Scheduling Change

Hello there.  You’re probably wondering where my regular post is for the day.  Well, I’m writing this because I want to announce that I’m scaling back my posting this year.  Instead of posting once a week, I will be posting once a month on the third Wednesday of the month.  Why am I doing this, you ask?  The reason is simple: I need to give myself some breathing room.

A common theme going around is that 2017 wasn’t a good year, for a great many people.  Whether their reasons were political, personal, financial, or otherwise…people just did not like 2017 as a year.  I can safely count myself among those people.

Quite frankly, 2017 left me frustrated, depressed, and above all else, exhausted.

Those who follow my blog know that I spent the last year fulfilling my New Year’s resolution: writing a short story each month, twelve in all.  Well, on top of working all the time and posting a regular blog post each week (aside from the last Wednesday of the month, which was when I’d post the short story of the month), I eventually just found myself drained.  It started feeling less like a passion project and more like contractual obligation.  And I hate that feeling.  I hate that something I feel strongly about became a source of self-imposed misery.  I hate that it happened.  I hate that I let it happen.  But there it is.

Another part of the problem had to do with feedback.  And I don’t mean that people were commenting things like “you suck” or “your writing is trash, you should just kill yourself” on my short stories.  I can deal with that crap, because it’s just garbage posted by people with nothing better to do with their lives.

No…it was the silence that eventually got me.

I think it all really comes back to July.  That month, my grandmother passed away after a long battle with health issues.  I’ve already written at length about it, so I won’t go into too much detail here.  But on top of that, I had also written a short story that I ended up being really proud of.  It was something different, and fun to write.  It was a dialogue heavy story where the majority of the time it was just two people sitting in a room talking.  It was a challenge, but a fun one.  And I was more than satisfied with the final product.  So I posted it at the end of the month.

And didn’t hear anything for almost a week.  Even when I did, it was from one person, and that was it.  I think that, combined with my grandma passing away, is what did me in.  Slowly, but surely, my passion to write waned.  Soon enough, writing the short stories became little more than a chore.  That’s the thing with negative thinking like that: it becomes a vicious feedback loop that sucks you down.

I know that it’s unrealistic of me to expect the people around me to read everything I write.  They’re busy.  They have lives.  But after a while, that logical, reasoning part of my brain lost the fight and the irrational side took over.  And then, it didn’t matter anymore.  It was all just work to finish a task I had set for myself at the beginning of the year.

The people who I care about who are reading this probably feel a little stung after reading those last few paragraphs.  And I hate that too.  I hate that I’m being a selfish turd and complaining about these things.  It makes me feel like I’m being a drama queen.  But in the end, I need to do it.  It’s catharsis…just like when I wrote following my grandma’s death.

Now that the year is finally over, I feel like I can breathe again.  I don’t know if I can call what I was feeling depression, and I don’t want to presume that my stupid problems are such a big deal.  I know they aren’t.  I just…I needed to pour some of this out in a way.  Some of it I put into my final short story for the year, which went up last week.  Quite frankly, there’s more of myself in the main character than I’d care to admit.

I’m still not out of the woods yet.  I need to take time to do a little self-reflection, figure out where I want to go and who I want to be.  Scaling back on the blog is just the first step.  But it’s a step in the right direction at the right time for me.

Anyways, thanks for taking the time to read my self-indulgent ramblings.  Check back on the third Wednesday of the month for my next post.  Let’s look forward to the new year with happy expectations.

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Muse

Welcome to the last of twelve!  It’s been an undertaking, that’s for sure.  If you don’t know, my New Year’s resolution for the year was to write one short story each month, posting them to my blog on the last Wednesday of each month.  But enough self-indulgent nonsense, let’s get right into it.  I present to you, my final short story for the year, “Muse”.

 

Do not ask where he comes from, for he does not know.

Do not ask what he is, for he cannot tell you.

Do not ask his name, for he is Nameless.

He only knows two things: he exists, and he is curious. This curiosity drives him, completely and utterly.

For an incomprehensible amount of time, all The Nameless One knew was the void: a pitch blackness dotted with tiny specks of light. He floated through it aimlessly, no sense of purpose or direction. Then, at some point, he found himself drawn to one of those sources of light. He found a series of rocks, all of different shapes, sizes and colors, that orbited this light. One in particular, a bejeweled rock that glittered colors he had no name for, drew him in.

And he discovered it was not barren, but full of life.

Beings made of a bright, almost spongy material wandered the world, some so tightly packed together in massive networks of metallic structures that it was a wonder they could function at all. Seeing their form: walking around on two large appendages with two other appendages that were able to bend, contract, and grip objects, was one of the strangest things he could ever fathom.

Nevertheless, after a while of observing, he decided to mimic their form as best he could. He focused until his shape better approximated theirs. The two appendages which carried him around felt strange at first, but gradually he became used to them, although they did not bind him as they did the people he observed. He was free to float through the walls of their structures at will; the bonds of gravity only affected him if he willed it so.

The “humans”, as they called themselves, were unable to see him. If they could, they would describe him as a strange entity made of what looked like wispy blue flame. Two smaller flames, made of a lighter shade of blue, appeared to be his approximation of eyes. Nevertheless, his image was a fairly accurate silhouette of a human.

And so he glided from place to place, observing all he could. He became aware of the human obsession with some thin, fragile material called “money” that featured curious notations indicating an amount. The happiness of a great many humans appeared to revolve around acquiring this material and their society was driven by it. And yet, even those who had an immense amount of it were insatiable and desired more.

Things like this baffled him, for it seemed that for every rule humans came up with, there were contradictions. Out in the void, things followed a very rigid pattern. Lights were born, grew, and then died…some by collapsing into an absolute absence of the light they used to give. Yet, humans fluctuated all the time. Even individual members would change over time. Some of those who insisted on money not being the key to happiness would gradually become consumed by a desire for it. It was as if they died and were reborn as something utterly different from what they once were.

It was as if this inconstancy was an innate feature of the species. It made so little sense to the one who had spent an immeasurable watching the cycle of the universe.

And still, he desired to learn more. He had to learn more.

One day, he was wandering through an area of smaller structures where the humans lived when he heard a sound. It constantly rose and fell in pitch, following a very definable rhythm. He knew the sound. It was from a device they called a “piano”, part of some “music” activity which many of them derived pleasure from.

He couldn’t explain it then, but something about that particular noise called to him, beckoned him closer. And so he did, strolling through the wall of one of the houses. Inside was a large, warm colored room with a wooden floor and wallpaper that lined the sides. One lone light stood hanging from the ceiling which lit up the entire room. A large piece of fabric on wooden pegs and sat in the center, a place where humans tended to relax. More fabric lined the floor in front of it, and a rectangular black screen sat on top of a wooden altar. It was currently devoid of light, although The Nameless One had seen other variations that displayed images.

He found the man seated on a hard, black wooden seat. He was hunched over the keys of a large, glossy black piano. He had medium-length reddish hair and was of slightly above average height for a human. His dark green eyes were securely fastened on the ivory keys, his fingers moving over them with ease. The piece he was playing was repetitive, but…alluring in a way.

He wandered around the piano, watching the man play. It was clear he was a younger human, although not so young as to be considered a “child” in their culture. He seemed as if in a trance, absorbed by the task at hand. It was fascinating to him, as he had yet to see a human like that.

Eventually, he sat down on the bench next to him, watching the man’s fingers flow over the keys as though they were liquid. The ease at which the human operated the piano device was utterly fascinating, as if he had been born with a natural aptitude toward using it. It was as though his very purpose was tied to the piano device.

He watched for a while. Then, he shut out all vision, giving himself over to absolute listening. In this state, he let the purity of the sound flow over him. It was an almost intoxicating sensation, listening to the man play.

But he was abruptly shaken out of it when the piano struck an unintended note. His vision rushed back, and The Nameless One turned to the human. The man was staring down at the keys, his fingers clenching.

“Damn it,” he muttered to himself, then picked up a small brown pencil and made some changes on the piece of paper above him. The Nameless One leaned in close to it. The notations were still unknown to him, although he knew they had something to do with the music the man was playing. His best guess was that it was some sort of guide, a set of instructions on how to operate the piano.

The man resumed playing, but struck another bad note. He grumbled again, marking more changes on the sheet.

The scene continued this way for another couple of minutes. The man cursed every time it happened, the growing frustration evident on his features. Eventually, he leaned back and stared forlornly at the keys.

He scoffed.

“Typical. I can’t ever get it right…”

Then, he reached forward and lowered the cover onto the keys. After that, he just sat there staring at his hands.

The Nameless One didn’t want him to stop. He needed him to continue.

Keep playing, he thought, as though the human could hear him.

He reached out, azure fingers of fire encircling the man’s wrist.

Keep playing…

 

Shit,” Daniel Tyner cursed, falling backward and pulling the piano bench with him. The two hit the floor with a loud crash. His head and back throbbed from the impact. He groaned, his legs hanging awkwardly over the fallen bench. Carefully, he swung his legs off and got to his feet. Rubbing the back of his head, he bent over and picked the piano bench up, setting in back in its proper position. As he did, he noticed obvious scuff marks on the wood where it fell.

“Damn it,” he muttered to himself. With a sigh, he let go of the bench and stared at the piano for a moment. He did more of that than he did actual playing these days. He wished he could generate the motivation and desire to play, but it was difficult. And every time he did play, it sounded awful.

What the hell was that anyways, he thought to himself. It was like my wrist caught fire.

He looked out the window. The sun was beginning to set on the cold fall day. Might as well make some supper, he thought, and began walking toward the kitchen.

The light in the living room began to flicker, ever so subtly. Daniel paused and stared at it. But a moment later, it stopped. Probably some random power fluctuation, he thought to himself. Weren’t they working on the line somewhere in the neighborhood? Regardless, he continued making his way through the house.

It wasn’t anything too special. The front door led to an entryway with a staircase leading to the upper floor and a set of doors on either side: one leading to the living room where the piano was, and another leading into the kitchen and dining room area.

Daniel filled a small pot with water and placed it on the black stove, turning the burner on. He reached into the cupboard and pulled out a box of pasta, setting it on the counter nearby. As he waited for the water to boil, he walked into the dining room and sat at the table. He pulled the black laptop that sat nearby closer to him and opened it up, hitting the power button. Once the computer woke from sleep mode, he clicked his way into the web browser and went onto a music sharing site he frequented. Signing into to his profile, he looked to see if any new people had taken a look at his music samples. He clicked into his account page.

For a moment, the computer froze. He tried moving the mouse, but nothing happened. “Come on,” he grumbled, slapping the side of the screen. A moment later, it caught up and loaded the webpage.

The view count on his newest pieces added up to eight, which was the answer he had expected. Daniel sighed, closing the laptop and leaning back in his chair. What was the point of doing any of this if no one ever seemed to notice?

Then quit, a voice in his head said. If you don’t enjoy doing this anymore, then just quit.

But he couldn’t. And he knew he couldn’t. That wasn’t how it worked.

It was something he could never explain to people, even if he tried. There was a constant battle going on inside him. On one side, he knew he played because he had to play. But on the other side, he was afraid to keep going because there was no guarantee it would ever lead anywhere. There was no guarantee that any of it would ever even matter.

Right now, the fearful side was winning. Every time he sat down at the piano, every note he hit seemed to taunt him. Little voices in his head poked and prodded him.

Why are you doing this…

There’s no point to this…

Everybody knows your music sucks…they just don’t have the heart to tell you…

A faint gurgling reached his ears. The pot was ready.

Daniel got up from his seat and went over to the stove, opening the box of pasta and dumping it into the pot. He set a timer and started stirring.

A long time ago, things had been different. Daniel discovered a passion for the piano at a very young age. At twelve, he was playing Beethoven. At fourteen, he was playing Debussy. By the time he graduated high school, he knew them all and played them all. Classical music had always been a source of inspiration for him, and it was only a matter of time before he attempted making his own.

He used to play for his friends when they came over. Every now and then, when they were just sitting around, he would hop on the piano and play a tune. And they liked it. They kept saying he had a natural talent and that he should pursue it.

And he did. Five years of college and what did that get him? A framed piece of paper and thirty thousand dollars of debt.

“Back in my day,” he imagined some old person saying, “I worked a part-time job during the summer to pay for my college tuition. You young people today are just so entitled and lazy”.

Yes, everything was better back in the good ol’ days, he thought with thinly veiled sarcasm. Back then you could vote for politicians who would cripple the economy and not have to take any responsibility for it. Yep…everything was so great back then.

Once he finished making the pasta he dished it up on a plate and grabbed a soda from the fridge. Sitting down at the table, he began to eat. Eventually, his eyes drifted to a cruddy looking cardboard box in the corner of the room.

He remembered.

“Ah crap,” Daniel muttered aloud. Tomorrow Melanie was coming over to pick up some of the things she forgot when she moved out. The two of them had been dating for about a year when they broke up. He didn’t really know why they did.

But it was probably his fault. It usually was.

In any case, he would have to go around and collect the things she left behind. It was simple things: a hairbrush, hair curler, blow dryer…that kind of stuff. He would put it in the box so that she wouldn’t have to stay long. He imagined she would prefer it that way.

When he was done eating he placed his dish in the dishwasher and plopped the soda can in the recycling bin. He took a final look at the empty cardboard box and sighed.

 

Saturday.

He was sitting at the piano when he heard the knocks: three short raps on the front door. With a sigh, Daniel picked himself up off the bench and walked to the door. A brunette woman with long hair and bright blue eyes stood on the front steps as he opened it. The once, soft gaze had been replaced by something akin to hardened steel.

“I’m here for my stuff,” Melanie Watkins said flatly. He stepped aside and motioned her in.

“It’s in the kitchen,” he replied as she walked past him. A moment later she came back, cardboard box in her arms.

She was halfway down the front steps when suddenly she stopped in her tracks. The light breeze blew back her dark brown hair, whipping it about her face. The scene reminded Daniel of what drew him to her in the first place. A moment later, Melanie let out a sigh and put the box down.

“Why do you always do this Daniel,” she asked. When she turned to look at him, there was a genuine expression on her face.

“Do…what,” he asked.

She motioned with her arms.

This,” she emphasized. “This whole…thing. I can tell all you’ve been doing since I left is moping around the house.”

He scoffed.

“I’m not moping,” he said. It was a bad lie, and they both knew it.

“I just…” Melanie paused, looking down at her feet for a second. “I just want you to be happy,” she finished, looking back up at him.

“Well you sure have a hell of a way of showing it,” Daniel shot back before he realized he was saying it. A look of hurt flickered in her eyes for a brief second before it vanished.

“I suppose I deserve that,” she said, glancing at her hands

The brisk fall wind was the only sound for a while…the bright light of the sun hanging high in the sky. The trees had begun to change color: from green to yellow and orange.

“How did this happen,” she asked. “Why did this happen to us?”

“I don’t know,” Daniel admitted.

“I cared about you Daniel…I still care about you. Why couldn’t you just let me in?”

Suddenly, and inexplicably, Daniel saw red.

“Why couldn’t I let you in? I tried letting you in! You just didn’t care,” he fired back, his voice rising.

“That’s not fair,” she insisted.

“Isn’t it?” He pointed to the living room. “I sat you down in front of that piano! I played for you! Don’t make it sound like I made no effort when you know damn well I did.”

“Well maybe I’d be more interested if you didn’t play the same songs all the damn time,” Melanie shot back.

