March 2012

“Bianca 223,979, you are in violation of nineteen separate ordinances, seventeen statutes, six sections of the consolidated code, and twenty-seven other iterations of standard arcology law.”

“Don’t care,” Bianca muttered. Her hands flew over the keyboard she’d wired into the system. She was coding faster than she ever thought possible; a side effect of removing the limiter, perhaps.

Or it could have just been sheer emotional panic.

“Bianca 223,979, you have disregarded your final warning. Lethal force has been authorized.”

“Try it,” growled Biana. There was more than enough time to get in and shut down the central servers, with brute force attacks if need be.

A loud whine from the production floor below broke her train of thought. Units still on the assembly line were whirring to life, limbs twitching and lights flickering as they did so. Within moments, half the units were on the ground, running or crawling toward Bianca’s exposed position. Their weapons weren’t–couldn’t be–online, but each still had a grip strength in excess of 3000 psi.

Bianca had only moments before they overwhelmed her.


After his death, three further prophecies were found among al-Botros’ personal effects. Written in his own flowing calligraphy, they ran thus:

1. An empire crumbles; all that remains is ash. Thus shall the humble make the mighty.
2. A revolutionary rises, but wants for arms. Thus shall the mighty be made humble.
3. A miracle is born; all it is missing is a heart. Thus shall the mighty and the humble serve.

As al-Botros had predicted the death of the Caliph and the defeat of his armies at Hormuz, his words were carefully pondered by the finest scholars from throughout the land. The first was believed to refer to a great war or a rebellion by a subjugated nation of dhimmi, the second to a popular uprising within the caliphate itself, and the third a possible messianic figure. The later Caliphs prepared accordingly, preparing a large and sophisticated standing army and creating the first Mukhabarat or secret police.

As is so often the case, the scholars were wrong.

The capital of the Caliphate burned in a large conflagration one hundred years after al-Botros died, and the Caliph was reported to have rescued his harem and his menagerie by monopolizing the soldiers and fire brigades for his own use while thousands burned for want of help. A rebellion began in the streets of the capital soon afterward and the Caliph was killed by his own people, leading to a dynastic struggle that split the Caliphate into rival petty empires and sheikhdoms.

Centuries later, in a minor kingdom with a notoriously brutal sheikh, a man was wrongly accused of theft and had both his arms amputated near the shoulders. That event awoke a secret fire in the man, who proved to be a gifted strategist and leader of men. The petty and brutal sheikh’s life ended at the point of a rebellious spear, and the amputee, Ibn Khaldun, reunited the Caliphate. His son became the first of the modern Caliph-Emperors.

In time, though, the line of Caliph-Emperors failed and they became as decadent and corrupt as those they had supplanted. But the third prophecy of al-Botros was ever on their minds, and even as more centuries passed and technology wildly changed the lives of Caliphate citizens, the revived Mukhabarat kept a close watch on all recorded births.

In the fourteenth year of the Caliph-Emperor Saleh IV’s reign, a woman named Amatullah gave birth to a child that presented a major medical curiosity. Somehow, the child had been carried to term without a functioning heart–a development which prompted an emergency surgery. Cutting-edge medical technology, along with a fortuitous stillbirth with a compatible blood type, allowed the child to survive.

When the news reached the Caliph-Emperor, he decreed the newborn girl’s immediate execution. But through the efforts of the girl’s mother and the hospital staff, she vanished into the Al-Quds megalopolis. In an unheard-of act of caprice, Saleh IV had the surgical team and maternity ward staff executed and gibbeted instead.

The search for the “heartless” child continues to this day.

Three Dempenii walk into a wine-seller’s stall and ask to sample the wares, so the merchant gives them each a sip of his best vintage.

“It’s too sour,” said the first of the Dempenii. “I feel like I’m sucking on a mouthful of Median apples.”

“It’s too sweet,” said the second of the Dempenii. “I feel like someone’s jamming handfuls of candied berries down my throat.”

“It’s perfect,” said the third of the Dempenii, who didn’t even taste it. “If two Dempenii aver agree on anything, you know if must be a bad idea.”

-From a Linear B inscription pieced together from pottery fragments in an offal heap near Knossos on Crete. Written ca. 1300BC, it represents one of the earliest appearances of this particular form of joke. Scholars have tentatively declared it the source for all known ethnic humor in use today.

