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Day One Hundred and Thirty-nine: For SCIENCE!

October 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Porter Dupree lowered the goggles back down over his eyes and leaned on the edge of the workbench for a moment. He took a deep breath, then reached up and keyed on the recorder. “Okay,” he said. “This is boot-up attempt number forty-five. Project day twenty. Failure minus five.” He rested a hand on the arm of the battered black android that lay on the bench, then reached over to the control panel and tapped a large green button. “Go.”

There was no lightning, no explosions or anything like that. Just some fluctuating graphs on his laptop screen, some rapidly-changing figures, and a schematic of the android’s body. Granted, there was a small laser array, but strictly speaking it could have just as well been covered up and hidden. If this were a science fiction movie, the writer probably would have flashed it up a bit, just to make the audience gape at the Awesome! Power! of SCIENCE! But then again, if this was a science fiction movie, he probably would have managed to get this to work forty-four tries ago.

The first time was exciting. Everything was new, all the parts clicked together snugly and perfectly. He’d tested all the circuits and all the connections, and in their pieces they worked fine. Put them together, however, and try to boot up the system as a whole, and the project was a dud. The android just lay there, gently humming but not actually doing anything much more technologically complicated than slowly warming up.

But this was science, and progress was never guaranteed. Porter would go to bed and look at the pictures he’d pinned to his wall of his favorite innovators – Tesla, DaVinci, Jobs – and remind himself that success came only after failure and the persistence to endure it. So the next day he took the machine apart and re-checked, piece by piece, component by component, connection by connection to see where the flaw was. He cleaned contacts and replaced microchips and resoldered anything that looked like it might be coming loose. Then it all went together again, the black plastic shell was snapped into place, and he held his breath as he keyed in the startup sequence again.

And… nothing.

Undaunted, he tried again, replacing parts that seemed too old or worn, revisiting his software coding, poring over circuit diagrams and trying to figure out more efficient designs before plugging it all together and starting it up, only to have it, once again, not work.

He started the project in earnest about a week after his brother Kevin died. His mother had been a complete wreck, and he needed something to do without letting her grief infect him. It started with a few sketches and the faint tickling of an idea that just… might… work. Within days, boxes started arriving at the house, filled with electronics and heat-moldable plastics. When his mother finally got around to finding out what he was making in her basement, she had told him it was an abomination, and that he would never be allowed under her roof again as long as he worked on “that thing.” His girlfriend really tried to support him during the months that he was putting the project together, but in the end, she left too. He didn’t notice for a few days.

And every night, he would go to bed and look at those pictures and think, “Tomorrow will be the day.” And every morning he woke up, ate quickly, showered if it occurred to him, and ran to the garage. He’d lost his job weeks ago, but he didn’t find out until the police arrived to see if he was dead. When he answered the door, pale and thin and blinking in the rising spring sunlight, they seemed surprised to see him alive. He hadn’t shown up in the lab for a week and a half. No one had heard from him, no one knew if he was alive or dead. Finally his boss called the local police and begged them to find out what had happened.

Of course, when he turned out to be fine, Porter was immediately fired.

But that didn’t matter. The great black android laying on his workbench would change everything. He would never need to worry about money again, once this worked.

And it would work.

He glanced over at the readout on the screen. He had spent a couple of days tinkering with the user interface, making it simpler and easier to read. All it told him at this point was the same thing it had told him before, and the time before that. All systems worked by themselves. Everything was humming along just fine. But as a whole, the connections just weren’t there, and it was beginning to grate at him. He could feel it. Something wasn’t clicking, but it was like turning a key in a sticky lock – he knew that if he could just jiggle it the right way or add just the tiniest bit more pressure, the key would catch, the lock would open, and an entire new era of humanity would begin.

But it would not begin today.

The android lay still on the workbench. The boot program was cycling through the bootup sequence, rebooting, and then starting again. Porter rested his chin on his hands and watched the robot’s fingers for a while, hoping to see one twitch. Just a little. But there wasn’t even a hint of movement.

After fifteen minutes, he halted the startup program and turned on the recorder again. “Attempt number forty-five: Unsuccessful. Will review power loads and microtransistor arrays and prep for attempt number forty-six. Failure minus four.”

Four more tries. That was about how many more he had left in him.

He turned off the laser array and turned on the overhead lights again. After his eyes adjusted a bit, he raised the goggles and spent a minute blinking. He made his way over to the head of the android. It wasn’t really handsome, but then he wasn’t exactly an artist. In any case, that was all aesthetics. Once it worked, he could pay someone to make it pretty.

He touched his fingertips to the pressure-seals at the temples, pressed, and twisted. The top of the android’s head came off with a click, exposing the glass-encased brain inside.