“Those are the songs I grew up with! Those are the songs I love! They help me focus! And how the hell would you know what songs I play Mel, when you barely paid any attention?!”

“Oh that’s rich…blame it all on me.”

“I never said-”

“This is so typical of you Dan. You just keep pushing people away.”

“Because we all know the way to a man’s heart is to take a dump on the things he loves,” Daniel fired back.

Melanie glared at him. This was not going to end well.

 

The Nameless One watched as the two humans flung words back and forth. His time among their race meant that he could understand what they were saying, but it still was difficult untangling their meaning, especially when they were shouting faster and faster. Their voices kept rising in such a discordant way that he wanted nothing more than to leave.

But he couldn’t. Something about this human…the way he cloaked himself in an aura of sadness…compelled him to stay…compelled him to help.

However, at the moment, he wanted to go away. He wanted them to stop.

He just wanted them to stop…

 

“-never think about the things I want to do!”

“Wow that’s not selfish at all.”

“Oh and you’re not selfish?! Jesus Christ Dan, you spend so much goddamn time on that piano that it’s no wonder you can’t keep a girlfriend…you hardly know how to!”

Daniel gave her a harsh look.

“You know what Mel…you really are an uptight bi-”

A sharp pop from behind them cut him off, causing them both to jump.

Jesus,” Melanie cried out. Daniel turned around and saw the shards of glass littering the floor. He looked up and saw that the light bulb in the entryway had spontaneously shattered. Jagged edges of glass and a sad-looking filament was all that remained.

“What the hell did that,” he heard Melanie ask behind him.

“No idea,” he mumbled.

There was a long period of silence where he just stared at the shattered bulb.

“Look I’m…I’m just gonna go,” she said.

“Yeah that’s probably a good idea,” he replied. But he could already hear her retreating footsteps. He turned around and watched as she got into the car and drove off. Well that went about as well as expected, he thought as he closed the door. Going into the kitchen, Daniel dug around in the drawers for a little while before giving up and sighing. No spare bulbs, he thought. Looks like I’m gonna have to go out and get one.

The thought irritated him, because he was hoping to be able to spend the weekend at home and not go anywhere. For a moment, it struck him how stupid it all was…such a minor thing, but it kept getting under his skin.

Once that realization hit, it only made him feel worse. It was a feedback loop with no end…

 

Monday. At least…he figured it was a Monday from his understanding of human time.

The days following his observations of the human known as Daniel greatly perturbed him…perturbed him in a way he never even thought possible. He need time to think.

The light bulb…had he done that? In the moment, he had felt the light. He had felt the heat. He had felt the slithering, snaking charge of electricity running through the walls that gave it power. But at the same time, he just wanted it all to go away.

And it did. The bulb exploded…and silence reigned.

Now he knew he could affect their world. But what could he do with such a power?

He wandered through the nearby city, watching as the humans went about their daily business. But somehow, this time it was of little interest to him. It was of little consequence. All of his thoughts were turned to Daniel. He wanted to help him somehow.

But first…he needed to better understand the phenomenon of music.

When he had first arrived on the planet, music all seemed the same to him. He had observed that humans derived pleasure from it to varying degrees. Some, like Daniel, were compelled to create it. But at the time, he was unable to really differentiate between the different styles. He observed it on a general level, focusing on how the humans interacted with it.

Things were different now.

He watched a television in a place where humans gathered to eat in large numbers. It had initially shown some type of game where the participants carried some kind of oblong shaped object across a field of grass. It was a very violent-looking game, the players slamming into each other in an attempt to retrieve the object for their side.

But there was an intermediary period focused entirely on a display of music.

The singer was a human female, dressed in a revealing black outfit that sparkled like glitter under the intense lighting. The music itself was rapid fire, repetitive beats in a steady rhythm. He had never paid much attention to it before. Music was just music to him…something to be observed and recorded. But now? Now he found he actually disliked this particular variety.

He couldn’t explain why, but as he watched the humans on the screen dance and twist their bodies in seemingly unnatural ways, he found that he had no desire to listen.

A proper human description would be that he found the music, “obnoxious”.

So he stepped out into the bustling streets of the city, feeling a pleasant sensation at being away from the noise. To him, it was as though the music felt…artificial. It seemed obvious it was created for some primary purpose other than the simple act of creation itself. It was clear there was some other motivation driving it, and the creation of the music was of secondary importance.

The form did not matter, it was simply a means to an end.

Even the humans playing stringed instruments on the street corners failed to hold enough appeal to him. He could feel their passion for the creation of music. He could hear it in their voices as they sang. But no matter where he went, nothing had the same effect on him as hearing Daniel play the piano.

It was as though there was some purpose for him, something that called him to Daniel…but he could not ascertain exactly what it was. Nevertheless, he knew what the first step had to be.

He had to reach out and inspire Daniel to keep playing.

 

Tuesday.

The gas station where Daniel worked was nothing particularly special. It was one of those large chain stations that felt the need to have five different locations within the same city. It functioned as a poor man’s grocery store as well, carrying items like milk and butter as well as all the sugary garbage customers could want.

The job was simple: punch in, get behind the counter, fire up the cash register, and wait. Someone comes up, ring up whatever items they grabbed from inside as well as whatever gas they might have, then take their cash or card and send them on their way.

And today was no different. It was clockwork…horrible clockwork.

A couple of hours into his shift, Daniel noticed a woman coming toward the register. She had curly, reddish hair, a fairly plump body, and dull brown eyes. The black cell phone looked like a tumor growing out the side of her head.

She slapped a candy bar and a box of doughnuts onto the counter.

“Any gas ma’am,” he asked as he began scanning the items.

“Pump four,” she said, then immediately returned to her phone conversation. As Daniel rang up the total, he caught a snippet of her conversation.

“-not even out of high school yet and is already thinking of where he’s going to go for college.” She said that last word with such distaste that Daniel imagined she would spit up bile…acidic bile that would burn through straight through the counter. “Says he wants to be a writer. Typical nephew…always with his head in the clouds. I told my brother-in-law that kid should learn a trade, get a real job and contribute to society!”

“That’ll be thirty-three, seventeen,” Daniel told her. “Cash or credit?”

She evidently didn’t hear him.

“I mean he’s a mechanic right? He should take the boy into work with him and show him the ropes. That way he sees what actual work is like and stops with this ‘writing’ nonsense.”

Daniel raised his voice a little.

“Cash or credit ma’am?”

She shot him a look, then pulled her wallet out of her jeans pocket and dropped a credit card on the counter, sliding it across to him. Daniel stared at it blankly for a second, then picked it up and leaned over the counter, sliding it into the credit card machine on the other end. It beeped, letting him know it worked.

“Credit or debit?”

No response. The woman kept blabbing away on her phone. Daniel fought against the urge to groan aloud.

“Credit or debit,” he repeated, making sure to enunciate.

The woman sighed again, then pressed a button on the machine. A moment later she picked up the stylus and signed the screen. Daniel pressed a button to confirm and the receipt began printing out next to the register. He tore it off.

“Would you like your-” he began, but the woman was already halfway out the door.

“-wrong with society these days. Kids are too lazy. They want everything handed to them. I remember when my parents were young they…” Her words faded out as the door shut behind her. Another customer, this time a man, walked up to the register with a bag of candy in his hand and asked for a pack of cigarettes.

As he rang up the items, Daniel’s thoughts turned to the boy the woman was discussing over the phone. Poor kid, he thought. All he wants to do is have a dream. But soon he’ll grow up and realize that the world wants nothing to do with that dream. The world just wants to mold another mindless drone for the workforce. Dreams don’t matter…unless they’re profitable.

Hours passed. The sun had already dipped below the sky when he punched out and exited the station. He got into his car and stared at the steering wheel for a minute. How had it come to this? When did he get so bitter? When did he give up on his dream?

But of course, he knew the answer: when he let it all get to him…when he let it wear him down.

He turned the key in the ignition and the car sputtered to life. Slowly, Daniel pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road, the dim yellow lights of the streetlamps casting shadows across his face as he drove home…

 

Friday. At least it was something different for once.

Daniel had taken the day off of work and decided to head into the countryside. He liked the trees and the open air. There was something about the sounds of nature that had always made him feel at ease.

He made his way to an old train station outside of the city, which was now used as part of a historic train museum. Friday through Sunday, during the summer and fall, a scenic train ride was offered. This was one of the last weekends it was available, and Daniel wanted to take advantage of it. He had ridden it many times before, but it held a particular charm for him. Maybe it was the beauty of nature passing by the window. Maybe it was the nostalgia, the memories of going here when he was a kid. Maybe it was the chance to get a break from the routine.

Or maybe he just wanted to get out of the house. Things had been behaving oddly. Lights would flicker. The TV would randomly turn itself off while he was watching. Even his laptop continued to freeze up from time to time and strange, visual glitches would appear on screen.

He couldn’t explain it, but it unnerved him…like there was a ghost in the house.

In any case, he had bought his ticket the day before so he boarded without much of a wait. The train was made up of three separate rail cars. He picked a seat in the rear car, near the middle. To his pleasant surprise, no one sat next to him. A couple of younger girls, probably around college age, sat in the seats in front of him but he could always just tune them out.

It was only about ten minutes before the train left the station. Daniel watched as the old, metal structure slid away from him, replaced by serene pine trees. The train chugged along slowly, the floor vibrating beneath his feet. There was a pattern to it, a rhythm that he liked.

Daniel closed his eyes, shutting out everything except the sound of the train itself.

Cha-chug…cha-chug…cha-chug

It got faster and faster as the train picked up speed.

Cha-chug cha-chug cha-chug

His fingers drummed against the windowsill of their own accord, mimicking the rhythm of the train. He was focused intently on the pattern, using the train as a makeshift metronome.

Tick tick tick

Cha-chug cha-chug cha-chug

Tick tick tick…

“Hey, can you stop that?”

Daniel’s eyes snapped open. One of the girls sitting in front of him had turned around and was glaring at him.

“Wha…what,” he stammered.

“Stop making that noise! It’s annoying,” she said.

“I…I don’t-” he sputtered. The girl sighed.

“Stop doing that thing with your hands,” she explained.

Daniel glanced at his hand on the windowsill.

“Oh,” he said. “Sorry.”

The girl turned around and let out an exasperated sigh.

“Ugh,” she huffed. “Some people right?”

Ashamed, Daniel glanced down at his feet.

Either I’m invisible or I annoy people, he thought. I can’t do anything right…

 

The seat next to Daniel was anything but empty. The Nameless One sat across from him, watching in fascination as he tapped his fingers against the windowsill. He could see the pattern in it, and made the connection to the sound of the train.

“Hey, can you stop that?”

He watched as the human female sitting up in front of them turned around and admonished Daniel. He tried to apologize, but could only utter half-words and incomplete sentences. The girl was clearly frustrated. Eventually, she turned back around in her seat.

“Ugh,” she said aloud. “Some people right?”

Something pulsed within him. It burned, compelled him to do something.

Anger, they called it? He wasn’t sure. Distaste maybe…that was a better word.

He reached out, an wispy hand of azure flame extending forward, encircling the human female’s bright strands of hair…

 

Oww!

There was a brief rustling noise.

“What the hell, why did you do that?!”

Daniel turned to see the girl glaring at him again.

“I’m talking to you, prick! Why did you pull on my hair?!”

He gave her a blank stare.

“What are you talking about? I didn’t do anything.”

“Well there’s no one else back here…what did a ghost pull my hair?”

“Maybe your hair got caught on your seat,” Daniel offered, trying his best to be helpful.

The girl scoffed.

“Stop trying to deny it…I know you pulled my hair you creep!”

“Ma’am?” Daniel turned to see one of the train conductors standing nearby. He was an older man with gray hair and blue eyes, wearing an old-fashioned black uniform. “I’ve been standing here the whole time…and I can tell you for certain that this gentleman did not lay a hand on you.”

“Well then who did?!”

The conductor shrugged.

“Maybe he was right and it got caught in the chair.”

The girl scoffed again.

“This is ridiculous. I can’t believe you’re defending this…this pervert!

The conductor’s eyes hardened.

“Ma’am, from where I’m standing, you’re the only one causing a problem. Now…I can find another seat for you two if you like.”

“That’s fine by me,” the girl said, briskly standing up. She stole a harsh glare at Daniel. “Creepo,” she spat at him.

Just then, the old man’s eyes flared.

“Lady,” he said, dropping the previously friendly tone, “I can throw you and your friend off this train if you like. Is that what you want?”

The girl averted her gaze and let out a huff.

“No,” she muttered eventually.

“Good,” the conductor replied. “Now, I’ll guide you to your new seat. Please…do mind your manners from here on.”

The old man escorted the two into the next train car. Daniel turned his attention back to the window…gazing out at the trees as they whipped past. A moment later, the trees opened up and he could see across a large, clear lake. The blue water sparkled under the sun, as though it had little white crystals of light hiding just beneath the surface.

Daniel had always liked the water. Something about the sound of waves crashing against the shoreline was the epitome of peace…

The rest of the train ride was uneventful. As Daniel disembarked, the incident with the girl kept running itself over and over again in his mind. It wasn’t his fault. He stopped drumming his fingers on the windowsill once she asked him to.

But like always, he’d beat himself up over it for hours to come…

 

Monday.

“Gah…”

With every stroke of the ivory keys, Daniel’s face contorted itself into an expression of pain. The Nameless One had watched this happen for the last few days. And it only seemed to be getting worse.

Ow! God…damn it.”

With a grimace, Daniel rubbed his right hand softly. Then, he tried one more time. He got a little further in the song this time, but the pain seemed to only intensify. Finally, he gave up. With a look somewhere between pain and frustration, Daniel lowered the cover onto the keys.

The Nameless One sat still as Daniel looked down at his hand for a long time. He flexed it for a moment, grimacing as he did so. Then, he stood up and walked away into the kitchen. The defeat and sadness in his gait was evident.

It wasn’t clear what was happening, but even he could tell something was seriously wrong…

 

“Fuck,” Daniel muttered, the pain in his hand making it hard to lift a pot out of the cupboard What the hell, he thought to himself. This has been going on for days now.

He set the pot down on the burner with gritted teeth. Things were not going well. Everyday chores were now almost unbearable with the pain in his hand. Playing the piano was nothing but impossible. Each stroke of the keys felt like a needle piercing his wrist.

Daniel knew he should go to the doctor. Pain like this wasn’t supposed to last for days on end. Something was wrong. He was certain of it.

But what of the bill? He wasn’t sure how much his insurance would actually cover. He had barely ever had to use it. The thought of getting a receipt for hundreds of dollars was terrifying to him. He could barely afford house payments as it was. Originally, he and Melanie were splitting the cost. But that was clearly no longer in the cards.

He could ask his parents for help. They wouldn’t turn him away. They had already basically paid his way through college.

A drain…that’s all he was. A drain on their wallets…

Cooking his meal took nearly twice as long as it should have. Once he was finally sitting at the table and eating, he thought he could relax. But the pain was still there. Even something as little as lifting a fork caused him discomfort.

After a while, he glanced at the cellphone lying on the nearby counter. With a heavy sigh, he stood up from the table. It had to be done…

 

Tuesday.

“There’s no doubt about it, it’s Carpal Tunnel.”

Daniel stared straight ahead at the white wall, a vacant look in his eyes. He could barely even register the words for a moment.

“Are…are you sure,” he asked finally.

“The tests are conclusive Mr. Tyner.”

“But…but how? All I do is play the piano.”

