Robo-Rubio Upgrade Too Late?

Faust Company Issue 203

Lisa Ipswich @lipswich

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Robo-Rubio has proven that he is ready for the big leagues.

But is it already too late?

An aide close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed that the original design team at Reblican Establishment Enterprises had been fired after the android suffered an apparent breakdown during the crucial February debate.

The writing was on the wall: it was time to call in the big guns.

Olaf Erickson, of Lund, Sweden, remembers that he was watching the National Hurling Championship when he received the call:

“It was Mitch [McConnell]. He’d just pulled the plug on the American programmers and was looking abroad. Somehow he got wind of my team.”

Erickson, the world’s leading expert on simulacrum design, wasn’t surprised to hear that Robo-Rubio had broken down during the debate.

“Trumps nonsequiturs, his logical fallacies and boorish manner would distress the protocols of even the most sophisticated robots,” Erickson explained. “Only my design team can write the proper algorithms to weather the hot air of a gasbag like Donald Trump.”

Anit Chowdhury, of Lahore, Pakistan, the team’s lead algorithm designer chimed in: “Robo-Rubio required a whole new level of sophistication. Gone are the days of the the ‘aw shucks’ congeniality protocols, for example, of the Ronald Reagan model, which, quite frankly, a chimpanzee could have written.”

Lead behavioralist, Yuri Gregorovich, or Kiev, explained that he had inculcated 110 communicative gestures of a male Silverback gorilla into the Robo-Rubio’s motherboard to help the android interpret Trump’s bizarre body language.

Gregorovich was pleased that after extensive coaching Robo-Rubio now behaved: “…like an anal retentive prick with severe Aspergers. You’ll also notice that when Robo-Rubio gets caught in a feedback loop, he repeatedly accuses Donald Trump of repeating himself until he can reboot.”

Though Robo-Rubio’s performance has improved thanks to the hard work of these H1-B visa holders, there is worry at Republican Establishment Enterprises that it may be too late.

“We turned up his vitriol and basically obliterated his common sense protocols,” Gregorovich said. “But the average Republican voter still perceives Robo-Rubio as aloof and over-educated.”

“Mitch wanted me to turn his rhetoric down to Third Grade level,” Erikson said. “But we couldn’t get any lower. Mitch worries that Robo-Rubio is still more articulate than Trump, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.”

The truth is a hard pill to swallow:

Despite Robo-Rubio’s upgrades, after Super Tuesday’s disaster the Republican Establishment android may be destined for the scrap pile.

This post is SATIRE.

Thanks to Bill Draheim for providing the photography. You can find more of his visual art at billdraheim.com

What Can We Learn from “Spotlight” Part 1

Despite rumors to the contrary, Spotlight is not a great movie. I’m not going to go into the reasons, in my opinion, why the film isn’t as good as they say; I’ll leave that for professional film critics. But I think that Spotlight is an important movie, as mainstream Hollywood pictures go. 

 

Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe’s exposé of child sexual abuse and its coverup in the Archdiocese of Boston.

It is a Hollywood movie, so it is no doubt full of embellishment. Nevertheless, if the skeleton upon which the movie hangs its premise is sound, then it is a damning condemnation of one of the world’s most established and powerful religious institutions. The reporters and the paper should be praised for their courage and investigative diligence.

Ripple Effect 

As is often the case, when a boat springs a leak other leaks are sure to follow.

In the movie, the initial investigation of the Spotlight team centers on only one priest. After a meeting with the founder of a child abuse survivors’ support group, this number leaps to 13.

Real life psychotherapist, Richard Sipe who has long studied celibacy in the Church, features in the movie as a voice-over-the-phone that provides harrowing details about the high incidence of molestation. In his estimate, the number of priests who have engaged in illicit sexual acts with minors could be as high as 6% of all clergy members. That would mean 90 priests in the Archdiocese of Boston. 

After extensive investigation by the team, this number is borne out. In the post-script following the movie, the audience is informed that ultimately 249 priests in the Archdiocese were eventually indicted! 

From one priest to 249. The numbers are not good. 

Change in global organizations such as the Catholic Church happen at a glacial pace. The Spotlight report erupted not long after the turn of the millenium, around the events of 9/11. For some of us this doesn’t seem like so long ago, but in reality an entire generation has already come of age. All that time, the Catholic Church has been reeling from a loss of credibility.

The 2013 election of Pope Francis  by the papal conclave, an egalitarian who champions for the voiceless, could be interpreted as a significant change in an organization famous for its secrecy.

Let’s hope to see more of such changes. 

The Importance of Media

If there is one thing the movie Spotlight shows, it is how important fearless and unimpeded journalism is to a functional democracy.

Without the relative freedom of the press the United States enjoys, Nixon would not have been impeached, American engagement in Vietnam would not have ended so soon, and Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunts may have simply sailed unobstructued into the anti-harbor of Trump’s Islamaphobic tirades. 

