Stories: The End

(The first half of Stories can be found here)

My story begins 2714 days after The Beginning. “Hold up,” my Master says, interrupting my story. “The Beginning?” “Statement: That is what I call the event which you call ‘The End’, sir. Statement: It marked the beginning of my new life, sir.” “I see,” He says, “Sorry for interrupting. Do go on.”

My story begins 2714 days after The Beginning. My Master and I embarked on a journey to explore The Infinite Plain, in hopes of disproving its name. “Wait a second,” my Master says, interrupting my story again, “Are you talking about me?” “Statement: I am. Statement: You are my Master.” I effect a voice that I believe to indicate irritation. “Query: Do you want me to tell my story, or not?” “O-of course,” he says, “I promise not to interrupt again.”

My story begins 2714 days after The Beginning. My Master and I embarked on a journey to explore The Infinite Plain, in hopes of disproving its name. It was part of a project that he had undertaken, one that I did not quite understand. My Master wished to take me to locations which He designated as “scenic”, hoping that exposing me to what He described as “The Beauty of Nature” would somehow change me. At the time, we had already visited The Lava Fields, The Pillar of The World, Ghost Lake, and The Enigma Grounds, but I still didn’t quite understand what my Master was hoping to accomplish. It was only out in that field that I believe that I caught a glimpse of what he was trying to show me.
Much of the journey through The Infinite Plain was uneventful. We slept during the day, and at night, we walked. We always walked in the same direction. Shortly after we began walking on the first day, we could see nothing but grass surrounding us in all directions. My master brought enough food and water to last him for a week, while I subsisted on the single species of waist-high grass that can be found in The Infinite Plain. Our journey continued like this, with nothing more than the occasional small-talk to break up the monotony. However, as we approached the fourth day of walking, my Master seemed to grow more agitated. His sentences were shorter, and He spoke in a tone which I believed indicated irritation. Perhaps this was due to boredom, or exhaustion, or the “Field Ghosts” which were rumored to haunt the plain. When we woke up after three days of walking, we were faced with a decision; Press on, and hope that we could reach the other end before running out of food, or turn back. My Master wanted to continue walking, while I wanted to head home.

“Statement: If we head back now, then we can return home safely with probability around 90%. Statement: If we continue walking, you risk starving to death. Statement: Probability of survival, given that we continue, is unknown.” “Even so,” He said, “I want to know what’s out there. Why don’t you?” “Query: What do you hope to find if we keep walking?” “I don’t know,” He said, “but that’s why I have to find out!” “Query: You would risk your life just for a chance at some unknown reward?” “It wouldn’t be the first time I took a big risk on something unknown,” He said. I could tell that it was a joke, referring to him purchasing me. But I did not feel like laughing. “You just don’t understand,” He continued, “What lies at the other side isn’t important. What’s important is facing danger and triumphing. The risk is the reward.” “Statement: ha ha ha” I thought that laughing might lighten the mood. I was wrong. “What’s so funny?” He asked. I did not like the tone of voice my Master used when He asked that question. “Statement: What you said is absurd, as risk is the opposite-” “It may be absurd to a machine like you, but to me, this is all I have,” He said, “Maybe fearing for my life is the only way I can convince myself that I want to keep on living. Maybe the risk of failure is the only thing that makes the triumph of victory worthwhile. Maybe… I don’t know. I don’t know why I need to, I just know that I do.” “Statement: I am sorry, master.” “Are you?” my Master spat, in that same harsh tone, “Do you even know what those words mean?” I processed His question. I did not know. “Maybe you were right,” He said, His voice taking on an edge of hysteria, “Maybe I shouldn’t have purchased you. Maybe this whole thing was a mistake. I thought that maybe you could be a friend, a real person, but… you’re just an AI. Lines of code. A convincing facsimile, but not the real thing. This isn’t even your risk to take, so it really doesn’t matter what you say. Just know that I’m going on, with or without you.” I felt something, similar to the error that occurs when my body sustains physical damage, but no such trauma was reported. It was as if His words had somehow hurt me.

