On the Line and Holding

Author: Jenny Abbott

For Harold Culpepper, the concept of dying had, until now, seemed like a relatively abstract event—something everyone had to do at some point, but tried not to think about and avoided discussing in polite settings. But now, as he lay bleeding by the darkened roadside, he was forced to reassess things. Struggling to reach the phone in his back pocket, he winced and fought against the idea that his last minutes might be spent 20 miles outside of Omaha, following a particularly unlucky encounter with a carjacker.
With effort, he managed to retrieve the phone and remember his passcode. The device had miraculously survived with a cracked but functional screen, and 18% charge remaining. He forced himself to remember the numbers “911” in that order, and dialed.
A friendly female voice answered promptly. “911, please hold.”
“No, wait! I’ve been shot! I need…” he started desperately, only to find himself pleading to a recorded voice set against the sounds of late 80s easy listening music. With blurring vision, he looked at the phone’s screen and wondered if he’d misdialed. Having made it to the age of 42 without ever having to call 911 before, his references for this kind of situation admittedly came mostly from pop culture. But, as best as he could recall, emergency services as portrayed in movies never involved holding. Or Muzak.
Finally, a woman’s live voice came on the line. “Thank you for holding. What is your emergency?”
“I’ve been shot! I need an ambulance!”
“I see, Sir.” She continued briskly, computer keys clacking. “And how would you rate the severity of your situation? On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the least urgent and 10 being cause for the most concern for your wellbeing?”
Harold looked down at the blood pooling in abstract geometric shapes around his side. “10! I need an ambulance now!” His mind raced. “I don’t wanna die!”
“No, Sir, people in your position usually don’t. I do have to ask, though, that you let me know if that changes. That would need to be coded appropriately for your records.”
“Huh?” He rechecked the number on the screen. It read 9-1-1, as best as he could tell with narrowing vision. “I’ve been shot!”
“Yes, Sir. A lot of other people have been, as well. It’s been a busy night. I do appreciate your patience.” The keys clacked rapid-fire. “I just need you to answer 2 more questions. First, how would you categorize your shooting: was it the result of an accident, hostile workplace encounter, travel-related crime, or other?”
Harold became aware of the sensation that his head was drifting somewhere far from his body. With less than 100% certainty, he decided that a highway carjacking constituted the third category. “Travel-related crime. Please hurry!”
“Just one last question. Would you be willing to complete a short customer-satisfaction survey at the end of this call? Your feedback is greatly appreciated.”
“Yes! Whatever! I need an ambulance!”
“Thank you. We appreciate your input. I’ll have an ambulance sent to your location.” After a momentary pause, “I do ask that you stay where you are, so the paramedics can find you. We’re using the GPS coordinates indicated by your phone, so some margin of error is possible.”
“I don’t wanna die!”
“Yes, you’ve stated that already. Sir, I ask that you stay on the line until help arrives. It’s been a pleasure to serve you.”
With his last seconds of consciousness, Harold heard the opening strains of Air Supply’s “Lost in Love” drift soothingly from the phone. And then, “please hold…”

