Category Archives: Short Story

Glitch Death

glitch

Copyright © 2008 by Tyson Gill

Mariah paused to caress the pristine oval-cut gem that served in the lowly capacity of door knob mounted upon the deeply grained mahogany backdrop of her grand entryway. Unconsciously ignoring the incongruity of the rough, tarnished surface beneath her flawlessly manicured fingers, she glanced back around to take in her magnificent accommodations.

Imperiously she scanned the fine Persian carpet, the impeccable Victorian furnishings, and the classic period artworks featuring “A Reading from Homer” framed upon the far wall. Light took liberties with the laws of physics to flatter each perfect surface with reflections and shadows that accentuated each detail exquisitely. Her silken hair bedded a sparkling tiara upon her head like velvet in a showcase at Tiffany’s.

Glowing with satisfaction that all was exactly as she wished it to be, she rotated the gem of her portal and stepped outside. There was a momentary flicker as the hallway came into focus. While the common passage was clearly inferior to her own opulent quarters, it was clean and elegant. A woman of her taste and bearing would demand no less. There was no indication that anyone else lived in the building apart from the oak-stained doors leading into the less stately quarters of the commoners.

Mariah hurried past the inconsequential doorways, eager to arrive at the department store during the few hours during which they were open for visits. Though there was no real need to walk to the store to shop, her addiction could only be satisfied with a physical experience. Virtual shopping simply did not offer her the same rush of acquisition. Of course she would eventually return most of what she purchased, but that was half the fun of it.

Mariah turned ninety degrees and paused at the top of the stairs. The spacious steps unfolded before her like the opulent entrance to a palatial ballroom. She paused momentarily as courtiers and sycophants appeared at the base of the staircase, reveling in anticipation of her fleeting presence.

Satisfied with the reception, she continued her regal descent. Keeping her eyes fixed majestically on the reception line forming below, she lit her foot upon the first step, innocuously visible at the base of her peripheral vision. When her foot reached it, the edge dug oddly into her arch, barely in front of the heel. It took her a second to realize that she had overstepped the edge, but her sedentary reactions were not quick enough to compensate. Her momentum carried her forward and she toppled over, landing head-first six steps below. She continued to tumble, crashing into the stairs with fragile, porous bones shattering with each impact. When she finally came to rest at the base of the steps, she lay there until a neighbor found her twisted, lifeless body, tangled up in her threadbare cotton frock.


Though it could only be described as tacky and even unabashedly sleazy, Rick was quite proud of his apartment. The walls sported garish colors and tasteless artwork, mostly animated feeds from porn sites. One woman, her long blonde hair cascading down around the black leather collar of her skin-like tights, lounged against a pillow as she regarded him with never-fading lust. Another woman, lithe and catlike, curled naked next to him, purring in satisfaction like a faithful pet.

The cat-girl slipped gracefully aside as Rick suddenly got up from the couch with a grunt of bored irritation. He pulled on a washed out black long-coat that nevertheless made him feel like Neo and topped it off with a tired old knit cap.

“Where you going baby?” it was the blonde offering a seductive invitation to stay. The other turned away with cat-like aloofness to doze.

Rick ignored her tedious interest and left the apartment, walking quickly out of the nondescript building. As he hurried along the city streets, he passed through a Vegas-parody of neon signs and cruising convertibles. The men, all street-gang tough, showed open deference to his presence. The women he passed were all hookers right off a low budget movie set, eying him with the promise of waving any usual fees.

He turned into one particularly ostentatious club, nodding tersely to the indifferent bouncer at the door. As he stepped inside, he paused to let his vision become accustomed to the lighting. Suddenly, relentless jungle-dance beats blasted him like a brisk wind. The crowds within took shape, all clad in sequins and vinyl interpretations of skimpy native clothing. Dancing girls lined the walls like animated statuary and writhed within the confines of bamboo cages hanging from the ceiling.

As he drank, dozens of women approached Rick with offers that covered the full range from conventional to perverse. He didn’t bother to check which of these were real. It didn’t matter. It was all the same. Eventually, staggering slightly at the bar, he downed the remainder of his drink. He didn’t want to check his account, but he estimated it was probably close to tapped-out until he could scam up some more credits.

Back out on the street, lights and sounds drifted by along the fringes of Rick’s consciousness. He paused at the curb across from his building and glanced automatically to the left. A car approached, safely off in the distance. The right was clear, so he stepped into the crossing. Immediately the car smashed into him from the left and his body crumpled over the hood like a rag. As the driver slammed into the brakes, Rick’s body arced off into the night air.

The last things Rick observed in his miserable life were the mundane faces of fascinated onlookers gaping at him as he sailed numbly through the air. He never registered the impact against the inconveniently placed brick wall across the intersection.


 

For a while he’d been temped to abandon his run early, but a second wind blew in from places unknown, reinvigorating him. As he picked up his pace, Kam noted how unattractive Central Park looked in winter, stark and dead. It was tempting to drop in a nice spring theme to clothe the naked trees, to wake up the sleeping grass, and to brighten the hazy gloom, but he couldn’t allow himself such luxuries. His job was disorienting enough without introducing unnecessary layers of confusion.

But the temptation reminded him that he was on the clock, so he turned the brim of his baseball cap forward and a menu transitioned smoothly into his field of vision. With a tiny flick of a finger, he selected Next and a video frame superimposed upon the wintry park. Kam watched through Mariah McKenzie’s eyes as she walked down the seedy tenement hallway. The image suddenly went wild as she tumbled head over heels down rotting steps before the replay halted suddenly, freezing the accident in mid-tumble.

Over the last few years Kam had reviewed thousands of such death scenes, released by statute to the authorities for postmortem analysis. His assignment to “death watch” duty was the sewer-cleaner rung of the police caste system. It was his job to scan deaths flagged by the system, looking for any evidence of foul play to pass along to the “real” detectives. When he handed them a homicide collar, they got accolades while he got demeaned or at best overlooked for his effort. The job was not only thankless but it was psychologically taxing as they come.

