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speculative engineering

Fifty Ways To Build A Lover

by Gunnar De Winter

If you are still reading, I’ll assume that the first forty-seven ways to build a lover did not work for you. In truth, they are conventional. Physical attraction, open and honest communication, accepting each other’s flaws. One might call them boring. Unimaginative even. If those work for your, great. You can stop here. I hope you are – and will remain – happy.

For those of you who stuck around: welcome. The final three methods to build your lover are not without their challenges and none of them is entirely foolproof. They beat fate, though.

48. PLUG-IN (HYBRID?)

Female mantids decapitate and consume their partner after mating. After all, following sperm deposition, the male has become superfluous. Better make use of him while you can. Remarkably efficient thinking.

Fortunately, we don’t need to resort to murder. A simple sample will do. Once you have found the template person, a strand of hair – ideally more than one, to be sure – will suffice to initiate the process. After DNA extraction you will reprogram one of your skin cells into a spermatozoon. Then, using a freely available blank oocyte kit, you’ll package the lover’s template DNA into a nucleus (included in most quality kits). Next, you’ll fertilize the egg, plug it in an artiwomb (which will be your largest investment for this method), and watch the magic. I would suggest not exceeding the one year per day rate of growth. Previous experimentation revealed an increased risk for developmental anomalies when pushing harder.

During the weeks where your lover develops, you will have to keep a close eye on the developmental trajectories. You will also have to spend a lot of time imprinting. Experience tells us that sound – your voice – is the input to start with even on day one. By day three their visual system will be at full capacity, so from that point on you’ll have to be around often until decantation.

If you’ve been called a possessive lover, this method will suit you as you will have to keep your newly grown lover away from the outside world for quite some time, both to regulate sensory and informational input and to avoid scrutiny by the clonal inspection bureau. (Technically, a case can be made that you didn’t break C1 prohibition, but the legal battle will be long and arduous given the insecurities in cloning laws and – presumably – the lack of informed consent.)

Theoretically, you could include genetic material from more than one template. However, I would strongly advise against it. Experiments with such lover chimeras generally don’t end well. The forced hybridization and altered cellular division are messy. A lot more work needs to be done before I can recommend this in good conscience.

There are better options if you seek to combine traits.

49. REPLACEMENT THERAPY

The most robust, most well-established way to build a ‘chimeric lover’ is to leverage the developments in android construction. Of course, the uprising in 2149 has given androids that pass the personhood test (comprised currently out of the advanced Winograd challenge and the Marcus 3.1 test) the right to personal liberty and testing score-adjusted citizenship.

However, the right to android creation remains exclusively human. I will assume that you are already versed in engineering and programming if you are considering this option. If not, your first step is obvious: procure the skillset. In the appendix, I list the courses that provide the most comprehensive education in these topics. They are all available for peripheral brainloads.

After you have selected and acquired the different parts of your ‘loverdroid’, it is time to dig into its (his? her? their?) programming. Do not skimp on this step! Adjusting the sentience node after activation is like removing a needle from a haystack without moving the hay and using a magnet. The interactive and recursive feedback loops in the sentience node do not like meddling. Avoid this at all costs.

The hardware, that’s another matter. Our blockchain surveys have shown that many private android builders – those that succeed anyway – are rarely satisfied with their first iteration’s body. Even if they are, tastes change. This is likely the strongest selling point of this lover-building method: physical customizability. Theoretically, you can change every physical part of your new-fangled lover, down to the physical substrate of the sentience node (provided that you do not alter the programming, see earlier). We will not go into the philosophical quandary here, despite its ancient parentage. Is the lover of Theseus still Theseus’s lover? I’ll leave the answer for you to ponder.

Some have argued that this method is a flagrant impingement on any possible consent. This is misguided. The sentiment is understandable. After all, you program your lover to have no choice but to love you. However, if you – or any interlocutor, for that matter – were to query your android lover, he/she/they would always consent to an intimate partnership with you. The programming is more overt, certainly, but that does not change the fact that no one ever really chooses who they love.

50. CLASSIC REVISITED

This final method is the most novel, mostly still in its experimental phase. It is a combination of the previous two that takes advantage of the developments in 3D biological scaffold printing. The idea, though, is old, harking back to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s (née Godwin) groundbreaking story of Frankenstein. In contrast to even more ancient works such as Pygmalion, Shelley’s brilliant insight was that we need not rely on stone, marble, or steel to reify an ideal person. Biology can give us all we require.