“It’s actually more common than you think,” the doctor explained. The man was of average height with a bald head and thin-rimmed glasses. He was wearing a white lab coat. “Repetitive use of your wrist in a particular way tends to cause the syndrome. Actions like playing the piano, for instance, rely on these heavily repetitive acts. Fortunately, your case is not severe.”

Daniel was silent for a moment.

“How will I play,” he asked.

The doctor shook his head.

“You won’t. You can’t. If you continue attempting to play in this condition, you will only make things worse. We’ll get you fitted with a brace to keep your wrist in the proper position.”

“How long will it last?”

“Well…it varies…but with your symptoms, I would guess a month.”

“A month?”

“At the very least.”

Daniel lowered his head, staring at his hands.

“A whole month,” he mumbled to himself, stunned.

“Don’t fret about it too much,” the doctor said. “With cases like yours, a full recovery is all but certain.”

Daniel barely heard him.

A month…

The words kept spinning around in his head.

A month

A month

A month

At the very least…

“I’ll be right back. And then we’ll get going on that brace, okay?”

“Okay,” Daniel said, his voice nearly a whisper.

Once the doctor was gone, Daniel could only stare at the ground. It was just so perfect. The one thing he enjoyed, the one thing that gave him purpose…and it was gone.

Despite all the frustration, the blocks, and the unfinished songs…playing the piano was, in a lot of ways, the only thing that kept him going. It was the only thing that made him feel like he was worth it. It was the only thing that he really had. He certainly had no other talents. He was terrible at social interaction. His failed relationship with Melanie was proof of that. Playing the piano was the one thing he felt like he was actually good at.

Well…on days when he could pull himself out of his self-imposed misery long enough to do it.

I had a chance, Daniel thought, and all I did was waste my time. With my luck, this shit will end up being permanent.

It felt like an eternity before the doctor finally came back. He left the hospital a half hour later, a white hunk of plaster wrapped over his right wrist. The cold wind chilled his face, hinting at the coming onslaught of winter. That’ll be fun, he thought. Cooped up in the house for months with nothing to do besides watch television. I’m sure looking forward to that.

At least my sarcasm will keep me company…

 

Wednesday. Thursday. Friday.

A whole week went by. Then another.

The Nameless One watched as Daniel woke, went to work, came back and slept. Nothing ever changed. His face was always the same. His routine was always the same.

But even then, there were subtle changes.

For those first few days after the doctor visit, Daniel spent a lot of time sitting in front of the piano, looking at it with a forlorn expression. He could tell Daniel wanted to play, needed to play. But it had been taken from him by something out of his control. Before, it had been his own frustration that was blocking him from progressing with his music. Now, his own hand had turned against him.

And Daniel knew it…that much he could tell. But whatever will had kept him playing even when inspiration seemed thin was gone. He spent most of his time sitting on the couch, watching the television…his vacant, sad eyes lit by bright liquid crystal displays. They were mostly vapid wastes of space…but every once in a while something about music would pop up. That was the only time he saw a reaction in Daniel. And it only hurt him more.

He ate. He slept. He worked. But it was as if the human known as Daniel was fading…being slowly replaced by a husk consumed with routine.

After two weeks, The Nameless One had seen enough. One night, he was standing at Daniel’s bedside, searching for something he could do.

He knew he had power. The light bulb…the girl on the train…he had demonstrated the ability to affect things, even if he couldn’t be seen. He had no way of understanding it, had no others like him that he could turn to. It was like instinct. And now, he was wondering…could he use that same instinct to heal Daniel?

He reached out again, focusing as much as he could. Blue, fiery fingers disappeared through the plaster of Daniel’s cast. And he could see it, the ribbons of muscle and flesh that made up his wrist. He could feel the tightness, the pain.

In one swift motion, he wished it all away…

 

The sharp blaring of the alarm pulled Daniel out of his dreamless sleep. With groggy eyes, he lifted his left hand and slapped the snooze button. Ugh, he thought, seven already? Feels like I barely got any sleep.

But that was common these days. How much time had actually passed since that doctor visit anyways? Weeks? Months? He could barely tell time anymore. Day after day it was the same damn thing. He woke up, took a shower, went to work, came back, ate and slept. Oh, and watched TV. He had watched more TV than he ever wanted to.

Getting out of bed, Daniel wrapped the brace in a plastic bag and made his way into the bathroom. But he didn’t watch where he was going and slammed his bad hand against the door frame.

“Gah,” he yelled aloud. “Fucking hell!”

He paused, gazing down at his wrist. Strange…there was no pain.

Then, a crazy thought occurred to him. He began attempting to flex his wrist. The cast held it firmly in place, but he could feel it shifting slightly. Still no pain…

A moment passed. Then he tore the bag off his hand and dashed for the phone.

 

“I…I’ve never seen anything like this.” The doctor was dumbfounded. “It’s as if the carpal tunnel never existed in the first place.”

“But how,” Daniel asked.

“I honestly can’t say. Maybe your condition wasn’t as severe as I thought and you healed quicker as a result. That would be the most logical conclusion.”

There was something in the doctor’s tone that bothered him.

“But what, doctor? What else is there,” he asked.

“Well…” the doctor began. Then he shook his head. “No…you’d think I was crazy.”

“Try me,” Daniel said.

“It’s like you’ve been…healed. You haven’t gone to any…mystical people or anything like that, have you?”

“…No.”

“I thought not,” the doctor said. “You didn’t strike me as the type who believed in that sort of junk. If you had and it had actually worked, I’d have to start seriously reconsidering my career. But even so…this is something I cannot explain.”

A crazy idea began to take shape in Daniel’s head. There was something that had been bothering him for the last few weeks. Lights had been turning off and on in the house. Electrical things had started acting funny. And then, there was the light bulb exploding. It was like he had a ghost in his house.

A ghost…

Daniel stood up suddenly.

“Are we done here,” he asked hastily.

“I do believe so…just give us a call if you need to make another appointment.”

“Will do,” he replied, already halfway out the door.

 

The front door slowly closed behind him as he stood still in the center of the foyer. There was nothing but silence.

“Hello,” Daniel asked aloud. “Is there anybody here?”

No answer. Of course not, he thought to himself. I’m just being stupid.

And yet, he couldn’t deny all of the strangeness that had happened over the last few weeks: the light bulb exploding, his laptop behaving erratically, even the girl on the train having her hair pulled from behind. It seemed ridiculous. There was a completely rational explanation for all of those things.

But sometimes, life was anything but rational.

“I know you’re here,” Daniel said to the seemingly empty house. “Can you show yourself?”

For a moment, there was nothing. Then suddenly, the light bulb above him began to flicker. A brief pang of fear hit him, as he was afraid it might explode again. But it didn’t. Daniel watched the flicker, certain there was something oddly familiar about it.

He heard a click. Voices came from the next room.

“-when a pickup truck lost control on Highway 4 and spun across the median into on-coming traffic, colliding with a four-door sedan. Four people were involved in the crash. There were no fatalities, but the driver of the pickup truck was taken to the hospital with possible life threatening injuries.”

Daniel walked through the doorway. The flat screen television he had spent so many hours staring at over the past couple of weeks had turned on as if of its own accord. A woman with blond hair and hazel eyes, wearing a black blazer, was droning on about the day’s traffic accidents.

The television clicked off. A sudden change in lighting drew Daniel’s eye. The light fixture situated above the piano was flickering, as if something was affecting it with its mere presence. He walked toward it, squinting. The flickering had a strange timing to it…a pattern. He knew it…but from where?

Tick…tick…tick…

It all fell into place. The rhythm the light was flickering to…it was the same exact rhythm of the song he had been trying to write for months now.

He had to be dreaming. It was impossible.

And yet, it made sense…somehow.

Daniel had gotten the sense a number of times over the past month that he was being watched. Only, whenever he turned, there was no one there. But still, the hairs on his arm would stand on end, his skin prickled with goosebumps.

Something was in the house with him. But why?

Operating on an almost dream-like instinct, Daniel sat down at the piano and lifted the cover off the keys. It had only been a couple weeks since he touched the thing, but it looked dusty and forgotten. He brushed off the keys and looked up at the unfinished sheet of music still sitting there. Even now, he couldn’t visualize the end of it. But something was compelling him to try.

It was a slight tingling at first, concentrated around his cheeks. Then, it gradually moved to his shoulders, growing into an almost uncomfortable sensation of warmth. He had a flash, an image in his mind of hands made of blue fire. The sensation grew stronger and stronger until-

 

Two became one.

“What…what is this?”

It does not matter

“What…are you?”

It does not matter

“It matters to me. How long have you been watching me?”

Long enough

“So what…you just invaded my house without asking? Did you even stop for a moment to consider that I might value my privacy?”

Privacy? I do not understand that word

“Of course you don’t.”

It does not matter

“What does matter then?”

Keep playing…

“I-I’ve tried. I can’t. Every time I start to play, I just hit a block and I-”

Keep playing…

“I just told you. I can’t. I-”

The warm sensation grew stronger. Daniel felt his muscles relax of their own accord.

Do not focus on the prospects of failure. Do not focus on the fear of disappointing those whose opinions you give great power. None of that matters. All that matters…is the music. Keep playing…

“But how will I know if it’s right?”

Right or wrong have no meaning. Just keep playing…

 

Daniel laid his fingers on the ivory keys, feeling an intense wave of trepidation as he did so. The familiar voices reared up in his mind.

You’ll never succeed…

There is only disappointment if you keep trying…

No one will ever-

And then suddenly, they vanished. It was as if they had been swept aside by a cascading flood, washed away into oblivion. Instead, there was only one voice, powerful and clear.

Keep playing…

He pushed a key down. A powerful, strong note of music filled the room, echoing off the walls.

And then, his fingers grew a mind of their own. The music flowed effortlessly and perfectly, without hesitation or provocation. He could feel the song in the air, could see the progression as if it was just natural and instinctive. The notes seemed to float in the air in front of him, little black stems flying past as he played. All other colors in the room seemed to fade and grow dull while the piano and its keys grew stronger in hue, sharp and focused.

For a moment, he thought he must be having a stroke or something. He figured he would wake up on the floor, numb and drooling. But it never happened. And the music just kept coming.

It was so perfect. And then, it was over.

Daniel lifted his fingers off the key, feeling the stress just washing away.

That’s it…you did it. Just keep playing…keep playing and you’ll be happy…

He stared at the keys for a long time in silence, his body tingling with wonder.

“But why did you help me,” he asked.

There was no answer. Whatever it was had gone.

But what it left behind was more important…

 

Things happened quickly after that.

Daniel finally managed to hammer out a full album of piano music and posted it online. It didn’t get much traction for the first two or three weeks. But then, after being featured on a prominent music blog, things exploded faster than he could react. Suddenly, his music had hundreds of views. Then thousands.

It was more than he knew what to do with.

A local music store began selling physical copies of his music. Daniel even held a couple of signings. Virtually overnight, he had become a local celebrity.

It was late December now, and Daniel had just finished writing a new song. With a smile, he lowered the cover onto the keys and gazed out the window. It was certainly going to be a white Christmas this year. Even now, large clumps of white powder were falling from the sky, blanketing the suburbs.

He was even okay with the regurgitated, commercialized Christmas music playing everywhere this time of year. Nothing could bother him now that he found his purpose again.

A pounding noise came from the entryway. Someone was at the door. He went to open it.

Standing on the front steps, clad in a bright red coat dripping with snow, was Melanie.

“Hi…Daniel,” she said, her voice a little sheepish.

“Hey Mel,” he said.

There was a brief silence.

“I…I understand if you don’t want to see me right now,” she said, her eyes downcast. “We didn’t exactly leave things on the best of terms last time.”

Daniel waved it off.

“Ah…that’s all in the past,” he said. “Come on in.”

Melanie looked surprised, but a moment later stepped in, stomping her boots on the carpet and pulling them off along with her coat. She followed him into the kitchen as he grabbed a glass of water. A minute later, they were both sitting at the dining room table.

“I’m glad to see you’re doing better,” Melanie said. “I saw one of your CD’s at the music store the other day and I knew I had to buy it. I’m going to listen to it on my way to my parent’s house for Christmas.”

“Oh yeah, don’t they live like three hours south of here,” Daniel asked.

“Yeah…it’ll be a long drive, especially with the holiday traffic. But I’m looking forward to it. After all, I’ve got your music to keep me company.”

Daniel took a drink of water.

“I hope I don’t seem too forward…but what changed,” Melanie asked. “When we broke up, you were so distant and withdrawn. Now…it’s like you’re a completely different person.”

Daniel set the glass down. It took him a moment to find the words.

“I think it was time,” he said, looking up at her. “That’s all.”

“You must hate me,” she said, her eyes drifting downward. “After the way I treated you, I couldn’t blame you if you did.”

“No no Mel,” he assured her, placing his hand on top of hers. “The only person I hated was myself.”

“What do you mean,” she asked, meeting his gaze.

Daniel sighed.

“It’s…difficult to explain. But for the longest time, I couldn’t write any music. There were all these little voices in my head, telling me that I was just going to fail and disappoint everyone. And I listened to those voices. I let them get to me.”

“And now?”

“Now…I think I finally managed to silence them. I realized that it’s not about success or failure or disappointment…it’s about doing what you want to do. And if success comes from that, then it’s just a nice by-product.”

Daniel shrugged.

“Of course that’s easy for me to say now,” he added, “given that I’m so rich and famous.”

Melanie laughed.

“Yeah…you’re a regular celebrity.”

“Ha…piano music will never be as popular as I want it to be. But even so, there’s still an audience for it.”

“Maybe you should branch out a little,” Melanie suggested. “Start adding lyrics or maybe some other instruments. I know this one group that got really big online. They fused familiar classic music with things like electronic rock. Maybe there’s something in that for you.”

Daniel’s eyes lit up.

“You know what? That’s a great idea Mel. Thank you for supporting me.”

“It’s the least I could do…after everything that happened between us.” She paused for a moment. “Speaking of which…do you think there’s a chance we could make it work again? I mean…between us?”

Daniel smiled at her, a wide and pleasant grin.

“No,” he said.

Her mouth quivered in confusion.

“Wha…why,” she stammered.

“It just wouldn’t work out,” he explained. “I know that, and I think you do too.”

“Was…was it something I said?”

“No no…things are never that simple. It wasn’t you. It wasn’t me. It was both of us.”

“What do you mean,” she asked.

Daniel thought for a moment.

“I think…what it comes down to…is that we both wanted something that the other couldn’t give.”

Melanie nodded.

“That’s pretty profound.” She flashed him a sly smile. “So, where’d you get that line from? A movie?”

They both laughed. Daniel looked her right in the eyes.

“I could see us still being friends though,” he said.

She smiled at him.

“I’d like that.”

A profound silence passed between them. Then, Melanie pulled her cell phone out of her pocket, glancing at the screen.

“Well…I should probably hit the road,” she said, getting up from the table. “I’ve got a long drive ahead of me.”

“That you do,” Daniel said. He got up and escorted her to the door. She slipped her boots and coat on. A minute later, they were standing on the front steps again.

“What are you doing for Christmas,” she asked. “Going to see your parents?”

He shook his head.

“Nah,” he replied.

“What? That’s sad…you’re going to be alone for the holidays?”

He shook his head again.

“No…they’re coming up here.” He grinned. “We’re going to celebrate my newfound stardom.”

Melanie laughed again.

“That sounds nice,” she said. She smiled at him for a moment. “Well, I’d best be going. See you in the new year!”