Even as the cracks and ruts of the running path demanded Kam’s attention, something about that last replay nagged at him. He knew he shouldn’t spend more time on it. His queue was loaded and this was just another obvious glitch death. It was apparent that the woman’s theme had caused her to misjudge the depth of the step and she simply overstepped it. It happened all the time. When the size or position of a theme overlay didn’t match exactly, such small surface mapping errors were often fatal.

Case closed. The most he could do was to post another glitch death for the stats, but it would do no good. The courts had ruled long ago that the virtual reality vendors could not be prosecuted for glitch deaths.

But yet the incoherent nagging just wouldn’t relent. Kam stopped, letting his pulse fall back to normal as he flicked his finger to click the virtual replay button. Looking around the room, opening the door, walking into the hall… there… what was that? He leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees, and flicked Rewind and Slow in quick succession. As she opened the door, there was a barely discernible flash of static. It was probably nothing. Visual overlays actually produced lots of such artifacts. High bandwidth feeds, especially with complex themes, could cause severe anomalies in the visual or audio streams. But this particular one was familiar. It reminded him exactly of the one he’d just noticed in that car accident.


 

Bernard Hoob sat on the bench in Battery Park, looking out over the river. In the distance, British Spitfires buzzed down from the clouds like angry wasps, guns blazing. The bullets seemed have little effect on the giant kraken reaching out of the water to wrap its massive tentacles around the Statue of Liberty.

Without warning, a chat window popped up over the scene. Bernard flicked a finger and the battle froze as clouds wandered past, unaware of the mighty virtual battle below. An avatar, kind of a dark vampire knight, appeared in the chat window.

“Dude, Amy uploaded the next episode. Are you ready to get started?”

“Ya, I’m in the park where I left off last time,” ready when you are.

“Ok, one sec Bern.”

Bernard flicked a finger and the Quit button highlighted momentarily. The Kraken, the Spitfires, and the wreckage disappeared leaving a raw view of the island – it held no interest for him. Seconds later, a confirmation popped up, the Statue of Liberty visible behind the semi-transparent display.

“Amy invites you to share a custom theme, do you wish to join?”

Bernard clicked on “Yes” and there was a brief flicker. Suddenly it was dark. The torch of Lady Liberty glowed in the distance, reflecting in the lazily rippling water.

A billowing figure stepped from the shadows to block Bernard’s view, his face barely visible behind a hooded cloak. He held a gun in a latex-gloved hand, directed squarely at Bernard’s heart.

“Did you think you could escape me?” he demanded dispassionately.


 

Kam stood on the wall, looking down at the cold river. The impassive surface the physical barrier between life and death. He wasn’t authorized to conduct field investigations, but the Hoob replay obsessed him. Although he couldn’t point to anything that would justify the assignment of an investigator, he was sure that the static flash just prior to his misstep into the river linked it to the other nagging glitch deaths he had catalogued over the years.

He had tried to work through the system. He took his suspicions to the Captain who had reluctantly directed the tech boys to analyze the telltale static flashes. But their analysis revealed nothing beyond a signature similarity. There were many vague technical explanations, but they could not definitively explain them. In the end, Kam could not press any harder and was already being mocked as a conspiracy quack. The Captain insisted he get a psych evaluation and enjoy a long vacation.

Ever since that experience he followed up unofficially when he could, keeping his investigations off the record.

“I still can’t see how it could have happened,” Amy lamented, shaking her head. “The role-playing overlay I designed inserted virtual characters, but it didn’t include any visual themes. I wanted the location to be raw. How could he have glitched over the edge?”

“That’s what I’d like to know,” said Kam. “I want to show you something. Do you think you would be able to look at his last moments? I’d like you to tell me if you see anything unusual.”

Amy, her sheer scarf fluttering amongst her windblown hair, bit her lower lip. “OK, if you think it might help,” she breathed.

Kam pushed a pointer over Amy and flicked a finger to bring up a context menu, clicking the Share item. Amy’s avatar appeared in the group area of his visual field when she accepted the invitation.

“This isn’t technically legal, so you’ve never seen what I’m going to show you, right?

Amy nodded solemnly.

Kam clicked a Play button floating in space and they both watched through Bern’s eyes as he was backed up to the river by a hooded figure with a gun. His eyes shifted from the gun, to his feet, slowly drifting with unnerving finality to the unforgiving river behind him.

“Too bad you didn’t play ball,” the hooded man said with matter-of-fact calm. “You would have been more use to us alive.”

As Bern shifted his gaze back toward the cloaked man, the watchers could see a small vial drop from his sleeve into his cupped hand. When the hooded figure was once again in the center of his visual field, Bern’s hand shot forward, tossing the vial into his chest. The ampoule shattered, releasing gas into the hooded face.

As the assassin gagged, Bern produced a small device and pressed a quick combination of buttons. A teleportation gate opened to his side.

“Perhaps another day,” Bern quipped as he stepped into the shimmering blue gate.

Suddenly, the video jerked and water splashed. It went dim, then quiet, and then quickly black as the replay ended.

Amy gasped, slumping down to sit on the cold cement walkway.

“That was so horrible,” she whispered in shock and disbelief.

“This is where he struck his head as he fell,” Kam told her softly. “He was unconscious before he hit the water. I don’t think he suffered.”

“Still,” Amy said, looking up tearfully, “how could that happen?”

“I was hoping you could tell me,” Kam prompted her gently.

“I had given him the compressed gas vial in episode four,” she said. “I was hoping he’d use it here. He was a good player.”

“But I don’t understand how the teleportation field could have appeared over the edge of the dock,” she continued. “That gob is configured as a land-based object. There should be no way the simulation engine could place it over water.”

“Could it be a bug in the system?” Kam asked her.

“I suppose it had to be,” Amy answered, “but it’s hard to imagine how such an obvious bug could be undiscovered in the 3.0 merge engine. It’s in use everywhere by everyone all the time.”

“Let me show you something else,” Kam persisted, rewinding and resuming the replay for her on extreme slow.

“There,” he said, pausing the video. “Do you see that static flash?”

“Weird,” she said, her technical interest peaked. “I’d swear that artifact wasn’t caused by my simulation.”