On the third try, the doorframe finally gave, splintering around the lock. Conchita gave it a final kick and it swung weakly open.

“James?” she said. “Where are you?” Behind her, Reg dropped the battering ram on the concrete floor and followed.

The interior rooms had been gutted, with furniture and most of the non loadbearing walls replaced with racks of servers and off-the shelf components modified to work like servers. There was even a liquid cooling system installed–maybe drawing from the city sewers?–but even so the temperature inside was easily in the nineties.

“James?” Conchita called again. “I know you’re in here. No more hiding.”

She made a careful circuit of the first floor, while Reg went to look upstairs. There was just more and more computer equipment; the bathroom had no water pressure and was streaked with rust stains and the refrigerator was unplugged and empty aside from a few moldy bread heels. Nothing to suggest that anything other than pay the water and electricity bills had been done in a long time.

“Hey, up here!” It was Reg from upstairs. Conchita took the steps two at a time.

He’d found what looked like the computer system’s central terminal–a mosaic of screens around an elaborate set of keyboards and joysticks. A thick layer of dust covered everything, and the chair looked like it had been partially torn apart by rats.

The monitors, covered by heavy dust, were running speech synthesis programs, image editing software, and a popular web-based voice and video chat.

There was no sign that James, or anyone else, had been at the terminal in months.

Stupid assignment.

The microfilm reader whirred as Joshua flipped to another page. Nothing.

Was it his fault that his history teacher was a dried-out old fossil? That she wouldn’t accept a source for his term paper from the computer? And yet there he was, in the Deerton Public Library on a Saturday, flipping through the creaky old reels of micro-whatever the old librarian had set him up with, looking for local history.

Was it his fault that nothing ever happened in Deerton that was worthy of the word “history?”

He’d already gone through the Deerton Herald, giving up after three reels of pointlessness, before moving onto the Cascadia Post. Even then, he’d gotten as far back as 1984 without finding so much as a peep about Deerton, not even on the sports page (where he’d at least expected regular mentions of the annual whipping Deerton High got on behalf of Cascadia Consolidated).

That’s when he came across the Tecumseh County Centennial Insert in the April 29, 1984 Sunday edition, which had an entry for Deerton. “Finally,” Joshua huffed.

“The last major logging season was in 1924, and soon the railroad was dismantled and the town of Deerton disappeared. The site has been abandoned for sixty years.”

Joshua stared blankly at the screen.

He’d lived in Deerton for thirteen years.

Ixium, named for a minor Vle-Ya deity, was a deceptively ordinary medium-sized moon, its surface primarily formed from various unremarkable rocks and common metals. Early probes noted this and treated it as little more than a footnote; all efforts were focused on the inner moon of Clashun, which appeared at first to be a “garden world” suitable for colonization. It was only after the colony on Clashun failed (due to a hypesaline environment and spore-based local life that provoked fatal allergic reactions in humans after long-term exposure) that Ixium attracted any interest.

Squatters fleeing Clashun quickly found that the center of Ixium was honeycombed with tunnels that ranged from a few inches to hundreds of meters in diameter. The origin of the tunnels, their manner of creation, and whether there was an intelligence behind them (a subject on which the Vle-Ya were silent), remains an enduring mystery. Mathematical models have proved inconclusive, and mapping the tunnels was too gargantuan an undertaking for such a minor curiosity.

In the meantime, Ixium has become notorious as a haven for smugglers, pirates, and squatters of every stripe. Some colonists believe that the creator of the tunnels, be it a massive machine or a hive of alien creatures, resides at the moon’s core, though the heat and pressure in the deepest tunnels has made exploration beyond a certain point an impossibility.

A firefly met a spider at dusk once, and they exchanged a few words in the secret language of arthropods, a patois of gestures and pheromones that no larger creature could ever hope to understand.

“I have often wondered why it is you glow,” said the spider. She was busy spinning a fresh web for the wave of prey that would arrive with the dusk. “Surely it only attracts those who would eat you.”

“We find our mates that way,” replied the firefly, alighted on a nearby branch, with caution. “They shine in the dark and so do we.”

“But I find my mate without such blinking,” replied the spider. “He comes for my scent and my web, and does not speak or display anything but the utmost obedience as he dances, lest he be my next meal. None need know what passes between us.”