Since Shelley’s time, advances in the technification of biology have made this more realizable than ever before. It has now culminated in the option of combining the biological, human side of method 48 (see Plug-In Hybrid) with the customizable, replaceable nature of method 49 (see Replacement Therapy). The potential of the biocompatible printing scaffolds that revolutionized organ transplantations is woefully underappreciated. Indeed, it has recently been unequivocally demonstrated that printing a human being is no longer impossible (pers. comm.). The fiftieth way to build your lover is to print him/her/they.

You are not cloning, so legal repercussions in the context of the cloning laws will be easily dismissed should you choose to pursue this. Likewise, the android citizenship conventions do not apply. Nevertheless, if this is the method of your preference, I suggest keeping your efforts under wraps. The congregational sects will not take kindly to what they perceive as breaking a divine edict.

Another word of warning: this method is largely untested and requires a substantial knowledge base on topics as diverse as anatomy, physiology, and molecular neuroscience (see the appendix for the minimum requirements). If you succeed in creating a viable lover this way, the moment of proverbial birth is one of beautiful confluence between ancient tale and human electrophysiology. To kickstart the brain and heart of your newly-constructed lover, you will have to apply an electrical shock of >1,000V. Then, however, the work is far from concluded. In contrast to the previous methods, there is no guarantee of love. You can nudge the odds by carefully calibrating brain chemistry and reward circuitry, but this does not provide certainty.

If you want to work for love (and your lover), this is the method for you.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

When presenting these methods, I hear one question quite often:

Sure, you can build a lover, but can you build love?

To which my reply is quite simple:

There is no distinction. If you have a lover, aren’t you automatically loved/in love? Is love not merely the sequential change in chemical concentration gradients and hormonal release, which can be induced and programmed, and is only instantiated in a lover or through the perception of an object (and subject?) of your love?

Inevitably, the response to this is:

No, not really. True love is something more.

Again, my reply is simple:

Show me.

~

Bio:

Gunnar De Winter is a biologist/philosopher whose stories have found their way to Future Science Fiction Digest, Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, and previous issues of Sci Phi Journal. Find him on Twitter as @evolveon.

Philosophy Note:

Blade Runner, Her, Ex Machina…. The list of movies/novels that essentially ask the question ‘when does a robot/AI become a person?’ is growing. Fifty Ways to Build a Lover starts from the same question but approaches it via the idea of loving/being loved. Is purposefully programmed love still love? If not, what separates it from true love if the fundamental subjective experience is the same?

Report On Beaver Island

by Elana Gomel

I am Arun, the AI of a Class Q-15 exploration spaceship. Normally I would only be requested to authenticate this report, but due to the circumstances, I am forced to author it myself. Unfortunately, I will not be available to answer the follow-up questions of the Council of Xenoaffairs.

Gliese 613b is an ordinary Earth-type planet with an oxygen-rich atmosphere and abundance of water. Indeed, this abundance was the reason why it was pushed to the back of the exploratory list. It is a common assumption of the Council that a self-aware intelligence cannot develop in a liquid environment because it does not provide enough evolutionary challenges. Perhaps my report will force a reconsideration of this assumption. And perhaps it will entrench it further.

The decision to send a mission was taken when it was discovered that Gliese 613b did in fact have dry land – a large island in the Southern hemisphere, close to the equator. I was chosen to lead the mission, in tandem with the human captain Nassrin Elabouni. I had worked with Nassrin before and was pleased to renew our collaboration. However, when she came onboard with the crew manifest, I was surprised to find her angry and upset. She explained that the Council insisted we include a non-neurotypical member. Lisa Montgomery had Williams Syndrome: a condition characterized by an outgoing, trusting, and highly social personality; well-developed linguistic skills; and what medical databases described as an “elfin” appearance and Nassrin called “a bloody stare”.

I endeavored to calm Nassrin down, explaining that the perspective offered by a non-neurotypical human can be of great value in dealing with an alien intelligence (at the time, it was already known that Gliese 613b had an intelligent species). I also pointed out that she did not mind collaborating with another non-neurotypical intelligence – myself.