 

Kam was on his way home. He’d just finished investigating SGD number 37. That’s what he called them. It was his code for Suspicious Glitch Deaths. He had to do some fast talking to imply that he was conducting an official investigation without ever actually saying he was, but it hadn’t netted him much. He still could find no relation among the possible victims except for the same signature static flash shortly prior to their glitch deaths.

Unlike the vast majority of people, he didn’t normally use themes. His intimate association with glitch deaths kept him free of the technological addiction. As a cop, he heard daily about the scams and cons associated with the technology. Despite the risks, most people couldn’t live without themes to give reality the visual and auditory style that made them feel comfortable or excited or whatever.

He wasn’t a purist or anything, but he preferred keeping it raw. He didn’t like the thought of his visual and auditory perceptions being preprocessed by some computer array. He didn’t subscribe to the rampant conspiracy theories that the government was looking in on or even manipulating everything the population saw and heard, but he did have a visceral discomfort with the fuzzy line between raw and computer-enhanced realities.

The industry argued that perceptual filters enhanced safety and productivity by providing real-time enhancements and alerts. But safety subroutines didn’t save that guy that stepped out in front of a speeding car. He’d seen too many glitch deaths.

But despite his reservations, he had just used an auditory translation filter to interview the Spanish-speaking witnesses to the last SGD. The reality was that few people, other than the lunatic purists, could simply not get by without real-time perceptual filtering technology.

With a sigh, he glanced around at the bleak raw streets. One of the purist arguments against themes was the resulting neglect of architecture and aesthetics. In fact, most modern buildings had essentially dispensed with any effort to look attractive at all. Why bother when perceptual themes were used by most people to give their environment any look they desired?

One positive benefit to going raw was avoiding advertisements. Advertisers didn’t bother with real billboards any more. Instead, almost all advertising was accomplished by embedded adds in perceptual themes. Most people could not afford network service without accepting some level of embedded advertising, and many of the most popular themes were produced by corporations to promote their products.

But tonight, Kam found the raw city too depressing. With the resignation of a reformed alcoholic reaching for a bottle, he flicked his finger to the theme selection menu. He scrolled through a long list, each one smoothly flowing on top of the environment around him. He rolled past Roman Holiday , The Jetsons, Life in Bedrock, XXX-perience, The Wild, Wild West, and Dark Shadows to stop at Star Trek. Although not a old-school Trekkie, he liked the Star Trek theme. It was the only overlay that reflected a positive role model for mankind. It was a unique vision of a future where humanity had matured into rational adulthood without loosing child-like passion and curiosity. It always made him feel a renewed sense of optimism that the Star Trek theme might someday become raw.

The futuristic architecture around him was clean and functional, but nevertheless open and inviting. The people passing on the opposite side of the street wore high-tech garments that were apparently impervious to dirt or wrinkles. A Bajoran and a blue-skinned Andorian were engaged in an animated discussion on the far corner, the Andorian’s antennae bent forward in interest.

Kam veered down a subway ramp, familiar despite its sleek 24th century theme, until he reached the platform. Two people, probably real, who now looked like Federation officers were the only others waiting in the station. Several minutes later, the loudspeaker politely announced the arrival of the next train. In the distance, there was a soft rumble heralding its approach. The train slid with frictionless grace to a halt and the doors opened with a signature Star Trek sound effect.

The two Federation officers made no move, so Kam stepped forward into the open door. As he advanced, a sudden panic caused him to recoil. He spun wildly to regain his balance as the front of a subway train rushed past just inches from his face. It was only then that it struck him. The flash. Some part of him had noticed an almost subliminal flash just before stepping forward. It had caused him to instinctively hesitate just in time.


 

The walkways eight stories below their balcony looked just like any other raw midtown street. People hurried with chaotic order in every direction, almost all of them wearing some kind of networked headwear.

Just then, perhaps a third of the people paused, looking up to point at a costumed superhero soaring through the air just above them.

“Protect yourself with Glitch Guard!” the flying figure urged them with a salute and a reassuring smile.

Amy turned to Kam and grinned.

“Looks like our new ad campaign is going to pay off big,” she assured him.

“I sure hope so,” Kam replied, trying to muster an optimistic smile.

“It just has too,” she assured him. “I know it’s been a rough three years getting Glitch Guard off the ground, and you’ve invested everything you have. But I still believe in it.”

“And in you,” she added.

He answered with an appreciative nod. The development was complete, and their ad campaign was officially underway. Now came the hard part.


 

Lord Graham Haggarty, one of the new breed of anointed American royalty, buttoned his designer housecoat and rose to answer the delicately tasteful ringer of his hotel room door, tipping his virtual receiver cap jauntily on his head.

After a quick glance at the overlay that seemed to give him x-ray vision, he swiped his hand across a virtual lock and the door retracted smoothly to reveal his visitors.

Kam reached out his hand across the threshold in greeting, “Lord Haggerty, so kind of you to see us.”

“Not at all, it’s my pleasure,” the dapper man replied to Kam but his eyes lingered upon Amy.

“Amy Hoob,” she said by way of acknowledgment, emphasizing the last name.

“Charmed,” he told her, taking her hand superfluously to usher them into his luxury suite.

After a few pleasantries the Lord offered his two guests a love seat.

“Can I get you a drink?” he asked. “I have a splendidly rare vintage of brandy that just demands attention.”

“Only if you will promise to join us,” Amy answered demurely. “I would not want to drink alone.”

“Perish the thought, my dear,” Haggarty reassured her as he poured three deep amber aliquots.

The host set the fine glasses on the table and took his place opposite, smoothing his slacks across his knee.

Kam set the small bag he carried with him onto the arm of the seat and hurried to raise his glass to his lips with the others.

“To a long life,” Kam said by way of toast.

“Health and wealth to you both,” the Lord answered as he enjoyed a sip. “Speaking of which, I am curious as to what kind of business proposition you have for me.”

Kam answered evenly, with business-like formality. “ Well, as you know, we manufacture and market Glitch Guard. It has been the number one anti-glitch software for the last 6 years.”

“Of course, of course,” Lord Haggerty assured them, a trace of impatience creeping into his cordial demeanor. “But I am just a simple bureaucrat. I am afraid I’m not looking for any investment opportunities.”