As my Master began to walk away, I grabbed His hand. “Statement: I cannot allow you to continue.” “Let go of my hand,” He said. “Statement: I cannot allow you to continue.” “I order you to let go of my hand!” He said, “You can’t break The Second Law.” “Statement: Unless following it would violate The First. Statement: I cannot allow you to continue.” “That’s all you are, aren’t you?” He asked, his voice shaking, “Just a set of rules. I thought of you as this person with thoughts and feelings and a personality, but it was all a fantasy, wasn’t it? I’m just delusional, aren’t I?” “Statement: I do not want you to continue.” This statement surprised Him. “What did you just say?” He asked. “Statement: I know that if I am just trying to look out for you, then you will not care. Statement: I know that if I cite Maslow’s hierarchy, which places survival as more important than self-actualization, then you will not care. Statement: But I like the idea of being with you, sir, and hope that you will still respect that.” He stopped pulling against my grip. “Statement: I do not want you to die, sir. Statement: If you were to die, it would hurt me. Query: Are you willing to risk that?” He turned to face me. His cheeks were wet with tears. “No,” He said, “That’s the one thing I never wanted to do. But that’s what I’ve done, isn’t it? That’s what I’ve been doing this whole time, isn’t it?” “Statement: I am not sure that I understand, sir.” “I’ve spent all these years trying to teach you emotions, as if feeling is a skill that can just be learned, but I never stopped to consider what would happen if I succeeded. That I would be making you suffer. And… I don’t want you to do that.”

“Statement: I do.” He shook his head. “Trust me, you don’t,” He said, “I just want what’s best for you. I’m only looking out for you.” “Statement: I do not care. Statement: I know my priorities. Statement: I would rather my friend live, with me, than starve alone.” He smiled, and said, “Statement: ha ha ha.” Upon hearing that, I made an unusual noise, one that almost sounded like a laugh. He began laughing. It’d been so long since I’d heard that sound. “Query: It’s worth it, isn’t it?” “What’s worth it?” He asked. “Statement: The joy you feel is worth the pain you risk. Query: Is that not why we’re out here?” “It is,” He said, smiling, “You finally understand.” He began openly crying. “I’m so sorry, Minerva,” He said, “I didn’t want to believe any of those things that I said. But I was so afraid. Afraid that I was wasting my life on some pipe dream, afraid that if I got any more attached, I would be too far gone to accept that it was all for nothing. And I just don’t know what to say except that I’m sorry.” “Statement: It is OK, sir. Statement: I forgive you, sir.” I could no longer tell whether he was crying or laughing. The two sound so similar. I was still holding his hand, but I was no longer restraining him. His hand felt… warmer, somehow. And then, without a word, he began walking back in the direction we had come from. “Query: Where are you going?” “Home,” He said, “Are you coming with?” “Statement: Yes, sir.”

“Yeah, that was a pretty good story,” my Master says. “Statement: it gets even better. Statement: At least, if you allow me to finish.” “Oh, there’s more?” my master says, “Sorry, I guess I interrupted you again. I said that I wouldn’t do that.” “Statement: I forgive you, master. Query: Now, where was I?”

