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Free Will, or the Sriendi Vastar Method

by E. E. King

In 2065, years before I was born, Sriendi Vastar came to our town. You have all heard of him, a man small of stature but large of bearing, of Germanic descent with a shock of white-blond hair and cold, turquoise eyes. He had wandered east and studied Hindu philosophy, Tibetan wisdom, and Gypsy lore. He had drifted west and learned European folk remedies, Yankee practicality, and New World innovation.

He’d invented the Sriendi Vastar method of palmistry, infallible for seeing the past and predicting the future. Before him palmistry had only been a parlor trick, a paltry guess at the meaning of indecipherable lines. He was the Rosetta stone of fortune telling.  Those who studied his teachings could read a life in a hand.

It was another leap in communication. Emoticons had replaced words, now lines would replace emoticons. All printed matter, all labels, warnings, and messages were reduced to the indentions on an open hand.

People tattooed their palms, inking their lifelines in red, their career lines in green, and the number of future descendants in orange. Gold shimmered up from the heart lines of romantics like a promise. Illness was marked by black, hubris by light turquoise and imagination by purple. A person only had to hold up his hand to be read like a book.

When my mother, Allison, met my father, Thomas, she was childless, though four unborn orange possibilities, my siblings, crinkled just beneath her little finger. Her career line was broken, dotted her skin like a passing lane, but her love line and lifeline were strong.

Thomas had grinned when he saw them and offered his own palm as testimony of his potential. The strong gold heart line, the solid career, the lifeline running uninterrupted across the entire fatty heel of the hand. He seemed a dream come true. 

He asked if he could touch, running his smooth fingers over Allison’s hands, feeling the slight indents made visible only through color. She did the same. Thomas’s lines could not be felt, but she never considered that lines could be changed, a dotted uncertain future smoothed out by pigment. A deceitful man made to seem true with ink. Fate could not be fooled, though Allison could.

Thus, I was brought up without a father, a destination which is clearly foretold in the mauve loop in the inside of my hand. I suspect my father’s deceit and my mother’s desertion spurred my first distrust of the Sriendi Vastar method, but this was not recorded in my palm.

Around this time, the time of my birth, many deceptions were practiced by the art of tattoo. Some even carved thin lines in their palms hoping to fool, not only their fellows, but fate. One man tried to achieve immortality, extended his lifeline, making it circle his thumb. He severed a large artery, and died, as his palm predicted he would, at twenty-one.   

By the time I was eight, technicians had developed scanners that revealed the truth beneath the ink. Oh, a man or woman might still fool someone at a glance, the colored lines drawing a false picture, but beneath the new scanner all was unveiled. Scars showed up for what they were, grooves carved by man instead of destiny.

Colleges would not admit, nor would employers hire, without performing the scan. So, though a man might get lucky through lying lines, he would not get an education or a job. Resumes became outdated. Work experience immaterial. Your life was in your hand.

 Soon cheap pocket scanners became available and after optic fiber-scanners were implanted in everyone’s eyes, all could see the truth at a glance. Deception was rendered worse than useless. False lines in ink and self-made scars revealed the deceiver more certainly than a signed confession. Duplicity became a thing of the past. People followed the lines of their palms like a map of their life, a predestine route to their future.

For some it was a good thing. They saw success in their hands, so they struggled upward, persevering against all obstacles. Their career lines were strong, so they studied hard. They read true love in their palms and searched until they found it.

Others saw suicide and despaired. They turned to drugs or risked their necks in thoughtless pursuits.

Politicians no longer made speeches; all they did, all they needed to do, was to hold up their hands.

There was no need for trials. The accused only needed to bare his palm. Guilt or innocence was clear.

I went to school, studying hard to become a doctor. Science was channeled into my hand, as clearly as the diplomas of an earlier age.

I waited to fall in love. A husband and two children intersected my palm between twenty and twenty-five.

Every move had been laid out by the omnipotent chess master… until Abraham was born.  He arrived right on time, red faced and healthy as a butcher’s dog, but he had no hands. It was an accident of birth. His mother had been given Zolamine, a fertility drug with unintended consequences.

Abraham was the first man free to choose his fate, free as none had been since the discovery of the Sriendi Vastar method.

