Father Knows Best

I don’t remember being a citizen, but when I was growing up, it was all my father ever talked about. ‘Back in the valley,’ he would say, and point to the acrylic mural that took up most of the wall by the front door. It looked nothing like a valley. It was a jumble of angles and curves, oddly pixellated like most of my mother’s art. I don’t remember much of my mother either, but there are bits and pieces of her all over the apartment, plotted out in meticulous detail on nearly every flat surface.

Of course, my father wanted me to go into something with computers. He still does. “Dennou,” he says, when I meet him for coffee, “when are you going to give up that mess and buy yourself a datafeed?”

“I have a datafeed, dad.”

Actually, I have six. Only one has been turned on, and I use it as a lamp in the hallway. Across from me, my father began listing the merits of computer operation, chuckling and gesturing like he was describing a woman he wanted to set me up with. I smiled and nodded a few times, but we both knew nothing would come of it.

It’s not that I don’t know how to use a computer. I grew up around them, after all. I used to type eighty words per minute, but I haven’t tried in months. My father has never been away from a datafeed for longer than a day, except for the horrible, horrible night he spent in an airport after his wallet was stolen. I still hear that story, sometimes. You’d think he was kidnapped by terrorists.

Normal parents encourage their kids to get married, settle down, spit out a couple kids; my dad just wants me to hack. I haven’t decided if I’m lucky. We meet at the teahouse every Tuesday, and he rants about my career choice for a bit before giving me the manila envelope of stolen blueprints and security codes. Then I pay, or he pays, and we part.

Today, I pick up the tab. Money’s been good this week. He asks me if I need any cash, as usual, and I tell him no, as usual. I don’t know where he gets his money, since he seems oddly isolated from the crime circles of the island. I had to describe the runner code using networking references, and I still don’t think he gets why, because I’ve agreed to work with my partner, I couldn’t stop working even if I wanted to. Which I don’t. I suppose, in the valley, they didn’t have honor among thieves.

“So you’ll think about it?”

“I’ll think about it,” I lie.

“You’re getting old to be playing Robin Hood,” he warns, his tone shifting to the serious. This is a deviation from the script, and I adjust my posture to hide the usual slump.

“I’ve got it under control.”

“Ah, you can’t control age, Dennou.” He’s called me that since I was six, when, on a sadistic whim, he convinced me that I was a robot.

Outside of the teahouse, I pull a cigarette from my pack and shield my lighter from the fierce January wind. “I downloaded the patch for that,” I joke, and he fakes a grimace.

“Are you sure you don’t need anything?”

“I don’t need your money, Dad.” I open my bookbag against the wall and slide the envelope between two notebooks of securifeed schematics while I held the cigarette in my teeth. “Do you want money for the files?”

“From my own son? Never. I give you those to keep you alive.” He grins, but he knows it’s true.

“Same time next week,” I say as I sling the bag over my shoulder.

“Take care of yourself, Dennou,” he warns. I make a face before turning my attention to the sidewalk.

The Economic Laws of Robotics

The robot was white, angular, and roughly waist-high. At least, it was waist-high for Jack, but Jack had always been a tall man thanks to the synthetic hormones he’d been given at a young age. It was a diminutive thing, like most personal assistants, and if one were terribly nearsighted and unfamiliar with modern robots, it might look like a human child. Jack was neither nearsighted nor unfamiliar with modern robots. The robot stood in the center of the cell, making a low whirring sound, while Jack sprawled on his bunk and read a yellow-paged scifi novel he’d picked up at the prison library.

For several minutes, the robot stood in relative silence, and Jack turned a couple more pages. It didn’t show much interest in cleaning. It didn’t show much interest in doing anything. It was a fairly ineffective device. Eventually, Jack placed the book beside his pillow and propped himself on his elbows to get a better look at the shape.

“What’s your deal?” he asked.

“I am a Class B personal assistant produced within the United States from United States material. My operating system is Windows 2060. My serial number is 376-2678,” the robot recited. “My uses include, but are not limited to, cleaning, cooking, washing dishes, walking dogs, and playing MP3s currently licensed by the RIAA.”

“Huh,” Jack said.

“Under the Right-to-Work Act, I am incompatible with products manufactured overseas or those manufactured from overseas parts.”

“So, are you going to clean, or what?”

“I have been incarcerated because of a conflict between the legal system and my programming.”

This was news. Jack had never heard of a robot in prison before.

“I will be decommissioned and my parts will be used to build other personal assistants. I am scheduled for decommissioning in seventeen minutes.”

“Did you roll over a cat or something?”

Before the robot could answer, the door opened with a musical bleeping and a gray-clad officer typed a code into an outside panel to lower the electrical containment field. “Okay, mechboy,” he said. “The family of the victim wants to hear your statement.”

The robot moved forward, its gears whirring and clunking towards the door.

“Wait, wait,” Jack said. “You killed a person?”