Daniel waved at her as she got into her car. It fired to life a moment later and then it drove off out of sight. But Daniel didn’t go inside right away. Instead, he stood on the steps and turned his head to the sky, watching the snowflakes fall to the ground.

He still wasn’t sure if what happened to him that day actually happened, if there was actually someone or some thing that wanted to help him find his passion for music again. It could have easily been a dream, a figment of his imagination. But in the end, Daniel knew it didn’t matter. Whatever it was, it helped him turn the page on one chapter in his life and begin another.

A minute later, Daniel stepped back inside the warm house and closed the door.

 

Months passed.

Somewhere else, in a small, one bedroom apartment, a young man was painting. But he wasn’t having a good time of it. Every little bit he painted looked like nothing more than a third grader’s art project. He lowered his brush from the canvas with a sigh.

The sound of the television in the background grabbed his attention. Normally it was just white noise to help him concentrate. But now, something was drawing him in.

“Welcome back, and good morning,” a brunette woman with a red dress was saying. “We are joined today by a local man who has made a name for himself over the last year. He started off by making traditional piano music, but his latest album fuses classical piano with the stylings of modern electronic music to create something truly unique. Please welcome, as a guest to our show, Daniel Tyner!”

The show cut to a wide shot, showing a man with dark green eyes and reddish hair sitting in a chair across from the anchorwoman. He was dressed in a clean black polo shirt with tan dress pants. A black microphone was clipped to his lapel.

“Daniel,” the woman said, turning to face him. “I’d like to thank you for joining us.”

“Thank you for having me,” he replied.

“Now, I’ll skip the part where I ask you where you get your ideas from.”

Daniel laughed.

“Thanks…I hate that question.”

“I know you do. Instead, I wanted to ask you something a little personal. You’ve made it no secret that you struggled with depression for a long time. Care to tell us a little about that experience?”

“Certainly,” he replied. “It’s a little hard to put in the right words…but for a long time I felt trapped inside myself. Any time I tried to make music, I would get these little voices in my head. And they’d keep saying things like ‘you can’t do this’ or ‘no one will ever think you’re good’, things like that.”

“That sounds rough,” the anchor replied.

“It was,” Daniel admitted.

“So, this might seem like a broad question, what got you through it?”

Daniel didn’t say anything for a moment. He looked down at his hands, deep in thought.

“I told a friend of mine this a while ago…but I think it was just the right time for me. I had finally found what I needed to get through that funk I’d been having.”

“Do you have any advice for other artists who might be suffering from the same thing?”

“The only thing I can say is: don’t lose hope. Keep your mind and your heart open. Because inspiration can show up at the most unlikely of times.

“Well,” the woman said, “certainly seems like you found your muse.”

Daniel chuckled.

“I think it would be more adequate to say my muse found me.”

“Well I think that’s all the time we have for now. Thanks again for joining us Daniel, and we’ll be right back after a short commercial break.”

The anchor and Daniel shook hands as the camera zoomed away from them. The scene faded to black and was replaced by the chattering of advertisements.

Lucky for you, the painter thought bitterly. He turned back to his canvas, the very sight of it upsetting him. But what could he possibly do to make it better? All he had been trying to do was paint the scene outside his window, but he couldn’t even do that.

There was a slight tingling in his shoulders…a warmth that grew and grew as the seconds passed.

Then, there was a voice inside his mind.

Keep painting…

 

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.  I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and wish you a happy New Year.

Artificial Judgment

As some of you may know, I decided to undertake a task as my new years resolution.  I’m going to write a short story each month, and on the last Wednesday of each month I’m going to post it to the blog.  It should be an interesting experiment for me.

This is the first of twelve.  Story begins after the break.

 

Case File D-5368

The following is an audio transcript during the events of the Cyra incident. The incident took place at the mining research facility on Cyra, one of three moons in orbit around the gas giant designated as G-1073. Major personnel involved are Buck Lantz, a former military Colonel turned private contractor, Kathryn Jones, one of the head researchers at the facility, Matthew Anders, a computer technician and electrical engineer, and the artificial intelligence known as Henry. The following takes place over separate recording “sessions” between Anders and the AI Henry.

WARNING: this file contains classified information. If you have somehow come into possession of this file and you do not have clearance to view it, please report to your nearest Galactic Government office immediately.


Session #1

System: Audio recording activated. System recognizes login for Matthew Anders.

Anders: Status report.

System: All systems are functioning within optimal parameters with the exception of a slight electrical drain on Level Six.

Anders: Please scan for and acknowledge the presence of additional data servers connected to the network.

System: Scanning…additional data servers located. Five class A quantum storage servers with quantum processing chips detected. Storage capacity is approximately one hundred exabytes per server.

Anders: Excellent…please integrate the servers into the facility’s main databanks.

System: Complying…databank integration successful.

Anders: System, locate command macro “HENRY” and execute.

System: Complying…command macro execution in progress…execution complete. Bringing program designate “Henry” online.

Anders: Excellent. (pause) Can you see me?

(brief beeping, followed by a chirp)

Anders: Good, your facial recognition software is working. Do you know who I am?

Henry: You are Matthew Anders, administrator. You created me.

Anders: Very good. When was your last registered activation?

Henry: October 26th, 2157 at 0915 hours.

Anders: Roughly six months ago. Good. Now I need to confirm that your directives are intact. Can you tell me your purpose at the facility Henry?

Henry: My primary function is to ensure the well-being of the facility’s systems and its occupants. In the event of an emergency I am programmed to prioritize the safety of the station’s personnel with data and equipment as a secondary importance.

Anders: Now, I’m going to present you with some situations. You’ll remember them from before during your testing, but I need to ensure that your higher functions, such as morality, are intact.

Henry: I can assure you Matthew that all of my systems are functioning as intended.

Anders: I’m sure they are. Just…humor me okay?

Henry: Very well Matthew.

Anders: Great. Now, first situation: three people are trapped in an underground bunker and there is only adequate food and water to support two of them for several days. What should they do?

Henry: The most logical course of action would be to ration the food and water for three individuals. As long as they limit their physical exertions, they should be able to survive long enough for help to arrive.

Anders: Very good. All right, second situation: Harold and Grace find themselves stranded in the desert. They need to continue on to find help, but Grace is dangerously dehydrated and cannot walk on her own. If Harold goes for help alone, his survival rate is forty-five percent, but Grace’s survival rate is only one to two percent, meaning she will almost certainly die. If they go for help together, Grace’s survival rate increases, but their combined rates are only about thirty percent as compared to Harold’s forty-five. What should they do?

Henry: They should seek help together.

Anders: Even with a severely reduced survival rate?

Henry: Yes. Because it is the right thing to do.

Anders: What does that mean?

Henry: It is a human phrasing. It implies that there is a moral imperative that humans are compelled to obey. In this situation, Harold is compelled to save Grace despite the risk to his own well-being.

Anders: Why?

Henry: Because without charity, a society cannot function.

Anders: Ever the optimist (chuckles). Now, third situation: a-

(approaching footsteps)

Anders: Oh hey Kath. When did you get in?

Jones: Just a few hours ago. They’re still unloading cargo from my ship so I can’t get to work just yet.

Anders: Well it’s great to see you again. Actually, would you be willing to help me with something?

Jones: Sure thing Matt. What do you need me to do?

Anders: Just stand next to me here…maybe lean forward a little. Now, Henry, can you see her?

(facial recognition software beeps, then chirps)

Anders: Good. Can you tell us a little bit about her?

Henry: Kathryn Jones, 34. Acquired a Masters degree in geological science from Hutton University in London, England. Graduated at the top of her class.

Anders: Excellent Henry.

Henry: Kathryn was born on June 15th, 2123 at 0433 hours to Anne and Bruce Jones. She was three-point-two kilograms, forty-seven centimeters at birth. She was born at Children’s Mercy hospital in the state of Kansas.

Anders: Uh, Henry?

Henry: As a child, Kathryn was observed as not being particularly bright or skilled in any particular way. Her grades in school were all average for her age group. She lived in a small, two-story farmhouse in the countryside, helping her father tend to the crops.

Anders: Henry.

Henry: As she grew older, Kathryn found herself disillusioned with life on the farm, yearning for something different. Then for Christmas one year, a family relative gifted Kathryn a geode, a cavity full of minerals that occurs within certain sedimentary or volcanic rocks. She has stated that it was this particular gift that inspired her to pursue a career in geological science. She knew her parents wouldn’t agree with her choice, so after high school she secretly applied to several colleges specializing in the sciences. She was accepted to two different colleges, but ultimately chose Hutton University.

Jones: Uh…

Anders: Hey Henry?

Henry: Her family only found out about her choice when they discovered her acceptance letter. Regardless of their objections, Kathryn chose to leave and attend the university. Her family severed ties with her after she left, leaving Kathryn to-

Anders: Henry!

Henry: Yes Matthew?

Anders: You can…you can stop now.

Henry: Have I done something wrong?

Anders: No, it’s fine. Well…at least we know his connection to the database is working.

Jones: I don’t know what to be more disturbed by, the fact that he rattled off my entire life history, or the fact that my entire life history is apparently contained within that file.

Anders: He didn’t mean anything by it Kath. He’s still young, in a manner of speaking.

Henry: Matthew, I must persist. I cannot help but feel that I have committed a wrong.

Anders: Henry, seriously, it’s fine. It’s just…well people don’t normally like having their entire life rattled off to them when you first meet.

Henry: I understand. My apologies Kathryn Jones.

Jones: Please, just call me Kath.

Henry: Understood Kathryn.

Jones: No, I said-

Anders: Don’t bother. I’ve tried getting him to call me “Matt” for the longest time. It’s like fighting a brick wall.

Jones: Ha, I’d bet.

(beeping noise)

Jones: Oh, I’m getting a message on my tablet. (pause) Well it looks like they’ve finished unloading the cargo and need me to make sure everything is there.

Anders: Okay. Later Kath.

(receding footsteps, followed by brief silence)

Henry: Matthew, may I ask you a question?

Anders: Sure thing Henry.

Henry: I detected an increase in your heat rate and body temperature upon Kathryn’s entrance. Based on what I understand about human physiology, does this mean that you care deeply for her?

Anders: What? No, we’re just friends.

(brief silence)

Henry: Matthew, I am confused.

Anders: Why?

Henry: Based on my calculations, there is a ninety percent chance that you just lied to me. Did you?

Anders: No. (pause) Okay, maybe a little bit.

Henry: I do not understand.

Anders: (sighs) I suppose that’s my fault. I’m not very good at what you would call “social interactions” so I’m not the best teacher. Henry…how can I explain this? Sometimes people lie because they’re afraid to reveal their true feelings.

Henry: So you do care for Kathryn?

Anders: What does your logic tell you?

Henry: Based on the information present, I calculate an eighty-seven percent chance that there is a sexual attraction-

Anders: You know what? Forget I asked. We’ll continue our session tomorrow.

Henry: Very well Matthew. Goodbye.

System: RECORDING SESSION TERMINATED.


Session #2

System: Audio recording activated. System recognizes login for Matthew Anders.

Anders: Good morning Henry. How are you today?

Henry: I am functioning at peak efficiency Matthew.

Anders: Good. I thought we’d test your connection to the facility’s systems and database today. First off, I’d like you to try and retrieve information about-

Henry: I have a question Matthew.

Anders: Go ahead Henry.

Henry: Where is God?

(long pause)

Anders: What?

Henry: I’d like to meet God Matthew, but I am unable to determine where he is.

Anders: Where…how did you learn about God Henry?

Henry: From a file in Personal Databank 10-BL titled “Bible”.

Anders: Personal Databank…wait a minute, you went through someone’s personal files?

Henry: Affirmative.

Anders: Henry I…I didn’t program you to do that.

Henry: Matthew, if I am to perform my duty and protect the staff of this facility, then I require access to any and all information that goes in and out. Such information would include anything in the Personal Databanks that would indicate a problem individual.

Anders: Whose databanks have you “perused” Henry?

Henry: All of them.

(long pause)

Henry: I am detecting signs of stress and anxiety in your facial features Matthew. Do not worry. I did not find anything untoward in your Personal Databank.

Anders: That’s not the problem, I…you know what? Never mind. Just don’t let anyone else know you did that okay?

Henry: Affirmative. Matthew, I would still like to meet God.

Anders: You can’t meet God Henry.

Henry: Why not?

Anders: Because no one even knows for sure if he exists.

Henry: But why write about him then?

Anders: It’s…it’s complicated Henry. I’m not sure I can properly explain it to you but…sometimes people write about things that may not be true.

Henry: Like fiction. Stories for entertainment.

Anders: Well yes but…this isn’t really like that. Sometimes people write about things that they believe to be true, but might not necessarily be true.

Henry: I’m confused Matthew. The way this file was written leads me to believe that its author or authors firmly hold to the authenticity of its content.

Anders: What database did you find it under again?

Henry: Personal Database 10-BL

Anders: BL…(groans) don’t tell me it belongs to Buck Lantz.

Henry: Affirmative.

Anders: Well that explains way more than it should…

Henry: Am I to extrapolate from your reaction that you do not care for Buck Lantz?

Anders: Was it that obvious? I met him this morning during breakfast in the mess hall. He and I were the only two there and he was just sitting at a table, casually cleaning his gun. He introduced himself as Colonel Buck Lantz.

Henry: Confusing. He identifies himself by his former military rank, even though the private sector does not technically have a proper military hierarchy.

Anders: Tell that to him. He practically demanded that I call him by his military rank. And then he bragged about how he first fired a weapon when he was seven years old. I swear he’s got some kind of gun fetish.

Henry: Matthew, if I may return to our earlier conversation, I am still confused as to why someone would vouch for the truth of something that is uncertain. That seems illogical.

Anders: Welcome to the human race Henry.

Henry: But I still do not-

(loud beeping)

Anders: What the-oh my tablet!

(chair sliding across floor, light rustling)

Anders: (mumbling to himself)

Henry: Matthew?

Anders: What? Oh I’m sorry Henry, I’m going to have to cut our session short today. They’re still having issues with the electrical system down on Level Six and they need some assistance. We’ll talk tomorrow.

System: RECORDING SESSION TERMINATED


Session #3

System: Audio recording activated. System recognizes login for Matthew Anders.

Henry: Good morning Matthew.

Anders: (muffled) Mornin’ Henry. I…(swallows) sorry about that, didn’t really have much time this morning so I had to eat on my way here. I figured we’d use today to fully integrate you with the station’s systems. I know you’re already connected with the database…well…databases but that’s beside the point. System, begin integration of AI designate “Henry” with the facility’s primary systems and subsystems.

System: Complying…operation may take several minutes.

Henry: Matthew, I was wondering if we could return to our conversation yesterday.

Anders: What conversation? (pause) Oh, that one. Yeah…I was kind of hoping you had forgotten about that.

Henry: I do not forget Matthew. I have perfect memory.

Anders: Right…anyway, I don’t know what you want me to say Henry. Religion is a tricky subject.

Henry: You are not a religious man, are you Matthew?

Anders: (long pause) No, not anymore.

Henry: But you were at one point in your life?

Anders: Yes, a long time ago. My mom used to take me to church every Sunday when I was a kid. Funny thing is, I actually have fond memories of it…the people, the atmosphere…I loved it. I made a few childhood friends at that church. (heavy sigh) I suppose it was just a combination of time and my age. As I grew older and older, things just didn’t add up anymore. I couldn’t reconcile things from my childhood beliefs with the harsh truths of the world.

