Friday, April 11, 2014

Story 210: Home Repair

Steven grunted as he finally managed to pull the outer covering open.
"Are you sure you had to rip it open like that?" His wife asked, "Are you going to be able to seal it up when you're done?"
Steven dug through his toolbox for a wrench, wondering why he had twelve flathead screwdrivers and no Phillips. "Janice, honey.  I told you, there's no other way to replace the pump - this thing wasn't made to be fixed at home."
"Well, then... should we call someone?  A professional?  Or at least your brother - you know he's always been the handy one in your family."
Steven held the wrench aloft triumphantly. "Got it!  No, I can figure this out myself.  If we call someone they'll charge me three hundred dollars and then say that they don't carry parts for the older models."  Locating the pump, Steven sighed and put down the wrench.  The replacement part he had purchased had easy-connect valves, but the original didn't - meaning there was nothing to easy-connect to.

Janice looked around the kitchen, at the usual mess that Thanksgiving preparation always generated interspersed with tools and yellowed instruction manuals and plastic packaging from parts.  It was a disaster area.  "We could order out.  Get Chinese food.  We could even have Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow, Grandma won't know the difference anyway.  She'll wake up tomorrow and we'll tell her it's Thursday, and by the time she realizes she's a day off she won't know or care when she got confused."
"No." Steven was digging through a pile of connectors, most of which were the identical copies of the same wrong part. "I can fix this, and we can still have a nice dinner.  Go... reheat the stuffing or something."
Janice resisted the urge to dump a bowl of cranberries over his head and busied herself tidying up.  She managed to get the worst of the mess contained at least, and did an admirable job ignoring the occasional sounds of grunting, dripping, and snapping.

"Okay.  I got it.  The new pump is in, everything is flowing right... and I don't see any leaks.  Thanksgiving is saved!"
Janice put down the pot she was rinsing out and gave an almost entirely non-sarcastic round of applause.  Steven set to work getting everything reassembled, resorting to the use of a mallet to get the outer cover back in place.  When he was done, he stood and admired his work.  Janice put an arm around him and was about to thank him when she saw something on the floor. "Sweet heart, what's that?  I think something fell out."
"It's fine," Steven said. "That's... it's just an extra part.  You always have parts left over."
"I really don't think you're supposed to have bits just laying around."
"Well, I'm not prying the old thing open again.  Here, let's just try it."
He reached down and shook Janice's grandmother, who slowly opened her eyes and looked around.
"Where am I?  Is dinner over?"
"Grandma," Janice said slowly, "you had a little heart failure.  We think it's all fixed.  Do you feel okay?"
There was a troubling pause, and then she nodded.  "Y... yes.  But maybe a little tight in the chest?  And... do you smell potatoes?"

Janice and Steven both looked at the counter directly above where Grandma had been laying.  One... two...
"Steve, weren't there three baked potatoes up there?"
"Oh, damn it."

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Story 209: Back to the Multidimensional Drawing Board Analogue

"Okay, so picture a room.  There's a control panel with a ton of dials and a big red button, and - sure - a cute poster of a kitten and some stale coffee in a mug and whatever else would be in a control room.  The dials are different sizes because some of them have different numbers of settings, and each one is for some basic law of physics.  There's more dials than you might think, because some of them are set to 0 in your universe so it would be hard for you to even figure out they exist.

"So now imagine that someone has the job of sitting at this desk and adjusting dials, and then pressing the button to send the settings to the production floor.  He's on duty until he has churned out every possible combination of settings, which is some absurdly large number that I don't have time to calculate.  It's big enough that describing it as big isn't really sufficient.  He doesn't get overtime for this.

"When the production floor gets a full set, one of each combination, they make each one into a universe.  This all happens at the same time but for the sake of this example let's pretend they churn them out on a conveyor belt.  So there are some, actually quite a lot, that sort of fizzle and collapse on themselves instantly.  That's fine, that's expected, nobody freaks out.  Then there are some that are more stable but still not self-sustaining, and those get some sort of red mark from the quality control guy as they slide past on the conveyor, shrinking or crumbling or whatever it is they do.

"If the person at the control panel could see this he would cry, he would threaten to quit out of frustration because it would be obvious that a huge number of the failures were predictable.  He could watch for a bit and then draw some lines next to some of the dials with a permanent marker because any universe, any at all, with a setting of more than N on this dial will fail.  There are other rules that are more complicated but still pretty observable, and he could make a technical manual talking about all this but he won't because it wouldn't change anything.  They'll make all of the universes every time.