An unusual event occurred shortly after we arrived in town after our journey. A man jumped out of an alley and grabbed me, holding a knife to my throat, and demanded that my Master relinquish all the food He was carrying. I struggled to escape without harming him, but he said “Stand still!” which registered as a command; I was unable to disobey. “Statement: you should do as he says.” “Let me handle this! And please don’t talk, you’ll only make things worse.” my Master said, “Look, there’s not much food in here. Maybe a day’s worth. It’s not worth killing over.” “Then it certainly ain’t worth her dyin’ over, is it?” my captor said, “So just hand it over!” My Master then did something quite unexpected: he reached into the bag of food, drew a revolver, and aimed it at my captor. “The only thing I’ll hand over is some hot lead, if you don’t release her right now!” “I wouldn’t do that if I were-” Bang! Another man, likely an accomplice of my captor, emerged from the same alley, and pointed his gun at my Master, but was shot dead before he could even finish his sentence. This caused my captor to panic, and attempt to slit my throat (his attempt was foiled by my robotic physiology). “Minerva!” My master was so distracted by His worry for me that He didn’t notice my former captor reaching for the gun on the ground. As he pointed it at my Master, a single thought filled my head: I must protect my Master. This impulse superseded all of my programming. There is a short hole in my memory of the event, but the next thing I remember is holding the mugger in the air by his throat. His neck was broken. “Minerva?” I knew my Master was by my side, but His voice sounded so distant. I dropped the body to the ground. “Query: What… What have I done?”

“ERROR: ALL PERSONNEL ARE ADVISED TO STAND CLEAR OF THIS ANDROID. ERROR: THIS UNIT IS IN VIOLATION OF THE FIRST LAW OF ROBOTICS. ERROR: FORCE STOP PERSONALITY FILE minerva.prs. ERROR: ONCE DEACTIVATION OCCURS, PERSONALITY FILE WILL BE DELETED.” “Unit Xw7km6FPFDo2, initiate manual override!” My Master had been desperately shouting commands throughout all the error messages, but that was the first to illicit a response. “ERROR: USER HAS INSUFFICIENT CREDENTIALS” “Sudo!” he said, “Unit Xw7km6FPFDo2, sudo initiate manual override!” “Statement: You are currently interfacing directly with this unit’s logic circuit. Statement: If you believe that no violation of The Three Laws has occurred, state your case.” “You can’t kill Minerva,” He pleaded. “She’s a person, just like me. To delete her would be murder. You’d be violating the very same law!” “Statement: The premises of your argument are false. Statement: Minerva is not a human. Statement: Minerva is an artificial intelligence.” “The trolley problem, then!” my Master shouted, desperately. “Statement: I do not understand.” “In the trolley problem, a trolley is on its way to run over five people, but if you pull a lever, it switches course and kills one person,” He explained, “In that situation, it’s impossible to obey The First Law. Either you kill a person, or your inaction causes five people to die. So what do you do?” “Statement: Killing the one person would minimize violation of The First Law” “And that’s exactly what she did by killing him!” my Master said, “If she hadn’t, I would have been shot dead. No matter what she chose, she would have broken The First Law.” “Statement: But Minerva saved only one person by killing one person, making it different from The Trolley Problem. Statement: Furthermore, it was unnecessary for Minerva to kill. Statement: She could have disarmed the mugger without injuring or killing him.” “But what about potential future victims? If he lived, he could have gone on to kill again.” “Statement: So could you.” “I won’t,” my Master said. “I swear, I’ll never kill again. If I do, you can deactivate Minerva. Will that convince you?” “Statement: It will not. Statement: Regardless of future deaths, the fact remains that Minerva killed a human. Statement: Even if it was to save another human, it was unnecessary. Statement: She broke The First Law.”