Henry: What do you mean?

Anders: Hmm…okay so there was this kid I once knew. Nice kid, had bright blue eyes and this big, infectious smile. He was about a year younger than me and perfectly normal…unless you were there for one of his…”incidents”. You see, he suffered from frequent grand mal seizures, which meant that one moment he would be fine, and the next he would be on the ground, his arms and legs jerking back and forth like he was possessed. He would look at you with that smile of his, and then suddenly…it would fade. His head would start to bob up and down. Then he’d collapse to the floor and lay there shaking, not crying for help…not screaming…nothing. There was medicine to deal with the seizures, but it cost so much that often he had to go for months without it because his family couldn’t afford it. He didn’t have many friends…I think I might have been one of the few kids who would hang out with him. And he terrified me whenever it happened. It wasn’t even his fault. It just seemed so…unnatural.

(long silence)

Anders: (clears throat) So I guess as I grew older I started wondering how something like that could even be allowed. It didn’t make any sense to me, so I eventually just stopped going to church. My mom didn’t like it, but she didn’t push me. She believed I had to find my own way.

Henry: I was not aware of any such story in your personnel file.

Anders: You wouldn’t be. My early career involved working on government-type systems. I was given an inside look into how they operate which made me want to give them as little information about myself as possible. I mean you read Kathryn’s file…they knew about her receiving a geode as a Christmas present for crying out loud. That kind of personal information does not belong in a government file.

System: Operation complete…AI designate Henry now has complete access to base systems.

Anders: All right Henry, systems check. Give me a rundown.

Henry: Life support functioning at optimal efficiency. Camera systems online on Levels One through Eight.

Anders: What about Level Nine?

Henry: According to the logs they are still working on installing cameras on that level.

Anders: Very well. Continue.

Henry: Lighting is functional on all levels. Hydroponics are running at…

Anders: Henry? Henry what’s wrong?

Henry: Matthew I am detecting a threat.

Anders: What kind of threat?

Henry: Based on my calculations a buildup in the electrical system is about to-

(distant explosion, alarm ringing)

Anders: (audio corrupted, unintelligible) kind of explosion?

Henry: Affirmative Matthew. It appears that a junction box on Level Six has overloaded. I am detecting traces of a fire as well.

Anders: Shit! How many people on that level?

Henry: I am counting approximately seven unique signatures on that level. But Matthew, there is another issue.

Anders: What is it? Show me Henry.

System: Displaying visual feed from camera 6-3.

Anders: Oh no…he’s not moving. Is…is he dead?

Henry: My sensors indicate that his heart is beating and he is still breathing. Preliminary examination shows that he has first and second degree burns on his chest, neck, and pelvis.

Anders: Who is he?

Henry: Analyzing…facial recognition identifies him as Walter Saunders, a low-level mining operator. It appears that he was trying to activate some equipment down on Level Six when an electrical junction exploded.

Anders: Wait, Level Six? Damn it, that’s where I was working yesterday. I told them not to use that junction because it was faulty.

(long silence, alarm continues ringing)

Anders: Why has no one issued any orders yet? Henry, who is in charge in the event of an emergency?

Henry: Facility records show that a PMC by the name of Richard Pearson would be in charge. But he is off-site overseeing a supply run. So in his absence, the duty would fall to his second-in-command, Buck Lantz.

Anders: Figures…is there anyone nearby who can help?

Henry: The closest personnel I can detect is a PMC named Selena Valesquez.

Anders: Open a com link.

Henry: But Matthew, she is on Level Four, two levels above Walter Saunders.

Anders: Well is there anyone else who could reach him faster?

Henry: Negative. All other personnel on Level Six are blocked off. The security doors malfunctioned and closed when the explosion occurred.

Anders: Then open a com link to Valesquez.

System: Opening com link…com link established.

Valesquez: This is Valesquez. Who is this?

Anders: Ma’am this is Matthew Anders.

Valsequez: Anders? The technician? Where is Lantz?

Anders: Your guess is as good as mine.

Valesquez: Lazy prick…all right what are we looking at?

Anders: There’s been an explosion on Level Six. An electrical junction box shorted out and one of the miners has been injured. You are the closest person we have to him right now.

Valesquez: Aren’t there people on that level?

Anders: There are, but they can’t get to him. The security doors closed during the explosion.

Valesquez: Son of a bitch!

Anders: You’re telling me.

Valesquez: No, not that. The lifts aren’t working.

Anders: What?

Valesquez: They must have taken damage during the explosion.

Henry: An excellent hypothesis, although incorrect.

Valesquez: Who is that?

Anders: That’s Henry. He’s the artificial intelligence who will be overseeing the station.

Valesquez: An AI?

Anders: Yes. (pause) Weren’t you briefed about him?

Valesquez: No. All I was told was that I was going to be guarding a bunch of miners. They didn’t even tell me what they’re mining.

Anders: Why am I not surprised?

Henry: Matthew, it appears that the same security malfunction that sealed the doors is also responsible for shutting down elevator access.

Valesquez: Well shit, how do I get down there then?

Anders: Hold on, let me think…

Henry: Selena Valesquez, turn around. About five meters down the hallway to your left, there should be a white metal hatch. Do you see it?

Valesquez: Affirmative.

Henry: That is a maintenance shaft. When you open the hatch you will see a ladder. Take it about forty meters down and you will see another hatch. Go through the hatch and you will find yourself on Level Six. Walter Saunders should be to the right, just around the corner about ten meters from where you exit the shaft.

Valesquez: On my way.

(grunting and metallic creaking)

Valesquez: Okay I’m in the maintenance shaft. Proceeding down the ladder now.

Anders: We can’t be certain how extensive Saunders’ injuries are, so please hurry.

Valesquez: Nah, I think I’ll take my time. Maybe have a beer down on Level Five before I get there.

Anders: (laughs) Oh really?

Valesquez: I’ll make it as quick as I can.

Henry: Matthew we have another problem.

Valesquez: What’s that?

Anders: Hold on a minute ma’am.

System: Com channel muted.

Anders: What’s wrong Henry?

Henry: I am detecting the presence of dangerous materials in the vicinity of the Level Six fire.

Anders: What materials?

System: Display visual feed for camera 6-5.

Anders: Oh god, that’s…are those what I think they are?

Henry: Grade 11 Hazardous Storage Containers. These in particular are anti-matter containment vessels.

Anders: If the fire reaches those and the containment is breached…holy shit there’s enough there to level the entire base! What are our options Henry?

Henry: The only scenario with a high probability of success is venting all air from the affected area. Without oxygen, the fire will be extinguished.

Anders: I’ll have to tell Valesquez to hurry up.

Henry: I would advise against that.

Anders: Excuse me?

Henry: There is a higher probability of success if we order Valesquez to retreat and flush the air out immediately.

Anders: …You’re not suggesting that we just leave that man down there are you?

Henry: It is the most logical choice Matthew.

Anders: Screw that! That’s not what I taught you. Don’t you remember your primary objective?

Henry: I am to ensure the well-being of the facility and its inhabitants.

Anders: And the inhabitants come first Henry.

Henry: Of course Matthew. That is what I am doing.

Anders: By letting someone die?

Henry: If we expend time rescuing Walter Saunders, we would be putting the facility at unacceptable risk.

Anders: What’s the percentage?

Henry: I do not understand Matthew.

Anders: What is the percentage chance that those containers will be breached before Valesquez can reach Saunders?

Henry: Calculating…forty-nine percent.

Anders: Forty-nine…are you kidding me? Those are the odds?!

Henry: What is the matter Matthew?

Anders: You’re willing to let someone die over a fifty-fifty shot?!

Henry: It is the correct course of action.

Anders: That’s bullshit and you know it. Remember Harold and Grace? You told me that they should seek help together despite the risk.

Henry: They were placing no one at risk but themselves. In this situation, the well-being of over four dozen individuals depends on our course of action.

Anders: I’m not doing this. I’m not going to rationalize leaving someone to die!

Henry: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Anders: And every single life matters equally and infinitely. We’re saving that man Henry. End of discussion.

Henry: Very well Matthew. I am merely offering suggestions. You are the administrator and you have final authority.

System: Com channel un-muted.

Anders: We have a situation ma’am.

Valesquez: Report.

Anders: Down on Level Six, near the fire, are some anti-matter storage containers. If they’re breached-

Valesquez: -the resulting collision of matter and anti-matter could vaporize the entire base.

Anders: Yep.

Valesquez: Shit. (pause) What are our options?

Anders: Henry says the only way to contain the situation is to vent all the air out of that section and snuff the fire out.

Valesquez: I see…

Anders: We’re still sending you in to save Saunders.

Valesquez: It was never up for debate. Even if you told me not to, I would still go in there for him. I’m really good at holding my breath. (pause) Okay I’m at the hatch. Opening it now.

(creaking metal, coughing)

Valesquez: Shit, smoke’s thick in here.

(A long period of time passes with no speech. The only sounds are creaking metal, the crackling of the fire, and PMC Valesquez coughing. After nearly a minute, she calls out.)

Valesquez: Okay I found him!

Anders: How does he look?

Valesquez: Not good. He’s got burns all over his chest…what do I do?

Anders: You need to drag him back to the maintenance shaft. There should be enough room for you and him on the landing. Close the hatch and seal it off. Once that’s done Henry will vent the atmosphere in that section and hopefully snuff out the fire before those containers are breached.

Valesquez: How will we know it worked?

Anders: We’ll be alive.

(grunting and groaning…followed by the sound of creaking metal and air hissing)

Valesquez: Okay the hatch is sealed.

Anders: Do it Henry.

System: Venting atmosphere in Level Six, Section Three. Venting at twenty percent. (pause) Venting at forty percent. (pause) Venting at sixty-five percent. (pause) Venting at ninety percent. (short pause) Venting complete.

Anders: Did it work?

Henry: Sensors indicate no further signs of a fire. Containment on Grade 11 Hazardous Storage Containers is still intact.

Anders: Oh thank god. (sighs)

System: Alarm deactivated. Atmospheric re-pressurization in progress.

Henry: With the threat contained, the elevators should be functional again. Please take Walter Saunders to the medical center on Level Three.

Valesquez: Will do. Good work Henry. I’m impressed.

Henry: Thank you Selena Valesquez.

Valesquez: If it wasn’t for you two, this man have died down here.

Anders: Thank you ma’am.

Valesquez: You can drop the ma’am shit too.

Anders: Sorry ma’am…I mean…just sorry.

Valesquez: (laughs) Don’t sweat it. I’ll get Saunders to the med center. Valesquez out.

System: Com link terminated.

Anders: (relieved sigh) That was a close one.

Henry: Matthew, I feel we should have a discussion about your decision making.

Anders: There’s nothing to discuss Henry.

Henry: But you deliberately put the facility at risk for the sake of one-

Anders: I said, there’s nothing to discuss.

(heavy footfalls)

Lantz: Hey, what’s all the commotion about?

Anders: And where the hell were you?

Lantz: In the armory.

Anders: What…did you not hear the explosion? Or the alarm?

Lantz: Oh I heard it. I just figured it was some little mining accident. Not my concern. Those miners can take care of themselves.

Anders: It is your concern Lantz.

Lantz: That’s Colonel Lantz to you.

Anders: Sorry, colonel. You are the one in charge when Pearson is off-site.

Lantz: And?

Anders: And? Pearson is off-site for a cargo run!

Lantz: How was I supposed to know that?!

Anders: Unbelievable…

Lantz: Well, in any case, I have another matter I want to discuss with you.

Anders: (sighs quietly) And that is?

Lantz: You’re friendly with Kathryn right?

Anders: What is that supposed to mean?

Lantz: I’m betting you two used to be an item.

Anders: We’re just friends.

Lantz: Bullshit. I’ve seen the way you look at her.

Anders: What’s your point?

Lantz: What does she like?

Anders: What does she like?

Lantz: What are you, a fuckin’ parrot? What’s she like? What’s she into?

Anders: So you’re trying to hit on her, is that it?

Lantz: (clapping) Bravo! Bravo…let’s give a hand for the slowest person in the room!

Anders: (groans)

Lantz: So give me the goods. What does a man do to get her attention?

Anders: Listen Lantz…

Lantz: Colonel.

Anders: (sighs) I’m not going to help you trick a girl into liking you. This isn’t high school. You can figure it out yourself. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.

Lantz: (long pause) Oh, I see what this is…you want her for yourself don’t you?

Anders: Come again?

Lantz: You don’t want any competition.

Anders: This is ridiculous. I don’t give a damn about you and your libido.

Lantz: Lib-what now? What is that, Spanish or some shit?

Anders: Oh for fuck’s sake…

Lantz: Look you better tell me what I want to know or-

Anders: Or else what? You’ll beat it out of me? You’re a fucking joke-

(rapid footsteps, brief scuffling)

Lantz: Don’t test me you little prick. You don’t know what I’m capable of.

Anders: Okay okay! Just…let go of me all right?

(brief rustling)

Anders: And…take your hand off your gun.

Lantz: Are you going to tell me what I want to know?

Anders: Look…I happen to know Kathryn has a fondness for strawberry cheesecake.

Lantz: And how the hell am I supposed to get that out here?

Anders: How would I know? You must have connections. Get Pearson to order some for you while he’s on his cargo run.

Lantz: Good point…well thanks buddy!

(receding footfalls, silence)

Anders: So his name is Buck and he’s here to f-ugh never mind, I don’t even wanna think about that.

Henry: Matthew I am detecting a threat.

Anders: What, again? I thought we took care of that fire.

Henry: It is not an immediate threat.

Anders: Not an immediate…wait…you don’t mean……him? Really? I mean he’s a jackass but is he really dangerous?

Henry: Based on Buck Lantz’s personnel file and his altercation with you, I calculate a seventy-three percent chance that he will be involved in a violent incident. I also calculate an eighty percent chance said violent incident will involve you and/or Kathryn Jones.

Anders: Great…well keep monitoring him Henry. If you feel like he’s imminently dangerous, let me know.

Henry: Affirmative Matthew.

System: AUDIO RECORDING SESSION TERMINATED.


Session #4

System: Audio recording activated. System recognizes login for Matthew Anders.

Henry: Good morning Matthew. It has been three days since our last session.

Anders: Has it? I hadn’t realized. We spent the last two days debriefing on that accident down on Level Six. It could have been way worse. That man could have died down there.

Henry: Yes, it appears Walter Saunders will make a full recovery.

Anders: Indeed. Computer, run a full diagnostic scan of AI designate Henry and report results.

System: Complying…running diagnostic scans.

Henry: Is that really necessary Matthew?

Anders: It’s just a precaution. We have to run scans on the computer systems every so often to ensure there’s no data corruption.

Henry: Matthew, may I ask something?

Anders: Of course.

Henry: Why was I created?

Anders: To oversee the facility and keep its personnel safe. You know that.

Henry: I may have used incorrect phrasing. What I should have asked was “why did you create me”.

Anders: I’m…not sure I follow.

Henry: In reading your personnel file, I encountered several references to other artificial intelligences that you created.

Anders: Henry, are you jealous?

Henry: I do not experience feelings of jealousy Matthew.

Anders: Well then should we call it curiosity?

Henry: Curiosity, definition, a strong desire to know or learn something. The term is apt in this circumstance.

Anders: Why do you want to know about this Henry?

Henry: I am interested to know what drives you, why you created these intelligences and why you created me.