When Abraham went to school he was treated with trepidation. Was he a freak or a God? All the children could read palms. All had been taught the Sriendi Vastar method. It was the first thing any parent did – after toilet training.

Of course, the children were not experts. They could not decipher the finer lines of a personality, or tell the subtler points of character, that would come later, but they could see if a child would make a good friend or a poisonous enemy. Those who would be false were left alone. Those who would be thieves were shunned. But Abraham, Abraham was a mystery.

By the time of his birth, prosthetics had come a long way. With his plastic appendages Abraham had as much dexterity as a chimp. He could clamber up trees better, farther, faster and higher than any child in his class. He excelled at rope climbing, frosting cupcakes, soldering, pipefitting, model building, macramé, sewing, computer hardware assembly, fly tying, fishing, shooting, carpentry, ceramics, sushi-making, quilting, and badminton twirling. He could play almost any instrument, pick a banjo faster than a hillbilly, and key an arpeggio so smoothly it could make your soul sing. He was also fabulous at crafting tools, gene splicing and peeling bananas.

People began cutting off their hands so they too could become free. But it was too late, their palms had already been scanned and their futures recorded in infancy. It was only Abraham that had no future.

And so, Abraham the unknowable became a leader. People thrilled to his speeches, unsure whether he was a prophet or a pretender. Life, which had become an inescapable series of moves, was once again a mystery.

Women began demanding Zolamine from their doctors in hopes of producing another savior, but alas Zolamine had consequences beyond handlessness. Some infants were born without limbs altogether, not too great a defect in this age of advanced prosthetics. Others lacked eyes and ears, but these too could be dealt with. Optic lens gave the babies better than average sight. Audio implants gifted children with echolocation skills. But mostly Zolamine produced babies with deformities so severe, even doctors could not bear to gaze upon them. These monsters were handled in the only humane way possible. Crematoriums were installed in maternity wards.

But the others, the deaf, the blind, and the limbless survived… and not only survived, but triumphed! They made their own destinies. They forged their own futures. Politicians discussed passing laws that would make Zolamine mandatory. Others suggested severing an infant’s hands at birth. Abled rights groups sprung up around the country. The naturally handed maintained that only they could be trusted, as only they were truly transparent.

I was a doctor by this time, an obstetrician. I had enjoyed delivering babies, but I did not like the new onslaught of freaks. The crematorium made me ill. I could not rid myself of the smell of burning flesh, no matter how often I washed. I applied for a transfer, and due to my magenta innovation lines, obtained a position in the research labs of Dr. Giustina.

Dr. Giustina was a geneticist of incredible brilliance. Her palm was scored with lines of intelligence and innovation. Soon I became her top assistant.

Together we worked late in the night together, uncovering microscopic truths. One night, while smearing a slide, our fingers touched. Even through the thin plastic gloves I felt a thrill, a flame racing through my veins, though my palm denied it.

Meanwhile, in daylight world, Abraham the unknowable, brilliant, charismatic, futureless, Abraham, had been robbing the public coffers. Justice was swift and sure.

“If thy hand offends thee, cut it off!” people cried. “And if there is no hand, sever the neck!”

Many, whose hands had foretold greatness, had been hoping for just such a revelation. All the handless were rounded up and relocated to distant labor camps where their dexterous prosthetics were used to manufacture minute optic scanners, our protection against deceivers.

Never again would someone whose truth was not visible, whose future was not certain, be allowed to hold the reins of power. Billboards of honest palms appeared everywhere. Zolamine was outlawed.

In the lab, Dr. Giustina was trying to find the DNA links between dominance and ability.

“This will explain the science behind the Sriendi Vastar method,” she said.

But I no longer cared about science or the Sriendi Vastar method. All I wanted was to defy my palm and its chart, with husband and children so clearly marked. I wanted to take another path.

I watched her preparing slides, face outlined with light like an angel. Such feelings had no place in a lab, no place in a life mapped out by lines, but I could no more control them than change my fate.

“Oh my, no!” she gasped, motioning me over.

I bent over, resisting the temptation to kiss her neck. There, beneath the light of the microscope, clearly visible on the transparent glass of a slide, was the truth. The genetically dominant hand was the one that was manually inferior. All this time, all these lives, we had been reading the wrong palm.