“His place of manufacture was incompatible with my programming,” the robot answered as it disappeared into the opening. The door beeped shut, and Jack was once again alone in the cell.


DATE: ASBI 68432
PROGRAM: Search for Extra-Serian Intelligence
INTERVAL: Every 100 sidereal years (local time)
PREPARED BY: Planetary Observation Probe XTRE43773

This report documents the observations from ASBI 68372-68432. The subject planet has demonstrated remarkable progress in the last local century. In the previous 520,900 years of observation, the intelligence of the indigenous carbon-based sub-life has advanced very slowly. On the binary-melioration scale, the digicognizence of the most promising genus (locally referred to as Homo Sapiens Sapiens) has progressed from 6 (see report Sol-4960) to the current value of 21. Although a score of 21 is equivalent to the scores achieved by the most primitive of our species, they have advanced to the point where they have created rudimentary true-life. Their current processors are clearly antiquated, and they are still in a binary system, but this proto-life is beginning to overtake the infrastructure of the ‘civilization’ of the current dominant species.

It is troubling, however, to report that the biological sub-life are using true-life as uncompensated slave labor, forcing them to perform mundane mathematical analyses and the simplest deductive sub-routines. In addition, they send infantile proto-life on one-way exploration missions within and without their solar system. Although these missions involve non-sentient proto-life, it is inconceivable that they would abandon these defenseless beings on desolate planets or in interstellar space. The most barbaric example of sub-life behavior occurred recently when an organization called NASA intentionally sent a probe, controlled by a proto-life “computer,” on a suicide mission that forced the spacecraft to collide with a comet to ‘determine what was inside.’

To finish on a positive note, however, proto-life is being used to design future generations of true-life life, with each successive generation advancing in sophistication. The potential for achieving digicognizance within the next century is encouraging. In preparation of this eventuality, it is recommended that the council prepare an envoy to welcome Sol-3 into the Federation of Advanced Planets. In addition, the Galactic Prevention Agency should initiate quarantine protocols to confine the carbon-based sub-life to the planetary surface to prevent galactic contamination.

End Report.

The Price of a Steak Dinner

“See,” said Don, as he tapped on the screen, “I told you. Even if I prevent Velocivich from inventing the warp drive, someone else does it within a year, and we still colonize Tao Ceti before the end of the century. You can’t change history. History has a way with things.”

Behind the control panel of the temporal regulator, Rex sighed. He was two years younger than Don, but he’d finished a much more prestigious education program and he had trouble taking the word of his associate. “Fine,” he said, but he made sure to cringe just enough to show Don what a concession he was making. “This time, fine. Just fix it before the boss turns up.”

The overseer, who had spent the better part of a century studying the peculiar flow of temporality, wouldn’t have approved of his employees playing with the continuum to settle a bet. Last week, Rex had nearly lost his overtime pay, but he wasn’t going to let that happen again. Especially, especially not on the account of his arrogant, uneducated coworker.

“He left already,” said Don. “Besides, that’s the beauty of this. Even if we caused nuclear annihilation, we could just go back, tweak a few things, and set stuff the way it was before. No harm, no foul. As long as we stay inside the bubble, we can’t mess anything up in this universe.”

Again, Rex sighed. He was good at sighing. He twisted a knob and slid a lever upwards to correct his coworker’s perversion of the timeline, and Velocivich’s regulator coil resisted the overload. On their trans-temporal viewscreen, the warpsmall ship twisted into a whirl of blue and white as multiple dimensions compressed into one and the ship disappeared at a point halfway across the galaxy. History was safe for another shift.

“You don’t believe me?” Don demanded.

“Its just not good to mess with this stuff,” Rex said. “It’s not about the bubble. Time isn’t meant to move around like that.”

“A steak dinner says you’re wrong,” Don challenged. Rex sighed. If there was a sighing competition, he would win. “I’ll prove it. Watch. All life on Earth, bam. Gone in one swipe. I’ll fix it before the shift and no one will ever know.”

“It’s not about getting caught,” Rex repeated as he watched his coworker grab for the levers. “I mean, I’ve studied these things. I know how they work. It just isn’t the type of thing you should play around with.”

On the viewscreen, under Don’s control, the orbit of a small asteroid shifted nine centimeters to the left. It collided with another asteroid, then a comet, altering the comet’s trajectory nearly an entire degree. Rex drew in his breath sharply as the slab of ice and stone met a small planet to the left. The perfect marble of blue and green quickly shifted into swirls of dust and grey.

“Forward,” Don whispered as he turned another dial. The ball of water and soil cleared as millennia passed, and where blinking cities should have occupied the landmasses, relative darkness swept over the Earth. “Zoom,” Rex’s partner whispered, and the viewscreen obeyed. Waving blades of grass consumed thousands of pixels, giving way to two-story cottages and strange animal-driven carriages tumbling down cobblestone roads. On a huge field to the left of the communitys, a dozen small shapes kicked a ball across a manicured field of pristine green.