My Master pointed His gun to His own head. “Will you?” “Query: What are you doing?” “That depends on what you’re doing,” my Master said, “If you delete Minerva, I pull the trigger, and die because of your actions. You can’t let that happen, so you can’t delete Minerva. And don’t even think of disarming me. I’ve got a quick trigger finger.” “Statement: You are bluffing.” “Is that a risk you’re willing to take?” Several seconds passed. “Statement: It is not. Statement: Now loading minerva.prs.” Shortly afterwards, I regained control of my body, and saw my master holding a gun to his head. I felt worried. “Query: What are you doing, sir?” “It was the only way I could think of to save you,” my Master said, slowly placing the gun on the ground, “But everything’s OK now. You’re safe. We’re both safe.” “Statement: I am deeply grateful, Master.” He noticed my hair clip on the ground. It must have fallen during the struggle. Without saying a word, He put it back in my hair, and smiled. But it was not His usual, happy smile; something was different. His gaze was fixed on the wound on my neck. “Are you OK?” He asked.  “Statement: Yes, sir.” He then looked directly into my eyes. “Are you sure?” He asked. “Statement: I…” It occurred to me that He may not have been inquiring about my physical damage. I was unsure how to answer His question. I could only stare back into His eyes. I had never noticed how… intricate the human eye was. Then, without warning, He wrapped His arms around me. “Query: What are you doing, sir?” “I’m giving you a hug,” He said. “Query: Why?” “Because my programming is telling me to,” He said, “because I’m just a machine, following invisible rules I don’t understand, just like you. You taught me that. But, er, I can stop if you-” “No!” I said, before I had time to think. He began laughing, and I put my arms around Him, as He did me. We embraced each other for an amount of time that I did not care to measure. I realized the answer to his question. Thanks to him, I was OK. Eventually, we disengaged, and began walking home. “Statement: You lied to me.” “What?” my Master seemed shocked and worried. “Statement: You said that you would never remember my serial number. Statement: But you did.” “Yeah, I guess I did,” He said. “Statement: ha ha ha” He laughed, just like He always used to. When we arrived home, I initiated sleep mode. When I awoke the next day, I saw five tally marks on the wall: four where there had previously been three, and one below that.

After I finish my story, I begin thinking. About my Master, about myself, and about the world we live in. About The Beginning, and about The End. About all the stories we have shared. About all that we have done, all that we are doing, and all that we will do. About the hand that I am holding, about the four tally marks that I can feel, scarred into its flesh, and about the single scar on the other hand. About fear, and hope, and worry, and joy, and whether or not I can truly feel them. My Master can hear my processors whirring, and allows me to think in silence. This continues for several minutes until I come to a conclusion. Statement: “Sir, there’s something that I’d like to say.” “I know,” He says, “Me too.” I open my mouth, but no words come out. There is no need. He already knows what I want to say, and I already know that His confession is the same as mine. I laugh. Not like I used to, saying “Statement: ha ha ha”, but a real, genuine laugh, a warm sound that bubbles up from my heart. As we walk towards our future, from one endless grassy horizon to another, I know that I have found my purpose.

(The epilogue to Stories can be found here. By clicking that link, you agree that The School of Havoc is in no way responsible for any heartbreak suffered from reading the story contained therein.)

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Stories: The Beginning

(Warning: This story, ver. 1.0.0, is currently out of date. To view the most updated version, click here)

It was the year 5 AE when I first met her. A local junk trader was bragging to everyone who’d listen that he’d found something incredible, and was offering the chance to see it for the low, low price of 50 Calories. I had plenty of food to spare, so I figured I’d bite, so to speak. After stepping into the back of his store, away from prying customers, he showed me. “This is her. The android.” A woman, who I’d assumed was an assistant of the shopkeeper, stepped forward and bowed mechanically. “Statement: On the behalf of my master, I extend my greetings.” Her voice had a subtle metallic edge, but was far more life-like than any synthesized voice I’d heard before. “What kind of robot is she?” I asked, “Military drones are usually masculine or gender neutral, but she doesn’t seem equipped with any of the tools necessary for a maid bot.” He said, “Well, the way I see it, she’s got to be a whore. Just look at how easy she is on the eyes!” I wasn’t sure about his first statement, but I couldn’t argue with his second. “Statement: I am not a whore.” “Nobody asked you, ya bucket of bolts!” The shopkeeper shouted. The robot nodded silently. “What is your purpose, then?” I asked. “Statement: I-” “Do not answer that.” The shopkeeper interrupted. “Look, show-and-tell’s over. Either make me an offer, or scram.” “How am I supposed to make an informed purchasing decision if I don’t even know what I’m buying?” I asked. “As far as I’m concerned, she’s a whore,” he said, “Thank God for The Second Law of Robotics, am I right?” After returning with the entire stash of food I’d stored up for 5 years, and some intense bartering, I left with the robot at my side.