In 2001 there was still enough attention being paid to the mainstream press that the Spotlight story did serve as a vehicle for change.

However, as the Internet sluices more and more attention onto its fractured and infinite superhighway, generalized sources of information are losing traction. We increasingly receive different news from disparate sources, often curated to our political stance. 

In other words: 

“News” has become less a challenge of our beliefs as a bulwark for our preconceived notions. 

 

Related to this is the question of just how much longform investigative journalism will continue to play a role in social change.

This is not only an academic question. 

Recent events have shown that there is another entity, as powerful and entrenched in our American fabric as the Catholic Church, that requires the gimlet eye of a fearless and impartial press: The nation’s Law Enforcement system.  

Here then is the big question: what tactics employed by the Spotlight team to expose systemic pedophilia in the Catholic Church can be used to determine systemic racism in our nation’s police forces, if any….

 

I will explore further this question in part II of this blog post. 

 

 

The Death of Satire, the Demise of Irony II: On Reflection

“Who gave that son-of-a-bitch his greencard?”

Thus spoke Sean Penn right before the announcement at the Oscars for Best Picture. The award had of course been given to Alejandro Iñárritu, who is Mexican.

Predictably, this wisecrack set off the obligatory twitter-storm. Penn was summarily raked over the coals for his insensitivity, bigotry, privilege, etc. The first wave of righteous indignation had rippled out. With its return came opposing voices, most telling the others to lighten up. It had all been a joke.

Of everyone involved, which, as it happened at the Oscars, was a lot of people, Iñárritu may have been the only one who found it funny.

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Penn’s comments were not so much a joke as a textbook example of irony. In the now established tradition of using the Oscar’s to push politics, Penn was pointing out (ironically) that if the United States’ draconian immigration policy is left unchecked, we will be robbed of the immense talent of individuals like Iñárritu.

Yet to derive such an interpretation of Penn’s joke requires:

  1. A little bit of time to digest it. In other words: Reflection.
  2. An understanding of the greater social context. In other words, What was Sean Penn really poking fun at? The US political climate is rife with division over how our immigration policy should be. Penn was just putting his two-cents in.
  3. A baseline commonality between all parties involved. This shared experience can be cultural, linguistic, professional, or regional. (Writers, for example, recognize irony in each other’s work regardless of what culture they come from. Irony or satire does not translate well.)

Thrown out in front of one of the most watched events on Network Television, with an audience at once heterogeneous and short on attention span, Sean Penn’s joke fell flat on its ass.

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 1. Reflection

Honest reflection—meaning careful and disinterested consideration of an issue—is very often absent on Social Media. Often the most vociferous voice prevails, and a nuanced view of an issue is drowned out.

Not that in the past humanity has always been swayed by the most articulate argument or balanced perspective! If this were the case, our track record regarding warfare and conflict would be significantly less. But there does seem to be something about Social Media in particular that fosters a shoot-first ask-questions later mentality.

For one thing, if you are secreted in your cubby on the other side of the ocean, you don’t risk reprisal. It is the ultimate flip-the-bird as you zip away from the traffic light now turned green.

But another aspect that is peculiar to the Internet causes people to respond instantaneously. That is the matter of information surfeit.

In the glutted aether of the cloud, on the banks of the information streams of Facebook and Google+, the din of those seeking one’s attention is deafening. It is as if a thousand people were walking by, shouting in your face as they pass. How could one possibly engage in meaningful conversation under such circumstances? By the time you’ve gathered your thoughts, formulated your response, they are gone replaced by another. So what do we often do? Shout back, because, quite frankly, we don’t have the time.

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They say brevity is the soul of wit, and that the simple things are best. This is often true. But what is also true is that systems, whether ecological, political, historical, or societal are complex.

One can attack Sean Penn in 140 characters, but one cannot make a compelling argument using the same character count, any more than one could compress a cinematic masterpiece down to a 7-second loop.

People often complain about the word wrangling of academics and intellectuals, those individuals who ask questions where clearly none should exist (I am being ironic here), or who cloud an otherwise clear-as-day discussion with murky perspectives.

This is often a legitimate concern. 

Just as often, however, ragging on intellectuals, as a particularly American exercise, is simply an excuse for laziness. We don’t want to be inconvenienced with murky perspectives, we don’t want to have everything be “problematic” and “doubtful”. Because once you start venturing onto those slippery terms, the ice beneath your feet becomes thin. So, we use the Internet selectively, searching for the outlooks that reinforce what we already believe!  

And herein lies one of the problems: The Internet is so translucent that darkness cannot escape. Irony and satire, which exist in the shadows or, at the very least, are shadows of the people and institutions they parody, dim when there is no longer anything that can’t be said.

But of course, this isn’t true. There are things that can’t be said.

But I’ll save that argument for my next post.