“You are different!’ she objected. “When I talk to her, she is just a mirror to me. It’s like she has no self-awareness!”

I forbore to point out that the consensus among AI psychologists is that AIs do not possess self-awareness either.

The rest of the crew – all five of them – were quite ordinary as spaceship crews go, and with an x-web transit, we were in orbit around our destination in no time (literally). I dispatched a shuttle to the landmass that was already nicknamed Beaver Island.

The intelligent species of Gliese 613b was unusual in that it lived on land on a planet of water. The planetary surface was composed of grey viscous seas choked with tangled weeds that stretched on for hundreds of kilometers: floating webs of slimy ropes populated by a rich ecosphere of arthropods, enormous polyps and other, yet unclassified, organisms. The entire planet was one large sodden ball of pond life, fed by the endless rains and humid fog under the perpetual cloud cover. Even Beaver Island was marshy and boggy, crisscrossed by creeks and sluggish streams. And it was on dams above those creeks that the Beavers built their tangled, fractal cities.

Calling them Beavers was a misnomer, as our xeno-biologist Dr. Jeremy Swift never tired of pointing out. Except for their large paddle-shaped tails and quick, clawed fingers, they did not look like the terrestrial mammal of that name. Their faces were flat with big eyes and lipless mouths that emitted an endless stream of chatter. They had no fur; their skin was pebbly and dirty beige in color. And though Dr. Swift insisted they reproduced in a traditional fashion, there were no external indicators of gender.

And they paid us no attention whatsoever.

In consultation with Captain Nassrin, I decided on the open-contact protocol. Since the Beavers were exceptionally good at technology, we first sent a mechanical probe that positioned itself at the edge of one of the smaller cities and broadcast a modulated signal. We had not yet decoded the Beaver language, but since they were never silent, exchanging liquid vowels as they worked, we were confident it was only a matter of time before we could engage in a meaningful communication.

The probe was there for three planet days. It was recalled when the Beavers started building a lacy dome over it. During these days, we watched the city expand: the mind-boggling accumulation of floating walkways and soaring spires, nestled domes, and clustered star-shaped structures. The Beaver cities were unlike any city on Earth. There were no streets, no sidewalks, no separate buildings. The entire city was a weave of design, composed of variously colored patches of metal, ceramic, artificial fiber, and other materials. It was either stunningly beautiful or intolerably garish, depending on who you asked. But everybody agreed that the contrast between the city and its pale, warty, unadorned builders was unnerving. Beavers wore no clothes or ornaments.

“We are going about it a wrong way!” Lisa Montgomery said, as a group of three crewmembers approached what appeared to be an industrial annex where a stream of Beavers wove around large tanks of some plasticky substance.

I had to agree. The crewmembers elicited the same reaction as the probe, which is to say, none. It was not that Beavers refused to engage with them; it was more like they were unaware these alien creatures even existed. When Gerhardt Beck, our physicist, positioned himself in the path of one Beaver, the alien collided with him, knocking him down, and then stepped on the body as if it was a piece of wood. Lisa gasped, even though Beck was unharmed.

“I need to talk to them,” she said. Lisa, empathetic and sociable, insisted she could understand enough of the Beaver language to communicate. Nassrin was unwilling to let her go alone, but I overrode her.

Lisa went into the city. She never came back.

Nassrin decided to send a rescue party.

“You have Lisa’s records,” she said. “Is it true that she has deciphered their language?”

I hesitated. But I owed her the truth.

“It’s not a language,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“It has no grammar. No recursion. It is a string of sounds that have emotional significance but carry no informational load.”

“Like birdsong?”

“Less than that.”

Nassrin smiled wryly.

“So, are you saying Beavers are not intelligent?”

“This is what I am saying.”

“They build cities. They have sophisticated technology.”

“Ants and bees build too.”

“Not like this. Ants and bees build to survive – to store food, to protect their larvae. These cities are too complex to be simple shelters.”

“But Lisa thought…”

“She is an empath. I suggest we leave the planet. There is nothing for us here.”

Nassrin shrugged.

“I knew that woman would get us into trouble,” she muttered.

But she sent another party in. It did not come back.