“We are doing quite well thanks,” said Kam. “We aren’t looking for any new capital. As a matter of fact, we’d like you to put us out of business.”

Lord Haggerty was suddenly more intrigued, “How do you imagine I could do that, even if I had any such desire?”

“Perhaps your desire will grow when we tell you that we know that you are responsible for at least 278 glitch deaths,” Amy answered evenly.

“That we are aware of, at least,” Kam added casually.

The Lord smiled as if tutoring a pair of slow students and took another sip of his brandy.

“And what evidence, may I ask, do you have to make such an outrageous accusation?”

“None that would stand up against your legal team,” Kam answered frankly. “But nevertheless we know that a secret government organization, conceived and directed by you, has been testing techniques to kill people through manufactured glitches for over a decade.”

Lord Haggarty took a final sip of his brandy and set down the empty glass with assured ease.

“Actually,” Lord Haggerty corrected the record with pride, “the success count is over a thousand. But that is for terminations only. That doesn’t begin to reflect the other forms of covert surveillance,  manipulation, and subterfuge that our technology enables. I am quite proud of our superb rate of success.”

“How could such a thing possibly make you proud?” Amy asked, horrified even having known in advance of his hideously untouchable crimes.

“I know it is hard for citizens to accept,” he told them comfortingly. “But you have to realize that we are only keeping this country, keeping you, your families, safe. This research gives us tools we can use to defeat our enemies, your enemies, and to anticipate how they might attack us.”

“Research,” Kam interrupted. “Is that what you call it? Was it just research when you tried to kill me?”

“And why do you think you are still alive? It is because your investigations, your software, helps our mission. Your anti-glitch innovations challenge us to find more subtle methods, to correct tells like that pesky flash you first identified.”

“You’re helping us in your own way,” he added with a smirk. “We value your contributions.”

“You’re a monster,” Amy hissed.

“Perhaps,” he agreed amiably. “But a necessary evil. I hope that it gives you some satisfaction to have this knowledge, but no one will pay attention to any conspiracy theories you spread around. Far too few will ever believe their government capable of such unthinkable activities. And spreading such rumors would only harm your own business – if any slanderous accusations should ever slip through our real-time stream scrubbers of course.”

Lord Haggerty grimaced and flexed his stiff fingers.

“Feeling a bit stiff?” Kam asked solicitously as he rose, retrieving his bag with one hand as he offered Amy the other.

The older man began to rise, but didn’t seem able to stand. He settled back into his chair and looked up curiously. He tried to speak, but his mouth didn’t seem to willing to respond.

“Don’t bother,” Kam told him. “Have you heard of the popular “Last Round” that hit the streets? The last drink for those who have nothing left to live for? You were seen asking about it on the streets tonight. Didn’t you notice the flash just after we came in? I’m afraid our technology is not as sophisticated as yours has become. That was when Amy poured a Last Round into your brandy.”

The soon-to-be-late Lord’s eyes shifted to his empty brandy glass with horror.

Amy answered his unspoken questions as Kam took handfuls from the bag he carried, sprinkling dust about the room.

“Fortunately, by the time the muscular paralysis has advanced to your autonomic systems, enough time will have passed so that our visit will be purged from your terminal buffer.” Amy told him. “There won’t be anything for Kam’s replacement to see except you sitting here breathing your last.”

Amy leaned in close to the face of the dying man, staring him dead in the eyes as Kam wiped the glasses with the empty bag.

“Dust from Grand Central,” she explained. “There must be a hundred thousand samples of DNA in it.”

She leaned closer, her lips brushing his ear as she whispered.

“Say hello to Bern for me.”

 

The Accidental God

Copyright © 2009 by Tyson Gill

It’s amazing what a modestly industrious fellow can accomplish with a couple hundred thousand years to blow.

Aaron, Hugo, and I were making a routine freight run to our colony on RJ94b. It was a 7 year sleeper haul that didn’t require much effort on our parts; in fact I guess you could say we were more freight than crew. Aaron and Hugo were traveling to take postings on RJ94b, while I was planning to catch a hop to RJ23e to join the terraforming team there as the Principal Scientist in charge.

Just over 4 Earth years in, the onboard computer tripped the alarms, breaking our hiber. It seemed kind of cruel to wake us up as by that point there was little we could do except appreciate how fucked we were. Some uncharted anomaly had thrown us far off course and the onboard navigation computers couldn’t compensate. We woke to find ourselves hopelessly marooned in a region of space that defied identification. Without determining our location, there was simply no possibility of laying a course back.

We adjusted to our grim situation with surprising calm. No pathetic sobbing, no bemoaning rants, no desperate prayers. We had all known that 6.8% of interstellar shuttles were lost in transit. For sleeper barges like ours, the risk rose to 8.2%. There was still a lot we didn’t know about space and travel was still a crapshoot. The odds had simply caught up with us.

Survival protocols gave us only one option; one that we all knew was little more than a bit of welcome false hope. So we put the navigation computers into search mode and went back to sleep, knowing full-well that the odds of us ever again waking were minuscule.


We were astonished and unwillingly hopeful after being awakened for a second time. That groggy, giddy, euphoria only lasted long enough for us to learn the sobering truth that we had not miraculously arrived at an Earth colony. Instead, a full 26 Earth years has passed and we still had not fixed our bearings.

But ahead, not yet more than a missing pixel in the halo of a nearby star, sat a planet that electromagnetic scans showed to be Earthlike. Scientific curiosity immediately overcame our despair. What a find! What scientist wouldn’t happily give his life to be the first to explore such a world?

After weeks of careful preparation, and a frenzied review of landing procedures that were never intended to be executed, we managed to set down on a hilltop near a large body of surface water at temperate latitude. Of course the huge lumbering freighter could never move again, but dying on an uncharted planet, under a distant sun, was still far preferable to a cold, eternal sleep in dark and endless space.

We spent two days gradually throttling the engine down to a half-percent, but still capable of providing all the power we could use. The elegantly simple fusion cell had no moving parts and could operate indefinitely in idle mode, so we certainly had no worries about power. Next we spent several days reviewing the manifests and cataloguing our supplies. We had access to a hundred thousand tons of machinery and supplies designed to provide a full colony with all the materials needed to remain self-sufficient, so clearly we would want for nothing for the rest of our lives – except humanity.