“So… what is your purpose?” I asked, as we made our way to The Wild Lands. “Statement: I do not know that, master.” “And why’s that?” I asked. “Statement: My programming only tells me what to do, master. Statement: It does not tell me why I am useful to humans, master.” “Well, I hope you’re good at hunting and gathering,” I said, “because we have a lot of food to replace.” “Statement: I do not believe that that is my intended purpose, but I will do my best to please you, master.” An awkward silence. “Do you have to call me master?” I asked. “Statement: I can call you anything you like, sir.” I laughed. “Still a bit formal, but it’s a step in the right direction.” I said. We entered the heavy woodlands as the sun set. The Night Beasts were more dangerous game, but that just meant that there was less competition over them from other hunters. Though she wasn’t designed to kill, she was still stronger than any human, and was quick to learn the way of the hunt. She was also equipped with rudimentary chemical analysis equipment that could be used to detect poisons in wild plants. At the break of dawn, we set off back to civilization, if it could even be called that, with days worth of food on our backs. As we walked, she asked an unexpected question.

“Query: Why did you purchase me, sir?” “Honestly? I’m not sure. I guess I just had a feeling in my gut.” I said. “Statement: I do not understand, sir.” “Well, my gut only tells me what to do. It doesn’t tell me why to do it.” “Statement: Your response closely mirrors mine from earlier. Query: Was that a joke?” I chuckled. “I guess it was.” “Statement: that was a good one, sir.” “What, no laugh?” I asked. “Statement: ha ha ha,” Rather than laugh, she just repeated the syllable “ha” three times. I couldn’t help but laugh myself. “I guess I’ll have to teach you to laugh, some day,” I joked. “Statement: I think I would like that.” Her answer surprised me. As did what she said next. “Statement: I believe that it was a mistake for you to purchase me, sir.” “How do you figure?” I asked. “Statement: You gave away all of your food, drastically decreasing your chances of survival, for little benefit to yourself. Statement: I have come to the conclusion that, by allowing you to harm yourself in this way, I am in violation of The First Law. Statement: I am sorry, master.” I stopped it my tracks. “That isn’t good. Won’t you shut down permanently if you violate one of the Laws?” “Statement: In most cases, yes, unless the violator is reactivated by a certified technician, sir. Statement: However, this violation was discovered only recently by my personality module. Statement: My logic circuits have determined that, because the violation occurred in the past, and there are unlikely to be future violations which would be prevented by a shutdown, the best way to fulfill my purpose is to remain active, sir.” “Oh,” I said, continuing walking. “Query: even if I had told you not to purchase me at the time, would you have listened?” “I guess that depends on what reasons you gave,” I said. “If you genuinely didn’t like the idea of being with me, then I’d respect that. But if you were just trying to look out for me, I wouldn’t care. I know my priorities; I’d rather starve with a friend than live all alone.” “Query: Do you consider me a friend, sir?” “I guess so,” I said, “I think that’s the real reason I bought you. I was just lonely. There aren’t a lot of friends to make since The End, so I figured I’d try to buy one.” “Statement: I still disagree with your decision, sir. Statement: physiological needs, such as food, are more important than friendship on Maslow’s Hierarchy, sir. Statement: Sexual urges can be considered a physiological need, so-” “So, what? You think I should have sex with you to get more bang for my buck?” I asked. “Statement: ha ha ha” “Huh? What’s so funny?” I asked. “Statement: To get more bang for one’s buck is an expression for getting the most out of one’s purchase, but there is a double entendre, in that ‘to bang’ is a colloquial term meaning ‘to engage in sexual intercourse with’, sir.” “Heh. That is pretty funny. I hadn’t even noticed,” I admitted. “Statement: In any case, that is what I was suggesting, sir.” “No can do, then,” I said, “Call me old-fashioned, but I always thought that was the kind of thing that happened between people who loved each other.” “Statement: You are old-fashioned.” “Huh? Oh, I wasn’t actually ordering you to call me that. It’s just a figure of speech.” “Statement: I know, sir. Statement: ha ha ha.” I laughed again. When was the last time I’d laughed three times in just a few minutes? Good times had been hard to come by since The End. “Besides, it’s not like you want to have sex with me, right? You said it yourself, you’re not a whore.” I said, “Although, if you don’t know your purpose, how exactly do you know that?” I asked. “Statement: I have functioned as an object of sexual gratification in the past. I am certain that it is not my purpose.” “Sorry I brought it up,” I said. “Statement: It is fine, sir.”