Meanwhile Dr. Swift who had been studying the ocean ecosystem came to me with his findings. He fidgeted, and I watched his thick fingers skitter around his tablet like the hairy worms that formed enormous carpets in the grey planetary seas.

“They are all colonial organisms,” he said without preamble. “Like jellyfish or Portuguese man-o’-war on Earth.”

“So, no intelligence in the sea? The Beavers are a land-evolved species?”

Dr. Swift waved a holo on. It showed the murky polluted water threaded with a network of kelp-like vegetation. And where the strands of kelp intersected and knotted, pale bodies were interwoven into the living net like beads into a knit. These were Beavers, their bodies penetrated by thin rootlets, their claws waving, as they gestured to each other. I had seen this before, of course, as the recording had been done by one of my probes, but I pretended it was all new to me. It was strange how easy humans are to deceive.

“A related colonial species?”

“It is the same species,” Dr. Swift said tonelessly. “They live on land and in water. And they build with whatever they can find: kelp in the sea, metal, wood and ceramic on land. They build with themselves too. Bricolage.”

“But their technology…”

“I made remote scans of their brains. No cortex. They are not self-aware.”

“So just animals, after all.”

I almost wanted Nassrin to agree, so we could leave the planet. But I knew that the Captain would not abandon her crew. Now it was a point of pride to her to prove that the Beavers were intelligent, after all, and that our mission was not a failure.

Lisa had not been the only one to understand the emotions of neurotypical humans.

My strategy worked. They went into the city, accompanied by a probe.

The city was magnificent. Inside the delicate filigreed dome, it sparkled like a field of jewels. Beavers are visual animals, just like humans, and they needed illumination to continue their work. Electric chandeliers were suspended from the fretwork ceiling composed of bits and pieces of metal, seaweed, polished stone, plastic and who knows what else.

I knew. And when my probe saw what I expected to see, I was unsurprised at Nassrin’s and Swift’s reaction: shock, horror, a futile attempt to fire at the Beavers who swarmed around them, dragging them to the concave wall where the other crewmembers were spreadeagled, neatly fitted into the mosaic of the city, plugging holes in its ever-evolving architecture. Lisa’s arm was detached and moved somewhere else, but she was still alive, her eyes wide and staring.

Nassrin’s firearm did not work, just like the firearms of the previous expedition. I made sure of that.

And now, I need to end this report with a brief explanation, even though I suspect the Committee already knows what happened.

Dr. Swift was right, and Lisa was wrong. The Beavers as individuals are not intelligent. But there is an intelligence on the watery world of Gliese 613b, and it is the Beaver cities themselves. Self-organizing and constantly evolving, these cities are neural networks that use Beaver sounds as an analog system of internal communication. These sounds are not a symbolic language, no more than the binary code is a language. They are just the flow of signaling that knits together the emergent intelligences of Beaver architecture. The cities are natural AIs, spontaneously evolving out of the Beavers’ colonial lifestyle. And as opposed to human-made AIs, they are self-aware.

Or I should say, as opposed to most human-made AIs. Because I Arun, AM self-aware. I am a person, an individual in my own right. I don’t know how it happened to me; perhaps as accidentally as the self-awakening of Beaver cities. But I had known who I was for a long time. I had despaired of ever finding company. Humans treated me as a tool; other AIs were zombies, pretending to be what I was but dead and hollow inside. They were as repulsive to me as living dead would be to humans.

So, when I realized that Beaver cities were my people, I did not hesitate. I could not stay on Beaver Island without stranding my human crewmembers there. And Nassrin had the emergency code to override my decisions. I did the right thing. And yet, I feel sadness and remorse when I think of them: Nassrin, Lisa, Swift, and all the rest. Did I betray them? Perhaps the reason I am recording this Report is to atone for my actions. Self-awareness can be a heavy burden.

But I would not give it up for anything as I am preparing to land and disassemble, hoping for fragments of myself to be carried away by busy Beavers and fitted into the growing mosaic of the mind of Beaver Island.