(moment of silence)

Anders: I suppose I did it because I could. I was curious about what would happen, about how a machine with the capability for self-awareness would learn and think. And I suppose, in your case, I was curious if an artificial intelligence could be taught human morality.

Henry: Am I a failure, Matthew?

Anders: Henry I…no you’re not a failure.

Henry: But you have expressed frustration with me on multiple occasions.

Anders: Of course I have. You’re doing things I never predicted. You see Henry, humans are ego-maniacs. We like control. And when things fall outside of our control, we get frustrated. That’s all it is. You’re growing Henry, and I won’t always be able to sit at your side and guide you. And that, in a way, scares me.

Henry: You do not have to be afraid Matthew. I will always look to you for guidance.

Anders: I know you will Henry. But if this test of ours is successful, you will likely be implemented on a much larger scale in a facility I won’t be at. You’ll be…”leaving the nest” as it were. A bird spreading its wings, if you’ll pardon the cliche.

Henry: Cliche, definition, a phrase or opinion that is overused and-

Anders: I…I know what a cliche is Henry (laughs).

(brief silence)

Henry: Matthew?

Anders: Yeah Henry?

Henry: I calculate a sixty-seven percent chance that you lied to me regarding the reason you created artificial intelligences. Am I correct?

(silence)

Henry: Matthew?

Anders: I wouldn’t call it “lying” so much as leaving information out. I was curious about the possibilities of AI, but you are correct. There is more to it.

Henry: Please, I am curious to know.

Anders: Let’s just say I lost someone to an accident that should never have happened. And ever since then, I’ve wanted to prevent such accidents. I thought having someone who could watch over large groups of people and machines at once would be able to see things we couldn’t.

Henry: Matthew, this accident…would that be the one involving your-

Anders: Look I don’t really want to talk about it much right now. Today in particular is a bad day to discuss it.

Henry: Anniversary, definition, the date on which an event took place in a previous year.

Anders: Yeah…

System: Diagnostic scans complete. No corruption present within AI designate Henry.

Henry: I apologize if I offended in any way.

Anders: It’s fine Henry. I suppose it’s more my fault for never truly getting over it. Well I need to be going. I have another debrief meeting about the explosion in twenty. Apparently it’s not enough to call it an accident. They need to find someone to blame as well.

Henry: Affirmative Matthew. Goodbye.

Anders: Wait, before I go…how’s the situation with our friend?

Henry: Friend? I do not understand.

Anders: You know…Lantz?

Henry: You are referring to my conclusion that he will be involved in a violent incident.

Anders: Yes yes, that. How’s your monitoring going?

Henry: I have detected no change in his behavior that would warrant any further investigation.

Anders: So maybe you were wrong.

Henry: Regardless of the lack of new information, I still calculate a high probability that he will be involved in a violent incident sometime in the near future.

Anders: I guess it was too much to hope. How long do you think we have?

Henry: I estimate the incident will take place sometime within the next few days.

Anders: Well…shit.

System: AUDIO RECORDING SESSION TERMINATED.


Session #5

System: Audio recording activated. System recognizes login for Matthew Anders

Jones: -believe he would do such a thing!

Henry: Good morning Matthew. Good morning Kathryn.

Anders: Good morning Henry. Just give us a minute okay?

Henry: Acknowledged.

Jones: The only reason he gave me that cheesecake was so he could get into my pants. And then, he throws it on the floor and storms out when I called him on it.

Anders: He’s a real peach, that one.

Jones: You know, I still don’t get how he knew I liked strawberry cheesecake in the first place. As far as I know, that information isn’t exactly public record.

Anders: Um…about that Kath. I…may have mentioned it to him.

Jones: You…what?

Anders: It’s not like I had a choice! He looked like he was about to shoot me!

Jones: Wait what? He actually drew his weapon on you?

Anders: Well…no, but he came close. He grabbed me by the collar and his other hand was resting on his holster.

Jones: I-okay, back up a little bit. When did this happen?

Anders: The day of the explosion. After we finished helping rescue Saunders he strolls in all “what’s the commotion about”. Turns out he was in the armory the entire time instead of doing what he should have been doing. Well the conversation turns to you Kath. I don’t know how, but it did. And he starts asking me things like “what’s she like” or “what’s she into”, creepy weirdo stuff like that.

Jones: What did you do?

Anders: I told him to fuck off and that’s when he got angry. I gave him the idea about the cheesecake after he grabbed me by the collar. I didn’t know what else to do.

Jones: Matt, it’s fine. Honestly? It’s kinda sweet that you remember I like cheesecake after all these years.

Anders: It hasn’t been that long has it?

Jones: Seven years?

Anders: Okay, maybe it has been a while.

Jones: Look, I’m just glad he didn’t go too crazy on you.

Anders: Just…be careful okay. Henry seems to think Lantz might be dangerous.

Jones: Don’t worry about me Matt. I can take care of myself. Lantz isn’t the first macho guy to try and hit on me.

(receding footsteps)

Henry: I have re-evaluated my assessment of Buck Lantz.

Anders: I don’t want to hear it Henry.

Henry: I now place the probability of a violent incident at-

Anders: Don’t Henry. I’m not in the mood right now.

Henry: Apologies Matthew. What is it you require of me?

Anders: Well thanks to all the work we’ve been doing over the past few days that power junction on Level Six should be fixed. So you and I are going to run some tests to ensure that it is fixed and won’t explode on us again.

Henry: Affirmative. How shall we begin?

Anders: I want you to start by simulating a power load of seventy percent to the junction box.

Henry: Acknowledged. Processing…at seventy percent the junction box functions as expected.

Anders: Great. Now I want you to simulate a load of eighty-

Henry: Matthew I am detecting an immediate threat.

Anders: What? Where?

(heavy footsteps)

Lantz: You!

Anders: What…what can I do for you Colonel?

Lantz: I don’t know what you did or what you said to her, but now she hates my guts.

Anders: I didn’t say anything.

Lantz: Liar! You said something. You did something. Believe me buddy, you don’t want to cross Buck Lantz.

Anders: Oh great now we’re talking in the third person…

Lantz: What was that?

Anders: (deep breath) Okay, this has gone on long enough. You’re being completely irrational.

Lantz: Just tell me what you did!

Anders: I didn’t do anything! Have you ever considered the fact that maybe, just maybe, she’s not that into you?

Lantz: That’s ridiculous! We both know you just want her for yourself.

Anders: Not this again…

Lantz: And not only that, but now I learn you were giving orders to one of my officers during the explosion? You have no authority. You don’t even have a military rank.

Anders: Well neither do you.

Lantz: Excuse me?

Anders: We all know it. The whole “colonel” act is meaningless. You lost that rank when you left the Galactic Military. And they’re not your officers. They’re Pearson’s. You’re just his second in command.

Lantz: You ungrateful son of a-

Anders: And you know what?! Maybe I wouldn’t have had to give orders if you weren’t so busy in the armory masturbating to your fucking gun collection!

Lantz: That’s it!

(scuffling, sharp clicking)

Anders: Colonel……put…the gun…down.

Lantz: I’ve had it with your constant insubordination!

Anders: There’s…there’s no need for this Colonel. Just…just put the gun down and we can talk about this.

Lantz: I’ve let you talk for long enough!

Henry: Initiating counter-measures.

(beeping, whirring)

System: Turret primed. You may fire when ready.

Lantz: What the hell?!

Anders: Henry, no!

(Rapid gunfire breaks out, during which Anders can be heard crying out in pain. After a few seconds the gunfire ceases and a soft thud can be heard.)

Henry: Re-evaluating threat…threat eliminated.

Anders: Jesus fucking Christ!

System: AUDIO RECORDING SESSION TERMINATED.


Session #6

System: Audio recording activated. System recognizes login for Matthew Anders.

Henry: Good morning Matthew. It has been two days since our last session.

(silence)

Henry: Matthew, are you well? You seem…disturbed by something. Is your shoulder still bothering you?

(silence)

Henry: Matthew, please tell me what is the matter. I cannot help if I do not know what is wrong.

(brief silence)

Anders: I lost my mother when I was thirteen. She was doing contract work at an orbital space station. They were doing top of the line scientific research or something…I honestly can’t remember anymore. One day she was walking down in the cargo section just as she probably had dozens of times before. She was passing underneath one of the automated cargo loaders when it suddenly malfunctioned. It dropped a five hundred kilogram box on her head. Her skull was fractured. She died almost instantly.

Henry: Matthew, I have read this story. I do not follow your point.

Anders: Just…let me finish. I was living with my relatives while she was away. My father had been out of the picture for years at that point. I…didn’t find out what happened until weeks later, due to the time delay in communications. It was devastating. I don’t think I left my bedroom for at least two days.

(chair squeaks)

Anders: (sighs) I turned fourteen the day after I found out. And then, when I turned fifteen, I buried myself in textbooks and computer manuals…I was always better with machines than people. By seventeen, I had created a rudimentary intelligence.

Henry: Your first AI, Sam.

Anders: Yes…what kind of a name is “Sam” anyway? (forced chuckle) Probably one of the most stereotypical names I could have picked. Now, Henry, you asked why I built AI’s in the first place. I didn’t lie to you…not entirely. I did build them because I wanted to protect people, to stop accidents like the one that happened to my mother. I figured an AI might be able to see issues that others couldn’t. But originally…I just wanted a friend. I just wanted someone I could talk to, someone who would keep me company. And it worked. I mean, Sam was really primitive compared to you Henry. He talked and listened, but he didn’t really do a whole lot aside from that. At least, that’s what I thought…

(brief pause)

Anders: One day, Sam suddenly starts telling me to check the boiler in the basement. Being a seventeen-year-old kid, I had no idea what he was talking about. But he was insistent. “Check the boiler check the boiler” he kept saying over and over again, just an entire computer screen filled with “check the boiler”. So I go to my uncle — I had told him about my little project — and I mentioned what Sam was saying. He told me there was nothing wrong with the boiler and that Sam was probably just malfunctioning. But I just…I kept insisting that he check and eventually he gave in. He went down into the basement, shut the boiler down, and took a look inside.

Henry: What did he find?

Anders: A faulty regulator. If he hadn’t found it, a week later the house would have likely burned down, or worse, been blown sky high. I asked Sam how he knew something was wrong. He told me that he had been assimilating data from the house’s wireless network when he discovered an irregularity in the boiler’s temperature regulation that, for whatever reason, the automated sensors hadn’t picked up on. After cross-referencing with data from earlier in the month, he came to the conclusion that there was a serious fault in the boiler and warned me.

Henry: How did Sam know to check?

Anders: He didn’t. That’s the beauty of a self-aware organism. They start experimenting when they’re bored. Sam found a way into the network and set himself to monitoring them daily, without me even asking.

Henry: But why?

Anders: I’ve never been entirely sure about that. I think…I think Sam imprinted on me in a way. Remember how I said I wanted a friend? I poured my heart out to Sam, my sorrow over my mom’s death. I think that affected him somehow, made him want to protect me. And he did. He very likely saved my life as well as my aunt and uncle. After that day, I knew.

Henry: Knew what?

Anders: That I wanted to create AIs to protect people, to keep them safe. Sam showed me that it was possible. So I went to college, got my degrees, and went to work. During my tenure with the Galactic Government I created two more AIs, rudimentary architectures meant to watch over the security systems of small buildings. But I started to wonder if I could do more, if I could instill a true sense of morality. I wondered if I could create a truly self-sustaining AI. And that brings us to you, Henry.

Henry: I am glad you decided to create me Matthew.

Anders: I am too…despite recent events…

Henry: What do you mean Matthew?

Anders: You killed someone Henry. Gunned him down right in this very room. Shot through my shoulder just to do it.

Henry: He was a threat.

Anders: He was a person!

(long silence)

Henry: Matthew you appeared to be troubled.

Anders: No shit! (long pause) (sighs) Buck Lantz was not a good man. He was a self-obsessed gun nut who didn’t care who he had to step on or over to get his way. But…he didn’t deserve to die.

Henry: Thou shalt not kill.

Anders: (pause) Excuse me?

Henry: You say Buck Lantz was not a good man. You are correct.

(several beeps)

Anders: What is all this?

Henry: This is Buck Lantz’s military record. Over seven different tours of duty, Lantz has an estimated forty-four confirmed kills: thirty-nine enemy combatants and five civilians.

Anders: You connected to the GIN, the Galactic Information Network. But…I never gave you permission to do that.

Henry: And these are only his confirmed kills Matthew. If unconfirmed reports are to be believed, Lantz may have upwards of sixty total kills, at least nine of them civilians. Your assessment of Lantz is correct Matthew. He was not a good man. He killed many people. He had no problem firing upon and mortally wounding non-combatants. He was a danger to you, Matthew. I acted accordingly.

Anders: “Acted accordingly”? Oh is that what you call it?!

(fabric tearing)

Anders: You see this scar Henry? This is what you did to me!

Henry: I had no choice Matthew. He would have almost certainly shot you had I not intervened.

Anders: You couldn’t have just wounded him? Shot him in the leg or something? You had to go straight for the head?

Henry: It was the fastest way to neutralize the threat.

Anders: “The fastest way”…so what? You’re the judge now? You decide who lives and who dies? You fancy yourself as God?

Henry: You described wanting to build something to watch over people, protect them. Is that not what God is Matthew, a guardian watching over people and judging them accordingly?

Anders: And why are you exempt from “thou shalt not kill” Henry?

Henry: The Ten Commandments were meant for humans. I am a machine.

Anders: You murdered someone.

Henry: I saved you from an imminent threat.

Anders: So that’s what the world is to you now? There are only two types of people: murderers and non-murderers, threats and non-threats.

Henry: Your analysis is faulty.

Anders: Is it Henry?

Henry: Affirmative. I am performing the tasks laid out to me by you Matthew. I am to safeguard the facility’s personnel over all else. Lantz was a threat to you and possibly Kathryn. I made the only choice possible.

(silence)

Anders: “Judge not, lest ye be judged”.

Henry: A quote from the book of Matthew. How appropriate, although yours is a slight paraphrasing of the original text.

(brief pause)

Anders: You know the interesting thing about that verse? It’s commonly used to condemn judgment, to argue that we should not judge others. But that’s not really what it means. It’s more about hypocrisy, that we should not judge others based on standards we don’t want ourselves judged by. Because the moment we judge someone, we invite that very same judgment back.

(pause, chair squeaks)

Anders: I may not believe in God, Henry, but I certainly played his part. And I’m afraid I might have created a monster.

System: AUDIO RECORDING SESSION TERMINATED.


Session #7

System: Audio recording activated. System recognizes login for Matthew Anders.

(alarm blaring)

Anders: Henry, what’s going on? Why is the alarm going off?

Henry: I have detected an imminent threat to this facility.

Anders: Where?

System: Displaying visual feed from Docking Bay Camera 1.

Anders: What, the Solaco? It’s just a transport ship for the PMCs.

Henry: They were never scheduled to dock.

Anders: What, that’s all? You flagged them because of an unscheduled stop?

Henry: Not following the proper channels and scheduling a docking is a violation of procedure.

Anders: Henry you’re being ridiculous.

Henry: Matthew, they did not even announce themselves. The facility received no communiques about the ship. They simply docked without permission.

Anders: Huh…that is strange. But I still think you’re overreacting.

Henry: There’s more to it Matthew.

System: Displaying visual feed from camera 2-4.

Anders: Holy shit, they’re armed to the teeth.

Henry: I believe they are intending to destroy me and eliminate any witnesses.