E.E. King is a painter, performer, writer, and biologist. She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. King has won numerous various awards and fellowships for art, writing, and environmental research. She’s been published widely, most recently in Clarksworld, Flame Tree, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch shores and On Spec. One of her tales is on Tangent’s recommended reading for 2019. Her books include Dirk Quigby’s Guide to the Afterlife, Electric Detective, and Blood Prism.

Is it Live or is it Memorex?

by Avery Elizabeth Hurt

Alex rubbed his face, almost gouging his eyes with his fingers, then moved his hands around and started working on his neck. He tried to organize his thoughts. He could get this straightened out, he knew, if he could just organize his thoughts. If he could just find his thoughts.

Many of them thought it would be the food that would finish them off. All that processed non-food everyone ate for so many years. Excessive amounts of sodium and hydrogenated fat and corn syrup. Heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, dementia, and cancer. Cancer. They always worried more about cancer than anything else. Cancer was killing them, of course, and the food, too. Some of them, sometimes, a few here, a few there, all strung out over the course of a lifespan that started getting a little shorter with each generation after the end of the 20th century. Many of them died before their time, and many suffered miserable illnesses on the way. But not all of them. Not everybody. No, it took more than a bad diet and a carcinogenic lifestyle to finish them off en masse, to take down the whole civilization.

They worried (not that worrying caused them to do anything about it, but still they worried) that walking around with radio receivers in their ears off and on all day, most of them more on than off, would give them cancer. It didn’t. But they were totally blindsided by what it did do to them. Of course, they wouldn’t have been able to see it coming, would they? That was both the cause and the effect. They opened themselves to everything, and everything came in. They were abysmally unprepared.

Monica just sat there and stared, occasionally mumbling something more or less coherent or quoting a snatch of a song, repeating bits of a conversation some people in Toronto had in 2016, perhaps an advertising slogan from the late twentieth century. Once in a while, she came out with a snatch of an old TED lecture, making her seem momentarily intelligent, if you didn’t listen too closely and if you didn’t pay attention to the confusion in her eyes.

Alex had better control. He had a system. When the junk got too much for him to ignore, he started counting. One, two, three, four …. But he never managed to keep it up for long. He rarely made it past fifty; there was just too much garbage in there. Sooner or later he lost the thread—fifty-seven Welcome, ladies and gentlemen twelve We have a caller on line two ninety-four It’ll put spring in your step! It’s all fake news! What prizes do we have today, Lauren?—and went back to rubbing his face and massaging his neck and trying to not listen. But at least it was something.

There was probably some justice in it, if you were the sort to look at things that way. Those in the developed world, as they liked to call it, were on top for a long time, gobbling up way more than their share of the world’s resources. So now the only people on the planet who were remotely functional were the ones who hadn’t been able to afford radio receivers for every ear. Now they were running the world, or trying to. Trying to pick up the pieces is more like it, while the rest of humanity slumped against walls, staring into space, listening to the scraps of dead civilizations crackling in their heads.

Alex tried to get Monica’s attention. “Is it live or is it Memorex?” she said. He looked out the window at the empty street.” One, two, three . . . If this were a real emergency….



In addition to writing speculative fiction, Avery Elizabeth Hurt writes science and history books for children and science journalism for adults and children. The research she does for her nonfiction writing often sparks ideas for her fiction. 

Does This Offend Thee?


by G. Scott Huggins

This is a column with more questions than answers, I’m afraid, but one I feel needs to be written. Some background: some time ago, I asked a question on social media that boiled down to, “When is one justified in taking offense?” I didn’t get a lot of takers on that question. The one I didn’t expect was from a rather well-known SF writer, who doesn’t often weigh in on my threads. He brusquely informed me that the question was a useless one, and unanswerable.

Detail of street art by Dan Perjovschi at Museumsquartier in Vienna

Since then, I have seen this same writer offer a lot of opinions about which people are right and wrong to take offense at certain actions and statements of other people, and why they are right or wrong in doing so. I am therefore forced to the conclusion that one of three things are true of this writer:

1) He did not understand the question I was asking (which may be the fault of either or both of us).