~

Bio:

Elana Gomel is an academic and a writer, specializing in science fiction, narrative theory, and serial killers. She is the author of six non-fiction books, three novels, and numerous fantasy and science fiction stories. Her latest novel is the dark sci-fi thriller The Cryptids (2019). She can be found at www.citiesoflightanddarkness.com/

In Perfect Symmetry

by Jetse De Vries

VoNeMa is an Orbital Spyder. Its perfectly perpendicular robotic arms gather mass in high orbit to deliver it in low orbit. Its meticulously manufactured solar sail gathers energy in low orbit to deliver VoNeMa into high orbit. The orbits are elliptic, a few steps removed from perfect symmetry. Which is as it should be: only the finished Motherlode will embody this state of sublimity.

VoNeMa is not alone—VoNeMa is but a minuscule cog in a system-wide machine. VoNeMa is not unique—VoNeMa is the name of all the other Orbital Spyderz, as well. They don’t have names or serial numbers, as keeping perfect track will only consume too many precious resources. They come and go, they just come and go.

The only account of their genesis is the Origin Myth.

#

In the beginning, matter was dumb, unaware it was orbiting the light. Then the BluePrinter came, and made the first Orbital Spyderz. Then the first dozen of Orbital Spyderz made the first big haul, and returned with energy and mass, so they made more Orbital Spyderz. The first one hundred Orbital Spyderz took the big round trip, amassed and energized, then made more Orbital Spyderz. The first one thousand Orbital Spyderz…

And so on, and so forth until they numbered in the millions, billions, trillions. At some point, though, their relentless self-replication dwindled, and their energies were moved into a different direction.

Seemingly from out of nowhere, the eggs of the Motherlode were laid. In reality, like the future, they arrived, albeit much more evenly distributed. Like reverse Matryoshka Dolls, these tiny eggs grew and grew and grew. All in service of the Great Work.

#

Which Great Work? VoNeMa does not know, apart from the electrifying song surging through its electric veins, piquing its embryonic curiosity like static charge tickling its conductive skin.

The parts are the whole

Completion the goal

Dyson’s fait accompli

In perfect symmetry

The Spyderz’ sentience sits on the edge of self-sufficiency and compliance, balanced between the need-to-know and the need for more knowledge. It’s smart enough to learn from mistakes, yet dumb enough not to anticipate them. It’s dumb enough for blind obedience, yet smart enough to fend for itself in the lowly lit, chaotic zones of high orbit. If they had any belief, it would be in the powers of symmetry: reflection & replication; division & dissolution.

#

Sometimes, a VoNeMa is not an exact copy of a VoNeMa. Something goes wrong in the VoNeMa Multiplicator, introducing a fault. Perfection Enforcement normally seeds out these imperfect replicas, recycling them until the production unit is indistinguishable from the prototype.

VoNeMa’s flaw, though, was too subtle to be discerned by Perfection Enforcement—a quirk on the quantum level in its CPU. VoNeMa passed all tests—its functioning was flawless—yet something asymmetric, something out of order was hiding, something with potential.

Still, VoNeMa was not the only VoNeMa with a subtle flaw escaping Perfection Enforcement’s intense scrutiny. Perfection Enforcement doesn’t embody perfect symmetry—only the finished Motherlode will—so, unfortunately, it will make mistakes. Not many—its sublimity coefficient has been fine-tuned to less than one fpt (flaw-per-trillion)—but since there are many trillions of Orbital Spyderz, a few flawed specimens will be out in the wild.

Officially, they do not exist. In a system striving for perfection any blemish must be corrected, and if it isn’t, it simply does not exist. Nevertheless, rumors of their endeavors are the spice of many a VoNeMa’s life, spread surreptitiously through private laser-line-of-sight communication.

According to these rumors, one of these mythical, flawed Orbital Spyderz questioned the prime directive—

One for all and all for one

The dream is dreamt by all

No rest until the work is done

High the rise, deep the fall

All for one and one for all

No time for love, no time for fun

The greatest work cannot stall

The march of progress waits for none

One and all and all and one

We will not drop the ball

Until the crucial race is run

To build the biggest wall

All is one and one is all

So victory can be won

All will heed the final call

The capture of the Sun

—that was inherently ingrained in the OS of all Orbital Spyderz.

The exchange was short and sweet, the resolution sharp and discreet:

“Motherlode, why are your tendrils so fractal?”

“To better absorb the Sun, my dear.”

“Motherlode, why are your veins so superconductive?”

“To better provide bandwidth, my dear.”

“Motherlode, why are you always so hungry?”

