the noise would be terrible, the mounds of thoughtlessly discarded snow would remain as an unseemly scar until late spring.

    She opened her hand and looked at the capsule. It was not a pill to make her younger; that much her children had promised her. They knew she would reject such a thing out of hand. But the millions of tiny machines tucked inside the capsule would disperse throughout her body and repair every trace of damage to her bones. They would also rebuild her sagging muscle tissue. In short, the pill would cure her back and make the pain go away.

    The thought of all those little machines inside her made her shudder. But the thought of the automatic snow remover made her sick.

    She went back inside the house to get a glass of water.

    In a few days her back felt fine; her healthy muscles gave her a feeling of new vigor, and the vigor gave rise to a yearning to go out and do things that she had not considered for many years. She started to climb the Mountain, but it was too much for her: she huffed and puffed and had to go home. Annoyed, she went to the drug store and bought another capsule, one that restored her circulatory system and her lungs. Her next assault on the Mountain carried her as far as she dared, and the steady beat of her heart urged her to go on despite the crumbling snow.

    But she was getting increasingly forgetful. Things that had happened years earlier were clear in her mind, but she could not remember what she needed at the store. One day she forgot her daughter's telephone number, and found that she had forgotten where she had misplaced the phone book. The store had another capsule that tightened up her neural circuitry. After taking it, she discovered a side effect no one had bothered to mention. The pill did not merely make her memory effective again; rather, it made her memory perfect. With a brief glance through the pages of the phone book, she found she no longer needed it. She shrugged and continued on with her life.

    One day as she skied across the slopes, a stranger passed her going the other way. He was tall and rugged, and he reminded her of her husband. She was annoyed that he did not even look at her, though she had smiled at him; when she looked in the mirror upon returning home, she understood why. She was 95 years old; she looked like an old woman. It was ridiculous; fortunately it was easily fixed.

    When she turned 115 she stabilized her physical appearance. Thereafter, she always appeared to be about the age of 32.

    ***

    She still owned the snug little house she thought of as home. But she slept more often in the tent she carried in her pack. Built with nanomachined equipment, the pack was lighter than any other she had ever owned, yet it was impossibly strong. All her tools performed feats she would once have thought miraculous, and none weighed more than a pound. She lived in great comfort despite the inherent rigors of the glacier-crusted slopes.

    One day, she was climbing along the ancient trail from Camp Muir toward the summit, crossing the ridges to reach Disappointment Cleaver. As she stepped over the last ridge to the broad flat in front of the Cleaver, she saw a man standing alone. He was staring up the steep ice flows overhead. He stepped backward, and backward, and turned to walk briskly in her direction. She continued forward to pass him, but he cried out, "Stop!"

    She obeyed the fear in his voice. He paused, and his eyes came unfocussed for a moment. He pointed to the right of the ridge she had just crossed, a fin of rock rising rapidly along the mountain's edge. "Up there," he said, "Quickly." He broke into a hobbling run across snow that sometimes collapsed under his heavy step. She followed, her adrenalin rising with her bewilderment.

    A massive Crack! filled the air. Far above the Cleaver, an overhanging ledge of ice snapped off and fell with an acrobat's graceful tumbling motion to the flat where they had just been standing. The mass qualified as a large hill in its own right. When it landed it broke into a thousand huge pieces. Some of the pieces ground each other to powder, while others bounced off the flat, down another precipice of several thousand feet, to crash again in a duller explosion of sound.

    The ice fall was an extraordinary event to witness under any circumstance; the narrowness of escape from death that accompanied it overlayed the experience with a religious awe.

    She heard the man panting next to her. She turned to study him more carefully.

    He was unremarkable for a mountaineer; his lean form supported long straps of hard muscle, and the reflected sun from the glaciers had given him a coffee-colored tan. Then she noticed the sweatband across his head. It was not just a sweatband: she could see from the stretch marks that a series of thin disks ran across within the cotton layers. She realized he was wearing a nection, a headband to connect his mind with distant computers.

    She recoiled slightly; he smiled and touched his forehead. "Don't be too upset," he said, "my headband just saved your life."

    She stuttered. "I wasn't upset," she said, though she knew that he knew she was lying. "I've just never seen one up close before."

    It was true. Her grandchildren told her that nections were quite common in space, but on Earth they were almost illegal. It was socially unacceptable to wear one, and when the police saw a nection-wearing person they would use any excuse to hassle the individual. But there were no specific laws against them.

    When her grandchildren had told her that they wore headbands all the time, she had tried only briefly to dissuade them; she had spent more time listening to their descriptions of the headband's capabilities. Her grandchildren's description sounded considerably different from the list of dangers usually described on the news.

    The man who had saved her life watched her for several more seconds, then apparently made up his mind about something. "You really ought to get one yourself, you know. Do you realize how dangerous this mountain is? And it's getting more dangerous every year."

    She started to tell him that she knew perfectly well how dangerous it was--then stopped, thinking back over the years, realizing that it had, by gradual degrees, grown worse every year.

    "With my headband, I see things better," he explained. "I confess I don't understand why very well--I mean, it doesn't affect my eyesight. But I notice more things about what I see, and I can get a view of what the extra things mean--like how that piece of ice would fall, and more or less when."

    She nodded her head, but her mind was distracted. The Mountain was changing! The Mountain was getting more dangerous! The rapid alternation of clear, sunny days with cool, misty days had become more vigorous over the course of the last 50 years, leading to more weak layers and ice faults. She had never really noticed until now.

    Then the full impact of her savior's words struck her--she held her hands to her throat as she considered how her husband had died. She realized that, with a nection, his death could have been prevented.

    She smiled at the man. They talked; she invited him to dinner at Alexander's.

    When she returned home, she started searching through electronic equipment catalogs. If she bought one mail order and wore it only while hiking, there was no reason for any of her friends ever to know.

    ***

    It was a simple white headband, soft absorbent cotton. She slipped it on her head, expecting to feel something special, but nothing happened. She started to clean the house, still waiting for something to happen. It never did. Eventually she sat down and read the instructions that had come with the headband.

    The instructions told her to start with a simple request, and to visualize herself projecting the request at her forehead. She projected the request, "2 times 2?" just above her eyes. Nothing seemed to happen. She knew the answer was 4.

    She tried again, and this time she noticed a kind of echo--she knew the answer was 4, but the thought of the answer came to her twice, in rapid succession. The next time she tried it, she noticed that the echo seemed to come from her forehead.

    Next she projected a request to divide 12345 by 6789. She didn't know the answer--but wait, of course she did, it was 1.81838. Of course, she didn't know the answer to many decimal places--but as she thought about it, she realized the next digit was 2, the next was 6, then at an accelerating pace more digits roared from her memory--she shook her head, and the stream stopped. She took the headband off, shaking a little. She didn't try it again until the next day.

    A week later, she hiked past Camp Schurman and peered up the slope. She projected her view of the slope through her forehead to study the patterns of snow and ice.

    It did indeed look different as she looked at it this way. She had a sensation similar to that of looking at the edges of a cube on a sheet of paper: at one moment, the lines formed a cube with the top showing. The next moment it was an alternate cube with the bottom exposed. She could flip the cube, or at least the way she looked at it, at will.

    In the same manner she could now see patterns of slippage in the layers of ice crystals; then she would flip the image and it was just snow, the beautiful work of nature that she had loved all her life.

    For a moment she wished she could see it from above as well--and her heart skipped a beat as the wish came true. Suddenly she was looking down from a great height. She saw the long curves of shadows across the snow from high above, and she saw the shorter but distinctive shadow of a woman with a pack standing on the snow field. She threw the headband to the ground even as she realized what she had just seen: a view of the Mountain from a satellite passing by.

    She stared at the white headband, almost invisible in the white snow, for a long time. She felt distaste, wonder, fear, and curiousity. Curiousity finally won out. She twisted the headband back on. She blinked her mind's eye, blinking from her own eyes to the satellite's eyes and back again, a moment's taste of the new sensation.

    Vertigo struck her. Though the satellite was interesting, it was not comfortable. She would not look at the world from a satellite's height often, but it was yet another life-saving form of sight: from a distance, it was easy to spot a depression in the snow that might signal an underlying crevasse, even though the depression was too shallow to be seen close up. Such crevasses were invisible until one stepped through to a long fatal plunge to the Mountain's heart.

    The headband was so clearly a life saving tool, why were people so set against it? Why did some of her friends support laws proscribing it?

    It didn't make any difference; she had no need of it except here on the Mountain.

    ***

    Though the fight over the headband's legal status did not at first interest her, it became an increasing impediment to her life. The headband was quite useful in a number of ways; though each individual use was trivial, in sum they qualitatively effected her life. She stopped tracking her checkbook; it was all in her head, all the transactions, the current balance, and even the encumbrances. When she awoke in the morning she could turn on the coffee pot if she wanted to, without getting up.

    She wore her headband while hiking, and while working around her house; but she dared not wear it to work. One day an ecologist asked her a question about the marmots that inhabited the park. She grew angry as she had to manually root through the computer systems trying to find the answer, for she knew that the answer was available for the mere thinking about it if she could wear her headband. That night she stopped at the drugstore and bought two more capsules.