"But despite this wasteful behavior, they get a lot of useful universes.  There are so many, even with all the failures, that it would still be a stupidly large number.  Many of them can't support life as you know it which might make you think that they're pointless but that's only because you have a sadly limited view on the business end of the whole multiverse thing.  Others have plenty of life, and one of them is your universe.  That's obvious, of course yours is in there somewhere - but what isn't immediately obvious and causes some people a lot of distress is that there are other universes nearby with such a tiny difference in settings that you're in there, too.

"This has to be a small difference.  Really small.  In most cases, even the smallest difference there is would keep you from being born because over time, from the conception of the universe to the present, that difference is magnified.  Picture our control room guy getting bored and removing two dials, nearly the same size.  Roll them once on the floor and they both end up in the same basic place.  Roll them ten times and you may see some difference.  Roll them a thousand times and they're pretty far apart.  It's like that.

"But that's partly a function of time, and guess what one of the dials is for?  What I'm saying here, is that the smallest unit of time is still a discrete unit, and if you change the size of that unit you get universes aging at different rates but with the same events taking place.  I could talk here about quantum stuff, things being truly random, but the short version is that they're not random they're just seriously complicated and when you think you see something that's in an unresolved quantum state there's still no actual chance involved in which way it resolves.

"So you could be out there, somewhere, although not an infinite number of you because as I said even the smallest difference grows, like the space between dials as they roll across the floor.  If your quantum of time is 1, and mine is 2, and the next guy's is 3 - these being incredibly small differences, you understand - then after one objective external unit of measurement the times are 1, 2, and 3.  But next they're 2, 4, and 6.  Then 3, 6, and 9.  The gaps get bigger all the time, and after billions of years when you come on the scene you can imagine that there aren't going to be a lot of other universes that currently have a you living there.

"Back to the factory - and I haven't forgotten that beer, I'm picking up the tab so just stay with me - so, right, these universes don't get made just the once; they get churned out every time the guy in the control room completes a set.  If your universe gets made a hundred times, since there's no random stuff going on in it you'll be born and live and die the same way in each of them.  But this example, this is where it would seem to fall apart.  Because in a factory mistakes get made.  Someone drops a screwdriver into the gears, the machine needs to be oiled, a universe gets dropped off of the conveyor, whatever.  Can that happen here?  If so, we're talking about some sort of meta-universe with the other universes in it, and that leads to the question of whether or not the factory was made in a factory, and where that meta-factory was made, and so on.

"If there's no meta-universe it gets a bit foggy talking about relative ages and locations of the universes, and the concept of more of them existing in the same way... it's kinda messy.  Fortunately, there really is a factory.  Like, actually, a literal factory.  And it doesn't need a meta-factory because it's on a complicated sort of self-causing loop, which doesn't violate causality because of the rules of the reality it exists in.  It's not a satisfying answer, but there you go.

"And - no, hang on, we're almost there - you worked there, or someone that was essentially you.  And you've recently had a bit of an accident and been sort of pulled into the machinery, that being in this case an impossibly small space containing enough raw materials for a few decent-sized universes, and as such your position is now open.  And here you are, one of only twelve of yourself available and one of only three that are the ideal age and frame of mind and whatnot, and what I'm asking is if you would like a job.  Yes, yes I'm serious.

"Oh, come back.  Please?  Look, a nice fresh beer just arrived!  Come on, I'm going to be in a lot of trouble if you're not there when they realize you're not there.

"Well, shit."

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Story 208: A Worrisome Plot Hole

On Tuesday it was still there, and Sam couldn't resist any longer. He looked around as if feeling guilty even though it clearly didn't belong to anyone anymore and the street was, as always, empty. Jay's words the previous Saturday sprung to mind. "Dude, leave it. It's probably covered in herpes."

It seemed likely that if Arizona's climate was good for anything it was sterilizing things though, so this warning only made Sam hesitate for a second.  The bag was made of clear plastic, and had PATIENT’S BELONGINGS printed on it along with a space for a name and room number – both left blank.  Resisting the urge to open it there on the street, Sam hurried back to his car and drove home.  Jay wasn’t there when he arrived which was a relief, and Sam started up the washing machine.