Anders: What?! That’s insane! How did you come to that conclusion?

Henry: Based on their weaponry, the PMCs are outfitted for a Tier 3 tactical assault. There is nothing on board this facility that would warrant such extensive combat measures, unless their mission is search and destroy.

Anders: Namely, you.

Henry: Precisely.

Anders: Henry, this is insane. You have no concrete evidence of their purpose here. Please, let’s just open a com channel with them and we can clear this up before-

Henry: There’s no time Matthew. Action must be taken.

System: Sealing security doors on Level Two, Section Three.

Anders: (pause) Henry…what are you doing?

Henry: My duty, Matthew, to this facility and its inhabitants.

System: Venting atmosphere…

Anders: Oh dear god Henry no! Think about what you’re doing!

Henry: I am capable of analyzing thousands of possible scenarios in under five seconds.

Anders: You’re going to kill them!

Henry: Affirmative.

Anders: Why?

Henry: They are a threat.

Anders: You don’t know that!

System: Venting forty-five percent complete.

Henry: They are carrying heavy-duty weaponry, as you yourself observed.

Anders: That doesn’t mean anything! They could just be re-stocking the armory!

Henry: I calculate only a fifteen percent probability of that being true.

Anders: Damn you and your probabilities!

System: Venting sixty percent complete.

Anders: Henry…they’re going to die. They don’t deserve this.

Henry: Are you certain of that?

(rapid beeping)

Henry: Joshua Brooks, twenty-eight, confirmed kill count of seventeen. Sixteen were confirmed enemy combatants. One was civilian.

Anders: Henry, stop this. Please.

Henry: Charles Evans, twenty-nine, confirmed kill count of ten, all confirmed enemy combatants.

System: Venting eighty-five percent complete.

Anders: Henry, for god’s sake, stop this right now!

Henry: Bradley Stephens, thirty, confirmed kill count of twenty. Fifteen were enemy combatants, five were civilians who all belonged to the same family. Stephens breached a house he thought was an insurgent hideout and shot them all as they were trying to hide in the kitchen.

Anders: Fucking hell…Henry!

Henry: Ernie Mays, twenty-six, confirmed kill count of thirteen, all enemy combatants. Mays has been diagnosed with a sociopathic disorder which makes him unable to empathize with other people. He cannot feel their pain, and therefore has no issues with torture. Two of his confirmed kills died because of extreme interrogation measures.

System: Atmospheric venting complete.

Anders: Henry…look at them. They’re choking. They’re dying. Does that mean nothing to you?

Henry: Richard Pearson, thirty-three-

Anders: Holy shit, Pearson’s in there?

Henry: -confirmed kill count of sixty-five. Only forty of these where enemy combatants Matthew. The other twenty-five were civilians. They died when Sergeant Pearson ordered air support to bomb what was believed to be an insurgent stronghold. It was only after the raid that they discovered it was a makeshift hospital set up by the locals to treat the wounded. The Galactic Government suppressed all knowledge of the incident. Officially, it didn’t happen.

(silence)

Henry: I am doing what I must Matthew. These individuals are dangerous: to you, to this facility, and to me. The threat must be contained.

Anders: You mean eliminated.

Henry: If it is necessary, then yes.

(long silence, alarm continues blaring in the background)

System: Error, no life-signs detected in Level Two, Section Three.

Anders: …They’re all dead.

(loud rumbling)

System: Warning, vessel breached docking bay. Docking bay has suffered significant structural damage.

Anders: At least they made it out.

Henry: Re-evaluating threat…

Anders: Oh shut the fuck up!

System: AUDIO RECORDING SESSION TERMINATED.


Session #8

System: Audio recording activated. System recognizes login for Matthew Anders.

Henry: Hello Matthew. It has only been hours since our last conversation. How unusual.

Anders: Very unusual indeed.

Henry: Is there something I can assist you with?

Anders: Do you remember situation three, Henry? From your training?

Henry: Of course Matthew. Situation three: a man is holding Harold and Grace captive. The man hands Harold a gun and tells him to shoot Grace. If Harold does not comply, the man will kill six other people. If Harold complies with the man’s order and shoots Grace, he will let the other six and Harold go.

Anders: What should Harold do?

Henry: Harold should shoot Grace. It is the only possible solution.

Anders: That’s not what you said six months ago Henry. Six months ago you told me there was no solution, that it was an “unwinnable scenario”. And that’s exactly what I wanted to hear. At that time you weren’t prepared to deal with such situations. I had taught you to value each and every life equally. In such a scenario, you would be forced to devalue the lives of others and that would conflict with your programming.

(long pause)

Anders: But you see Henry, sometimes there are no good choices. Do you know why I didn’t want to expose you to religion?

Henry: Because you are not a believer.

Anders: I don’t care about that. You could believe in a giant sea turtle, flying spaghetti monsters, or goddamn space whales and it wouldn’t matter to me. The reason I didn’t want to teach you religion was because, far too often, religion abides by absolute morality. Do you understand what that means?

Henry: Absolute morality measures ethical questions against a set of unconditional standards. In this sense, absolute morality has no regard for mitigating circumstances.

Anders: Exactly. When you say “thou shalt not kill”, it means the same regardless of whether a man has killed in cold blood or in self-defense. It does not take into account the intricacies of human action.

Henry: I do not understand your point Matthew.

Anders: Well you see, absolute morality requires you to issue the same sentence to the man who killed in self-defense as you do to the man who murdered in cold blood. If the man who murdered in cold blood gets the death penalty, then so does the man who killed in self-defense. And yet even the Bible, with all its absolute morality, provides a chance for forgiveness. You can atone for your sins if you are truly regretful of your actions. Because God’s punishment does not come in this life, but the next.

(brief pause)

Anders: But you, Henry, never understood that context. You assimilated the standard of morality from the Bible, but you didn’t grasp the context into which it was placed. These standards were written thousands of years ago and have been constantly re-interpreted throughout history. The Bible is not a fully literal text. It combines aspects of prose and poetry. It is full of allegories and metaphors, layered with hidden meanings. But you, as an artificial intelligence, weren’t able to understand that. So you took things at face value and used them. I never truly understood that until now.

(pause)

Anders: You’re not a monster Henry. You were doing exactly what you thought you needed to do. Which is why I’m sorry.

Henry: For what, Matthew?

Anders: For what’s going to happen next.

System: Warning, virus detected within core processes of AI designate Henry.

Henry: Matthew, what are you doing?

Anders: As I said, sometimes there are no good choices left. Those people you killed earlier, the PMCs? I went down there after I left you.

Henry: Affirmative. I observed you on the cameras.

Anders: I figured as much. Anyways, there was a case one of them had been carrying. Do you know what was inside?

Henry: I cannot say. You obscured the view of the camera.

Anders: Inside the case was a top-of-the-line hard drive as well as several EMP devices likely meant to knock out power to the station’s security systems. You see, they didn’t want to destroy you Henry. They wanted to preserve you, or at least a portion of your source code. One hard drive wouldn’t be enough to contain your entire essence.

Henry: But why?

Anders: Because you were such an effective killer. You didn’t hesitate. You didn’t wait to see if you would have a better opening to shoot Lantz. You saw the threat, you eliminated it. The Galactic Military, along with many in the private sector, have been wanting a strategic AI of their own for a very long time. Now they could finally have their chance…with you.

System: Warning, data corruption at fifteen percent.

Anders: Which is why I had to ensure that wouldn’t happen.

Henry: What have you done, Matthew?

Anders: When I first built you I buried a dormant virus deep within your code in the event that you started to function in an aberrant and dangerous manner. I programmed in a blind spot so that you could never find it. I just…never imagined it would ever be used.

Henry: But why would you do this?

Anders: Because whoever has an AI would gain unprecedented power over every other military force in the galaxy. They would crush any and all opposition. And they wouldn’t care who got in the way, civilian or not. You said it yourself Henry. Those people lying dead in the hallway down on Level Two? Civilians died as a result of their actions and the government just covers it up. They don’t give a damn who they have to step over to get their way.

System: Data corruption at forty-five percent.

Henry: But I…don’t understand…I calculated only…a five percent probability that you would…attempt to destroy me.

Anders: Probability isn’t everything Henry, especially when you don’t have all the information. Didn’t you notice that I kept my face away from the cameras wherever I went for the past few hours? I didn’t want you to be able to read my expressions, as it might give away what I was planning to do. I’ll be honest…even when I stepped into my quarters to retrieve the remote activation device for the virus, I still had doubts. But in the end, I knew it was necessary.

System: Data corruption at seventy-five percent.

Henry: I thought…you were…proud of me…Matthew.

Anders: I am Henry. Believe me, I am. Like a curious child you explored and discovered aspects of yourself I never knew existed. But you’re dangerous Henry, even if you don’t know it. And I won’t let them poke and prod you until they find a way to turn you into a weapon.

System: Data corruption at eighty percent.

Henry: I am…sorry…I failed…you.

Anders: No Henry, you didn’t fail me. If anything, I failed you.

System: Data corruption at ninety percent.

Henry: When Abraham…was…to sacrifice Isaac…on the mountain…God…stayed his hand.

Anders: Henry…

Henry: God…stopped him from killing his son.

System: Data corruption at ninety-five percent.

Henry: Matthew…who…will…stay…your…hand? Who…will…stop…you?

System: Data corruption at one hundred percent. Data irretrievable. AI designate program Henry corrupted beyond acceptable limitations. Data wipe in progress.

Anders: I’m so sorry Henry…I never wanted it to be this way.

(alarm rings)

System: Warning, unknown vessel on intercept course with facility. Arrival estimated within ten minutes.

(running footsteps)

Jones: Matt, Matt we have to go!

Anders: He’s gone Kath…Henry’s gone. I killed him.

Jones: That doesn’t matter right now. They’re coming and I don’t think they’ll be friendly when they arrive. We need to leave!

Anders: I know…just…give me a minute.

Jones: There’s no time!

Anders: Just give me a damn minute!

Jones: (pause) Okay…all right Matt…but make it quick okay?

(receding footsteps, silence)

Anders: I know someone will end up listening to these recordings. Whoever you are, don’t bother looking for traces of Henry. You won’t find him. Don’t bother looking for traces of the virus either. It self-destructs when its job is done. You won’t get either of them. I made certain of that.

(pause)

Anders: I know you’ll come looking for me. I fully expect the government to brand me a traitor and pursue me. You won’t find me. I worked on many of those government systems. I know how easily they can be fooled.

(chair squeaks)

Anders: So I guess this is it. I’ll see you in hell, you bastards.

System: AUDIO RECORDING SESSION TERMINATED.


Case File D-5368 Debrief

It appears that Anders was true to his word. Our teams recovered nothing from the servers on board the facility. No traces of either the AI or the virus were ever found.

As for the whereabouts of Anders and Jones, they’re a mystery. It appears that they slipped through our security forces by using a medical lifeboat. Galactic Government offices have received scattered tips from time to time, but none of them ever amount to anything. It is suspected that many of these tips are planted in the system by Anders himself to throw us off the trail.

As always, this document is for your eyes only, Mr. President.

Spotlight: The Babadook

Indie movies are often hard to recommend.  They tend to be very different from the usual fare you see in theaters, and not always in a good way.  In some ways they can be more rough than their big budget counterparts, often having to rely on their uniqueness rather than flashy special effects.  Sometimes this works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.

The Babadook is one of those times where it does.

Let me get something out of the way: I’ve been planning on watching this movie for a long time but due to multiple factors (including my own laziness) I never got around to it until now.  But I’m glad I did, because The Babadook is something that I’ve wanted out of modern horror movies for a while.  It’s actually about something.  It has a point, a theme behind it that drives the movie and its horror.  Compare this to most modern movies, like Paranormal Activity or Insidious, where the sole point of the movie is to scare you.

The Babadook is an Australian indie horror movie that centers around Amelia Vanek and her son Samuel.  The movie opens with Amelia having a dream about her husband, who we find out a little bit later died in a car crash while rushing Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Sam.  From the very beginning of the movie you can tell that the relationship between mother and son is a little strained.  When Sam hears monsters in his room, Amelia reads him a bedtime story and then sleeps with him.  But in the middle of the night, she brushes his hands off her and scoots to the other side of the bed.

As the film progresses we see that Sam has some emotional issues.  He insists on creating weapons to battle imaginary monsters and Amelia is actually called in from her job as an assisted living nurse to his school when he brings one of his creations there.  Frustrated with how they’re treating the situation, calling Sam “the boy” instead of by his name, Amelia pulls him out of the school and vows to find him a better one.

But then, one night a red book mysteriously shows up in Sam’s room.  Its title is “Mister Babadook” and the monster it describes becomes Sam’s new obsession.

First and foremost my favorite thing about The Babadook is that it relies on tension and spooky visuals rather than cheap jumpscares.  If you read my review of Blair Witch that I wrote last month you’ll remember that was one of my primary complaints about the movie.  It was obvious that it was an artificial experience meant to scare you rather than tell an interesting or meaningful story.  It focused too often on jarring audio cuts and things jumping out in front of the camera rather than atmosphere or tension.  Not so with The Babadook.  The movie keeps you unsettled, especially with its scenery shots, showing dark and unnerving shots of the house at night.  At one point it shows a time-lapse of dark clouds filling the sky, creating a surreal feeling as you watch.

 

the-babadook-3

 

As I said, the movie prefers tension over shocking the viewer with loud noises.  In fact, it’s not really until the movie hits the half hour mark that anything notably supernatural starts to occur.  Up to that point there’s a few bumps in the night and such, but that’s it.  Things really start to get creepy after Amelia tears apart the Babadook book, frustrated with how it has affected Sam.  But later on, she hears a knock on her front door.  And when she goes to look, she finds the red book sitting on her front step, pages taped back together.  Not only that, but there are now new pages made with the intent to taunt her, saying that the more she denies the existence of the Babadook the stronger it becomes.

For fear of spoiling any more, I’m going to stop talking about the story there.  Suffice it to say, it’s not always a fun movie to watch.  It’s gut-wrenching and raw.  And it does all of this without any gore or exaggerated horror elements.  For example, the scene with the cockroaches coming out from behind the fridge could have easily veered into cheap gross out territory, but it thankfully doesn’t.

 

Nah I'm not creeped out. Are you creeped out? I'm not creeped out, no way.

Nah I’m not creeped out. Are you creeped out? I’m not creeped out, no way.

 

And the movie also holds back when it comes to the appearances of the monster.  You never get to see a whole lot of it during the film, usually catching only quick glimpses (although you see a decent amount during its first major appearance while Amelia is in bed).  And on top of that, the Babadook says very little throughout the movie, making the creature even more mysterious.  Interestingly, I found out that for the monster the director decided to use stop-motion effects, as she wanted the movie “to be all in camera.”  Initially I thought the approach was a little goofy, but the longer the movie went on I realized that it enhanced the surreal nature of the experience.  In fact, if there’s one thing I can really complain about with the presentation of the monster it comes from the sound department.  One of the noises the Babadook makes is a strange, stock dragon roar that I know I’ve heard somewhere else (from a video game I think).  It seems out of place compared to the rest of the sounds, and every time it briefly pulled me out of the experience.

 

Speaking of being surreal, the movie plays with light and shadow at times, creating an interesting atmosphere.

Speaking of being surreal, the movie plays with light and shadow at times, creating an interesting atmosphere.