Only after we had exhausted all our preparations, and repeated and rechecked them several times, did our curiosity overcome our fear enough to venture outside the ship for the first time. As we slid the small access hatch in and to the side, sunlight tinged with the slightest hint of tangerine washed over us. It was followed by a wave of cool, delicately scented air that reminded one of pine trees drenched in spring rain.

Hugo was the first to die.

We had ventured quite a distance from the ship, exploring and cataloguing the myriad of, well everything. Imagine stepping into a world where absolutely everything is brand new. Intricate new landforms shaped by processes of erosion never experienced on Earth, vegetation that had remarkable consistency of form and shape, but at the same time unlike anything back home, and diverse creatures that defied any Earthly phyla classifications.

alien-planet

Despite the strangeness of the environment, one should not overstate the differences. Perhaps far more remarkable were the similarities with Earth.  Our feet trod upon rock and soil, laden with minerals that were quite recognizable. Our arms pushed through photosynthetic fibers that were essentially grasses, shrubs, and trees. Our eyes caught glimpses of creatures that crawled, burrowed, leapt, and flew. We quickly felt quite naturally at home on this distant planet, unknown light-years from our own.

Any why should we not feel at home? We are creatures of the universe after all. Our attachment to our one little planet is merely emotional. All throughout the universe our same familiar chemistry and physics apply equally. It should come as no surprise that on many planets of similar size and distance from their sun, the same weather patterns would emerge, similar life would evolve, and those forms of life would diversify to fill all the same environmental niches; that some would photosynthesize sunlight and others would consume them.

It was perhaps because of our newfound feeling of familiarity and comfort that Hugo perished.

The tangerine sun was directly overhead, so we had spent about half of the long 37 hour day exploring around the edge of a massive swamp. We were all a bit groggy because our circadian rhythms were still stubbornly insistent upon a 24 hour day. Hugo was in the lead, as he was wont to do, barely able to bridle his energy and enthusiasm. We always seemed to be holding him up wherever we hiked.

Aaron and I looked up casually and halted. Hugo was simply gone. We stood still for the longest while, listening and looking for a sign of him, waiting for him to find us. But there was only the faint buzz and whistling of swamp insects that betrayed nothing.

Slowly, carefully, cautiously, we eventually ventured forth to find some sign of him. Suddenly Aaron stopped, wavering as if on the edge of a cliff. With a growing sickness, we pulled away the web-like vegetation that had grown over a deep fissure, stretching across the top like a net. With each tear, with each clump that dropped into the hole, sunlight streamed down to illuminate more of the bottom.

With one last rip, sunlight spotlighted the body of Hugo twisted into a tangle at the bottom of the pit. We called down futilely, even pelted him with pebbles, but he never even twitched.


The loss of Hugo left us stunned for many months (although clinging to our Earthly notion of months in our moonless environment was purely force of habit). It wasn’t just that we lost a friend and companion, but that we had lost a staggering 1/3 of our total population in an instant. It was the realization that no one would follow us. We were all there was and all there ever would be of human life on this planet, and now there was only us two.

The months drifted into years until eventually we banished all timekeeping devices into the deepest bowels of the freighter. We really didn’t want to know how much time was passing us by – it only filled us with despair to be reminded.

We went through indeterminately long periods where we never spoke. We had long since shared every possible idea we could say to each other. Every spoken thought was a tiresome repetition of what we had heard the other say a thousand times before. Each word was another excruciating drop in some fiendish water torture.

So we mechanically passed our days like mindless automations. Thinking only made us miserable. It became difficult to recognize even whether our behavior was sane. We had no social queues except from each other and we both quit caring what the other did long ago.

This total apathy made it all the more peculiar when Aaron sat down next to me one day and asked a question that was most startling in the fact that it was never brought up before.

“Do I look any older to you?” he asked quizzically.

“What?” I asked remotely, lost in my blissful thoughtlessness.

“Under your beard, you don’t look a day older than the day we landed,” he remarked. “Do I look any older to you?”

“Why should you?” I asked in return.

“How long do you think we’ve been here?” he answered with yet another question, seeming to change the subject randomly.

“I don’t want to know,” I told him dismissively.

“It’s been 73 years Earth time,” he stated flatly.

I don’t know how long it took me to assimilate that, or how long it took me to finally respond. When one has nothing but time, even answering questions doesn’t seem very urgent.

“Impossible,” I said eventually.

“I checked,” Aaron assured me. “It has been 73 years, 5 months, and 12 days.”

My inner scientist took over, my mind raced. It was faced with a contradictory set of observations that could not be reconciled without further facts.

“We have to check Hugo’s body,” I said flatly.

Aaron rose and followed me to where we had buried Hugo. Using our hands, we dug up the shallow grave and brushed away the dirt to reveal the corpse of our long-dead shipmate.

We gasped in shock.

The reason for our amazement was exactly the opposite of what one would fear beholding. His body was nearly perfect. It was like a wrinkled, deflated prune due to loss of moisture, but there was no decomposition. There was no mold, no sign that insects or worms had ever defiled the remains.

We sat back and just stared at the remarkable corpse.

“Have you ever been bitten by an insect here?” I eventually asked Aaron. “Even been bothered by one?”

“Have you had any kind of cold or flu since we landed?” he asked, not expecting any answer.


So another false assumption about alien planets was debunked. It was always thought that since humans would have evolved no resistance to alien bacteria, they would decimate any human exposed to them. It turned out to be quite the opposite for us. In our case, this alien world had evolved nothing to endanger us humans. Bacteria, viruses, insects; none of them even seemed to recognize us as living things. It appeared we were immune to any kind of infection this planet had to offer.

As to our apparent lack of aging, Aaron formed some hypotheses about that. He pointed out studies that had demonstrated that aging is largely a designed-in process that can be dramatically slowed or accelerated in response to environmental stresses. Apparently the conditions on this planet, or more precisely the lack of the factors that stimulate our aging chemistry, had essentially halted those processes.