An old grey hoodie, nothing in the pockets.  Into the washer.  A pair of well-worn jeans with a dollar bill and a nice looking lighter.  Jeans into the washer, dollar and lighter set aside.  No shirt, shoes, or underwear.  No wallet, or any other kind of identification.  Sam picked up the bag and realized there was a folded piece of paper at the bottom.  He was opening it when Jay walked in.
“Hey, are you washing clothes?”
“Yeah, there’s room if you want to add some stuff.”

Sam crumpled up the bag before Jay could see it and threw it into the kitchen trash.  Once Jay was busy with the washer Sam unfolded the note.
REMEMBER! Your name is Jasper Reynolds. You were born in 1972. Your injuries were caused by a dog. Keep this story straight. Don’t give them reason to lock you up. Recharge time is three days. Just hang on until then.

Sam turned it over in his hands, but that was all there was.  He couldn’t decide if that was interesting or a disappointment.

“Dude, nice lighter. When did you – “Jay’s voice cut off abruptly, and Sam heard something clatter against the tile.  He stepped out of the kitchen and saw the lighter laying on the floor.
“Jay?” he called, but he knew there wouldn’t be an answer.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Story 207: Same as it Ever Was

Tasia stretched and wandered over to the ladder, still groggy from her usual night terrors.  The war had been over for years but the few scattered survivors got to watch reruns every night, bombs falling in their dreams as the entire world burned over and over again.  Tasia told herself that she had gotten used to the nightmares, but she suspected that if that were really true they would have stopped.

As she climbed the creaking ladder from the basement to the main floor of the house she heard a fluttering of wings above her; the pigeons were getting to be a serious menace again.  She looked up and saw them there, nesting in the gap between the ledge formed by the old roof and the new section placed over it in order to cover the massive hole that extended all the way down - which was, of course, why Tasia could use a ladder to get upstairs.  She could have patched the floor like she had for the roof, but something about the indoor crater appealed to her.

There were some things she did plan on repairing, however.  Three of the salvaged solar panels weren't actually hooked up yet, and the water pump still needed work if she was going to take any real showers.  Tasia missed showers.  She started to make a list of parts in her head and was just debating which side of the ruins to search when she nearly tripped over something on the front porch.
"Oh, not again."

She stared at it as if worried it would bite, and then carefully lifted it from the cracked concrete and examined it from all angles.  Benign, inert.  Just a bunch of paper, dye, and toner.  She took a few steps into the front yard and looked in both directions, noting that there was one for each house even though most of the actual buildings had collapsed or burnt down.  She had vowed to find out who was behind this back when it happened the year before, but without any need for a calendar the whole thing had slipped her mind.

"It's just not possible." she said to nobody in particular.  She flipped through the pages of the phone book for a moment, looking at all the numbers that were certainly not in service anymore, and then dropped it back onto the porch with the others and headed off into the ruins in search of something more practical.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Story 206: Kill Command

Travis leaned forward to look at the wall.  "Flawless," he said. "How long did you say it's been like that?"
Mary sighed and shook her head. "We don't know.  A few days, at least, but I think it happened slowly so it's hard to be sure."

Mary's husband Carl was sitting on the couch, staring at the fabric.  "I think it's been a while since we had to clean anything though.  I probably haven't dusted in a few months."  He stood and began pacing around the room while he waited for Travis to say something, anything, but instead the engineer continued to run his hand up and down the wall. "Trav... is it serious?  Is something wrong with the computer?  You know the Johnsons were saying there was lag for just a second before it started to rain last time.  Like everything stuttered or something."

Travis finally broke off his stare and turned to look at the couple.  "Nobody reported that to me.  Might be related, might be their imagination.  If I had to guess, I would say something is taxing the system.  Badly."  He looked at the wall one more time, the surface smooth and regular.  There should have been cracks, and bumps, and bubbles in the paint.  He did his best to smile and told everyone he would get it fixed, and then headed out to the control room.

The walk was pleasant as always, perfect houses on one side and the lake on the other.  Travis couldn't enjoy it, though.  He found himself trying to look at things from the corner of his eyes, attempting to catch errors in the world.  Was there a pattern to the rocks on the hiking trail?  Was the asphalt of the road too smooth?  What about the leaves on the trees, should those have looked so... regular?  He reached the path and turned down it, walking to a small shed at the corner of a field.  Removing the padlock, he stepped into the cavernous space.