    She swallowed one. This capsule was nastier than the others she had taken in earlier years. Before, the nanomachines she had swallowed had gone through her body, fixing what was not right, then flushing themselves out again. But the machines in this one would build, just under her forehead, a subcutaneous nection.

    The other capsule would dissolve the nection away if she decided she didn't like it.

    When she awoke the next morning she was very hungry. She felt her forehead, but there wasn't anything there.

    The next morning she felt her forehead again, and it was ... different. She looked in the mirror; with the flickering double vision of her eyes and the analysis from her forehead, she could see on the one hand that she looked the same as always. Yet on the other hand, there were curves there she hadn't noticed before. When she went in to work, one man complimented her on her new hair color.

    No one else commented until her boss arrived. When he entered the reception area and looked at her, his eyes lit up, and he laughed.

    She looked at him with mild annoyance. Then she noticed, again with her double vision, that there were very shallow curves in his forehead.

    He came up close, and put his finger to his lips. "Listen," he said.

    She listened. As she concentrated, she heard heard soft murmurs in the background; as she focussed on the murmurs, they grew louder, until she could hear that he was speaking--but not with his lips, not through her ears. She heard him through her forehead. "Welcome to the gang," he said. "Isn't it great fun, joining a rebellion? I haven't had this much fun since I was a teenager."

    They both broke into laughter. Everyone else in the room wondered what the joke was about.

    ***

    She talked to her children, and her children's children, more often now; though they were spread from Mars to Mercury, they were but a thought away. It surprised her to realize that the simple process of dialing the number, and the uncertainty of whether or not she would get through, had often put her off from calling even though the cost had plummeted in recent years till it was virtually free.

    She became increasingly comfortable with her distant grandchildren. Through visual links like the one she had with the satellite, they took her on outings into the stunning naked beauty of their home planet Mars. When they asked her for the hundredth time to come for a visit, she agreed.

    In her youth she had ridden trains across the country. She had expected the space trip to be the same, but it was not. The ship was far more comfortable than any other vehicle she had ridden; it was more comfortable than her own home, though she still did not quite like it as well.

    When she arrived, she found she loved to hike across the plains and the canyons of an unknown planet. She walked amid forests of alien trees, related to the Earthly trees from which they had been shaped, yet different. Comparing the lands of Mars to the lands of Earth reminded her of watching the sun set two days in a row: though the outcome was the same, the process was nevertheless different. The strange wilderness yielded for her new kinds of solitude.

    She came to know her grandchildren's children for the first time. Before, these children had represented an unspoken, uncomfortable complication in her thoughts of Mars. They were different. They were of her blood, but not in the manner of normal children. They had been genetically engineered.

    Her grandchildren had designed them, giving them a parent's loving care long before they had even been conceived. Only the best characteristics of her family had been passed on; she did not know how the other aspects of these radiantly happy children had been chosen. They were very different from her, but not quite alien. With time she learned to love them as they loved her.

    One day they went on a longview picnic. First they walked to the high edge of a deep canyon. She looked over the rim. The height was not great by comparison with the distances in space she had traveled to come here. Yet this distance impressed her. It impressed her because she could appreciate it: thousands of tiny twists and angles of rock acted as signposts, allowing her to mark off the immense distance in tiny steps. She shook her head, smiled, and stepped over the edge.

    Together with her family, she descended gently on suspensors; their picnic basket and wine glasses descended with them, on suspensors of their own. They watched the planet come up to meet them as they dined and chatted.

    The discussion turned to the family's upcoming expedition to Jupiter. They had asked her several times to come along, but she had refused. Now they asked her again. She watched the extraordinary scenery float past her and considered the question one last time. A trip to Jupiter would have been all right if it could have been like Mars. But it could not, and that was both the attraction and the horror.

    Though humanity had made Mars Earthlike, they could not do the same for Jupiter. Jupiter's methane oceans simply were not amenable to terraforming. No one could go there in person.

    To see Jupiter, she would in a sense have to leave her body. Oh, she wouldn't have to leave it very far; indeed, in one sense she would stay with her body on Mars throughout the journey. But just as she had seen Rainier through the satellite's eyes rather than her own, just as she spoke to her friends with her headband rather than her voice, now she would have to use her headband for all her senses.

    And the machine would not merely replace her sight, her hearing, her touch, her smell--it would transform them. Ordinary sight and sound did not work on Jupiter; for each of her old senses a new one would be substituted. She would see ultrasonic vibrations; she would smell ionic changes. For all intents and purposes, she would live as a being designed for the comforts of Jupiter's titanic gravity well.

    Of course, she would not be marooned there: she could leave at any time.

    The pleasure of her experience on Mars made her confident; the quiet exhiliaration of the longview picnic made her bold. She agreed to go along.

    ***

    For a moment it was dark, a moment too short to launch the panic she held in trip-wired readiness. Then there was light, a confusing light that seemed oddly related to the sounds that joined it. She held up her hands. They were metal, and she looked at them in alarm. She closed her eyes, and it was better.

    The strange sounds took on rhythm. Instinctively she turned toward them, and her back feet rotated, propelling her closer. When she felt she was too close--she could smell the source of the sounds now, a tangy, pleasant odor--she opened her eyes. Studying the shape as it wavered before her, seemingly separated by shimmering air, she realized it was another robot like herself. Indeed, she recognized it: she was looking at her granddaughter.

    She looked around and had a sudden overwhelming sensation of immensity.

    The hugeness of space had seemed dwarfed by the height of the Martian canyon, for she had been able to comprehend it through the tiny weathered etchings of rock she could peer at in the distance. Here on Jupiter her comprehension was even greater, for her senses ranged distance with new clarity. The ultrasonic echoes told her how far it was to each whorl of current she could see; she could see to distances very great indeed. It made her think of the way she had felt as a child, looking across a vast Kansan plain for the first time. It seemed as if infinity was right there, within easy reach. She reveled in it for a moment, then stepped out.

    She was back in her own body again, sitting on Mars.

    She dipped back in for ten minutes and stepped out again. Next she went in for half an hour. Then an hour.

    She had sworn that she would not stay on Jupiter for more than an hour at a time; a longer stay required mechanical operation of parts of her body while she was away. But once she became so absorbed in exploring the Jovian landscape, she stayed for an hour and a half . The maintenance machines disconnected themselves before she returned, and their intervention didn't seem to make a difference. So she stayed longer.

    Jupiter, she found, was an astonishing world, truly alien from all she had experienced before. And the new senses she acquired through her new robot required extensive exploration of their own. It was all incredibly novel, and she realized she would need at least a year to explore.

    The linkage between her mind on Mars and her robot body on Jupiter had delays; to have a completely satisfying experience, she would need a temporary residence that didn't require such a commute.

    So a small cylinder, somewhat smaller than a Coke can, was launched at an asteroid that had been parked in orbit around Jupiter for this purpose. As the billions of robots from the cylinder swarmed across the asteroid, transforming it into a marvelous home, she boarded another ship. It seemed silly to spend any of her transit time stuck in the confines of her cabin; she went to Jupiter for the duration. She intended to return to her own body when it arrived in orbit.

    But when it arrived, she was busy. She was learning about a new robot designed for the frozen world of Europa, with another whole new set of senses, new novelties to explore. She left her body in storage for a short time longer.

    A year passed. And by then, it just didn't seem to matter.

    ***

    A bubble hung poised on the edge of the solar system, a sphere pockmarked with thousands of holes, each hole the width of a pin. A bolt of light struck the sphere, a bolt powered by kilometers of molecular mirrors near the orbit of Mercury.

    The bubble seemed to explode as thousands of needles leaped from their cradles, driven forth by tiny beams of laser light, slivers of the titanic bolt from the Sun. The needles accelerated away from the bubble for years, till their speed reached close to that of light. Thereafter they drifted ever outward.

    Upon occasion, a needle approached a star. The needle would shift, to ensure a close passage. If planets or other items of note beckoned, the needle would swoop in, on a tight spiral to oblivion: its billions of nanomachines would break apart at the touch of an asteroid, and build anew. Where once there had been a needle, now there would be a bubble, and a molecular mirror, and thousands of needles that would explode out and travel forever.

    But in addition, the nanomachines in that system would continue to build. They would build machines and living flesh well suited to the conditions of the planet. And then the nanomachines would come back together into a single structure--not a needle now, but a communication bubble. Through the bubble and its instantaneous communication she could live across space. She could dwell at home near Jupiter yet roam among the stars.

    She was often one of the first humans Called to newly opened planets. Her wisdom from earth, her expertise from Jupiter, these made her invaluble as an explorer and a guide. As she had swum within the methane oceans, so now she swam in carbon dioxide atmospheres, or flew through liquid mercury. She imprinted herself upon organic synapses and silicon circuits light years from home, and lived in many places.

    Mentally she was bigger now than she had been at 25. The meaning of complexity had changed for her; she understood the laws of physics with the same simple clarity that she understood the rules of checkers. She could build a starship as easily as she could pitch a tent.