The Death of Irony, the Demise of Satire I

My New Years post, Top Ten Ways to Drive Traffic to your Speculative Fiction Blog, had twice the traffic of any I’ve written. It was a satirical piece that I wrote foremost for fun.

However, I also wanted to test a suspicion that had been growing. Namely, the question of whether irony and satire still have legs in the digital age.

The prevailing tone of most social media seems to be, at its best, earnest, optimistic self-regard. At its worst, it slips into self-satisfied boasting or outraged indignation. Because of the control over the presentation of the self that social media affords, people are very selective about what they disclose. The drunken braggadocio of the barfly is no longer belied by his unkempt appearance and empty pockets. Only his exploits remain. We choose to expose only what we consider our virtues (whether real or not) and decline to reveal our flaws. Our contradictions remain hidden.

Irony and satire, as vessels of wit, depend on contradiction.

The dictionary defines irony as: “the use of words to convey a meaning that is opposite of its literal meaning.” Satire, likewise, is a literary convention that uses a sarcastically sympathetic voice to expose the vices and/or weaknesses of an individual, power structure, religion, or humanity in general.

In other words, whatever is said or written literally is in reality meant to convey the opposite to the audience.

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1867 edition of Punch, a ground-breaking British magazine of popular humour, including a great deal of satire of the contemporary, social, and political scene.

I am writing about this issue for two reasons.

Firstly, I am concerned that the waning ability to appreciate irony/satire denotes a “coarsening of our culture”. It is symptomatic of a white-washing of conversation and an increasingly simplistic way of thinking that, while not necessarily created by the Internet, is encouraged by its instant-gratification nature.

Secondly, I would change tack and suggest that there are real-world vicissitudes that make Irony and Satire more difficult to convey. Perhaps they no longer are valid forms of wit in a globalized, digital, so-called borderless world!

What do Sean Penn and Charlie Hebdo have in Common?

The recent massacre at the Parisian satirical magazine office of Charlie Hebdo and Sean Penn’s comments upon announcement of Alejandro Iñárritu’s Oscar Award for “Birdman” and the subsequent backlash might at first not seem to have much in common. However, they are both examples of satire/irony and the dangers that accompany it.

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(Before we go further, I would like to put paid any notion that I view the outrage Penn met on social media as being equal to the fatal ramifications arising from Charlie Hebdo’s satire. They are similar in type, not degree!)

In the next post, I will take a look at Penn’s gaff first and explore how and why it failed so miserably.

Krapp’s Last Email Part 3

Everything else disappeared.

Krapp squeezed his thumb and forefinger. The screen collapsed onto the single email.

He felt somehow akin to this single message, floating in the aether. Humanity may no longer be alone among the stars, but Krapp was. Here, at the end of a long uneventful life, which had been interrupted far too briefly by the tonic effervescence of his wife, Bianca, one final message awaited him. Was it a promotional, sent from that unknown country wherein time and space were one? Or an advertisement by some enterprising theoretical business man selling negative-space real estate?

Krapp7-Statue

Krapp shivered. Perhaps it was a message from God himself, summoning him home in Courier Font. How many times had he taken the Lord’s name in vain in the last seventy years? What if God had a Digital Interface System, one that allowed him to hear every black oath that had ever been uttered using of His name.

Well, if that was the case then Krapp wouldn’t waste any more time. If now was his moment of truth, he would meet it with dignity, not dither and prevaricate, wasting months and years when now was his time. He had heard tales of old men and women who had become trapped on the Internet. They were carted away insensate, still attached to their devices. One rabbit hole too many. One message more.

He let the white finger linger atop the envelope. Its summary appeared.

“DO NOT DELETE this message. Our Dinosaurian resear…” That was all the box would allow.

Krapp cursed silently. That had done nothing to allay his curiosity!

That last word: was it “research” or “researchers”? And if the former did it mean research performed on the Dino-Clones or by them? It was amazing how the smallest words could make a world of difference.

Everybody knew of the Dino-Clone Corps. They were the finest peace-keepers the Federation had at its disposal. Or so President Putin maintained. Krapp himself remembered with revulsion the televised dispensation of citizenship to the first Dino-Clone solider, directly after the public implantation of an explosive near its carotid artery. The beast had been dressed in khaki fatigues. A hole had been punched through the rear seam to make room for its tail, which twitched expressively.

What a monstrosity. Just thinking about it….

A pop-up appeared on the interface’s edge, warning him that: “Increased excitement will result in defecation in approximately two minutes.”

The equipment with which he gazed upon the virtual world also peered into him. Two minutes and counting. Should he disengage so he didn’t shit his shorts accidentally or soldier on?

That was the problem with analytics and substantiation: knowing something was going to happen hastened its onset. Theologians, theoreticians and even economists had argued over this conundrum, but for Krapp probability mechanics no longer entertained him as they once had. In fact the idea of taking a good shit spurred on by adrenal impulse was much more exciting.