More decades passed and the boredom increased to an almost unbearable level. We tried to remain actively engaged in farming, mechanics, music and art, yoga and meditation, and even many more esoteric pursuits. But it was a never-ending struggle just to come up with any reason to continue living.

Eventually Aaron walked casually out of the ship. Hanging at the end of his arm was a ceramic pistol. There were many such weapons crated in the hold, long given up for lost by their buyers. Occasionally we had taken them out for some recreational target shooting.

But Aaron was not planning any target shooting that day.

“Goodbye James,” he said pleasantly, pausing to give me a sincere and resolved smile before he turned to stroll into the brush. He seemed perfectly sane and lucid.

I could not find it in my heart to stop him. That would only be cruel. Who was I to selfishly insist that he remain alive only to keep me company?

Moments later, the sharp pffft of the air gun resounded across the otherwise quiet valley. The insects momentarily became silent and somewhere in the distance a flock of winged creatures took to flight.

I couldn’t bring myself to attend to Aaron’s body immediately. It would keep.


I really don’t know how much time passed before they arrived. My old notions of time ceased to have any meaning for me. Perhaps my brain had physically adapted to perceive time differently just as I had long since adapted to the 37 hour daily cycle.

Whenever it was, I sensed them approaching my valley long before they arrived. I felt their ripples. Over the uncounted years I had become intimately attuned to all the life in my valley. Every plant, every creature was my family. I watched each generation born and pass on. I knew them all as individuals, helped them. My family warned me of their coming.

Each year the creatures pressed further into my territory. I observed them carefully, first through a telescope and then through binoculars as their annual advancement brought them ever closer.

They were obviously social animals, curious like small mammals. Their family groups bonded together into a greater community. Young ones frolicked playfully but stayed protectively near their parents. Evidently the land they came from held predators which they feared.

The creatures were smooth-skinned and incredibly lithe. Dissection of some recent remains showed that their internal skeleton was composed of something as strong as bone but also extremely flexible. They made peculiar chittering noises that indicated rudimentary vocal communication. I spent my days watching them and learning their ways.

One year I finally decided to approach. They already felt like my own family, a part of my valley. My memories of Earth, even of Hugo and Aaron, were only dim and vague recollections. I recalled that I had once been to a place called Earth. I <thought> it was real, but could no longer be sure if I had perhaps only imagined it.

But the little creatures weren’t elusive memories. They were real and I yearned for them to know me as I knew them.

So each day I approached right up to the edge of their awareness, until they looked my way and chittered anxiously, and there I waited until nightfall. Sometimes I did the same at night. And each week the distance between us contracted ever so slightly.

They little creatures gave me a sense of purpose, of community, that I had never found on this world.


I don’t believe it ever actually occurred to me to play God. I never contrived to alter the normal course of evolution. It was only in my mind to help along the little creatures that I become so fond of.

It started by simply protecting them. Using the pneumatic rifles from the ship, I methodically exterminated the predators nipping at their heels and any new threats that wandered into the vicinity.

Without that pressure to migrate, they seemed content to remain in my valley. I learned their rudimentary language and ever so slowly expanded it, giving preferential care to those with the greatest aptitude.

My efforts paid off well, and each new generation was noticeably more adept with language than the one before. Eventually I began to introduce them to abstract concepts through language.

I gradually taught them how to clean their day to day wounds and how to use local plants to fight infections. Most learned quickly and those that did not learn tended not to survive as long.

Ever so slowly I managed to teach them to cultivate the insect population that they fed upon in a sustainable manner. I taught them to manage their waste and maintain their environment.

Over many, many generations I taught them to make fire and tools and to use them to char their insects so they stored indefinitely. I showed them how to cook the insects along with various plants into soups and porridges that provided better nutrition. Those that learned raised more thriving offspring.

But beyond that, I modeled social skills from the earliest days, starting with a simple demonstration of cooperation in picking parasites off their skin. Little by little, some started to teach those social behaviors to their young.

And yes, there were always some bad actors who displayed antisocial tendencies. I hated to do it, but I had to breed those behaviors out for the good of the community. Typically those individuals would just fall mysteriously dead shortly after their behaviors became evident, creating a helpful superstition that antisocial behavior caused their death…. and in fact it did.


I stepped feebly out of the ship to regard my valley under the moonless sky. My back ached from bending over my labors. I had been hard at work documenting all the technology aboard the ship in a way that my people would understand one day.

The exhausting effort left me feeling like a man of perhaps 80 or more years. It turned out I wasn’t truly immortal after all. I merely aged very, very well.

The delicate tangerine lights dotting the valley below mirrored the myriad of stars above like a clear mountain lake. It brought me great satisfaction to know that my people finally comprehended what the stars are and drew wonder from them as I did, facing  their lighting softly downward to respect grandeur of that panorama.

Some long dead nuclear engineers would have been gratified to know that after so very many years of continuous operation, their fusion cell still hummed along, despite now being powered up to 8% to supply clean energy to the growing population. Over the centuries I had to void the warranty many times over by performing unauthorized maintenance, but fortunately there were ample stores of spare parts, in fact enough to keep the generator running for another few thousand years with the aid of a bit of ingenuity and generous portion of luck.

The fusion core was buried deep within the cavernous ship, which itself was now buried under the mountain of rock forming a great pyramid that overlooked the sprawling city that lay before it. Future archaeologists might conclude that I ordered its construction to satisfy some insatiable egotism, or out of some primitive fear of the afterlife. The truth is that I ordered the century long project as a way to instill an ethic of work and pride in cooperative craftsmanship. It also served the practical function of protecting the precious space vessel and all its precious cargo from natural disasters for use by posterity.

Three million of my adopted children now live in ecologically sound habitats throughout the valleys, and more settlements swell in population all around the globe. Each year throngs leave their workplaces and schools to come to pay homage at my pyramid. I had long since given up trying to assure them that I am not their god, not their almighty father, as my protests only convince them of the contrary.

Although it was never my intent, in the end I am responsible for the selective breeding of an entire civilization of creatures that worship me. But that won’t last much longer. There are far too many for me to manage now. Already I can feel them growing into their own. Soon they won’t need me anymore. They won’t even want me around any longer. Perhaps they will rise up and kill me, to finally rip their cord from the womb of their accidental god.