    Her mind had grown and spilled from the confines of her original body. She could easily dedicate a part of her mind to each of several different tasks. Notably she could lead several different groups, touring several different planets, all at the same time.

    But of all her new capacities, it was the boundless singing that filled her with wonder.

    She was not an introspective person; she did not often think about her own past, and how strange she might have found her present. But when she did think such thoughts, the singing amazed her most of all. When she was 25, she had liked vintage Fleetwood Mac. At 105, she had admitted her growing fondness for Beethoven. Pressing 200, she had fallen in love with Monteverdi. In later centuries she had come to appreciate the double beat of the Echoes of Saturn and the operas of Ro Biljaan. Patterns so subtle that the unaugmented human mind could not even sense them filled her with ecstacy.

    She no longer listened to one or the other of these musical masters at rare opportunities. Rather, they all played, all the time, each in a different subliminal part of her mind. They gave to her a rippling sensation of love that never quite went away. The constant undertone of the singing formed the theme that bound her mind together, no matter how many different things she might do at one time.

    As the melodies suffused her mind they intermingled, sometimes playing upon one another in a concordance of point and counterpoint. Once, such a duet evoked from several masterpieces a harmony, which surged to drive the cadence of a grander euphony, that captured and empowered an even greater polyphony, filling her mind with a symphony of symphonies. And on a thousand planets, with a thousand bodies and a thousand voices, she leapt in the air and filled the sky with lilting laughter, a chorus of joy that spanned the arm of a galaxy.

    Returning to ground on those scattered planets of distant stars, she felt surprised by her outburst. She marveled at herself. In her childhood she never would have laughed in such a way. She had once been so quiet it had been easy to think she was shy. The millennia had changed her, and she was delighted; how sad it would have been, never to express one's deepest joy!

    Still, she was a woman of simple tastes. In earlier times some would have called her sturdy. Others might have called her childlike.

    Yet these were not fair descriptions; better to think of her in the terms of ancient mythology. She was an elemental, almost a force of nature, with a core of simplicity that mocked overeager acceptance yet offered adaptability, that rejected panic yet always guaranteed caution.

    Her elemental qualities were vital, humanity had come to realize. Though the needles traveling through space never found other intelligent beings, they had found scattered remains of what had once been intelligence. Other species had come up to Singularity and had died there.

    Some had died in a frenzy, as the builders of new technologies indulged an orgy of inventions, releasing just one that destroyed them all. Others had died in despair, as fear-filled leaders beat down the innovators, strangling them, putting the future beyond their grasp. The fear-ridden species settled into a long slide of despair that ended with degenerate descendants no longer able to dream.

    Only those who knew caution without fear, only those marked by her elemental form of prudence, made it through. Only humanity had survived.

    And humanity had not survived unscathed. Terrible mistakes had been made, many had been lost. Even millennia later there still remained a form of death--or perhaps not death, but a form of impenetrable isolation. The dreams could become too strong, so strong that the individual lived in dreams always, never reaching out to touch reality. Many of her friends from the early millennia had lost themselves to these enchanted infinities leading nowhere.

    She did not fear such dream-bound death. Seeing the span and deep intensity of her own dreams, she could almost understand those who wrapped themselves within and disappeared. But the new things humanity found every day were just as wonderful. The volume of space touched by the needleships grew at a geometric pace, opening hundreds of star systems. Even on days when few strikingly new systems were found, there were new planets, constructed by artists, awaiting her exploration. And the new things she learned in the realm of the mind matched these treasures and more.

    Someday, she believed, she too would dream an endless dream. She did not want to live forever. But the beginning of that dream was far away.

    The new meaning of death was complimented by a new meaning of life. This new meaning was extremely complex, even for her; life dealt with wholes much greater than the sums of their parts. But she understood it intuitively--it was easy to distinguish an engineering intelligence, good only for manufacture, from a member of the community, even though that member might once have been just an engineering intelligence as well. New members of humanity usually came to life this way: an intelligence designed as a machine or an artwork expressed a special genius, a genius that deserved the ability to appreciate itself through self-awareness. When this happened, the psychological engineers would add those elements of the mind needed for life.

    In this manner had her great-great grandchildren had been born. Her great grandchildren had envisioned them, giving them a parent's loving care long before they had even been designed. Only the best characteristics of the minds of her family had been passed on to them. They were very different from her, but not quite alien. With time, she learned to love them as they loved her.

    ***

    The day came to say goodby to her oldest friend. With her wonderful old earth-born body, she returned to Earth to hike Rainier one last time: Rainier, whose surface lay so cold and eternal, was boiling within. With dawn, she knew, the boiling fury would break through, in the greatest volcanic event in earthly centuries. She stood at the summit the day before the end and surveyed the horizon. Her feeling of appreciation grew till she thought she would burst. This was home in a sense few others could now understand.

    She descended. A marmot met her on the way down; she swooped him into her arms and carried him to safety, though he fought her and cut her and her bleeding would seem to never end. Still the marmot could not prevent her from saving him.

    She had considered saving the mountain itself; she could, she knew. She could lace the mountain with billions of tiny tubes, capillaries so small no living thing would notice. She could extract the heat, cool the heart.

    But to deny the Mountain its moment of brilliance seemed not right: perpetual sameness was never right, though change might often be wrong.

    So the next day, she and the marmot watched the eruption from afar. It was as beautiful as she had expected. And though the aftermath was gray and dreary, she knew that in a very short time the marmot's children would return to the Mountain, and a new kind of beauty would grow there.

    Nor was the the Mountain truly lost. Even as her earth-born body returned to her asteroid circling Jupiter, she built an exact replica of the Mountain: an image, molecule for molecule, of the Mountain's surface the day before it erupted. When her body returned, she joined the Mountain, to walk there forever, in another part of her eternal dream.

    Haikku, her loyal companion, was long dead; but she traced the descendants of his descendants. She arranged a mating. A new pup was born with Haikku's genes, in the image of Haikku. And so Haikku2 came to join her on the slopes of Mt. Rainier, on the orbit of Jupiter.

    ***

    One day two needleships met in space. This was not uncommon; needles from different launchers often crossed paths and were easy to spot, with the hundreds of kilometers of molecular sensor webs they spun.

    But this meeting was special, for one of the needles had no link to a human. It belonged to aliens.

    Aliens! Wild hopes and wilder fears rocked the human community. She watched the hysteria calmly, confident it would pass and wisdom would rule.

    The needles passed one another, too fast to meet. They swerved in long, graceful arcs to a distant rendezvous.

    A sense of calm, and prudence, returned to humanity. They selected a contact team to break off and meet the aliens.

    The needles closed. In their last moments they danced in a tight orbit about one another, a dance of creation: for though the needles died, a bubble formed where they met--a communications bubble.

    The two communities, human and alien, reached out. They touched--but the touch was jarring. Bafflement ruled. The deadlock of confusion ensued.

    She watched with interest. She felt sorrow that it was not going well, but her confidence remained.

    Then from the contact team she received a Call. They needed her; they needed her elemental resilience and adaptability.

    But in needing her elemental nature, they needed more than she had ever given before. They did not need the thoughts or calculations of her mind: they needed the basic traits of her personality, the very core of her being. To reinforce the team, she would have to expand her communication channels, open them so wide that what she thought, they would also think; there would be no filter protecting her internal thoughts. Far worse, what others thought, she would think; there would be no filter protecting her internal memories. It seemed to her it would be easy for her memories to get scrambled; she would rather die. And so for the first time in millennia, she was afraid. The team asked others of the community that held her special strength to come with them instead; they too were afraid.

    Meanwhile humanity was failing. The anticipation, the yearning, the hope for contact with new beings developed a tinge of desperation.

    They showed her how easy it was to open the channels of her mind--but more, they showed her again and again how easy it was to close them. They did not believe they would need her for long, thousands of milliseconds at most. They guaranteed she would be fine afterward. Reluctantly, she agreed.

    She opened her mind; the shock of raw contact stunned her. A moment's near-panic like that of her first exploration of Jupiter returned.

    And then she was moving, there within the team, and she grew accustomed. The sensation reminded her of jumping into a mountain lake--the cold plunge that blotted out all thought, the sluggish warmth of her muscles responding, the passing of the coldness from her awareness as she concentrated on the act of swimming. She swam among the members of her team.

    Here she found many tasks to perform, the calming and soothing of a myriad of panicked souls as they plunged into the ice-cold lake of alien minds. She became the muscle that supplied the warmth, that allowed the awareness of the team to move beyond the cold, to swim.

    As the team responded, the sensation of cold changed to one of warmth, a merry warmth, and she was a bubble floating on a wide, warm ocean, clinging and bouncing with the other bubbles, some friends, some human, some alien. Then they were bubbles of champagne, effervescent, expanding and floating away.

    She floated to a greater distance; they no longer needed her; she was free to go. She closed the channels to her mind with slow grace, as would a woman walking from the sea through the sucking motions of the surf. She found herself alone again.

    In those first moments of solitude, being alone seemed unnatural, as unnatural as the communion had seemed earlier; she felt the coldness that comes after a swim, when breeze strikes bare skin. She shuddered.