The control room was far larger on the inside, because it was technically a different simulation.  Immediately Travis knew something was wong; it was like when he had been out in the world and had gotten a new prescription for his glasses.  Everything had seemed fine, but once the new lenses were in he could see how much detail had been missing from the world.  How long had it been since he had come to the control room?  A year?  More?  The system had seemed so stable, he hadn't had to think about his tech support position for ages.

He rolled a chair over to the main station and did some basic diagnostics.  All the hardware reported back that it was online and working as expected, which wasn't surprising since it was made to literally survive the end of  civilization.  It had another two hundred years on the warranty.  On to the software side... as he had expected, something was using way more resources than it should be.  It had started eight months ago, and was using just a little more each day.  Travis could tell that it would start causing serious errors soon, possibly crash the simulation entirely and require a reboot.

A shiver went down his spine.  A reboot would leave everyone trapped in a little bubble for two or three days while he got everything fixed and restored, and that kind of isolation could be more than a little traumatic.  Not only that, but some things weren't completely backed up which would mean a lot of little personal touches reverting back to factory settings.  The Wilson's holiday lights display, names of lovers carved on a tree, little lost items dropped behind couches.  All those tiny things that made the simulation feel real.  It had taken forever for people to adjust, and having it revert...

Travis shook his head and got back to work.  No use worrying about something that didn't need to happen, and he felt confident he could locate the problem.  It was hiding, somehow, impacting multiple systems but not coming up on the process list.  Then again, that seemed like a clue unto itself.  Travis pulled up the special troubleshooting and testing queue and sure enough, there the process was.  It had to have been created by someone with IT credentials, and since their network connection had gone down during the war sixty years ago that only left himself and one other person.  Travis' finger hovered over the red button that would terminate the process, and he hesitated.  It couldn't hurt to call, he decided.

"Mike, this is Travis.  Did you start a process eight months back on the support queue?  ID is IZE009."
There was nothing but breathing for a moment. "Trav, yeah.  That's... that's a vital process.  Just leave it running."
"Well, it's eating up processors and memory both.  We're going to lose the simulation entirely unless I kill it.  You need to be more careful with side projects, you should never let them loose on the main system.  What the hell were you working on?"
"Just... look, just promise you won't stop it."
Travis sighed.  "Mike, look real close at the texture of your walls or something.  Tell me what you see."
Another pause, longer this time. "Oh.  Trav... oh, man.  How long?"
"I don't know.  It all depends on when the first crack forms in the dam.  It's like the blackouts on the old grid, if one plant froze up it increased the load on all the others and there was a chain reaction.  What I'm saying is that the simulation will probably be fine until someone sneezes, and then the whole thing might cascade down at once."
"I need... I need time to fix it, without stopping it.  Just wait."
"I'm trying to look at what the hell this thing is, but it's... it's everywhere.  Whatever you did, this thing has grown to take up all available space in the system.  It's got its fingers in everything, you can't just redesign it on the fly.  Shit Mike, is this thing self-programming?"
"... come over to my house, okay?  You can shut it down remotely if you need to."

Travis forced himself to walk rather than run, and he pulled up the process on his tablet as he headed towards Mike's house.  He knew that he should stay in the Control Room when messing with the system just in case, but Mike had sounded scared.  Once again, his hand hovered over the button but he held off and rang the doorbell instead.  Mike answered, looking miserable.
"Come into the back room, Trav."
He turned and walked away, and Travis followed.  He hadn't seen Mike in months, or Mike's wife Lilly.  They had dropped off the face of the world, but that didn't raise a lot of alarms - with a population of eight hundred you got used to people needing some quiet time every few decades, time to get away from the people you saw too much of every day.  If they had been able to stay on the network it would have been a little better.

The back room had been filled by a model of the town last time Travis had seen it, but now it had changed.  The walls were covered in pictures of cartoon animals, and a crib sat in the corner.  There was a changing table, a rocking chair, a doll.  He felt a knot forming in his stomach.  With anyone else he would suspect a mild mental disturbance, an obsession with the idea of children that they couldn't have now that physical bodies had been left behind.  But with Mike...
"What did you do?"
A voice answered from behind him.  "He made a miracle, Travis."  He turned to see Lilly looking at him, eyes glistening, holding a baby that gurgled and clutched at her earlobe.  Travis looked down at the tablet in his hands, at the red button that he knew he had to press.
"You son of a bitch."