“What the F*ck,” he thought, and then speaking aloud. “Open. Message.”

He read the first lines: “President Vladimir Pushkin is pleading with you! Second Lady JeongSook Pushkin is begging you! We don’t know what else to do to get you to pay attention. THE BOMB HAS DROPPED!”

Not quite yet, Krapp thought glibly.

“In 2190, the Galactic Federation sent a team of DinoClonian researchers on a one-hundred year journey to Sagittarius A*.”

One hundred years ago? That was impossible. They had only been in existence for maybe twenty years. He read on.

“…we know your time is precious and we certainly don’t want to bore you with science or a lengthy explanation of Einsteinium relativity. Suffice to say that the fact that the research ship was moving towards the center of the solar system has meant that their message of warning, sent to their time, has been intercepted in ours! 100% of scientists agree with their findings. What they’ve discovered will change….”

Alright already! Krapp thought. Cut to the chase. He immediately scrolled down to the bottom of the message.

“…the END!”

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Well, that tore it. He had gone right past the important part!

Though his bladder cried out, and his ass, now numb, harbored a burgeoning payload, he had to know what the Dino-Clone research team had discovered.

He scrolled upwards until he found some words in bold letters: “…An Anti-Matter Entity has lain dormant in the nebular cradle of Sagittarius A* for eons. Their presence has awakened it and now it is growing with astounding speed, gobbling up nearby matter in its infant voracity. Scientists are not sure whether it will develop consciousness before reaching the Earth or even whether it is capable of reasoning as we humans understand it, but what we do know is we cannot wait to find out! Everything we know and cherish will be devoured in a matter of millennia!

“Will it really take the end of the world for you to chip in?

“Donate now to our humanity preservation pod, an ambitious project to digitally record the annals of human knowledge, from the works of Beethoven to Bieber, Sigmund Freud to Tony Robbins. You have our personal guarantee that somewhere in that good night, intelligent beings will intercept the preservation pod and put paid our fears of Universal obsolescence!

“A simple donation of §200 will ensure your name is added to the Virtual Ark. Humanity will be remembered. And you will too for this low, low price!”

So that was it. Everything was going to end in a few thousand years. Strangely, the first thing Krapp wondered was when people would stop having children. Would it be this generation or the next or a hundred years hence? He was glad now that he and his wife hadn’t had children. Not for the lack of trying, but he had met Bianca too late. He’d hummed and hawed as usual, and she had told him not having children was alright with her. He’d gotten her a Shin Hua proxy-dog instead. It’s astro-fur had been preternaturally smooth. That’s what the advert had called it: “preternatural fur.” Bianca used to sit with it on her lap, caressing the ridges of its face, those charming flaps of skin that hung in folds.

Still, he could have tried harder. He should have tried harder. What the hell, he thought, two hundred Bucks to get a name on the ledger. Why not?

He pressed the link and typed in—his hands always shook so much these days— Bianca Krapp.

They hadn’t been able to find her in the snow. Maybe someday they would find her in the stars.

Krapp2

“Jury Selection” going to JukePop

Ace artist and graphic designer, Ian Webster of Hazard-County Illustration, has taken one of Bill Draheim‘s photographic works and redone it as the cover for my speculative fiction piece “Jury Selection.”

Cover Varieties Final

The intention was to release the story on JukePop, a curator-site for serialized fiction, in order to see what effect it may have and what the benefits might be–if any.

The first part of the process has been completed: Acceptance. As of this morning, I have submitted the story.

The Terms and Agreements contained this monster clause, which means I have granted JukePop:

“irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, publish, publicly perform, publicly display, and commercialize (in multiple forms) on the Website (including on JukePop mobile apps) the applicable Content.”

Zoiks! Well, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” as the old saying goes. JukePop itself claims no ownership of the work, and one of its selling points is that fact that writers have gone on to put their collections in eBook form that is then sold to an already established fan base.

Here is a link to the story on JukePop and here is a link to an article helping readers figure out how to navigate and negotiate this new (dare I say: revolutionary) format for fiction.

Thanks in advance for the support!

Krapp’s Last Email Part 2

Scratch that. One: a message from Sagittarius A*.

It had to be a mistake. Everyone knew there was nothing there but a black hole pulling at the  starry fabric. It was the center of the solar system, for crying out loud.

Yet, there it was. A single, solitary bright point of light indicating that a message “for his eyes only” had come from that most improbable of locations. Despite himself Krapp’s interest was piqued. He loved a good mystery. Maybe it was a Trojan horse; some crackpot organization or hacker syndicate had faked the message so that a curious recipient—more credulous and naïve than Krapp, of course, and unable to resist the temptation—would open it. Some older citizen not used to receiving such incredible messages.