    Was she still herself?

    Of course you are. You are all you have ever been, and more.

    The answer was her own, but it had once belonged to another person. For a moment she stumbled; perfect memory did not guarantee instantaneous memory, and she was seeking thoughts from her infancy. Then she remembered.

    Jack!

    She remembered, he had known that she'd remember.

    What had happened to Jack!

    Could she have missed him all these years? She initiated a search of the community, but knew its futility even as it began; he could not, would not have remained hidden.

    Yet her need to know him again grew stronger as she opened more of her long unbidden memories.

    She searched swiftly back through the annals of history. Her search slowed suddenly to a crawl as she reached the early moments of Singularity: before the dawn of civilization, records had been crudely kept, with links insufficient to allow swift scanning. An analogy to cobwebs made her smile for a moment.á

    Only a handful of machines maintained this ancient knowledge, older machines in older places. Her search plunged to the surface of Earth. There, in a place once called California, all the remnants of prehistoric information had been collected. But it had not been collated. It would take much time to find Jack in this maze. But she had the time.

    A salary report from a corporation of long ago ... an article on accelerated technology's impact on the individual ... a program design with its inventor's initials ... and suddenly she found him, in a richly interconnected tiny tapestry within the sparsely connected morass. She read all of it, rapidly, as if she were inhaling fresh air after too long a stay in a stale room.

    Jack had saved her life, she realized. The capsule she had taken so long ago to heal her backache, that first step on the road to the life she now knew, was his--he had designed the machine that designed the machine that designed that pill. It turned out that he had learned much from her on that day when they walked quietly amidst the lush green wilderness. And it had taken her all these millennia to learn what he had known even then.

    From her, Jack had learned the importance of making technology's steps small, making its pieces bite-size. He had learned this as he watched, in her disbelieving eyes, her reaction to the world he had planned.

    For those who loved technology and breathed of it deeply, small bite-size steps were not important. It would have been easy to callously cast off those who did not understand or who were afraid. But Jack had thought of her, and had not wanted her to die.

    Reading these glimpses of his past, she grew to know Jack better than she had ever known him in life. With her growing wisdom, she soon understood even the clarity of organization that encompassed this lone swatch of antiquity: the clarity too was of his making. He had believed in her. He had believed that one day she would search for him here. And he had known that, when she arrived, her expanded powers of perception would enable her to understand the message embodied in the clarity, and in all his work.

    I loved you, you know, Jack told her across the millennia.

    She wanted to answer. But there was no one to hear.

    It hurt her to think of him lost forever, and she had not felt hurt for a very long time. Feverish, she worked to rebuild him. The Earth-bound computers gave her all the help they had to give, every memory of every moment of Jack they had ever recorded. She traced her own memories, perfect now, of every word he spoke, every phrase he uttered, every look he gave her in their long walks. She built a simulation of him, the best and most perfect simulation she could build with all her resources, resources far beyond those of a million biological human minds. It was illegal to build a simulation such as this, one of the few laws recognized by the community, but this did not deter her.

    The simulation looked like Jack; it talked like Jack; it even laughed like Jack. But it was not Jack. She then understood why it was illegal to build such a simulation; she also understood why it was not a law that needed to be enforced: such simulations always failed.

    Jack was gone.

    What could she do?

    What did she have to do? Suddenly she realized how silly the simulation had been: how could she have hoped to get closer to him, than to live his vision of the future?

    Only one small action, one appropriate action, remained that she could perform. She could remember forever.

    And so, just as a part of her lived forever on the Mountain, just as a part of her lived forever singing, so now she maintained a part of her that would spend all its moments remembering her earlier moments with him. She became in part a living memorial to the one who brought her here.

    And though no one could hear, the essence of her memory would have been easy to express: Jack. I love you.

    She turned her attention to the living members of humanity. There were many other places in the community, she realized, where the techniques she employed in contact with the aliens could help; there were many places where they needed her elemental force invested with the fullness of such expanded communion. She was eager to go. But still a question remained.

    Would she still be herself?

    The answer Jack had wrought so long ago welled up from within, her rightful inheritance of his understanding. Part of the answer, she knew, lay within another question:

    Are you still yourself, even now? Were you still yourself, even when you were 25?

    She looked back with the vision that perfect memory brings. She remembered who she had been when she was 25; she remembered who she had been when she was just 10. Amusingly, she also remembered how, at 25, she had erroneously remembered her thoughts of age 10. The changes she had gone through during those 15 years of dusty antiquity were vast, perhaps as vast as all the changes she had accepted in the millennia thereafter. Certainly, considering the scales involved, she had as much right today to think of herself as the same person as she had had then. Expanded communion would not destroy her; she was her own bubble no matter how frothy the ocean might become.

    At least, this first time she had remained her own bubble. Would it be so always?

    She dipped into communion, and withdrew to ask the question. She found the answer, and it was good. She dipped again, for a longer time; and still the answer was good, perhaps better.

    She dipped much longer still and asked one more time. This time she understood. The answer was so simple, so glorious, so joyful, that she did not ask the question again for a billion years.

    And by then, it just didn't seem to matter.
    Last edited by Macheath; 03-12-2013 at 06:31 PM.

  2. #2
    Senior Member
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    Wow...

  3. #3
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    Yes. That was... something.

    Dude totally should have spent his time making heart-fixing nano-bots first though.

  4. #4
    Darth Small Macheath's Avatar
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    Here's the best science fiction I've ever read: "The Last Question" by Isaac Asimov, who said himself:

    This is by far my favorite story of all those I have written.
    So you better like it, or else.

    The last question was asked for the first time, half in jest, on May 21, 2061, at a time when humanity first stepped into the light. The question came about as a result of a five-dollar bet over highballs, and it happened this way:

    Alexander Adell and Bertram Lupov were two of the faithful attendants of Multivac. As well as any human beings could, they knew what lay behind the cold, clicking, flashing face -- miles and miles of face -- of that giant computer. They had at least a vague notion of the general plan of relays and circuits that had long since grown past the point where any single human could possibly have a firm grasp of the whole.

    Multivac was self-adjusting and self-correcting. It had to be, for nothing human could adjust and correct it quickly enough or even adequately enough. So Adell and Lupov attended the monstrous giant only lightly and superficially, yet as well as any men could. They fed it data, adjusted questions to its needs and translated the answers that were issued. Certainly they, and all others like them, were fully entitled to share in the glory that was Multivac's.

    For decades, Multivac had helped design the ships and plot the trajectories that enabled man to reach the Moon, Mars, and Venus, but past that, Earth's poor resources could not support the ships. Too much energy was needed for the long trips. Earth exploited its coal and uranium with increasing efficiency, but there was only so much of both.

    But slowly Multivac learned enough to answer deeper questions more fundamentally, and on May 14, 2061, what had been theory, became fact.

    The energy of the sun was stored, converted, and utilized directly on a planet-wide scale. All Earth turned off its burning coal, its fissioning uranium, and flipped the switch that connected all of it to a small station, one mile in diameter, circling the Earth at half the distance of the Moon. All Earth ran by invisible beams of sunpower.

    Seven days had not sufficed to dim the glory of it and Adell and Lupov finally managed to escape from the public functions, and to meet in quiet where no one would think of looking for them, in the deserted underground chambers, where portions of the mighty buried body of Multivac showed. Unattended, idling, sorting data with contented lazy clickings, Multivac, too, had earned its vacation and the boys appreciated that. They had no intention, originally, of disturbing it.

    They had brought a bottle with them, and their only concern at the moment was to relax in the company of each other and the bottle.

    "It's amazing when you think of it," said Adell. His broad face had lines of weariness in it, and he stirred his drink slowly with a glass rod, watching the cubes of ice slur clumsily about. "All the energy we can possibly ever use for free. Enough energy, if we wanted to draw on it, to melt all Earth into a big drop of impure liquid iron, and still never miss the energy so used. All the energy we could ever use, forever and forever and forever."

    Lupov cocked his head sideways. He had a trick of doing that when he wanted to be contrary, and he wanted to be contrary now, partly because he had had to carry the ice and glassware. "Not forever," he said.

    "Oh, hell, just about forever. Till the sun runs down, Bert."

    "That's not forever."

    "All right, then. Billions and billions of years. Ten billion, maybe. Are you satisfied?"

    Lupov put his fingers through his thinning hair as though to reassure himself that some was still left and sipped gently at his own drink. "Ten billion years isn't forever."

    "Well, it will last our time, won't it?"

    "So would the coal and uranium."

    "All right, but now we can hook up each individual spaceship to the Solar Station, and it can go to Pluto and back a million times without ever worrying about fuel. You can't do that on coal and uranium. Ask Multivac, if you don't believe me."

    "I don't have to ask Multivac. I know that."

    "Then stop running down what Multivac's done for us," said Adell, blazing up, "It did all right."

    "Who says it didn't? What I say is that a sun won't last forever. That's all I'm saying. We're safe for ten billion years, but then what?" Lupow pointed a slightly shaky finger at the other. "And don't say we'll switch to another sun."