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Story 205: At Least It's Not an Orange

Albert opened his mouth to speak, and found himself at a loss for words.  Something had been there, on the tip of his tongue.  Shrugging, he instead returned to the basics.
"Tell me... what is the meaning of life?"
The Djinn cocked an eyebrow at him and frowned. "Not a problem.  Let me just get my dictionary..."
Albert sighed and put the ornate copper box that had held the Djinn back on the shelf.  "Wait, wait.  Right.  Um... What is... what is the purpose of my life?"
"In the form of a command, please.  I'm not doing this for free."
"Sorry.  Tell me what the purpose of my life is."
"To save your sister from dying in the well, so that she could go on to fulfill her destiny as a great politician."
"But... my sister died."
"Ten years ago."
"That is correct."

"It... it can't really be my purpose anymore then, right?"
The Djinn shrugged.  "Nevertheless, it is so.  There are appeals that can be made, with the right forms and tributes, but honestly things have been a mess for quite some time now."
Albert hesitated only a moment, and then picked the box back up and clutched it tightly.  "Djinn... for my second wish I command you to send me back in time so that I can save my sister."
The Djinn nodded. "An excellent idea, master.  Truly inspired - and noble as well.  Of course, I cannot grant this request."
"Why not?" Albert asked, deflating somewhat.
"You are allotted three wishes, and they have been used up."
"I never!  I only used one wish, just now!"
"Your first wish was of a highly personal nature and against all common sense and some hinting on my part you engaged in a dangerous level of hyperbole.  Once it was granted, you found yourself in deep discomfort.  You then wished that you had never thought of that particular request."
"So... wait... I un-did a wish but it still counts?"
"It does."
"Indeed.  But at least your pants are mended and you can walk properly again."

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Story 204: As It Should Be

There's a sort of visual distortion, like you would expect from something engaging a cloaking device in an old sci-fi movie.  A ripple, a fading of color, and then nothing but stars where the Earth should be.
"Will it be fast?  Will they suffer?"
The Captain looks at me and bobs his main stalk, the equivalent of a shrug.  It's not something that anyone cares about enough to put thought into.  I won't care either, in a few hours.  I head towards the medical bay for decommission, my human body clumsy in passageways not built for people with two legs.  When I arrive another ambassador is pacing back and forth; she looks at me, silently asking the obvious question.
"Yes," I answer. "It's over."

She seems to deflate somewhat, all of the anxiety replaced by weariness.  "I can't wait to shed this body.  I don't want to think about them anymore."
I nod.  Part of me wants to reach out and comfort her, but I feel self-conscious under the gaze of the Captain's Guard that has followed me.  It's not standard protocol for us to be under observation, but there’s nothing standard about this.  We're not supposed to assimilate this deeply, not supposed to be invested in what happens to the planet we're sent to.  Someone miscalculated something I guess.  So we just stand there, avoiding eye contact.  After a few awkward minutes a chute opens up and the Captain's Guard instructs us to discard our clothes.
"What about the others?" I ask.  There's a pause, a sense of nervousness that I wouldn't expect here on the ship.  The guard's stalks are swaying from side to side.  If he were a human he would be fidgeting and looking around like he was preparing to run.
"They stayed behind, didn't they?"
The guard instructs me again to deposit my clothes in the chute.

There's no reason why they couldn't have stayed.  If they were careful, and waited until the last minute, it wouldn't be hard to remove the transmitters.  Painful, certainly, but not fatal - I picture that empty patch of space where Earth had been and correct myself... not directly fatal.

The other ambassador has dropped her clothing down the chute and is looking at something.  A photograph of someone smiling on the beach.  I remove my own clothes and open my pod, but before I can climb in the Guard stops me and points to my hand.  Of course.  I carefully remove the simple golden band from my finger and watch it tumble over and over as it bounces away out of sight.  The photograph flutters after it.  We both situate ourselves in the pods and finally I give in, casting a smile in her direction as the lids reach out to cover us.  She gives me a pleading look and barely manages to get a question out before the lids seal and I'm plunged into a silent world of white.

"It had to be done, right?"  She had asked.  The question echoes in my mind, and there's no reply.  Nothing I could have said even if she was still able to hear me.  A hum starts all around me and I know that in a few moments the answer will be provided to both of us.