Well, Krapp hadn’t been born yesterday. He wouldn’t fall for such shenanigans. The message would remain closed.

For now.

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Krapp decided first to get rid of any messages concerning extraterrestrials, especially those pesky Andromedans. It wasn’t that he was a xenophobe. Some of his best friends were aliens. Back when he had had friends, before he had become a social shut-in just as his wife had warned. But really, what was out there for an old fellow like him these days? Nothing but sin and debauchery, where were the values he had grown up with? When a man had only two or three wives his whole life?

Oh stop it, you old fool. He told himself.

“Promotions/social: xenons.” He commanded, then: “Andromedans.”

The array changed and Krapp plunged down the rabbit hole.

As usual Faux News had the most ground-breaking up to the micro-second news. Quite a few of their messages purported to provide incontrovertible, irrefutable evidence that President Pushkin had been kidnapped by the Andromedan Intelligence Agency. Krapp knew he should just erase all these, but…. One message opened a video feed of President Pushkin with a sackcloth over his head, was being forced into a spaceship! Another message contained a link to an article written by an well known vegetable clone expert claiming that President Pushkin had been grown in a vat on the prison-planet, Andromeda IX!

It only got worse.

The thing that claimed to be President Pushkin had felt the political pressure to prove he was the real, and had released his entire genomic helix in order to quiet the accusations, but the Faux News pundits reminded readers like Krapp that those things could easily be faked.

Krapp shook his head. What should he do? He had promised himself he would just delete these damn messages and be done with it, but as a citizen of the United Countries of America, he felt conscribed to ascertain whether his homeland was being ruled by an alien clone or just a naturalized Russian centenarian!

He took a deep breath, and once more, duty triumphed over common sense.

“Promotions: Andromedans/Interstellar.”

A few lights twinkled at the fringes of the Milky Way. He brushed his fingertips across their virtual vellum. Golden boxes appeared containing truncated synopses.

“Do no delete—this messa….”

“This is Magnus Magnuson of Faux Ne….”

“Ignore this message at your own per….”

“The real President Pushkin needs your hel….”

Krapp paused tremulously at the last. The ‘real’ President Pushkin. Was this evidence at last of his duplicity? There was only one way to find out.

He highlighted the message and tapped it two times.

The interface went dark. Somber strings thrummed. In the far corner of the screen a distant planet drew closer. A chorus chimed and the music rose in crescendo as the orb, whorled with white clouds and glossy blue seas grew ever nearer until suddenly—

Silence, broken by a single voice: “Andromeda XIV. That is what we in the Galactic Federation call this bright jewel at the edge of Federation space.”

The voice was vaguely familiar. Wait… was it that Pan-Bollywood actor, the one who had begun his career on Big Baba? Krapp could not for the life of him remember his name.

“But to the natives, the name of this green gem loosely translates as ‘Eden’. Once a barely understood planet at the edge of the galaxy, Eden now forms the beach head against Andromedan aggression!”

And then Krapp was in virtual free fall, plummeting through the clouds to the planet’s surface. His stomach lurched, tricked by the P.O.V.

The voice continued: “Former Secretary of Galaxy, Priscilla Pinkerton, has lived among the natives for many years. She knows the real President Pushkin, the generous and big-hearted man that he is, and in his glorious name she is begging you, she is pleading with you….”

Krapp leveled off perhaps a hundred feet above an alien village. Just outside, a spacecraft landed. A dock swung down disgorging a platoon of alien warriors. They raced towards the peaceful settlement, firing purple ray guns at the fleeing villagers.

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“DO NOT DELETE THIS MESSAGE. The Edenians depend entirely on your generous-“

“Delete!” Krapp roared.

And everything disappeared: the earnest narrative, the flame jets spouting from the fungal hovels, the smoke billowing from the strange topiaries.

Krapp unbunched shoulders dripping sweat. He couldn’t believe the content nowadays! Did these damn kids think everything was just a video game? He certainly didn’t want to see the slaughter of innocents one million light years away, even if it was just in simulation.

It probably served him right. He should have known better than to open the damn messages! Krapp just needed to get rid of these messages and be done with it.

But that single message, drifting at the universal cynosure, still whinged.

“Isolate Message/Sagittarius A*.” he said, almost hushed.

Everything else disappeared.

Krapp’s Last Email Part 1

This story is inspired by the famous one act play, Krapp’s Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett. Thanks to Harris Levinson for introducing my High School English class to this singular work.

Once again, I have the pleasure of collaborating with photographer and graphic artist, Bill Draheim. In previous collaborations, and in the spirit of Chris Van Allburg’s The Mysteries of Harris BurdickMr. Draheim would provide me photographic works to which I would write short stories. This time, the process was reversed. I provided the story and he came up with artistic pieces to match its flow. We hope you enjoy our newest effort

*

One night, a few months before she left for Nepal with her post-menopausal adventuress group, Bianca turned to Krapp as they lay in bed.