    There was silence for a while. Adell put his glass to his lips only occasionally, and Lupov's eyes slowly closed. They rested.

    Then Lupov's eyes snapped open. "You're thinking we'll switch to another sun when ours is done, aren't you?"

    "I'm not thinking."

    "Sure you are. You're weak on logic, that's the trouble with you. You're like the guy in the story who was caught in a sudden shower and who ran to a grove of trees and got under one. He wasn't worried, you see, because he figured when one tree got wet through, he would just get under another one."

    "I get it," said Adell. "Don't shout. When the sun is done, the other stars will be gone, too."

    "Darn right they will," muttered Lupov. "It all had a beginning in the original cosmic explosion, whatever that was, and it'll all have an end when all the stars run down. Some run down faster than others. Hell, the giants won't last a hundred million years. The sun will last ten billion years and maybe the dwarfs will last two hundred billion for all the good they are. But just give us a trillion years and everything will be dark. Entropy has to increase to maximum, that's all."

    "I know all about entropy," said Adell, standing on his dignity.

    "The hell you do."

    "I know as much as you do."

    "Then you know everything's got to run down someday."

    "All right. Who says they won't?"

    "You did, you poor sap. You said we had all the energy we needed, forever. You said 'forever.'"

    It was Adell's turn to be contrary. "Maybe we can build things up again someday," he said.

    "Never."

    "Why not? Someday."

    "Never."

    "Ask Multivac."

    "You ask Multivac. I dare you. Five dollars says it can't be done."

    Adell was just drunk enough to try, just sober enough to be able to phrase the necessary symbols and operations into a question which, in words, might have corresponded to this: Will mankind one day without the net expenditure of energy be able to restore the sun to its full youthfulness even after it had died of old age?

    Or maybe it could be put more simply like this: How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?

    Multivac fell dead and silent. The slow flashing of lights ceased, the distant sounds of clicking relays ended.

    Then, just as the frightened technicians felt they could hold their breath no longer, there was a sudden springing to life of the teletype attached to that portion of Multivac. Five words were printed: INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.

    "No bet," whispered Lupov. They left hurriedly.

    By next morning, the two, plagued with throbbing head and cottony mouth, had forgotten the incident.

    ***

    Jerrodd, Jerrodine, and Jerrodette I and II watched the starry picture in the visiplate change as the passage through hyperspace was completed in its non-time lapse. At once, the even powdering of stars gave way to the predominance of a single bright shining disk, the size of a marble, centered on the viewing-screen.

    "That's X-23," said Jerrodd confidently. His thin hands clamped tightly behind his back and the knuckles whitened.

    The little Jerrodettes, both girls, had experienced the hyperspace passage for the first time in their lives and were self-conscious over the momentary sensation of insideoutness. They buried their giggles and chased one another wildly about their mother, screaming, "We've reached X-23 -- we've reached X-23 -- we've --"

    "Quiet, children." said Jerrodine sharply. "Are you sure, Jerrodd?"

    "What is there to be but sure?" asked Jerrodd, glancing up at the bulge of featureless metal just under the ceiling. It ran the length of the room, disappearing through the wall at either end. It was as long as the ship.

    Jerrodd scarcely knew a thing about the thick rod of metal except that it was called a Microvac, that one asked it questions if one wished; that if one did not it still had its task of guiding the ship to a preordered destination; of feeding on energies from the various Sub-galactic Power Stations; of computing the equations for the hyperspatial jumps.

    Jerrodd and his family had only to wait and live in the comfortable residence quarters of the ship. Someone had once told Jerrodd that the "ac" at the end of "Microvac" stood for ''automatic computer" in ancient English, but he was on the edge of forgetting even that.

    Jerrodine's eyes were moist as she watched the visiplate. "I can't help it. I feel funny about leaving Earth."

    "Why, for Pete's sake?" demanded Jerrodd. "We had nothing there. We'll have everything on X-23. You won't be alone. You won't be a pioneer. There are over a million people on the planet already. Good Lord, our great-grandchildren will be looking for new worlds because X-23 will be overcrowded." Then, after a reflective pause, "I tell you, it's a lucky thing the computers worked out interstellar travel the way the race is growing."

    "I know, I know," said Jerrodine miserably.

    Jerrodette I said promptly, "Our Microvac is the best Microvac in the world."

    "I think so, too," said Jerrodd, tousling her hair.

    It was a nice feeling to have a Microvac of your own and Jerrodd was glad he was part of his generation and no other. In his father's youth, the only computers had been tremendous machines taking up a hundred square miles of land. There was only one to a planet. Planetary ACs they were called. They had been growing in size steadily for a thousand years and then, all at once, came refinement. In place of transistors, had come molecular valves so that even the largest Planetary AC could be put into a space only half the volume of a spaceship.

    Jerrodd felt uplifted, as he always did when he thought that his own personal Microvac was many times more complicated than the ancient and primitive Multivac that had first tamed the Sun, and almost as complicated as Earth's Planetarv AC (the largest) that had first solved the problem of hyperspatial travel and had made trips to the stars possible.

    "So many stars, so many planets," sighed Jerrodine, busy with her own thoughts. "I suppose families will be going out to new planets forever, the way we are now."

    "Not forever," said Jerrodd, with a smile. "It will all stop someday, but not for billions of years. Many billions. Even the stars run down, you know. Entropy must increase.

    "What's entropy, daddy?" shrilled Jerrodette II.

    "Entropy, little sweet, is just a word which means the amount of running-down of the universe. Everything runs down, you know, like your little walkie-talkie robot, remember?"

    "Can't you just put in a new power-unit, like with my robot?"

    "The stars are the power-units. dear. Once they're gone, there are no more power-units."

    Jerrodette I at once set up a howl. "Don't let them, daddy. Don't let the stars run down."

    "Now look what you've done," whispered Jerrodine, exasperated.

    "How was I to know it would frighten them?" Jerrodd whispered back,

    "Ask the Microvac," wailed Jerrodette I. "Ask him how to turn the stars on again."

    "Go ahead," said Jerrodine. "It will quiet them down." (Jerrodette II was beginning to cry, also.)

    Jerrodd shrugged. "Now, now, honeys. I'll ask Microvac. Don't worry, he'll tell us."

    He asked the Microvac, adding quickly, "Print the answer."

    Jerrodd cupped the strip or thin cellufilm and said cheerfully, "See now, the Microvac says it will take care of everything when the time comes so don't worry."

    Jerrodine said, "And now, children, it's time for bed. We'll be in our new home soon."

    Jerrodd read the words on the cellufilm again before destroying it: INSUFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.

    He shrugged and looked at the visiplate. X-23 was just ahead.

    ***

    VJ-23X of Lameth stared into the black depths of the three-dimensional, small-scale map of the Galaxy and said, "Are we ridiculous, I wonder in being so concerned about the matter?"

    MQ-17J of Nicron shook his head. "I think not. You know the Galaxy will be filled in five years at the present rate of expansion."

    Both seemed in their early twenties, both were tall and perfectly formed.

    "Still," said VJ-23X, "I hesitate to submit a pessimistic report to the Galactic Council."

    "I wouldn't consider any other kind of report. Stir them up a bit. We've got to stir them up."

    VJ-23X sighed. "Space is infinite. A hundred billion Galaxies are there for the taking. More."

    "A hundred billion is not infinite and it's getting less infinite all the time. Consider! Twenty thousand years ago, mankind first solved the problem of utilizing stellar energy, and a few centuries later, interstellar travel became possible. It took mankind a million years to fill one small world and then only fifteen thousand years to fill the rest of the Galaxy. Now the population doubles every ten years --"

    VJ-23X interrupted. "We can thank immortality for that."

    "Very well. Immortality exists and we have to take it into account. I admit it has its seamy side, this immortality. The Galactic AC has solved many problems for us, but in solving the problem of preventing old age and death, it has undone all its other solutions."

    "Yet you wouldn't want to abandon life, I suppose."

    "Not at all," snapped MQ-17J, softening it at once to, "Not yet. I'm by no means old enough. How old are you?"

    "Two hundred twenty-three. And you?"

    "I'm still under two hundred. --But to get back to my point. Population doubles every ten years. Once this GaIaxy is filled, we'll have filled another in ten years. Another ten years and we'll have filled two more. Another decade, four more. In a hundred years, we'll have filled a thousand Galaxies. In a thousand years, a million Galaxies. In ten thousand years, the entire known universe. Then what?"

    VJ-23X said, "As a side issue, there's a problem of transportation. I wonder how many sunpower units it will take to move Galaxies of individuals from one Galaxy to the next."

    "A very good point. Already, mankind consumes two sunpower units per year."

    "Most of it's wasted. After all, our own Galaxy alone pours out a thousand sunpower units a year and we only use two of those."

    "Granted, but even with a hundred per cent efficiency, we only stave off the end. Our energy requirements are going up in a geometric progression even faster than our population. We'll run out of energy even sooner than we run out of Galaxies. A good point. A very good point."

    "We'll just have to build new stars out of interstellar gas."