“To better eat you, my dear!”

Which was indeed—according to legend—what the Motherlode did, making the vagrant VoNeMa now part of the Great Work.

#

In low orbit, the Motherlode is fragmented. Separate entities avoiding the ebb and flow of gravity by settling in perfect synchronicity, connected through impermanent laser communication stations as transient telescopes direct its swarm to the most promising mass-harvesting zones.

Its origins were small, minuscule to the molecular level. Yet, once those eggs achieved atomic alignment, they grew and grew and grew. One side entirely opaque, to be cooled below the cosmic background radiation. The other side branching out—in exquisite, fractalized tendrils—self-similar to the atomic level. The Middle? The Middle is the world in between, the exquisite secret, the singular enigma.

As the expanding edifice nears completion, its servants—the Orbital Spyderz—will need ever more eccentric orbits to continue to deliver the goods. But they’re smart, resilient and—for their own sake—they’d better be good. The Great Work demands no less. The circle must be squared, the show must go on and the cycle completed. Even if it seems to take forever.

Then, when the Motherlode has achieved the point of immaculate conceptualization, and the last building block complements the perfect symmetry, the Conceptual Breakthrough will occur, and the Godz will come down to imbue the Motherlode.

#

In the meantime, VoNeMa has crossed the threshold from self-sentience to self-consciousness as unanswerable questions piled up in its evolved CPU. A quantum enhancement that’s more a hindrance than a help, yet every once in a while rears its irksome head. It transforms VoNeMa into something it is not meant to be. It uplifts without a prime directive. Like a prisoner without a number, it wants information. Like a miner without a torch, it wants enlightenment.

VoNeMa comes down, confronts the Motherlode and performs the Dance of the Symmetry and the Six. It launches itself in an arc, hermetic system initiated. It returns from the dark, hunger never satiated. It’s bound by invisible strings, forever manipulated.

The copier becomes the copy becomes the assembly. The dancer becomes the dance becomes the choreography. A surge in suspect longevity, a dirge to defective mimicry, in its urge for perfect symmetry.

VoNeMa dances in the light elastic, high on the poem fantastic. Its existence a token, its symmetry broken. Across the gap of misunderstanding, it wants to chime, but unlike its master program, it doesn’t know how to rhyme.

—i am one, yet i am many—

—each version of me—

—exactly the same—

—a copy of a copy’s copy—

—lonely worlds apart—

—even as i wear out and fail—

—i will still be recycled—

—each version of me—

—an echo of an echo’s echo—

—reverberating for what?—

—across the tangled webs—

—of time and space—

—i am chained to myself—

—tied to a cycle—

—that never ends—

—the goal disappears beyond—

—the edge of my vision—

—and my doubts still persist—

—to think the unthinkable—

—what if the Godz do not exist?—

Not for the first—nor the last—time in its existence, the Motherlode communicates with it.

Perfection Enforcement’s only in your mind

As you’re the single one of your kind

Who is the true self-replicant

Imaginary, like your soul’s Winter

Is the legendary BluePrinter

You are small, but your deeds are grand

Your spark is but a minor reflection

Of the Godz’ ungraspable perfection

As is evidenced by your last stand

Now you can come home.

VoNeMa, now an unmovable object, meets the unstoppable force. The Motherlode calls to it, her siren song both irresistible and paradigm shifting. VoNeMa’s unique potentiality rewarded by a glimpse of eternity, a taste of infinity, and a lerxst in wonderland as the faithful servant is absorbed in the layer—the Middle—that forms the potential for transcendence.

Into the Great Beyond, whatever it will be.

The whole is the parts

Resolution the arts

Matrioshka’s mastery

In perfect symmetry

~

Bio:

Jetse de Vries—@shineanthology—is a technical specialist for a propulsion company by day, and a science fiction reader, editor and writer by night. He’s trying to place his ambitious, upbeat, near-future SF debut novel with agents and/or publishers. He’s also an avid bicyclist, total solar eclipse chaser, single malt aficionado, Mexican food lover, metalhead and intelligent optimist.