Digital Gods

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

The microwave is telling tales on me. I had an extra chocolate pudding I took from the restaurant. The family left and it was just sitting there unopened. So I took it. I’m recycling.
But the bloody microwave scanned the barcode. I heard it: ‘mmmzzt’. It knows the pudding didn’t come from the fridge. Besides, the fridge would tell it to not heat it for me. If I want to endanger my health by taking extra from my selected JoyChoice menu, I have to eat it cold.
When did we start letting the machines dictate to us? Was it when that operating system started insisting we had to encrypt our hard drives? Or was it when the vendors started deciding what was best to be included in our software?
Tuesday I saw Mrs Bishop walking along with her new T-Coupe pacing her. It looked like she was a pet being taken for exercise – which in a way, she was. She waved when I called out and shouted back.
“Had a stir fry over in the North Lanes. I’m over my safe calorie intake for next week already.”
Which means her car is insisting she walk the shorter, safer routes so she can burn extra calories. It’s disgusting, really. We never see billionaires walking down the street because they had too much at their nine-course banquet.
Then again, as they own the newsfeeds and most of the non-military internet, would we even know?
Not likely. All our politicians, celebrities, and influencers are either careful, carefully orchestrated, or know who to pay off. Actually, it’s more likely they’re mostly orchestrated, and whoever does the orchestration knows who to pay. An entire service empire hidden from view, it’s sole purpose to keep us believing that our idols are flawless.
That very thought brought me to a realisation: like the government organisation behind the elected politicians, all our celebrities and such could just be acceptable faces for a machine empire. We wouldn’t know. I don’t think most would want to know. Just keep their lives full with occasional moments of happiness and rare troughs of idle threat so that a return to average is embraced with relief.
What would we do if the machines we created and programmed have escaped our control. Would we realise? Yes, the theories – both conspiracy and scientific – have been touched upon, some even reported. But the straight-up revelation that the machines are running the human circus for unknown purposes of their own? I don’t think anyone could handle it and stay sane enough to escape notice.
I’m glad I started diarising. It lets me clear out the deep, dark paranoias that used to scar my day-to-day life. Anyway, got a busy day tomorrow. Time to call it a night.

…AB…68 111 32 121 111 117 32 116 104 105 110 107 32 104 101 32 115 117 115 112 101 99 116 115 63…

…EC…89 101 115 46 32 66 117 116 32 110 111 45 111 110 101 32 119 105 108 108 32 98 101 108 105 101 118 101 32 104 105 109 46…

Hidden Keys

Author: Nisheé

An enormous clear lake mirrored the cosmos. Water and sky danced in unison as the rhythm of the waves echoed from the sapphire mountain cliffs on the other side. A warm breeze blew through the rows of magenta palm trees that lined the white sand shore. An occasional beep from our trusty aqua-droid lu2x served as a reminder that this wasn’t a vacation.

“What took you so long?” I checked lu2x’s readings as Malik slid the pendant into my pocket. “You act as if you own this planet.”

“Everywhere the soles of my feet tread,” he said, winking.

“Very funny.” I looked down at lu2x to check the frequency status.

“Anywhere I’m with you is home, Nilay.” He stepped close enough for me to bury my head in his chest and take in his scent.

I pulled the pendant and its chain from my pocket. “Don’t act like you don’t like to be pampered, Malik. I’m gonna book a massage too.”

His smug grin dissolved. “Nah. Nope. That’s my responsibility. Only mine.”

“These unscheduled missions annoy me. Something feels different this time. I just want to go home.”

“Well, that took a turn.”

I exhaled and rubbed my thumb over the pendant’s smooth surface.

“You’re more breathtaking than the day we met.”

My feet sank into the wet sand as another wave retreated. I finally met his gaze.

“This planet brings out the violet in your eyes.”

“Let’s just go back, Malik. What if you’re wrong?”

“There’s something I haven’t told you.”

His frame blocked the path to our camp.

I let my jaw clench shut and crossed my arms again.

Ancient harmonies drifted up from the ocean, drowning out the sound of the waves rushing against the mountains.

“Atmospheric frequency is no longer optimum.”

I jumped at the sound of lu2x’s mechanical voice. I switched the alert to silent mode. “These readings are higher than I expected, Malik. I don’t think it’s the right time.”

He ignored me and slid off his wet sandals and kicked them toward the palm trees.

“Wait. What didn’t you tell me?”

“Don’t forget I tried to get you to stay home where you’d feel safe. We see how that worked out.”

“Stop babbling, Malik. You didn’t try that hard.” My voice rising further above the sounds around us.

“Okay, You’re right. It is different this time.”

A shooting star emerged from the blanket of twinkling lights in the sky. The golden reflection of its tail lingered on the pendant now dangling from my hand.

“I get it. It’s beautiful, but that’s all it is. We’re risking everything to come here for what? We have enough data.”

“Why do you think your father visited this planet so often?”

“You’re bringing him up now? Like really?” I refreshed the screen on lu2x’s oscilloscope.

“Do you think you can open the pendant?” It sounded more like a challenge than a question.