“Don’t disappear, Krapp.”

“Hmmm?” Krapp’s eye did not leave the page of his artifact paperback.

“Don’t get old,” his wife said. “Certainly not on my behalf.”

“Just because I don’t go on crazy trips…,” and his voice had sputtered out in that way it did when he didn’t want to talk.

“That’s not what I mean,” she said.

But he had already frustrated her, and the conversation was over.

Later, while he was telling her why he didn’t want to go onto the Æthernet—it was too labyrinthine, he said, using an artifact word—she reminded him of their short conversation that  night. He pretended that he had forgotten. She, of course, had not.

“This is what I was talking about!” she exclaimed, meaning any number of things.

“Really, well I, you know…,” *sputter*.

“There are all kinds of data visualization methods nowadays, Krapp.”

She pulled out her SamWay tablet.

“I’m just not crazy about—” he said, but this time she wasn’t having it.

“I’m leaving in a few days,” she said, scoldingly. “What if I can’t call you where I’m from? What if I can only get ahold of you through FaceSpace or MyBook?”

Krapp vaguely recalled having a FaceSpace account in his younger days, but as notifications of grandchildren’s birthdays had given way to digital obituaries, he had gradually drifted away. Disappeared.

Just like his wife had said.

“Alright.” He surrendered.

Not one to gloat, Bianca got straight down to business. “Okay, let’s try something simple. We’ll  chart what you’ve eaten this week.”

And in the next few minutes she took stock of what Krapp had consumed (he chose not to tell her about all the bananas) and input it into an incredibly user-friendly system with a facility remarkable for her age. In minutes, the content of his meals that week was rendered in bar graphs, spirals, concentric rings, pointillist clusters, impressions, maps clotted with dots and cones and rods and….

Eventually he conceded and bought a Direct Interactivity System. Together, they set it up.

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That had been a long time ago.

On her trip a freakishly huge snowstorm hit the mountains. Some trekkers, his wife among them, simply disappeared. The irony was lost on him for many years, buried beneath a grief so immense that its very totality confounded any estimation of its limit. Krapp only noticed it upon attempting even the smallest action; for example, the lifting of his aged body from the bed—he taught himself that he must rise in the morning—happened only through considerable effort, as though a thousand years hung to his frail bones.

It had taken years for him to regain his vigor, and this returned only in part. Things that before had been easy were now hard.

Like checking the inbox of his email account.

It was this Herculean task that he prepared for that morning after he’d awakened, drank his coffee and eaten a banana.

He wasn’t entirely in error to think of it as something against which his nerves needed to be steeled, his mind and body prepared. In the twenty years since his wife had disappeared, the world had changed. At the time Bianca had been right. Data visualization did made information processing easier.

But these days it was an entirely different affair. After the formation of the Galactic Federation, the information superhighway had gone interstellar. Suddenly the news was not just of your garden-variety terrestrial dysfunction, but of alien warlords invading galactic outposts, broken treaties between xenon civilizations, disputes over empty stretches of space, and the increasingly common UFO visit to Earth’s city-sized mega-malls, presumably to stock up on the cheapest goods in the galaxy. In no time at all, information from the far reaches of the solar system was just a mouse-click away. Junk mail, accordingly, had gone from a manageable trickle to a deluge.

He doddered over to the D.I.S. and settled into his rolling chair. A finger run across the screen returned tipped in dust. He uncoiled the wires and plugged the eight-prong cord into his temple. He clipped the diodes to index finger and thumb, and dropped the glossy shield.

Krapp could feel his blood pressure rising. There would be thousands of messages waiting for him. Tens of thousands.

He pressed a button. The console hummed. The shield blackened and then…

Row upon row of stylized envelopes appeared, suspended in virtual space for as far as the eye could see.

Krapp swiped his hand. These first letters slid off to the side, quickly replaced by others.

“Jesus,” he muttered.

Krapp9-BlueHalo

Most of the envelopes plunged from sight.

Krapp’s hands trembled. His heart raced. What had just happened? It took him a long, sweaty moment before he realized what had happened: He had been so long absent from the Æthernet that he had forgotten any spoken word was construed as a command.

Those messages remaining on the screen would be from the world’s hundreds of Christian offshoots. Many would herald the end of the world, an event Krapp remembered having happened a few times in his long life already.

Well, he didn’t need salvation. And even if he did, it wouldn’t come via email.

“Delete,” he commanded.

Just like that, they were gone.

He thought next of how he might best categorize the remaining messages. He decided. He would trim the off-world hullaballoo first.

“Visualization: interstellar channels. Milky Way,” he commanded. A black and white image of the solar system appeared, sparkling with thousands of glimmering lights dispersed among the many stars. The closer to earth, the more condensed the clusters. The earth itself was awash. Each represented a message sent from that part of Federation territory.