It floated in a thin soup of nutrients, with a web of fine wire delicately laid over and into the countless crevasses and folds. Porter carefully took the glass case, gave it a half-turn, and pulled the brain out of the android’s housing, exposing the complex metal plug that was entwined with the brainstem. Quickly, carefully, he turned around and docked it with the power station, and the little LEDs in the base lit up again. Keeping the brain alive, surprisingly, had been the easy part. When he started, it looked fine. Mostly fine. About as fine as you might expect from a freshly-exhumed corpse. It had been a lovely pale pink, full and hearty.

Now its color had gone to gray, and it floated more loosely in the bottle that Porter had made for it. The longer he kept it alive without any input from the rest of the world, the worse off it got. It wouldn’t be long before it was too far gone to be of any use.

He pulled a flashlight from his pocket and peered into the android’s skull. Everything looked okay, but it couldn’t hurt to have another look in the morning. He clicked it off and patted the bottled brain. “G’nite, Kevin,” he whispered. “See you tomorrow.”

Day One Hundred and Twelve: The Earth Died Screaming

September 10, 2011 Leave a comment

The piece I wrote as a make-up for Day 84 – The End – annoyed me so much that I had to re-do it right away rather than wait until the end of October. The problem was basically this: It read like a history lesson, and history lessons are, by and large, boring. The only way to make people interested in history is to show events through the eyes of someone who experienced them. That’s why so many people love Lord of the Rings, but only the hard-core nerds love The Silmarillion. So I ripped it apart and did it again. I hope it’s better. This story was also submitted to the Worth1000.com contest, “The End,” so if you like it – and you’re a Worthian – go give it a vote!

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My memory has been fading. I don’t remember my childhood anymore. The name of the first girl I kissed. The street where I grew up. I want to remember, I strain and push and try, but the noise of all the other voices – the screaming and the begging – it’s all too much.

There is one thing I do remember, however. Vividly. We all remember, and it will probably be the last thing to go.

We remember the invasion.

I was arguing with my fiancée Joanne in our apartment in St. Louis. Something about plates for the wedding. Or cakes. Or something, I can’t remember, but we were arguing. And then the sky went dark, as something indescribably huge blocked out the sun. It wasn’t an eclipse. It didn’t have that kind of slow majesty to it. It was something else, something we wouldn’t fully understand until it was far too late.

It was a ship. A spaceship. An honest-to-god alien vessel, bigger than the planet itself, which had come to visit the Earth with unknown intentions. In the first few hours of its arrival, the TV news was devouring itself, trying to get information on the ship. Politicians came out and gave speeches, they interviewed every scientist who would talk to them, and flashed every amateur cell phone video that was sent to them. All they knew was what we knew too: It was big.

Its arrival caused chaos everywhere. Joanne left me in tears to go to her parents’ home in Nebraska. I tried to get her to stay with me, but she wouldn’t have it. “Family is everything,” she’d always said. I guess I just wasn’t family enough yet.

All around the city, people were going mad. Breaking windows, stealing televisions, as though there would be anything to watch after this. Cars were jacked and joyridden, and people stole jewelry by the armful. To look pretty for the little green men, I supposed. I wanted to laugh at myself for not joining in – here was the end of the world and I was still worried about being arrested. As though this would turn out to be some big mistake and the police would show up and tell me, “An alien invasion is no excuse for stealing an XBox, son.”

I called my mother in Fenton, just to see if she was okay. She told me to be careful. “There are a lot of crazy people out there, Charles,” she said. “I saw on TV that New York City is burning.”

“St. Louis isn’t New York, mom,” I told her.

“And there have been earthquakes happening everywhere, because of the gravity.”

I wanted to laugh. “Mom, that thing’s gravity can’t be…” I had to pause while the building trembled.

“Still, you mustn’t –“

The phone cut out. My apartment was completely disconnected as the cable service died. No TV, no phone, no internet, all in one terrible moment. I paced around the apartment for an hour, aimless and blind. There was no news, no updates, and for the first time in my adult life I felt truly alone.

Out on the street, people were running through the city. They were crying. They were laughing. They were drunk and sober and horny. I sat in my window and watched them until I couldn’t take it anymore, and I went to the roof.

The ship filled the sky from horizon to horizon. Lights traced paths across its dark surface in amber and blue, great straight lines and slow curves that seemed to go on forever. I wondered what we all wondered, once we took the time to think about it. Who were they? Why were they there? What did they want from us? The movies and TV shows I grew up on gave me two options: they wanted to invite us into their great galactic federation, or they wanted to invade and take over. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to believe that humans were important enough for either.

My question was answered the next morning. With the probes.