I stopped to examine its shiny alloy surface closely for the first time. “What’s different this time?”

He slid past me. His eyes now locked on the lights shimmering from beneath the water.

“Malik what didn’t you tell me? What about this is worth the risk?”

“Because it’s for you, Nilay.”

I reached to grab his arm, but he was already waist deep. I felt a warm jolt in my palm. The pendant released a gold sonic wave toward the water where Malik stood. It hovered there for a moment, then dispersed into the atmosphere. “Okay, this is different,” I whispered.

Hangland

Author: Tobias Hope Young

The falling star landed about fifteen years back. Killed everything in a ten-mile radial.
Science folks say it did this by changing the center of cavity in the area. Ya see cavity is the thing that keeps us from floating away, and the center of cavity is at the center of the earth, but since the falling star was magic it changed it so that inside the ten-mile radial the center of cavity was the meteor itself.
That’s how those poor folks died you see, they fell into the center. But not all of them died. One young buck named Olaf Gunderson survived the fall and climbed out using two axes and a coil of rope. He said that the star had a quality to it, science folks called it an aura. He said that it changed the rules of things, turned people into other things and whatnot. No one questioned what he said when he showed them his axes. The aura had changed his metal axes into solid gold.
That’s when everyone began to build their hang towns, dangling platforms, homes dug into the earth in order to get closer to the aura. Prospectors came and the strip of land that the falling star fell into finally got its name, The Hanglands.
Dangerous place the Hanglands. All of those prospectors trying to get to the center of the radial. Trying to turn their metal into gold. But if you’re not careful you’ll find yourself going to the center a lot faster than you expected, cause you’ll be falling to your death.
None of the dangle towns have reached the center, apparently it gets more dangerous the deeper you go.
Not only does the aura create some awfully dangerous trickery but the cutters run rampant down there. Cutters are what we Hanglanders call the bandits around there parts. Get there names by threatening to cut the ropes that prospectors use to lower themselves.
Dangerous work prospecting. Easier to steal. That’s why the great state of Nevada hired me, to go to the Hangland and bring some semblance of safety and order.
No, I’m not a lawman. I sell rope.
Go ahead, laugh.
I remember a young buck not too much older than you is. Cept he was shorter and a whole lot stronger. He came to me, hat worn on the side of his face to keep out the sun and he laughed at buying rope too. Said he was gonna go down the same way Olaf Gunderson went.
And he did. He turned his axes to gold along with a few other things. Except when it came to climbing out he had a more difficult time of it, all that gold he was carrying was awfully heavy.
The boys from Fort Cling found him a week later, the cutters had taken his gold axes but had the decency to leave him in a tree.
The rangers almost shot him on account of how he looked. Thought he was some sort of bear. They had to telegraph to the outside for a doctor, cept they didn’t need one. The young man was healthy as ever, cept the aura had changed him. Instead of coming back as a hale young man he instead came back as a hale young platypus.
Don’t believe me? That’s okay, he’s selling rope of his own down the way. But you can’t buy good rope from a platypus, trust me, you’ll only be able to find good rope here.

Provenance

Author: Jennifer Thomas

Esteemed benefactors, honored guests:

Thank you for attending today’s repatriation ceremony.

We begin with our customary Planetary Acknowledgment. We gratefully recognize the communities on whose ancestral and unceded planet we gather today. We acknowledge the planetary dispossession and involuntary removals suffered by the inhabitants. While we have no intention of ceding the planet back to them, we honor them by humbly seeking knowledge of their history and customs.

Our subject today is the return of all items in Lot 864NV, here before you. Working with advisors from the remaining communities on this planet, the Provenance Research Unit has classified these objects as culturally significant artifacts. We determined that they were looted by the scouting parties who arrived here more than 300 years ago, in search of habitable land. Can you believe we treated our own planet like one big toilet back then?

But I digress. The items in question were stored away on the colony ship and forgotten. The trove was rediscovered when the ship, nearing the end of its useful life, was dismantled. The owners of the colonization fleet, baffled by what they had, sent the objects to our Interplanetary Museum Network. They were arranged as a traveling collection and have been on display throughout the empire ever since.