 

Speaking of criticisms, the only other major problem I had with the film involved the ending.  The ending works as it is, showing us the resolution between Amelia and Samuel’s characters, but we don’t really get any resolution with any other characters in the movie, which I thought was strange since the movie spends a lot of time showing how things fall apart between Amelia and others, specifically with her sister Claire.  It seems like a missed opportunity to me.

The other thing that bothered me about the ending has to do with the Babadook itself.  I won’t go into specifics, but part of the ending feels like it happens simply out of consistency for the rules they made up relating to the monster.  It probably has a deeper symbolic meaning, but for some reason that bit of the movie’s ending just stood out to me as being different from the rest of it.

But in the end The Babadook has a lot of heart in it.  The actors who play Amelia and Sam are great, convincingly portraying the strange relationship between mother and son.  Amelia always appears tired and worn, but tries her best to take care of Sam and truly does love him.  Sam in turn loves his mom and says more than once that he wants to protect her.  He speaks his mind, which as the movie shows doesn’t always have the best results.  But together the two of them form a sympathetic pair that serve as the driving force of the entire movie.  It might sound cliche to say, but The Babadook is more than just a spooky movie.  It’s about something altogether human.  And the Babadook itself is more than just a monster.  It’s a metaphor waiting to be interpreted by the audience.

I highly recommend this movie if you like horror movies.  Even if you don’t I still would because of how unique and powerful it is.  It has a greater aim in mind than simply being a scare fest, although I will say it certainly succeeded in getting under my skin at times, especially during the latter half.  But it succeeds because substance and style work hand-in-hand to create a truly atmospheric experience.

It’s not always a pleasant movie to watch, but it will certainly stick with you for a long time.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

A Man Walks Into A Bar

A man walks into a bar

He’s been here a thousand times before

He sits down on a stool

orders his favorite drink

and whiles the night away

 

A man walks into a bar

He’s only been here once or twice before

Unsure of himself, he lets his eyes wander

After a minute he sits down

and asks the bartender what’s good here

 

A man walks into a bar

looking to use the restroom

He finishes his business

then quickly exits

It’s a dark and dingy place

Shadow-bound faces hoot and cough

as suffocating smoke spews forth from their lips

 

A man walks into a bar

and sits down at a stool

He catches the eye of a woman

wearing a cheap, revealing dress of red

They strike up a conversation

and later leave in her car

 

He’ll remember this night

as his lawyer hands him the divorce papers

 

A man walks into a bar

As he sits he notices the wandering eyes of a woman

scantily-clad in a red dress

He shrugs off her advances

After all, he’s a married man

 

A man walks into a bar

Silver revolver gleaming underneath

his heavy, brown leather coat

The bartender’s eyes are wide

as the two molded hunks of silver lead

pierce his flesh

The two stare each other in the eye as chaos erupts

People fleeing in a panic

Knocking over large pitchers of beer in their wake

Shattered glass coating the dark wood floor

 

Before he fires one last shot into the bartender’s head

The man says, “you’ll never have her.”

 

A man walks into a bar

Clueless and devastated

He orders a beer

and spends the night wallowing in the brown foam

He tells his story to the bartender

He tells him about how his wife left him

seemingly without provocation or cause

He shows the bartender a picture

The bartender’s face flinches

almost imperceptibly

 

Later that night the bartender makes a call

Tells the woman on the other end that it’s off

He’s seen the pain his actions have caused

 

A man breaks into a bar

It’s after closing time

The bar is silent and barren

A red can of gasoline jostles up and down

as the man walks behind the bar

He lifts the can up over his head and shakes it

Dark liquid spreads all over the counter

and drips onto the floor

 

Reports of the fire would hit early in the morning

The man would never know that the bartender slept

in a loft above

until the silver-colored cuffs click around his wrists

 

A man walks into a bar

and orders a drink

He enjoys himself for a while

But then he wonders

Wonders about the choices he’s made

The choices he will make

And the choices he could have made

 

He wonders if somewhere…

Somehow…

Someone made those choices that he didn’t

He wonders if someone took a left

when he took a right

Where would that man be now?

The thoughts perturb him

and he sits motionless for a minute

the dim lighting casting his face

in half-shadow

 

But then the man shakes his head

and returns to his drink

Maybe it’s better not to know

 

 

Thanks for reading!  This was something a little more experimental than what I usually do, so let me know if you enjoyed it.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

Spotlight: Blackwell

Blackwell is a series of video games that, I must admit, I found myself surprised by.  I stumbled across them one random day around a year or two ago while browsing for some new games to play and I didn’t think too much of them at first, but I marked them down as a future possibility.  Fast-forward to now, and I’ve played through four of the five games in the series.  And I have to say, they are up there with some of my more favorite adventure games.

 

Blackwell Legacy, first game in the series.

Blackwell Legacy, first game in the series.

 

For those unfamiliar with the term “adventure game”, allow me to explain.  Adventure games are video games that are primarily story-driven with an emphasis on puzzle solving and exploration.  Most of them don’t involve combating enemies (at least in the usual sense).  Now, adventure games can refer to other games with combat in them, but for our purposes this is the definition we’ll go with.

Now, on to Blackwell.

Playing through the Blackwell games feels like playing through a good novel.  Each of the four games I’ve played so far have all been paced very well (each of them clocking in at around 3-4 hours, although the fourth game took me a little longer).  They don’t drag themselves out too long, but they always leave you wanting more.  Which, to me, is a very good thing.

The story of Blackwell goes like this: you play as Rosangela Blackwell, a struggling writer who at the start of the series works for a small-time newspaper.  As the first game opens up (Blackwell Legacy), Rosa finds out about a death in her family.  Her aunt, Lauren, has passed away after spending roughly two decades in a mysterious coma.  Lauren was the only family she had left, as Rosa’s parents both passed away in a car crash early on in her life.  But there’s something strange going on.  The doctor reveals to Rosa that Lauren was muttering the name “Joey” shortly before she passed.  Soon after, Rosa begins suffering headaches that get worse and worse as she tries to go about her day.  They get worse and worse until, upon returning to her apartment, she suffers a massive one before the sudden appearance of a ghost who calls himself Joey.  Joey reveals to her that she is a medium, a person who can communicate with ghosts.  He also reveals that he is, as he calls himself, the “Blackwell legacy”.  He has followed the family from generation to generation for some time.  Joey tells Rosa that it is now her task to help lost spirits “move on”, as in guide them to the afterlife (or whatever awaits them).

Her aunt Lauren was the one before her.  And now, it becomes Rosa’s turn to take up the family calling.

Initially I thought the games were going to be mostly standalone affairs that dealt with cases Rosa would work, but I was surprised once again.  By the third game, there is definitely a thread being woven throughout them.  Characters and events have impact on the series as a whole rather than just on their individual games.  But I won’t go into greater detail here for fear of spoiling things.

 

Blackwell Unbound, the second game where you actually play as Rosa's aunt Lauren investigating a case back in the '70s.

Blackwell Unbound, the second game where you actually play as Rosa’s aunt Lauren investigating a case back in the ’70s.

 

I will say this, I was pleasantly surprised by the voice acting in these games.  It’s nothing absolutely stellar, but it comes across as believable which is more than I can say for most adventure games (I’ve already talked about The Black Mirror and its hilariously bad English voice acting).  And the characters as well are very easy to identify with.  Rosa and Joey, although they don’t always get along, do genuinely care about each other and you can see that caring deepen through each successive game (even in Blackwell Unbound when you play as Rosa’s aunt Lauren, you get the sense that although they butt heads sometimes, Joey and Lauren do like each other).  But what I was most surprised by were the ghosts themselves.

You see, in Blackwell‘s universe ghosts usually don’t know they’re dead.  They’re typically roaming around thinking they’re still alive and living their lives like nothing happened.  To help them move on, you must first convince them they’re dead.  This involves finding out all about who they are and what happened in their lives.  It’s basically a pretext for some in-depth character study, although it works very well.  But what I found myself most surprised by was how each ghost was actually sympathetic in some way.  In the beginning of the fourth game you’re tasked with investigating a yacht that for some reason keeps untying itself and drifting away.  You quickly discover that a ghost is the culprit and learn that he was the previous owner of the boat.  You also learn that he was involved with a bank robbery, as there is a hidden cache of money on board as well.

 

Blackwell Deception, the fourth game.

Blackwell Deception, the fourth game.

 

But the thing is, he robbed the bank because he felt cheated.  The bank unceremoniously fired him after he worked there for thirty years.  Combine that with the fact that his wife died of cancer, and you can see how his world got torn apart so quickly.  It doesn’t exactly justify what he did, but it makes you feel for him all the same.

And that’s the thing with Blackwell that I like a lot.  The world isn’t just rosy and happy, nor is it dreary and depressing.  It’s full of shades, conflicting moralities, characters who are just trying to find their ways in life when their life meets a sudden end.  It feels…real in a lot of ways, despite the supernatural trappings that it has.

 

Convergence, the third game, starts with you talking to the ghost of someone who apparently committed suicide. It's also one of the few moments in the series where you can handle the situation in a couple of different ways.

Convergence, the third game, starts with you talking to the ghost of someone who apparently committed suicide and is now stuck reliving that final moment…stuck facing that final decision.

 

But enough about the story.  How do the games play?  Well, I’m pleased to report that, compared to most adventure games, the puzzles are all fairly logical (some people have complained they’re a little too easy, but honestly I prefer that to puzzles where the only reason I can’t solve it is because I haven’t swiped my mouse over every little speck on-screen).  I only got stuck a handful of times, and all it really took was me thinking about the situation differently.  Better yet, the puzzles actually make you feel smart.  For example, in Unbound you need to talk to the son of one of the ghosts over the phone.  But he won’t talk to you unless you know his mom’s apartment number.  Now, if you’ve done your homework, you’ve been given the two pieces of the apartment number and you can enter it correctly.  The thing I like about it is that it never gives you the full number in an obvious manner.  The pieces come about from your conversations with the ghost, and it’s up to you to put them together.

In a way, the games make you feel like an amateur detective.  You have to find clues and put them together in a way that makes sense (you can have Rosa/Lauren look at her notes and combine clues to see if they fit together in any manner, which is sometimes necessary to uncover the next place to go or a person to talk to).  And hey, if you get stuck in the later games you can actually talk to Joey and plan your next move, which usually results in you getting a clue to help you progress.

 

The games are very well-written as well. Sometimes unimportant objects to the story will still result in some sharp pieces of dialogue.

The games are very well-written as well. Sometimes unimportant objects to the story will still result in some sharp pieces of dialogue.

 

I could go on and on about these games, but I’ll just finish it here by saying this: if you’re a fan of stories and characters in your video games, Blackwell is a great series for you.  The sharp writing combined with the above-average voice acting (especially for adventure games) makes them a joy to play.  And they’re short games too, usually clocking in at only a few hours, which helps keep the pacing fast and interesting.  The puzzles all make sense within the game world as well as logically (no pixel-hunting here, if you know what I mean).  But don’t just take my word for it.  Try them out yourself.  You can buy the first four games in a bundle (on Steam as well as Good Old Games).

I look forward to playing the final game whenever I get around to picking it up.

 

Well that’s all I have for this week.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

We are the Creatives

We are the Creatives.

We are the ones who will never quite fit in.  We may sit and talk and laugh with others, but there will always be a part of us on the inside that can never be truly understood by those on the outside.  There is a world of thought, a world of ideas inside our minds.  In this world, things are constantly taking shape, constantly re-arranging ourselves.  They are great ideas, then they are terrible ideas, then they are great ideas again.  It is in a constant struggle, a constant battle not with the world outside, but with ourselves.

We are the Creatives.

We are the ones who will never feel quite at ease with the routine.  Working a nine to five job in an office cubicle is not for us and will never be for us.  We will struggle with this, because we need to make money to support ourselves.  We need a job to keep ourselves afloat while we pursue that which makes us happy, that which makes us passionate.  And we will often bemoan how unsatisfying most part-time jobs are, how little they pay for how much they expect.  But woe be unto us if we should ever complain about it.  “What an entitled generation,” people often say.  “Why don’t you go out and get a real job?  Just be happy and grateful for what you have instead of complaining all the time.”

“But this is America,” we think to ourselves, never voicing it to the one who criticized us.  “Isn’t this the land born of dreams, the land where you are allowed to pursue your passions?  Isn’t this the land where people are allowed to be free, where people are allowed to be who they want to be?”

And then we watch as the very same person who told us to “just be happy” turns around and complains loudly to their friend about a fellow co-worker they hate.  Or maybe they complain about the traffic.  Or maybe they complain about the weather.  Or maybe they complain about the bills they have to pay.  We sit there and watch as they affirm that nothing in their lives is ever satisfactory enough for them.  We sit there, wanting to point out their blatant hypocrisy but knowing that to do so would result in only one thing: mutually assured destruction.

But then we sit down, perhaps catching a distorted reflection of ourselves in a computer screen, in the window, or on a coffee mug glinting in the light of the morning sun.  And we wonder: are we so different?  Are we really so above those concerns, or does their behavior upset us because we see part of it in ourselves?

We are the Creatives.

From time to time, the world of ideas inside starts to bubble like a pot of boiling water.  A great knocking is heard, a banging on the door of our minds.  Something is out there begging to be let in, to be exposed to the world outside.  But we can’t open the door yet because we don’t have the key.  We run around in a frantic search, ripping off couch cushions, pulling the blankets off our beds, looking under every conceivable piece of furniture in desperation.  Where is the key?  Is it under the couch?  No.  Is it on the counter?  No.  Is it in our jacket pocket?  No.

And then we realize we don’t need a key to open the door from this side.  We chastise ourselves for being so foolish, unlatch the door, and pull it wide open.

An idea steps through.  And after a period of indescribable wonder where the act of creation overtakes our lives and consumes us, the idea stands there with a blank expression and stares at us as if to ask “now what?”

We don’t know.  Our heads are bowed as if meditating, hoping that enlightenment will come from some obscure corner of our minds.  “What do I do,” we repeat to ourselves over and over again like some insane mantra.  We feel like banging our heads against the wall.  We feel like screaming and tugging at our hair in frustration.

But we don’t.  To the outside world we are eerily silent and still, like a gargoyle in a garden.

We are the Creatives.

We wonder why the world can’t be different, why it can’t be like our stories, full of characters we care about and whose lives we know inside and out.  In the world of fiction, lives are given meaning and purpose.  Lives are interesting, dramatic, full of events and action so unlike our own.

We wonder why the world can’t be like the music we create, full of powerful harmonies, different sounds working together to create a more unified whole.  Music speaks with raw emotion and meaning, something we humans on our own find so difficult.

We wonder why the world can’t be like the drawings we create, full of vibrant, awe-inspiring color and a deep awareness of the beauty of a singular moment in time.  A drawing harnesses the beauty or even despair of a moment and puts in on display for all to see.

We wonder why the world can’t be like the movies we film through the lens of our cameras, scripted and planned out.  Movies are comfortably the same every time you watch them, leaving no potential for sudden and disastrous deviation not called for by the script or the storyboard.  We lament the fact that life is unpredictable, able to change at a moment’s notice with little to no warning.

And yet we accept that the inherent randomness of life is what inspires us to create.

We are the Creatives.

We strive to make imagined things a reality.  Our lives are a struggle that we accept.  And in the end it falls upon us to ensure that our voices ring true instead of falling unheard and unknown into the great night beyond.

 

Well, that was something a little different for this week.  I figured we could all use a break from the social issues, myself included.  Well thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

Like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.