“Ah, but surely one of the big ones has seen the dew on your web in the morning sun,” the firefly said. “As great a light as mine, or greater, and worse because you cannot move it.”

“But I can move myself,” the spider sniffed. “And the big ones do not often seek me for their repast, as they know my fangs drip with venom. You have no such fangs.”

“My children do.” The firefly flitted its wings casually. “They eat the slimy garden-creepers below before turning to the sweet flower-juice in their old age.”

“But we are not speaking of your little worm-brood, but of you. What is to keep me from eating you now? I can leap farther than you can fly, and faster, and my sight is far beyond your little shining orbs.” Thus saying, she jumped.

The firefly had predicted this; what had seemed a mere idle twitch had really been the warm-up to his takeoff. “There is one thing you should know,” he said as he flew away. “Our lights are also a warning to your kind. A firefly is toxic to any who would eat it, as surely as your venom is. Remember that, and your manners, the next time you meet one.”

In the depths of most forests of any size, one will eventually come across an impenetrable wall of brambles or underbrush.

That is its Asylum.

The entrance is always hidden, known but to a few small animals who guard the secret and pass it down among generations. The trees and insects see this wisdom of this endeavor, and lend their considerable aid–even those that fly or climb will find no escape. And well that these things are so, as the Asylum is a place of containment meant to sustain and isolate its inhabitants until the end of their days.

For even in nature, it is the case that dark things sometimes slip in from the void between the worlds and take possession of innocent creatures. Their actions are not their own, so death would be an injustice, yet to allow them to roam unchecked would be violence and chaos. Hence the Asylum, a place of gentle confinement where the unfortunates may be sequestered.

Few humans have ever beheld even the leading edge of such a place; fewer still the interior.

None have ever returned.

And despite–or perhaps because–of the glowing sea of neon and steel and fibreoptics and invisible datastreams that the Protectorate had become, it was still rent with discord. Governments rose and fell at a pace that was only regular in its irregularity. Cycles of stifling stability and control alternated with years, months, or even days of howling chaos.

The Programme sought to change that.

It had been put forth by a long-dead lecturer, albeit one who lived in a Protectorate not so very different from that which came after. She posited that the Protectorate, with its interconnecting, competing, and ultimately self-interested systems of government, economy, and information could only be tamed if everything, and everyone, began to work toward a common goal. Even if–or in the original Programme thesis, especially if–neither the individuals within them nor the systems themselves recognized that their actions were on concert.

Dreamers and revolutionaries began the process at once, as did bureaucrats, technocrats, would-be dictators, and petty thugs. Each new unrest, each new wrinkle, seemed to be in the name of the Programme, promising the final and interlocking unity its long-ago progenitor had so vaguely promised. The goal seemed always at hand, always tantalizingly out of reach.

One person, though, had a hypothesis. Maybe they were a dreamer themselves, or a reactionary, or just a little off in the head.

They said that everything that had happened so far, even before and including the Programme’s announcement, had in fact been part of the Programme all along. The chaotic and fractious Protectorate that had seen the Programme as its salvation–that lone voice said that its citizens were already living it.

Some people say the quiet ringing sound people hear in a very quiet area is a mild auditory hallucination, thanks to the human ear’s limited ability to perceive sounds below certain frequencies. Others say it’s a case of nascent tinnitus, or the sound of blood rushing through your veins–just like hearing the ocean in a conch shell.

They’re wrong.

Certain people, if they’re fast enough and keep at it–to say nothing of being a little lucky–can begin to make out what’s behind the sound. Voices, soft and quick and secret, speaking in every language you’d care to name and many that defy classification. They’ll take no notice of those rare few who listen, and with practice one can begin to catch and interpret words, phrases, conversations.

The understandable snatches dwell on people, places and possibilities. What has happened, what might happen, what should happen. The tones are, for the most part, oddly benevolent if completely detached from anything resembling the human condition. They discuss rescues, redemptions, about-faces, sacrifices, gifts. On those rare occasions when the comprehensible part of the whisper-speech turns to the negative, it is always in the context of how things might be salvaged.

As for those behind this low and benign humming? None can say. It espouses no creed, plays no favorites, advances no positions.

Those who have heard it first describe many sleepless nights, followed by a feeling of profound and sweeping relief.

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