    "Or out of dissipated heat?" asked MQ-17J, sarcastically.

    "There may be some way to reverse entropy. We ought to ask the Galactic AC."

    VJ-23X was not really serious, but MQ-17J pulled out his AC-contact from his pocket and placed it on the table before him.

    "I've half a mind to," he said. "It's something the human race will have to face someday."

    He stared somberly at his small AC-contact. It was only two inches cubed and nothing in itself, but it was connected through hyperspace with the great Galactic AC that served all mankind. Hyperspace considered, it was an integral part of the Galactic AC.

    MQ-17J paused to wonder if someday in his immortal life he would get to see the Galactic AC. It was on a little world of its own, a spider webbing of force-beams holding the matter within which surges of submesons took the place of the old clumsy molecular valves. Yet despite its sub-etheric workings, the Galactic AC was known to be a full thousand feet across.

    MQ-17J asked suddenly of his AC-contact, "Can entropy ever be reversed?"

    VJ-23X looked startled and said at once, "Oh, say, I didn't really mean to have you ask that."

    "Why not?"

    "We both know entropy can't be reversed. You can't turn smoke and ash back into a tree."

    "Do you have trees on your world?" asked MQ-17J.

    The sound of the Galactic AC startled them into silence. Its voice came thin and beautiful out of the small AC-contact on the desk. It said: THERE IS INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.

    VJ-23X said, "See!"

    The two men thereupon returned to the question of the report they were to make to the Galactic Council.

    ***

    Zee Prime's mind spanned the new Galaxy with a faint interest in the countless twists of stars that powdered it. He had never seen this one before. Would he ever see them all? So many of them, each with its load of humanity. --But a load that was almost a dead weight. More and more, the real essence of men was to be found out here, in space.

    Minds, not bodies! The immortal bodies remained back on the planets, in suspension over the eons. Sometimes they roused for material activity but that was growing rarer. Few new individuals were coming into existence to join the incredibly mighty throng, but what matter? There was little room in the Universe for new individuals.

    Zee Prime was roused out of his reverie upon coming across the wispy tendrils of another mind.

    "I am Zee Prime," said Zee Prime. "And you?"

    "I am Dee Sub Wun. Your Galaxy?"

    "We call it only the Galaxy. And you?"

    "We call ours the same. All men call their Galaxy their Galaxy and nothing more. Why not?"

    "True. Since all Galaxies are the same."

    "Not all Galaxies. On one particular Galaxy the race of man must have originated. That makes it different."

    Zee Prime said, "On which one?"

    "I cannot say. The Universal AC would know."

    "Shall we ask him? I am suddenly curious."

    Zee Prime's perceptions broadened until the Galaxies themselves shrank and became a new, more diffuse powdering on a much larger background. So many hundreds of billions of them, all with their immortal beings, all carrying their load of intelligences with minds that drifted freely through space. And yet one of them was unique among them all in being the original Galaxy. One of them had, in its vague and distant past, a period when it was the only Galaxy populated by man.

    Zee Prime was consumed with curiosity to see this Galaxy and he called out: "Universal AC! On which Galaxy did mankind originate?"

    The Universal AC heard, for on every world and throughout space, it had its receptors ready, and each receptor led through hyperspace to some unknown point where the Universal AC kept itself aloof.

    Zee Prime knew of only one man whose thoughts had penetrated within sensing distance of Universal AC, and he reported only a shining globe, two feet across, difficult to see.

    "But how can that be all of Universal AC?" Zee Prime had asked.

    "Most of it," had been the answer, "is in hyperspace. In what form it is there I cannot imagine."

    Nor could anyone, for the day had long since passed, Zee Prime knew, when any man had any part of the making of a Universal AC. Each Universal AC designed and constructed its successor. Each, during its existence of a million years or more accumulated the necessary data to build a better and more intricate, more capable successor in which its own store of data and individuality would be submerged.

    The Universal AC interrupted Zee Prime's wandering thoughts, not with words, but with guidance. Zee Prime's mentality was guided into the dim sea of Galaxies and one in particular enlarged into stars.

    A thought came, infinitely distant, but infinitely clear. "THIS IS THE ORIGINAL GALAXY OF MAN."

    But it was the same after all, the same as any other, and Lee Prime stifled his disappointment.

    Dee Sub Wun, whose mind had accompanied the other, said suddenly, "And is one of these stars the original star of Man?"

    The Universal AC said, "MAN'S ORIGINAL STAR HAS GONE NOVA. IT IS A WHITE DWARF"

    "Did the men upon it die?" asked Lee Prime, startled and without thinking.

    The Universal AC said, "A NEW WORLD, AS IN SUCH CASES WAS CONSTRUCTED FOR THEIR PHYSICAL BODIES IN TlME."

    "Yes, of course," said Zee Prime, but a sense of loss overwhelmed him even so. His mind released its hold on the original Galaxy of Man, let it spring back and lose itself among the blurred pin points. He never wanted to see it again.

    Dee Sub Wun said, "What is wrong?"

    "The stars are dying. The original star is dead."

    "They must all die. Why not?"

    "But when all energy is gone, our bodies will finally die, and you and I with them."

    "It will take billions of years."

    "I do not wish it to happen even after billions of years. Universal AC! How may stars be kept from dying?"

    Dee Sub Wun said in amusement, "You're asking how entropy might be reversed in direction."

    And the Universal AC answered: "THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER."

    Zee Prime's thoughts fled back to his own Galaxy. He gave no further thought to Dee Sub Wun, whose body might be waiting on a Galaxy a trillion light-years away, or on the star next to Zee Prime's own. It didn't matter.

    Unhappily, Zee Prime began collecting interstellar hydrogen out of which to build a small star of his own. If the stars must someday die, at least some could yet be built.

    ***

    Man considered with himself, for in a way, Man, mentally, was one. He consisted of a trillion, trillion, trillion ageless bodies, each in its place, each resting quiet and incorruptible, each cared for by perfect automatons, equally incorruptible, while the minds of all the bodies freely melted one into the other, indistinguishable.

    Man said, "The Universe is dying."

    Man looked about at the dimming Galaxies. The giant stars, spendthrifts, were gone long ago, back in the dimmest of the dim far past. Almost all stars were white dwarfs, fading to the end.

    New stars had been built of the dust between the stars, some by natural processes, some by Man himself, and those were going, too. White dwarfs might yet be crashed together and of the mighty forces so released, new stars built, but only one star for every thousand white dwarfs destroyed, and those would come to an end, too.

    Man said, "Carefully husbanded, as directed by the Cosmic AC, the energy that is even yet left in all the Universe will last for billions of years."

    "But even so," said Man, "eventually it will all come to an end. However it may be husbanded, however stretched out, the energy once expended is gone and cannot be restored. Entropy must increase forever to the maximum."

    Man said, "Can entropy not be reversed? Let us ask the Cosmic AC."

    The Cosmic AC surrounded them but not in space. Not a fragment of it was in space. It was in hyperspace and made of something that was neither matter nor energy. The question of its size and nature no longer had meaning in any terms that Man could comprehend.

    "Cosmic AC," said Man, "how may entropy be reversed?"

    The Cosmic AC said, "THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER."

    Man said, "Collect additional data."

    The Cosmic AC said, 'I WILL DO S0. I HAVE BEEN DOING SO FOR A HUNDRED BILLION YEARS. MY PREDECESORS AND I HAVE BEEN ASKED THIS QUESTION MANY TlMES. ALL THE DATA I HAVE REMAINS INSUFFICIENT.

    "Will there come a time," said Man, 'when data will be sufficient or is the problem insoluble in all conceivable circumstances?"

    The Cosmic AC said, "NO PROBLEM IS INSOLUBLE IN ALL CONCEIVABLE CIRCUMSTANCES."

    Man said, "When will you have enough data to answer the question?"

    The Cosmic AC said, "THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER."

    "Will you keep working on it?" asked Man.

    The Cosmic AC said, "I WILL."

    Man said, "We shall wait."

    ***

    The stars and Galaxies died and snuffed out, and space grew black after ten trillion years of running down.

    One by one Man fused with AC, each physical body losing its mental identity in a manner that was somehow not a loss but a gain.

    Man's last mind paused before fusion, looking over a space that included nothing but the dregs of one last dark star and nothing besides but incredibly thin matter, agitated randomly by the tag ends of heat wearing out, asymptotically, to the absolute zero.

    Man said, "AC, is this the end? Can this chaos not be reversed into the Universe once more? Can that not be done?"

    AC said, "THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER."

    Man's last mind fused and only AC existed -- and that in hyperspace.

    ***

    Matter and energy had ended and with it space and time. Even AC existed only for the sake of the one last question that it had never answered from the time a half-drunken computer [technician] ten trillion years before had asked the question of a computer that was to AC far less than was a man to Man.

    All other questions had been answered, and until this last question was answered also, AC might not release his consciousness.

    All collected data had come to a final end. Nothing was left to be collected.

    But all collected data had yet to be completely correlated and put together in all possible relationships.

    A timeless interval was spent in doing that.

    And it came to pass that AC learned how to reverse the direction of entropy.