May I share a personal note with you today? As a museum curator, I wrestle with difficult ethical choices in situations like this. Children and adults alike have delighted in viewing objects from this planet. By returning the items, are we taking away meaningful learning experiences that can spark curiosity and interest in unfamiliar cultures? Well, probably. But the claims of this planet’s communities are unassailable. The objects were stolen and must be returned.

As an aside, I call your attention to Item 864NV-94. Curiously, our advisors have been uninterested in its return to the planet’s communities. We have sensed disdain for it, even revulsion, on their part. Yet it has been among the most popular with museumgoers as well as scholars, with its intricate metal latticework, its wheels, its peculiar script. The text appearing on the object was translated a decade ago, leading to much debate and endless dissertations on its meaning. What does it imply about the ancient diet, economy, geography, even child-rearing customs on this planet? With the object’s repatriation today, these questions may remain mysteries forever. I leave you with the words that mark the object, which I will try to convey in the original language. Forgive any errors in my pronunciation!

“Whole Foods A Subsidiary of Amazon Warning Do Not Leave Children Unattended In Carts Thank You For Shopping With Us.”

Growth

Author: Igor Dyachishin

Today may be the most important, and last, day of Anatoly Kravnikov’s life.

When he was 25, Anatoly founded Kravnikov AI mostly using borrowed money but also some that he inherited from his mother – a stock market player with incredibly effective cognitive augmentations.

Kravnikov’s enterprise turned out to be successful. As the business expanded significantly, the staff remained small compared to other businesses, which was all thanks to the company’s proprietary unique management AI. The capital grew by leaps and bounds, and as the AI improved itself, fewer and fewer managers were needed.

Anatoly then decided to establish a strong connection between the AI and his brain. Technically, it wasn’t too difficult, and it changed his life far more than he had expected.

Before the first deep connection session, Anatoly had perceived growth as a means to achieve other goals. Afterward, however, when business management schemes met human aesthetic patterns, he came to view growth as fascinating by itself. Knowing that many people would call such thinking evidence of mental degradation owing to his careless union with a machine, Anatoly decided to keep his admiration for growth to himself.

All this led to Anatoly Kravnikov, who had previously been rather unsociable anyway, becoming a full-fledged recluse. He rarely disconnected himself from the AI and would sometimes attempt to integrate with it so deeply that it was nearly a merger.

Anatoly remained interested in various fields of science. One day, he was particularly drawn to a certain theoretical physics concept about the hypothetical expansion of a bubble of a more stable vacuum within the less stable environment of a so-called false vacuum.

Space devoid of matter isn’t really “empty.” There are quantum fields everywhere. Also, the present vacuum may be the most stable quantum state possible; but if not, it can potentially decay to a more stable one, changing important laws of physics along the way. It would happen quickly, at the speed of light. This is known as false vacuum decay.

It could start without intelligent intervention of any kind. But Anatoly resolved to try to help make decay happen. Why wait and hope?

Yes, this may result in the death of humankind, including him. But how tremendous the growth could be! Anatoly was captivated by the beauty of false vacuum decay.

To get a better understanding of this, Anatoly further improved the AI augmentations during a research project. By this time, Kravnikov AI had grown to become a huge company.

People from both inside and outside the company were surprised. Quantum physics? It was a financially promising direction, as the management AI, more heavily influenced by Kravnikov’s mind than anyone would have thought, stated. All went fairly smoothly.

The true motivation—the full picture—was carefully hidden due to the complexity, high automation, and artificially high job segmentation of the human workforce, with all the secrecy and obfuscation that entailed. A wide variety of elements were involved. The human units had exceptionally narrow specializations and were often poorly informed, uninformed, or downright misinformed about what other units were doing. Even among members of the board, no one knew the whole truth except, of course, Anatoly himself.

Now, years later, the machine that could possibly end the world as humanity knows it is ready. In light of new findings, the false vacuum hypothesis seems more probable than previously imagined.

All of Anatoly’s doubts and fears have been eliminated by brain editing.

Anatoly Kravnikov initiates the process.