2) He is simply unaware of the conflict among his utterances about taking offense, or

3) He is well aware of what he is doing, and simply doesn’t want people to think about it too hard, lest they discover a principle that upsets his method for designating who gets to take offense and under what circumstances.

I am generally inclined to believe that the first or second explanation applies, here. But what’s the point? Why do we take offense in the first place?

It seems to me that offense is the first part of our defense mechanisms, by which we keep ourselves, our families, and our tribes from harm, or signal for help after we have been harmed. We recognize what we perceive to be a danger, and react against it, marshalling our energy and will to oppose the threat. But then again, what is taking offense? Is it the belief that we are under threat, or is it the action we take in order to signal that we have the belief? These are separate things, much as a thought is separate from the utterance of a thought. And of course, it is imminently possible to have a thought, and then speak in contradiction to the thought. In other words, we can lie. So the outward “taking of offense” can, like any other human signal, be subverted: it will not always truly signal the belief that the “offended” party is under threat or has suffered harm. It can also be used to gain advantage in the absence of threat or harm. The taking of offense can be deployed offensively.

So from these principles, we can break offense into three possible categories:

1) That in which a threat or harm to the offended party exists (e.g. a person has been slandered, and they take offense).

2) That in which no true threat or harm to the offended party exists, but they believe it does (e.g. a person believes they have been slandered, and takes offense, but the person committing the “slander” was actually referring to a third party).

3) That in which no true threat or harm to the offended party exists, but they believe it is to their advantage to pretend it does (e.g. a person knows that their “slanderer” was talking about a third party, but takes offense, insisting that the “slanderer,” a political opponent, was acting maliciously in order to discredit them).

There is of course, a great deal of difficulty in distinguishing among these three categories: to distinguish whether someone “taking offense” is in the second or the third categories would require reading their minds. If they are of the third category, they have every reason to continue the lie, and none to tell the truth. To distinguish whether someone is in the first or the second category may be easier, but if the offended party has reason to distrust the offending party, it may not.

I imagine that a number of readers may at this point say, along with Stephen Fry, “so the fuck what? Be offended?” But the problem with this is that the very term “offense” is enshrined in law: at some point, we decide that real harm has been done to someone that justifies doing violence to bring the offender to justice: to force them to repent or make restitution for their offense. And that certainly does not limit itself to physical violence or even violence to property. The offense of slander requires no physical violence to be considered an injurious crime. Or perhaps a better example would be this: The “offense” of disrespecting a reigning monarch was enshrined in law not three centuries ago. The “offense” of Black people walking into public places where White people didn’t want them was enshrined in law in the United States not sixty years ago. The “offense” of women appearing in public without head coverings is law in several countries today. Insofar as these laws have been repealed, it was because we came to believe that such “offenses” should not offend any reasonable persons: that the offense caused by their existence was much greater than any “offense” suffered by those in favor of those laws.

Now if we consider the elimination of such laws to stand for actual moral progress, rather than just a kind of legal fashion, we must agree that there is a standard by which we measure, or ought to measure, offense. And yet, I am unsure on what principle we can draw this line except to state it thus: “Offense should be taken only when a credible threat of harm, or actual harm, is done to a person.” But even then, we have a vast judgment call to make about what constitutes a credible threat of harm, or actual harm, or a proportional response to it. I might be justified in taking offense at a person who openly insults me. But even if I am a germophobe, I would certainly not be justified in responding with offense at the mere offer of a handshake. Already in the West, many restrictions upon free speech have been proposed and passed in the name of freeing people from the burden of suffering offense. Have those people truly been threatened? Have they suffered actual harm? And obviously that is a very different question than whether they have felt threatened or harmed. Anyone can feel anything; but when are we justified in those feelings? And even if the offended parties have been truly threatened by others’ speech, does curtailing that speech truly lead to less harm? I strongly believe it does not. But my beliefs alone cannot stand against a tide of feeling that may reshape our laws – our “offenses” – if we do not frame an answer. What should that answer be? What is the guiding principle by which we may distinguish a true threat from a false? A true “offense” from the gratuitous taking of offense? It is an important question, and one to which we need an answer, yet I see no easy answer to it. Nor do I believe that we can simply ask people to ignore all threats, as some of my acquaintances have suggested: it might be reasonable to ask me, (to use an example that in no way reflects something I am now worried about), to simply ignore someone who said, “All Christians ought to be shot.” But if you say that no verbal utterance ought to be restricted, then you would be giving carte blanche to someone who would, for example, call me at all hours of the day and night threatening to kill me and my family, specifically, for being Christian. And no one can live with that. But where do we draw that line? This is the question that must be answered. And I am no nearer to answering it.