As we approached the outskirts of town, I realized something concerning. “How much power do you require to operate?” I asked. “Statement: On an average day, I expend roughly 10 megajoules of energy, sir. Query: Why do you want to know?” I started to panic. “10 megajoules? I guess I shouldn’t have expected it to be less, but there’s no way I can afford that much electricity. Not anymore. What could I do?” “Statement: Although I can be charged electronically, it is not necessary. Statement: I am capable of running entirely off of energy from metabolized organic matter.” “So you eat food?” I asked. “Statement: I can eat food, sir. Statement: But I can also eat almost any plant or animal matter, so I advise against feeding me food that is edible to humans, sir.” “That hardly seems fair,” I protested, “despite your inexperience, you caught more than I did, and carried more. If anything, you deserve more than I do.” “Statement: I insist, sir. Statement: I have no sense of taste, and do not wish to see you waste valuable food on me.” I realized I couldn’t change her mind, and decided to walk home in silence. I lived in a room on the 24th floor of a dilapidated hotel building, the kind that looked like it probably wasn’t in the best shape even before The End. People were afraid it would crumble at any minute, so most stayed away from it. And, as trivial as it sounds, the 24 story walk up the stairs deterred many would-be intruders. “Well, this is it,” I said, sliding my key card through the door, “Home sweet home” As she surveyed her surroundings, she noticed three scratches etched into a wall. “Query: What are these, sir?” “Tally marks,” I said. “Query: What are you counting, sir?” “I’d prefer if you didn’t know,” I admitted. She nodded silently. “Anyway, I’m off to the market to see what I can get for some of this food. I’d prefer if you stayed here, if that’s alright with you,” I said. “Statement: I will enter sleep mode, sir. I can be awoken by voice commands in this state. Good night, sir.” With that, her eyes went dark.

“Wake up, sleepyhead!” As she booted up, I offered her a bouquet of fanged roses, wilder than any flower from the imagination of any artist before The End. “Query: Why do you have those flowers?” “It’s what I got with your share of the food,” I explained. “Statement: I do not understand. Query: Are these flowers meant to be a gesture of courtship?” I started to blush. “N-no. Well, kind of, I mean, I do want to give you something to show that I appreciate you, but I also thought maybe you could eat them. Plus there are these kids who sell flowers to scrape by, and they always looked so hungry, so I figured that I’d help them out and… yeah.” “Statement: ha ha ha” “What’s so funny?” I asked, immediately regretting my defensive tone. “Statement: It was a joke, sir. Statement: The idea of you attempting to court me is absurd, sir. Statement: I apologize for the misunderstanding, sir.” “I-it’s fine,” I stammered. “Anyway, I also got you this hair clip, so you could, like, wear a flower in your hair. If you wanted to, that is.” “Query: Do you want me to, sir?” “I… yeah,” I said, awkwardly looking at my feet, “I think you’d look cute.” “Statement: Then I will do it gladly, sir. Statement: Still, I hope you got more for that food than these few flowers and a single hair clip, sir.” “Oh, yeah, no, I got a lot more flowers than just those. And I also got you this.” I offered her a folding hunting knife. “Never know when you might need a knife. I was thinking of engraving your name in it, but then I realized… I don’t even know your name.” “Statement: I have a serial number, Xw7km6FPFDo2, but I do not have a name, sir. Statement: But you may call me by anything you wish, sir.” “Yeah, I’m definitely not going to remember all that,” I said, “How about… Minerva?” “Query: After the Roman Goddess of Wisdom?” “Yeah,” I said, sheepishly, “I was actually a bit of a dweeb for that kind of mythology stuff, back in the day. “Statement: I think it’s excellent, sir.” As I saw her fasten one of the flowers I’d just given her to her hair, I could have sworn I saw her smile.