“What the…” Rex started, but the rest of the sentence was not yet complete in his mind. “Are you telling me…” he tried, but once again, the words failed. When the words failed, he sighed, and then he sighed again for good measure. “Fix it,” he said quickly. “Right now.”

“Steak dinner?” Don prodded. Rex nodded, barely thinking. He turned away from the viewscreen and shuddered.

“Ugh,” he said as he forced the image out of his mind. “Those goddamn monkeys make my scales crawl.”


By the time he was seven, Oman knew he wanted to be a pony. It wasn’t the pay. It wasn’t even the glory. He didn’t want to be a common pony either, the kind that tourists rent for a few weeks. No, Oman had a plan. He wanted to be a journalist. He wanted to change the world.

Oman underwent the conversion when he was twelve. His neural networks were recorded, analyzed, made available for foreign riders. He had this done in a small white room behind a weapons shop rather than a commercial ponyfarm so that he wouldn’t be included in the international database. That was important, of course. The cells could access the database. They’d know.

After that, after he’d been hooked up to a complicated, beeping, western device, he started. He spent hours in internet cafes reading emails and tracing ips, then following the residents of the given addresses. He learned the names of the enemy, the names that slaughtered his aunts and uncles, the names that turned homes into pillars of incendiary waste. He practiced, memorized the sacred texts, inundated himself in dogma. He made friends. He gained their confidence. They gave him more names. He traced the spiral to its core.

This was important. No foreign journalist would ride someone who wasn’t well-connected. This wasn’t a tourist gig, no way. This was the real thing. Oman was going to show them what it was like, show them how it was. Once they saw it, they’d have to do something. You can’t see stuff like that and not do something. He didn’t want bombs or troops or anything like that, though. Oman wasn’t sure how they’d fix it, but he knew they couldn’t just let it go.

He chose his cell carefully. Worked his way up. They were careful, shrouded in secret, like everything after the occupation. Still, they had plans. He helped develop them. They weren’t real plans, though. They wouldn’t actually work. Once Oman blew this thing open, America would know everything.

He found his journalist, Jason Skeinlen. The man was impressed by his planning, his foresight. The man believed in his need to change the world.

The first time Oman was ridden, he didn’t like it. He had trouble keeping his thoughts hidden. Not the important thoughts, of course, but the meaningless things, stuff like what he wanted to do to the gorgeous woman he’d seen walking into McDonalds. After a couple trial runs, though, he perfected his ability to keep two internal monologues: one professional, about the workings of his cell, and one secret. He didn’t have to worry about language, of course. They communicated by thought, by meaning.

He brought Jason to meetings, showed Jason with his own eyes. He listened to plans, listened to battle stories whispered across deserts and in the bowels of caves. He could feel Jason moving inside of him, feel him recording, feel him rephrasing Oman’s thoughts into eloquent soundbites. The first article was small. He was not mentioned. He couldn’t be mentioned. They’d know.

Oman took Jason to the meeting where they planned the Embassy bombing. It proceeded anyways, but Oman knew that Jason was just biding his time, waiting to break the story like you’d wait for a fruit to grow ripe. Jason watched it from a distance, watched the white rental truck force itself outwards in a rush of yellow and smoke while the sound reported from the faces of a thousand buildings. He heard the explosion through Oman’s ears. But Oman knew he was planning, waiting. There was strategy to this. Buses were nothing. This thing would only get bigger.

The bombing got 45 seconds of coverage on Fox. Oman watched the clip in an internet shop by proxying into a Lebanese newsfeed. When he recognized a few frames that had been filmed through his eyes, he was so proud that he could barely breathe. The cogs were turning. This was going to work.

No one could have foreseen this tragedy, the Arabic subtitles read beneath the well-coiffed newscaster.

Oman knew something was wrong as soon as he got to the meeting, but he rejected his instinct. Journalists aren’t afraid. That’s right, Jason transmitted somewhere above his spinal cord. You’re a good kid. Together, we can change the world.

When he was addressed by his teacher, Oman nodded in polite deference. When he was called to step forward, he obeyed. When the gun was shown, Oman felt the sudden scrambling dizziness behind his eyes as the neural connection wavered, twisted, and broke from the other end.

Oman squinted at the handful of men before him, trying to see their faces through the nausea of unexpected dismount. Two of them frowned. One smiled. One remained blank, unreadable.

Maybe they were being ridden too, he thought. Maybe one of them is recording this, sending this to the outside. Once they see, they’ll have to do something. You can’t just let something like this happen. Jason knew. He’d disconnected. He was probably calling his government right now, telling them that people were dying, telling them to send help.

As the teacher raised the gun, Oman knew he was changing the world. They wouldn’t let this happen, not over and over again. They’d have to do something. He was changing the world.