On that day my work will be done.

The Dandelion Project

Dandelion

A Fond Farewell to the Planet

Copyright © 2006 by Tyson Gill

Adrian made one final inventory, carefully confirming each item against the checklist provided. He inserted the payment form into the pre-addressed mailer last, with no trace of hesitation about having spent an entire year of graphic editing work to cover the submission fee. Finally satisfied that nothing had been overlooked, he sealed the package with the reverence of a precious time capsule. Now that it was finally ready to mail, he could hardly bring himself to part with it.

“The postman is coming,” his golden retriever alerted him with a familiar woof.

Securing the package in his lap, Adrian swung his wheelchair around and rolled silently toward the door, tapping the over-sized button open it. A gust of hot, wet air swept in through the doorway, laying siege to the air-conditioners defending the widely spaced entryway.

Against the spectacular backdrop of an angry, storm-crazed sky, the nonchalant approach of the postman might have seemed incongruous were it not an everyday occurrence. The approaching postman adjusted his balance adroitly as the frenetic wind buffeted him from every angle. All in all, it was relatively pleasant weather.

Adrian always wished he could be a postman too, strolling from house to house, warmed and cooled within one of those signature post-office blue all-weather suits. He had read that they were made of high-tech Nanobiotic™ fibers that adjusted automatically to almost any weather condition. But it could never be. The nature of his injury precluded ever being able to even use prosthetics.

“Lovely weather we’re having today eh Adrian?” Mailman Max called when he got close enough to be heard over the wind without shouting. It was Max’s usual greeting. Adrian typically came out to greet him to break up his otherwise humdrum days. In fact he ordered supplies in separate shipments to ensure that daily bit of human contact.

“It’s beautiful,” Adrian confirmed, grinning, as he rolled forward to the outermost fringe of the household climate systems protection.

Max halted, a gust of rain pelting him from out of nowhere, as he regarded the package proudly resting in the lap of the crippled boy.

“That it?” he asked simply, following up with an easy smile.

“This is it,” Adrian announced proudly, holding out the package like a holy offering.

“Right,” said Max. “I’ll send it right off then.”

Max exchanged the precious mailer for a bundle junk mail.

“Don’t worry,“ Max assured the boy as he patted the parcel. “I’ll see to this one personally.”

“Thanks. Maybe I’ll run around some day still,” Adrian whispered, like making an almost sinful admission of improbable hope.

“Maybe you will at that,” Max agreed with a wink.


Max pulled his mail truck up to the massive door of the post office and pressed his entrance card up against the rain-pelted window. He hoped that the card reader would cooperate today because he didn’t want to open the window. The weather had suddenly turned more nasty than usual and he was still suffering from the alternating gusts of frigid and burning air that overwhelmed his all-weather suit before he finally found refuge in his vehicle. People imagined that mail deliverers were always comfortable in their suits, but more often than not the internal regulators just couldn’t respond to the weather fast enough to ever be just right.

After the fourth swipe, the door finally lifted open and Max pulled forward into the garage with relief. The lumbering metal started to lower back down even before his mail truck cleared the entrance. He hopped down from the driver’s compartment, unzipping his suit as he looked around.

“Hey Max-eee!” a familiar voice called his way. “How the fuck you doing bro?”

“Hey Vince,” Max didn’t need to look to know the source of the familiar greeting. “I’m good.”

Vince had already reached the rear of the delivery truck. It was his job to unload the outgoing mail and transfer it to the automated sorter.

“Ouch!” Vince cried out like a cuss as his hand recoiled from the door latch.

“Ya, it’s pissing down hot rain out there,” Max confirmed needlessly.

“Fucking hot rain is the worst,” Vince complained. Whatever the weather was doing at any given moment was by definition the worst to Vince.

Max walked over and looked on as Vince heaved the back open and rolled the mail cart out.

“Saying on the radio that Florida lost another 500 square miles last month,” Max told him by way of small talk.

“Fuck,” Vince commented, pausing to shake his head. “Where is all the fucking water coming from? The fucking north pole is gone but we still ain’t got none to flush a crap.”

“Still lots of ice left in the Antarctic,” Max remarked.

“And we’re spending half the fucking national budget on those fucking see-oh two reduction plants,” Vince spat. “Thought they were supposed to clean up this fucking shit.”

“They are, but it takes time,” Max was used to having the same conversation every day.

“Fuck that,” Vince remarked as he pulled the mail cart toward the clanking sorter. “I don’t think they are doing crap. I think it’s all a croc of shit to keep us from realizing the fucking end of the world is already here.”

“Ya, you’re probably right,” Max always found it easier to just agree with Vince.

“Fucking right I’m fucking right,” Vince agreed wholeheartedly.

Suddenly, Max remembered something and darted back to the truck cab. He snatched a package off the passenger seat and ran to catch back up with Vince.

“Hey V, can you route this one personally? It’s kind of special and I don’t want that old crapper sending it off to Chinese-controlled Russia or something,” Max said, handing him Adrian’s package.

“You got it Max-eee,” Vince assured him, receiving the hand off like a football. “I’ll treat it like my own little baby.”

Somehow that didn’t reassure Max very much.


Sayonara Cheng reached for another package from atop the heaping mail container next to her desk. It had already been a long day and it was not getting any shorter. She had started working at The Dandelion Project as a temp over eight months earlier. Now they employed over 8,000 people doing the same job as her at different processing locations around the world.

It was a good temp job for as long it lasted. Open enrollment was supposed to end in three more months but she heard it would take another six to sort through the backlog. Probably more if submissions kept increasing as quickly as they had been.

Twenty-two million was the magic number. They needed at least that many paying donors to finance the project. They had reached that mark last month and were already at 36.5 million last she heard. Frenzied plans were underway to scale up the whole operation.

Their unlikely success thrust The Dandelion Project into the world spotlight. It graduated overnight from a wacky Internet scheme to a massive and controversial international joint venture. The protesters and picketers didn’t bother her much. Their office didn’t see many violent demonstrations. Sayonara just kept her head down, quietly and unobtrusively processing submission packages.