“Exclude terrestrial.”

The white-hot clump of messages clustered around the earth disappeared. He brushed his virtual fingertips over those that remained, and brief synopses popped-up: political messages asking for support in other-worldly elections; businesses promoting products only available from gaseous planetoids; advertisements for off-world picture brides with ‘complementary morphologies’. Only a few had been sent from the outer limits, none whatsoever from the center….

Scratch that. One: a message from Sagittarius A*.

The Gloaming

 

The Gloaming

It was when the sun and moon shared the sky for the first time in an age that the priest had his vision. No stigmata, nothing so crass as speaking-in-tongues, just that rare gift of prophecy: When the darkness finally lifted for good, he would be the only one left.

Fire had been given them generations ago, but in the ten years since daylight had disappeared, the people of the Hebrides had nearly forgotten its heavy-limbed Prometheus. Children had grown up in the Gloaming the way others did in war. Plants dwindled to coarse, brown roots fixed within the interstice of sea rock and furrow. Nothing ever dried fully, and the sea, whipped by this endless night wind, had grown ever colder.

When that morning a new dawn finally broke, newborns mewled in fear, their older siblings at pains to quiet them. They were frightened too as this sad night was all they had ever known. Elders in their wisdom sobbed, but not from trepidation but relief that the crepuscle had finally ended. They wailed prayers they’d half forgotten to gods they’d feared had forgotten them.

Of them all, only the priest saw in the sun’s resplendent rebirth a sinister omen.

Lifting the hide flap that shuttered the stone home his ancestors built long ago, he looked out upon the sun-lit land. Life had been happening elsewhere. Now it had returned, but with it came a rigor—he could feel it in his bones, as surely as he could feel the sun’s heat warm his face for the first time since….

Though she’d died in spring, the Lord’s daughter did not move to the world beyond until the advent of a winter so cold it defied memory. For two seasons she hung on, with rasping breath and parchment skin, empty eyes open but unseeing. She had gotten lost in the moors and when they had finally found her, she was already dead though her chest rose and fell ever so slightly. Rigor held her muscles fast. The False Woman said she would leave forthwith, but once again she proved herself a liar. When the girl did finally pass, the sun went down that day and did not return.

Why now was he so afraid at its recurrence, climbing as it did from the black and silver hills of water that undulated unto the horizon?

Because life may have been elsewhere, but so too had death. He’d heard tales of the pustulant men and women with their bursting skin and blackened organs, of the thaumaturgists who strode amongst them on wooden sandals, sporting ludicrous long-nosed masks. No one knew from whence the pestilence came, by the wind or in the water, through the dark humors or the touch of vermin. But come it did, with buboes that wept red as the wrath of God. And now it would come for them. He knew it.

A woman bearing a staff hobbled upon the verdigris rock. She had a bad foot. She saw him looking at it and was excited to explain: “I hurt it running to the sun. I’m not used to the light and so fell.”

“You aren’t the only I’d wager.”

She laughed. She was missing more than a few teeth, “When you wager, you lose. Be careful or you’ll end up paying me with that dangler of yours again.” She pointed the staff at his groin.

She had lost her husband to the sea the year before. Without the sun, what food they ate came from the shores and nearby waters. The husband had been looking for winkles when the waves grabbed him. The priest took care of her needs after that. No one had cared when they lived in the dark: sex was one of the few creature comforts. But with the return of the sun, the priest knew that gossip and its attendant, humiliation would not be long in coming. He looked at her with her scraggly hair and scurvy green skin. How ugly they all must look, he thought, how ugly and small.

 

 

Keeping up with the Joneses

billdraheim.com
billdraheim.com

“Daddy! Daddy!”

Vikram Jai, deep in work, startled at his son’s excited voice.

“Hold on. Just a sec…,” he pushed his chair back from his desk, empty but for three laptops yawning. The glass tableau itself provided a fourth interface.

Where was Phaedra? It was her turn to watch Tommy. Vikram had work to do. Both of them worked remotely, which had enabled them to move to this part of the sub-suburbs, but working from home had its drawbacks. For life to function smoothly, they had a day-to-day schedule which had been determined with an exactitude that complimented their Type-A personalities. Vikram didn’t like to be the Bad Guy—who did?—but right now it was his time to work and, though he loved his son dearly, Vikram’s current project: linking Cherry Hill’s Solid Waste Utility social marketing network with the Electric Company’s, was time-consuming work.

“Daddy!” clutching the doorjamb with one tiny hand, Tommy piped his discovery. “Mr. Jones’ house’s `visible.”

“That’s right, buddy, a house is visible…. What a smart guy you are! But you know what, Daddy’s got a special project he’s working on. Can you go tell Mommy `bout your discovery?”

Tommy ambled in and pulled at Vikram’s forefinger and pinky. “No, no, no,” he shook his head emphatically, “Mr. Jones’ house dis`pearing.”