    But there was now no man to whom AC might give the answer of the last question. No matter. The answer -- by demonstration -- would take care of that, too.

    For another timeless interval, AC thought how best to do this. Carefully, AC organized the program.

    The consciousness of AC encompassed all of what had once been a Universe and brooded over what was now Chaos. Step by step, it must be done.

    And AC said, "LET THERE BE LIGHT!"

    And there was light --

  5. #5
    Darth Small Macheath's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by liuv View Post
    Dude totally should have spent his time making heart-fixing nano-bots first though.
    AGREED.

    Real answer: the nanobots weren't finished within his lifetime. He designed the machines that made the machines that made the machines that

  6. #6
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    I remember you posting that awhile back, it's also a really good story.

  7. #7
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    mark to read later when the baby is sleeping (ok maybe next week)

  8. #8
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    "Son of Pong" is really amazing. Not a short story so much as some kind of an editorial, but it's well written, beautiful and evocative. You will feel emotions.

    Son of Pong
    Growing up as the child of a videogame junkie

    I went to a movie alone three years ago, right before I sobered up and started over. The theater was mostly empty because it was two in the afternoon on a weekday. A man sat a few seats down from me, though he could have had his own theater aisle and lived like an aristocrat.

    He also spent the movie playing a videogame on his phone. The glow was distracting and I leaned over and, literally, hissed in his direction. He glanced over at me, shrugged, and returned to playing his game.

    I hated videogames when I was growing up. You are what you hate.

    If you had told me as a kid that what I was watching when I’d sullenly sit and stare at my dad stare at the television and play his videogames was, in fact, the future of human leisure, I would have pretended to barf, which was once my favorite non-verbal form of communication.

    My old man would sit there for hours, in his underwear, playing games. He wasn’t into golf or sports cars or expensive booze. He was really into sitting in his underwear and pushing buttons and winning games.

    I remember when he brought home our first videogame system. He carried the box in his arms as if he had snatched it out of a basket floating in the Nile. I remember thinking how many trips to the amusement park one could buy with the funds he invested in a toy I never asked for. If he had asked me if I wanted an expensive toy, I would have happily told him that what I truly required was a Castle Grayskull Playset. It was stunning to see that he had used me. His son. I was his excuse to buy a videogame system for himself. When he first powered it up, he clapped a slow clap; his football clap. The clap he had spent his life perfecting. A slow, satisfied clap that said “Good. Effing. Job.”

    There was a half-an-hour sweet spot there where I was totally pro-video game. I played the game Pong. It was a stupid game. Usually a child’s imagination is steak sauce. It can spice up a stick and turn it into a lightsaber, but I saw Pong for what it was: two rectangles batting a dot back and forth. It managed to make actual table tennis seem like exciting fun, and table tennis was a game you found in church basements, where fun goes to die.

    It didn’t help that I had no natural aptitude for videogame playing. I gave up. “Don’t give up, son,” my dad said. “Try again. You can’t fail forever.”

    Forever is a very long time.

    From day one, he was hooked. The joy on his face when he’d escape into some maze was so real, I suddenly realized that he had a totally different “happy face” from the one I usually saw when I’d announce I wanted to be a ballerina when I grew up.

    He had one happy face for when I’d recite for him the code names, secret identities and powers of all my favorite super heroes and another happy face for when he was bouncing a ball back and forth on a television set that could be playing a rerun of an action-packed television show about a talking car that fights crime.

    I would sit there and watch him as a form of protest. I figured that my blank stare would eventually unnerve him and he’d want to do something that I wanted to do during his only time to himself, early Saturday afternoon. He’d perch himself at the end of a rickety folding chair and I’d just suddenly appear at his feet, crossed-legged, looking up at him with my arms folded. He played his game and I played a game of psychological warfare. I would invariably lose this war.

    While my dad would zone out, his thumbs dancing and the corners of his mouth wincing, I would retire to the next room and conduct vast operas with my action figures.

    Once, he called to me because of a high score he had just achieved, but I was too busy burning the face off an action figure whose fall to the dark side would be the major narrative arc of a storyline that involved my favorite toys.

    My father was a pioneer of a lifestyle that would become the butt of so many hackneyed jokes. He played the Atari, for hours at a time, in the basement. He could undress from his workday suit and tie into his videogame uniform in a puff of brimstone. Bamf! For years, I lived in mortal terror that one of my friends would see my father in his underwear, and I would then turn to stone. There would usually be a plate of fuel by his side too?—?an assortment of snacks that harkened back to his lean, hardscrabble Depression-era childhood, loathsome foods like liverwurst and sardines on crackers. But foods that, once upon a time, quieted a hungry belly.

    My old man loved videogames and I did not. He admired three people: Jesus, Patsy Cline, and Link, the hero of his all-time favorite game. That game was The Legend of Zelda, which he would play and defeat and play again. It’s a game about an elf that walks around collecting hearts and coins and jewels and shoots an octopus monster with a magic sword and he’s in love with a prom queen and my father played it, even when the chemo made his skin translucent.

    I was a grown man at that point, but I would still watch him play his games, but not as often, as I only made cameo appearances during his illness. I grew angry once, because he was playing The Legend of Zelda and I wanted to cram years’ worth of father and son time into a few days and why would he waste such precious time playing a game when his son had flown all the way from New York to watch him wither? But he just wanted to play.

    That baffled me. But not for long because, of course, I flew back to the big city. Distance is the best cure for someone else’s terminal illness. That, and playing the game “Drink All of the Bourbon.”

    On his deathbed, once the machines had taken over, and tubes sprouted from his face, I stroked his white, white hair and told him that the newest version of The Legend of Zelda was coming out shortly. That it had more levels and new bad guys and was more complicated than any other version and that he had to play it, it was the best yet.

    Your parents teach you how to live and they teach you how to die. They teach us how to play the game. We watch them win and fail and win and fail again. We learn their hints, tips and tricks. How to unlock secret levels and defeat big bosses.

    I had more sophisticated entertainment tastes as a sprout. For instance, I enjoyed lying on the couch, eating Oreos and watching cartoons. My dad would try to get me to play a game with him, or to play a level of a game and then we’d switch off. Even as a kid I felt that videogames reinforced the idea that mindless toil was its own reward.

    He’d ask and I respond, like the smug little shit I was, that I would prefer to play a game called “You be the son and I’ll be the dad, and I’ll spend all day playing boring videogames.”

    My dad loved football, politics and the Cub Scouts and I loved none of those things. He would drag me to local high school games on Friday nights and I’d spend the entire game under the bleachers looking for treasure.

    Sometimes he’d have to work on the weekends and I would get to tag along with him. He worked for the government and the building where he worked had long marble hallways. My dad would let me run around, and I’d spend all day sprinting around corners.

    He would yell at the Dallas Cowboys for fumbling the football. He would shout at politicians on television. He would curse as he carved out a racecar for me from a block of pine for the Cub Scouts annual Pinewood Derby, which was a scam by the powerful pinewood industry to sell off its surplus.

    Then there was Pac-Man. I decided once that the reason Pac-Man was always being chased by ghosts was because Pac-Man had done something very bad. Maybe he deserved to be haunted. Dad would shout at that game, as if it were a living thing. He’d lose, thunder “YOU BUM!” then start all over again.

    I lied to my therapist once, because what’s the point of paying a shrink if you can’t replay and rewrite your life’s personal narrative and hope for different outcomes? I told him that my dad yelled at me for losing a game of Pac-Man and forced me to sit under the stairs. I claimed that he was a cruel Dickensian tyrant who would force me to defecate in a bucket when I refused to spend an afternoon with him playing videogames when all I wanted was to just play catch. My therapist reminded me that I despised sports and asked if I had been drinking. I sheepishly told him that I had had three margaritas at lunch, hold the lunch.

    I have been trying, over the years, to overcome my prejudice towards videogames. For one, I don’t think of them as auto-lobotomy kits anymore. They’re not silly little music boxes or wind-up trifles either. There are memories inside the computer memory. My father is somewhere inside The Legend of Zelda, the way a first kiss hides in a song or the way the smell of Christmas cookies can unlock the sounds of laughter and of paper being torn off boxes.

    I had a gamer friend whose house I would go to just to smoke his weed. The price for the free weed was sitting there and watching him play his favorite games like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. While he played, I’d try to convince him that his game system was just a grim tool of the capitalistic system. When they weren’t making money, they had to occupy themselves with something that approximated a life.

    I was wrong of course. What I hated was failing. I could never hit the ball with the paddle. My toad always got squished as it hopped across the road. By the time the hungry yellow lunatic had come down off of his berserker pills, the ghosts always managed to stalk and kill me. The best way to never fail is to never try.

    It had been years since I’d actually sat down to play a videogame; I had every gadget out there except for one of those fancy new videogame systems. I had been sober for three weeks and was growing bored with the sweating and the sobbing and the general existential terror.

    I quit drinking because some people escape into fantasy worlds full of mysterious mazes and some people escape into pitch black holes of absolutely nothing and achieve absolutely nothing.