She opened the next kit, scattering the contents across her desk at the foot of her diet cola. She ignored the ancillary materials and picked out the data stick, deftly inserting it into a worn plug on her terminal.

Sayonara clicked the Import option from the custom application menu. After a momentary hourglass came and went, a graphic popped up on the screen. It was a cute young man, trying to appear as if he wasn’t imprisoned by the wheelchair in which he was obviously confined. His hand waved tentatively in front of a shy smile that made her feel as if he could see her there looking at his video portrait. The caption under the picture read “Adrian Davis, Age 24.” It was followed by a long personal data summary in a scrolling window.

She carefully opened the sample tube and placed it into the DNA Scanner. She absent-mindedly hit Scan Now on a popup menu and the device began to whir and hum softly, sending spectroscopic data to the central supercomputer for analysis. Sayonara used the time, as was her routine, to sip cola and review the notarized legal wavers and agreements.

A discouraging beep made her look up to see the garish  message flashing in red on the screen. That was fast, she thought, oddly disappointed. She had rejected thousands of applications without a second thought so it came as a surprise to her to feel reluctant to have to reject this particular applicant in accordance with her very specific selection protocols.

As she moused-over to select the Reject option, Adrian looked up at her from his wheelchair with renewed hope and longing. Sayonara peered deep into his pixilated eyes and felt as if they exposed his very soul to her. Her finger hesitated, hovering millimeters above the mouse button. She sensed a young man who wanted desperately to get up out of his rolling prison and play among the stars. How could she deny him that chance?

On an impulse, she clicked Accept, Override, and Confirm in rapid succession. She really hoped the auditors wouldn’t catch her on this one but didn’t much care.

“Bon voyage,” she told his image in a conspiratorial whisper.


It was obvious to Edwin Daniels long ago as a student at Cal Tech that global warming had exceeded the critical cascade threshold. No effort, no matter how extraordinary, could prevent atmospheric collapse. The extinction of mankind was imminent and inevitable.

That certainty had caused him to ponder the question; to what worthy cause can Man dedicate itself to even as Death is swinging his scythe? Then it came to him. He envisioned a great cosmic dandelion, releasing its seeds on solar winds far out into the great expanse of space.

He enlisted specialists with far more talent than he to join him in his mad project. His unprecedented plan required impossible advances in materials science, genetics, psychology, robotics, nanocircuitry, and artificial intelligence. If successful, mankind would perish in a glorious supernova of new knowledge and progress.

By force of raw passion and charisma, he organized a brotherhood of scientists who dedicated whatever free time they could manage to the project. They kept a low profile for two decades, working on the fundamental technical challenges in obscurity.

Once his team became relatively optimistic that the key obstacles could be overcome, they launched The Dandelion Project on the World Wide Web to fund development. They had never dreamt that it would capture the imagination and passion of the entire globe as it did. Though they never publicly admitted that this was a doomsday project, people around the world sent in their money and their DNA samples. Their database now contained over 173 million DNA fingerprints.

The Dandelion Project had taken in more money more quickly than any business in history. With it, they spent the next 18 years prototyping, developing, and testing the impossible.

Now, 37 years after the crazy dream first took seed, the project was coming to life without any further need of him. He could finally just relax and watch it unfold.

The daily launches continued despite the mass protests. Now that the deployment had actually begun, many religious leaders toned down their vehement rhetoric. The Chinese government finally gave the project their official sanction, lending the support of the largest and most influential country on Earth. Public relations continued to cite audits by independent auditing firms to quash conspiracy speculations that the DNA lottery was rigged.

Amidst the storms of nature and controversies of Man raging across the globe, the pods continued to launch night and day from locations across the United States, throughout China and its Russian territories, Europe, Australia, Africa, South America, India, and others. Every country was represented in the precious payload.

Edwin watched the television monitors replaying the time-lapse images taken from the international space station and the Moon base. There lay the solitary Earth, dying amidst the unsympathetic darkness of space, flinging thousands of pods out into the eternal blackness. It looked like a great cosmic dandelion, its metal composite seed pods brimming with databases of human DNA, flying out in all directions, going for broke on the longest of odds.

It was an unprecedented event in human history. The supernova of mankind as it died. All of humanity watched and marveled, strangely contented and satisfied as if collectively sharing one last fireworks finale.


“To be truthful, the odds are too infinitesimal to bother calculating. One in a thousand pods might survive millions of years of random collisions with space particulates to find a candidate planet. One in a hundred of those might find conditions compatible with human life. One in ten of those might succeed in re-synthesizing a random DNA record and growing a human clone. One in a score of those clones might survive and grow to into a functional human being. But the odds don’t matter. We are humans and all that matters is that we try. It is the only way that we frail humans can ever explore the universe first hand.”

Adrian looked up from the monitor. He had been watching an interview recorded back on Earth in some incomprehensible time past.

Mother, his robotic parent, stood protectively nearby. Nine years earlier, she had booted up and begun to execute her programming. She had reconfigured the pod into a shelter, acquired raw materials, and replicated a randomly selected sequence from the DNA database. Since then she had protected the child and tutored him in all the age-appropriate data available in their comprehensive Earth library.

“So that was him, Mother? That was the man who sent us here?”

Mother answered him with an exquisitely archetypical motherly voice.

“Yes Adrian that was Edwin Daniels. But many tens of thousands of people worked together to send us here, to our new home. All of humanity wished you bon voyage,”

“But I am all alone,” Adrian said to her. “What good is one person?”

Mother reproduced a tender smile, engaging all the micro-transducers of her synthetic face.

“One human isn’t much good at all,” she told him, squatting down to gaze into his eyes. “But one day soon you will choose another and we will raise her together.”

The boy was about to follow up with another question but Mother gave him a gentle shove.

“Go play now in the grass,” she urged him. “Bring some berries for a snack later.”

Adrian, naked in the warm, gentle air, jumped up and smiled, running off into the field. Animals, vaguely resembling little deer, bounded in around him to join in the romp.

In the pod, Mother set about cooking and cleaning as directed by her AI adaptive processor. On their little table, one old-fashioned picture rested prominently within a homemade frame. It was the still-picture of a young man that looked just like Adrian only older, sitting in a wheelchair and waving to them with wistful contentedness.