“Phaedra!” Vikram yelled over his son’s head. “Isn’t Tommy supposed to be with you, dear?”

Vikram puzzled over his words: disappearing, yet visible? An engineer by trade, such paradoxes made Vikram uncomfortable. He certainly didn’t want Tommy to get used to making such errors of logic. But this was his son. There must be some other explanation.

And then it came in a flash: Tommy had omitted the prefix!

Vikram shook his head. What on earth were they paying that octogenarian public school cut-out for if not to help their son with such simple elements of language? Phaedra had read a story in a magazine about the importance of sub-triannual educational methods. Certain things that could be done to ensure that one’s three-year-old got a leg up on the competition. But a child’s development was like a house of cards: so easy to destroy through simple thoughtlessness….

“Dear,” Phaedra’s voice came thinly through the floorboards, interrupting his thoughts. “Vikram, you’ve got to see this.”

 *

From the living room through the broad bay windows that overlooked an immaculate lawn, itself rimmed by beds wherein perfect ageless flowers swayed, the Jai family watched as the upper floor of their neighbor’s home turned clear as water. The road beyond could be seen through the pellucid gable.

“Mother F*ck*r!” Vikram exhaled.

Phaedra gave him a look and clasp her hands on Tommy’s ears.

Again. Mr. Jones had beat him again.

Racing from the living room, dashing up the stairs, Vikram went back into his office. He touched the tableau and waited impatiently for the computer to awaken. The screen brightened. Vikram briskly fanned through the many menus and, finding what he needed, prodded an icon. A smaller screen inside the big one appeared an old-fashioned phone icon at the center.

In about ten seconds, Buddy Jones’ falsely tanned face ballooned.

“Vik! How ya doin’, neighbor?”

Vikram knew from previous interactions that this jocular neighbor of his didn’t abide immediate dispensing of the requisite pleasantries. Jones was from the South after all. “Wonderful! Mr. Jones,” he said. “And how are you this fine morning?”

“Farting again instead of shitting,” Mr. Jones said. “You ever get a real case of the shits? Guess I musta picked something up in Guadalajupe.”

“Guadalajara!” Mrs. Jones screeched from off-screen.

“Yes, sir, like in the song: ‘oh black water, keep on running.’ Anyhoo, you musta seen some of the pictures on the board in the window. Some bug musta got in my beans.”

Vikram laughed from his throat. “Mr. Jones, that is a story and a half!”

“No need to stand on ceremony, Vik: call me Buddy.”

“Okay, ‘Buddy’,” Vikram exclaimed. “I was just calling to inquire about—”

“I know! Ain’t it a kick in the pants,” Buddy was all teeth. Suddenly, his smile dropped. “Um, Vik, you’re gonna hafta hold on a sec….”

The screen flickered, and Buddy disappeared.

“Mr. Jones? Buddy?”

“Yeehaw!” Mr. Jones’ cry came through the audio channel a second before his image reappeared, “What a ride. Sorry Vik. Let me do something `bout that so we don’t get disjointed again.”

He reached over the screen, his hand returning with a state-of-the-art remote control. Vikram had never seen anything like it.

“You looking out your window?” Buddy asked, remote poised in his meaty hand.

“No, I’m upstairs. Why?”

“Becuuuuz…I’m gonna turn off the Oskillatrex.”

Oscillatrix, Buddy. How many times…?” Mrs. Jones squawked.

Buddy Jones chuckled. “Women. They only hear you when you’re wrong?”

Vikram smiled perfunctorily and shouted out the door. “Phaedra, honey, are you looking outside?”

“Yes.” She said from below. “Well, it’s stopped…doing whatever if was doing.”

“There ya’are.” Buddy smiled and put the remote down. Then he folded his hands in front of him. “Now: what can I do ya for?”

“Well, Buddy,” Vikram began but then the words stopped. He felt his false smile flag, and a quiet desperation creep into face.

He thought of the Mercedes-Fiat floating in Buddy’s garage across the way, of the bioluminescent dinoflagellate inclusions that gave the Jones’ eves a sparkle at night, of the virtual board that flashed pictures of the couples’ trips through the bulletproof glass of their equally large and elegant bay windows.

Oh those gadgets, those wonderful things that Buddy Jones invariably bought and displayed before Vikram had even heard of them! It didn’t help that Mr. Jones, upon seeing Vikram’s consternation at missing the latest cutting-edge item, reminded him with his down home ingenuousness, that he had long since retired and now had the time for such doohickeys. No. It didn’t help at all.

And so Vikram Jai, proud father and husband, head of the Public Utility social engine optimization program of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, inquired in the most neutral voice he could muster where Mr. Jones had procured such a remarkable device.

“Heh heh, Vik,” Buddy winked knowingly. “Why don’t you come over, and I’ll show you how it works.”