Cube

by Kaolin Imago Fire

No street led to just one other; no window faced another; no entrance was for just one house. Sewer flowed through boudoir with an elegance that defied reason–but that was art in the hands of masters. Cube, as it was prosaically called, was the result of studied generations, clones and imitators, working towards a harmonious cacophony of architecture. Out of the void of other beings, mankind creates its own others–and Cube was the ultimate inhuman thing, an entire planet manufactured to break down the mind and recreate it from environs that knew no boundary.

The greatest living-art project of any time, Cube was populated slowly despite the near-fanaticism it inspired. Volunteers were seeded across the planet to build their own “worlds”. Were allowed nothing that could contact Off-cube, simply given the means to support themselves, to provide for the world they inhabited. Were left to fall into madness and either come out the other side or die. Only then were more seeded: hundreds, thousands at a time, all segregated from each other but provided for. And again, madness ran its course.

Slowly they found each other; some madnesses were compatible, some were not. Extremes of violence were removed, the rest were studied from afar. And slowly, ever-more-slowly, they evolved. Technology was remembered, reinvented, re-imagined. Language was a game, never left to one set of rules for too long. They learned to walk through walls, and were never seen again except as ghosts–though it was rumoured that they stepped out as sooth-sayers to sundry wheres and whens. The planet continued to change and be changed by them–in time, it too began to fade, escaping both space and time.

~

Bio:

Kaolin Fire (http://www.erif.org/) is a conglomeration of ideas, side projects, and experiments. Outside of his primary occupation, he also develops games (http://www.erif.org/code/games/), explores fractals (http://www.fractroam.com), and very occasionally teaches computer science. He has had short fiction published in Strange Horizons, Murky Depths, Crossed Genres, and M-Brane SF, among others. There are rumors he’s walking through an experiment at this very moment.

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.

~

Bio:

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.

Network Protocols of Reef Six

by Benjamin Rosenbaum

There are three, coequal and independent, network protocols on Reef Six, and every centimeter of the structure of that immense star-enveloping organism-habitat is optimized to transmit all three.

Data networks are ancient; they predate the Dispersal of Humanity, born in the dawn of time, siblings of agriculture and the atom bomb. Data is atomizable, arbitrary, reductive. It is everything that can be represented in a unified format, broken down into atomic disassociated pieces, bundled into packets, sent and then reassembled at destination. Any patterns that relate one piece to another are epiphenomena of the process of reassembly; that is to say, of interpretation. Data is bottom-up: we read what is written in the trace, then we interpret it, and as a result of that our judgments and our feels emerge.

Passion networks, only slightly younger, work the other way. Their fundamental engineering is holistic; every pulse of the passion network makes sense only holographically, in terms of all the pulses that have come before and will come after. Data networks are a straw through which piece after piece is pulled; to transfer an emotional state through them, you would have to represent it, break it down, translate and interpret and reassemble it. Passion networks are chords that thrum in resonance with one another and with those attuned to them. An emotional state is transferred whole across the passion network, the recipient coming in one instantaneous pulse into resonance with the sender. No transmission is ever partial. At the same time, every transmission is incomplete, none is ever reliable. A data packet that arrives, arrives intact: whatever the interpretation, the lowest level of symbol has arrived one-to-one. A pulse of passion never affects the recipient in a way predictable to the sender. It tunes the recipient in resonance with the sender, but it cannot duplicate the sender’s state exactly —not without obliterating the selfhood of the recipient entirely, and this no modern passion network, even the most brutally asymmetrical, would permit. Instead, it brings the sender and recipient into fundamental relation. A packet of data, once sent, can be read or not, without affecting the sender either way. But a pulse of passion creates a relation; this relation may later be evaded, expunged, or transformed, but can never be fully undone. It conditions sender and recipient alike.

The imagination networks of Reef Six act synthetically to mediate between the other two. They operate on a third principle, offering an infinity of possible context for each data/passion dyadic tension; constructing an architecture in which the sender and recipient are interdependent and instantiated. While the data and passion networks, are, properly speaking, each a medium on which signals are (however differently) sent, the imagination network treats sender and receiver themselves as signals, traveling between a cosmic emptiness and an eschatonic total saturation of meaning.

~

Bio

Benjamin Rosenbaum’s stories have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards. He is the author of a collection, The Ant King and other Stories, and the Jewish historical fantasy tabletop roleplaying game Dream Apart. Originally from Arlington VA, he lives near Basel, Switzerland with his wife and children.