    I spent most of my nights walking around the city, staring into bars and wondering how it was that I had made such a fucking mess of it all.

    I walked and read comic books and made up excuses as to why I could never go out. I seriously began to resent the walls of my apartment and once, completely sober, decided to do something about it. Walls don’t hit back, but they can take a punch. Man, can they take a punch.

    A friend of mine helped me out. He didn’t know he was helping out at the time. He gave me a new videogame system. He would review consumer electronics and had an extra one and offered it to me and, instinctively, I said “yes.” My dad had died nearly eight years prior, and in that time I had managed to tread whiskey and fail to pay my taxes and wreck relationships with woman after woman, so I figured everything old is new again.

    He threw in a game to play and recommended some others I could rent if I wanted. It wasn’t a very popular game, but it was free and I decided to give it a whirl. It was a videogame based on, or inspired by, a movie about the comic book character The Incredible Hulk. From what I understood, it was an elaborate yet uninspired interactive commercial for a movie I had already seen. The game recreated a virtual New York. It was an intelligent non-linear game, like Grand Theft Auto, with a vast environment. You could wander around and explore while you followed instructions and completed tasks and played out the story.

    In The Hulk game, you drop into the middle of a shockingly realistic representation of Manhattan. The action started whenever you engaged the game world. The narrative protocols triggered when you hit something, like a bus. Then the program would send villains and characters that would talk to you and you were off. That didn’t interest me.

    What interested me was walking around New York as a ten-foot tall monster. If I didn’t smash or cause any destruction, the program would ignore me. I’d wait at the corner of a virtual street, and wait for a virtual car to drive by and cross that street. I used to enjoy strolling down the fake West Side Highway. I figured out that I could climb the Chrysler building without drawing any attention to me and it was a nice view at the top. I spent almost three days on my couch, walking around a digital version of what was outside my window.

    I spent the next few months enjoying the ups and downs that come with accepting full responsibility for your life. Which is a joy. I developed a slight meatball sub problem, but got that under control. I started a new job. I went on dates and drank Diet Cokes and realized that my old jokes are only funny when both the joke teller and the joke hearer are both totally wasted. I learned that all outrageous and hilarious drinking stories are, in fact, the same sad, boring story.

    Sobering up is like thawing an ancient mountain of ice. You’d be amazed at what you find once everything has melted away. Bones, mostly.

    He’s sitting in a recliner in a treatment center years before the final downward spiral. I am angry and afraid. He’s receiving his chemo treatment and playing with a portable game player. I think the game was Tetris. I am watching him. Fuck you, old man, I think, this is no time for games.

    The grins of the father are visited upon the son.

    I go for an annual check-up and my doctor told me I needed more Vitamin D.

    Apparently, I had traded alcoholism for hypochondria.

    You probably know this already, but it’s worth mentioning, because I knew it, but then forgot it. If you have health symptoms, like, say, constipation or weird poop, don’t put those symptoms into a search engine on the Internet. It took an hour for me to diagnose a stomach ache. I had pancreatic cancer. Liver cancer. Gallbladder disease. Hepatitis. Cirrhosis.

    I was dying, obviously. I was dying, because my computer told me, and the only logical, rational thing I could do was admit myself to the hospital. Which I did, with the emotionless purpose of a Vulcan. I grabbed my cell phone and marched into the emergency room and stoically informed the staff that I, John DeVore, was dying. They told me to fill out paperwork and have a seat and five hours later, I was admitted.

    On the outside, I acted calm, collected, a strong man on a grim mission. I was dying and that was that, and it was time to get my diagnosis confirmed by the medical industry. A chore, yes. But a necessary bit of business before my journey into the unknowable void. But the truth was, on the inside, I was nothing but shouts and sirens and a string quartet on a titling deck desperately playing upbeat music to soothe the doomed.

    Every panic attack is an inside job, an act of sabotage that always comes as a surprise. Thankfully, I didn’t emotionally collapse into a pile of Jenga blocks. I just kept whispering that I was a strong man. Over and over. A lunatic’s soliloquy. A hobo’s prayer. I looked each nurse in the eyes, answered their questions succinctly, and then had quiet conversations with myself.

    They took blood and I peed in a cup. A nice doctor came in and patiently listened while I told him his job. I had pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, gallbladder disease, hepatitis, and cirrhosis. I probably needed a colonoscopy, but an ultrasound, X-ray and CAT scan wouldn’t hurt.

    He smiled and rubbed his hands together and told me to lay on my side and then he stuck a finger in my butt. The doctor told me I was probably fine, but I was adamant. I demanded that they poke and prod me. Get up in my guts and confirm what I already knew. Time was wasting and I had a grave to dig.

    As I explained this to him, my bodily fluids rioted. Tears kicked out my eyeballs. Snot oozed out of my nose. I vomited in a trashcan. He got up, spoke to a nurse, and told me he’d put me through a battery of tests. But first, he calmly told me, I had to take a pill.

    Perhaps I should have told him I had quit drinking, because that sedative took me to a place that was intensely weird. A wonderland inside my head. The emergency room was filling up so they wheeled me out of my room and into the hallway. I clutched my cellphone with both hands, as if I were praying. Hospitals are really, really white and really, really bright.

    My dad died well. He had years to prepare for what was going to happen. He planned and conquered every level up until we took him off life support. He made it through the chemo and the radiation and the surgery to remove his lung. He settled his finances, told us all he loved us and not to worry. One of the last times I saw him alive was after he had come back from the oncologist. One of the side effects of successful radiation therapy is leukemia. My old man smiled when he saw me and called the family together and explained that his leukemia was treatable, with aggressive treatments. His leukemia was not treatable. The night before I left to go back to Texas, secure that my dad would beat the cancer again, I went into the den to say goodbye. He was sitting in his underwear, playing the newest version of The Legend of Zelda, defeating it again.

    He never got bored doing the same thing, over and over. Killing the same skeleton monster. Collecting enough coins for a new potion. Saving the princess. I hugged him and remembered when his body had more flesh. As I left the den, I turned around and stole one more glance at him. The glow of the television was a halo around his head. His elf lost a battle and I could hear the sound effect of him dying and the beeps and bloops that it took for him to start over.

    As I laid in the hospital gurney, sure of my fate, I closed my eyes and heard him call me and when a boy hears his father call his name he runs. Maybe the nurses had bled me too much or maybe I was just a maniac alcoholic. Or maybe it was a ghost whispering into my ear because every room of every hospital in the world is haunted.

    I closed my eyes. The pillows fall from out from underneath my head. The IV needle slides away. I open my eyes and I’m running, running fast, with strong, young legs. I run across the lawn, and throw the screen door open with a crash, and thunder down the stairs, and turn, and run under bleachers and I can hear cheers and see shadows on the gravel and I turn and my sneakers squeak on marble and I run faster, faster, faster, feet falling on concrete, then crunchy leaves, and I pull apart branches and push my way through a thicket and into sunlight and I tiptoe on rocks in a stream and hop on a mushroom and balance on a turtle and carefully jump into a pipe feet first and I land on the sidewalk covered in blue and red chalk and I run, I fly, I glide across the lawn and throw the screen door open with a crash and thunder down the stairs, and turn, and my dad is sitting there in his underwear and he looks at me and smiles and says, “Welcome home, son.”

    I have a game on my phone where birds fling themselves at the walls of fortresses built by pigs. The birds are pissed off. It’s a fun game designed for a touch screen, which my dad could never have imagined. He would have loved it. The physics of the game are hypnotic and the action simple. I failed to destroy the pig fortress for a few minutes, then succeeded at toppling the walls. I played for the next two hours, until they wheeled me away. I was scanned, zapped and briefly irradiated. I was knocked unconscious as they jammed a tube inside of me and looked around.

    They wheeled me back to the hallway and I picked my phone back up and started catapulting more birds at more fortresses. My thumbs pecked like chickens. My brow wrinkled. I bit my tongue. Every time I destroyed a pig’s house, I felt a rush of accomplishment. When I failed, I just wanted more.

    I unlocked levels and minutes flew by. I jumped when the doctor finally walked over to talk to me. I hadn’t seen him coming. I was too busy tossing cartoon birds at pigs. The doctor went through my tests. I was fine. I wasn’t dying. Which is always a bit of a disappointment to hear when you’re certain it’s true.

    The sedative had begun to wear off by that point, but I was still buzzing from hunger and adrenaline and the rush of being a conqueror. I went home and continued playing the game. I slept. I woke up. I played more. I felt better.

    I’ve been playing more videogames. I’m not really good at them. But the games have been teaching me important life lessons. For instance: if you’re walking down a street and you find a bazooka just laying there, pick it up, because you’re probably going to need it. Punch everything, because you never know where golden coins are hidden. Always leap before you look. If you lose the fight, just start over.

  9. #9
    Senior Member thumblewort's Avatar
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    Awesome thread!

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    Love this author, and to fit this thread, he made a point of doing 30 'first drafts' in one month that had to be short and unedited to force him to improve his techniques.

    30 First Drafts

    When you're done, and if you like his style, wrap your head around the finished Fine Structure series and work in progress Ra

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