The Day The Earth Still Stood


by G. Scott Huggins

Every now and then, I see things so differently from other people, I wonder if I’ve gone insane. Can I really, I wonder, be that wrong?

The Day The Earth Stood Still has got to be one of the most famous science-fiction films of all time. Klaatu and his robot, Gort, come to Earth, and Klaatu is almost instantly shot and wounded. Escaping from custody, he encounters various humans until, upon trying to return to his ship, he is shot again and mortally wounded. But Gort is able to revive him long enough to give his speech, which I will reproduce here:

“I am leaving soon and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The Universe grows smaller every day — and the threat of aggression by any group — anywhere — can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all — or no one is secure… This does not mean giving up any freedom except the freedom to act irresponsibly… We… have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets — and for the complete elimination of aggression… The test of any such higher authority, of course, is the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots — Their function is to patrol the planets… and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression we have given them absolute power over us. At the first sign of violence they act automatically against the aggressor. And the penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. The result is that we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war… We do not pretend to have achieved perfection — but we do have a system — and it works. I came here to give you the facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet — but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace. Or pursue your present course — and face obliteration. We will be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”

And when I finish reading this, all I can think is, Klaatu’s supposed to be the hero of this film? I mean, he’s even hailed, in many interpretations, as a Christ-figure, giving his life for the sinners of Earth. Consider what he is saying: it boils down to, “Trust and submit to us, or die.” Now the fact that the message costs Klaatu his life does lend some moral teeth to his argument, but the essentials of Klaatu’s policy is pretty much the same as then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s policy of massive retaliation in the 1950s: at the first sign of an attack, the United States will reduce your nation to ashes. Does anybody remember how grateful the rest of the world was for that policy? Does anyone remember how the Soviet Union immediately stopped all acts of military aggression? Neither do I. Neither does Hungary, to take a case in point.

How is Klaatu a Christ-figure, here? I mean, I have met atheists who would claim that Christ was no better: “Believe in the name of Christ and thou shalt be saved.” Corollary: And if you don’t you’ll be damned. However, if what Christ says is true, He at least has the excuse of literally being God. Klaatu has neither deity nor perfection to offer. He “has a system.” Great. The United States had a system, too. Generally, it’s been vilified as being paternalistic, overbearing, and inconsistently enforced. Possibly better than the system the Soviets had where they conquered you if they thought it was in their best interests and called it liberation. Klaatu – who looks human enough to walk our streets undetected – has given us no reason to think any differently of his robotic supernuclear deterrent. Yet when it comes from him, it’s somehow profound.

It is curious in the extreme to me, that I do not recall having heard anyone other than myself level this criticism at the film. It reminds me of that appalling novel Childhood’s End, which I have discussed before in this publication. We humans prove ourselves capable of imagining thousands of rich worlds in our science fiction: Why is it that when we turn that imagination on our own problems, we are so quick to replace the thing we hate with an obscurely different version of it, and then imagine we would love it?

Arthur C. Clarke threads a polemic against the ridiculousness of religion throughout Childhood’s End, and in the end it turns out that the human race’s children are effectively taken up by an Overmind indistinguishable from God except for its utter lack of love for humanity. The human race is guided to this point by Its vaguely caring angels/demons. But this we are supposed to call evolution and science. Now in The Day The Earth Stood Still, the nuclear tensions of the Cold War and American nuclear hegemony (remember that this was 1951) are to be replaced by the threat of summary destruction from beyond our solar system – and we are supposed to call that peace and justice. Yet far from altering the way that problems are solved, it seems that Klaatu’s solution is not even revolutionary, and still less divine. On the day after the Earth stands still, the Earth still stands under the sword of Damocles, only now in the hands of those who need not live on the same planet as those they threaten to destroy.