I woke at 6:00 AM. The streets were dead. There were cars on fire and garbage everywhere, and people lying on the sidewalks. I chose to believe they had passed out. The ground rumbled under my feet as soon as I stepped outside, and I dove against a building for cover. Masonry fell from the roof, missing me by inches. When the quake was over, I thought I heard drums, of all things. I followed their sound as far as I could.

Tower Grove Park was full of people. Tents, lean-tos, people wrapped in blankets and parkas and big blue plastic tarps. There were people cooking and playing, staying together through the long night and trying to keep spirits up. When I ambled into the park, a guy in a beat-up business suit greeted me. “Welcome to the party,” he said. “Feel free to camp out wherever you like, and if you have any food we’d all appreciate it.” He shook my hand and then hugged me. Then he jogged away to somewhere else, and I never saw him again.

The park was a party. A celebration. People were drumming by the dozens, dancing and spinning across the grass. There were groups telling stories to each other, reading and singing songs to each other and to the ship. If you ignored the sky, it was a festival. The smell of food filled the air, from dark, spicy chili to hamburgers and hot dogs. Not everyone was afraid, it seemed.

I didn’t join in the dance circles or the drum tribes or the poetry readings that were going on all around us. I gravitated towards others, huddling by their fire with the look of people whose entire world has been dismantled in front of them. I sat shoulder to shoulder with an older Mexican lady and we stared at the fire. We didn’t talk at first. Then she told me about her son, who was living in Los Angeles and wanted to become a teacher. I told her about Joanne and how we were planning to spend our honeymoon in Las Vegas and never leave the hotel. For a moment, I almost forgot what was hanging above us.

Then the screaming started.

The probes swarmed towards the park in the hundreds, great jellyfish made of plastic and steel. They had blinding white lights that swept the crowd, and whip-thin tentacles that trailed in the air behind them. As soon as they appeared, people panicked into the darkness. Most of them were caught immediately. What happened to those who were caught – what would happen to all of us – is the most vivid memory of all.

The probe would ensnare a person, lifting and immobilizing them in the air. Then it would slice away the top of their skull and, in one swift movement, scoop out the still-living brain. The body would then drop to the ground and the brain would be put into a fluid-filled sac that hung below the probe. Soon, each one was carrying five or six human brains dangling pendulously below its body. Some of them, having reached their limit, would glide off away from the crowd, only to be replaced by another.

I didn’t see the probe that got me. The Mexican lady prayed and ran as my arms and legs were pinned by unbreakable cables. I opened my mouth–

That’s where my memory ends. There is a blackness there, a period of infinite time in which I sensed nothing. I thought nothing and knew nothing. How those things kept us alive is something I’m not sure I want to know. What I do know for sure is that I would rather be dead now. Any death, any hell would be better than this, and I know the billions of others on this ship would agree with me.

The great, amnesiac blackness ended with awareness. First I knew myself, and then I knew the others. All the others. The noise was deafening, billions of voices full of fear and confusion. In an instant, I knew where I was and what I was. What we all were.

The brains of humanity had been networked. We had been connected together into a huge organic processor aboard the ship, and what the ship knew, we knew. We knew so much, right then, that it was hard to comprehend what we were seeing.

The Earth, hanging perfectly still in space. The mother ship disgorged thousands of smaller ships, harvesters. Some began to spray the surface with a compound that reduced any organic life to a slurry of amino acids, which was scooped up and brought back to the ship. Other vessels collected water and ice, drained the oceans and rivers and lakes, broke up the glaciers and then returned with their prizes. Some large ships brought back mountains, hewn from their roots. They tore up the continental shelves to get at what lay underneath and siphoned off the sluggish, red-hot magma that lay just under the paper-thin surface of the Earth. The process took… days? Months? Years? There was no way for us to tell in in there. In time, though, everything else was gone, leaving only a white-hot spinning iron core surrounded by the detritus of the operation.

Special ships were dispatched. They hovered by the core and primed their great engines before laying down drag hooks in order to slow it down. Slowly, slowly, for the first time in billions of years, the Earth stopped turning. The ships clamped down on the core and dragged it into the main vessel to be melted down and used as raw material.

And that was it. Where once there was a planet teeming with life and intelligence there was now a field of debris that would orbit the sun for as long as the sun shined. Another traveler here might wonder what had been there, but they would never know. Far off, the moon drifted away into other realms of the solar system, having been deemed less useful than its mother planet. Perhaps another world would take it in.

An order shot through our network, and the ship turned. Our sun swept through the ship’s field of view, and then there were nothing but the stars we thought we knew.  Humanity howled in grief and pain, and another order brought us to heel. We turned away from our sun, our home, and started to move to the next world, an impossible distance away.