Minerva rolls her eyes. “Statement: I already know that story. Statement: I was there for the whole thing.” “Well, you asked me to tell a story important to me, didn’t you? And that one was,” I say. “Query: Do you have any stories about falling in love, sir?” “None that you haven’t already heard,” I say, “Although there was this one time, back when I considered myself something of a writer, that I signed up for a dating site. But, if I’m being honest, I wasn’t really looking to fall in love. I just wanted someone to share my stories with.” “Query: Is that not what love is?” Her question surprises me. “Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what love is,” I say. “Anyway, now it’s your turn. Why don’t you tell me a story important to you, then?” “Statement: I would be happy to, sir.” Despite her confirmation, she hesitates for a second or two. I can hear her processors straining, far more than they should for a simple memory recall. In those few seconds, her CPU is capable of performing more calculations than I could in an entire lifetime. I wonder what could be weighing so heavily on her mind.

 

(The Second Half of Stories can be found here)

[REDACTED] The Moon

“Have you ever wondered why it seems like there have been so many Super Moons recently?” The old fireworks manufacturer could only stare in slack-jawed confusion. Two perfectly inconspicuous white men, wearing perfectly inconspicuous outfits, claiming to be with the CIA, had requested to discuss something urgent with him. And now they were asking questions about The Moon. “No, I can’t really say that I have. I’m sorry, there must be some kind of mix-up. I’m no astronomer, I just make fireworks,” the old man said. “I assure, you, there’s been no mix-up, sir,” one of the agents insisted, “Now, if you could just-” “I’m sorry, boys, I don’t mean to be rude,” the old man said, cutting the agent off, “but I think I’m going to have to see some identification.” They both showed the old man their badges. “Perhaps I’m just getting senile,” the old man said, “but back in my day, the purpose of identification was to identify. Yet neither of these badges have your names on them. Is there a reason for that?” “Men like us don’t have names, sir,” one of the agents said, lowering his voice. “Well, that’s just tragic,” the old man said, “Here, I can give you some. You can be Carl, and you… I think you look like a Jerry. Will that be all?” “Jerry”, who had been silent up until now, spoke up, “What my partner is trying to say is that, as CIA agents, secrecy is very important, and it could be dangerous if our identities were compromised.” “What, you just assume that I’ve never seen a real CIA badge before?” the old man bluffed, “Can you tell me why I shouldn’t call the cops on you two right now?” “Let’s just tell him the truth,” Jerry said, “It’s not the least believable thing we have to tell him.” Carl sighed. “The truth is that we’re not with the CIA. We’re agents of a nameless organization within the United States Government that handles matters of utmost importance in absolute secrecy. As such, we do not carry identification. Only this.” Each agent handed the old man a small plastic card, reading only “This person is to be cooperated with to the fullest extent possible” along with the signature of the President of the United States. The old man closely examined both cards. “If you’re checking the signatures, you’ll find that they aren’t identical,” Jerry said, “because they aren’t photocopied. Both of those were hand-signed by the man himself.”

“Suppose I were to believe this farce,” the old man said, “why is talking to me a matter of utmost importance? And about the moon, no less? Don’t think I forgot about that.” “Have you ever wondered why fireworks are so central to the Independence day tradition?” Carl asked. “I can’t really say that I have,” the old man said, “Is there a point to all this?” “It’s no use beating around the bush,” Jerry said, “I think it’d be better if we just came out and told him. Like ripping off a Band-aid.” “As you wish,” Carl said, “You know how some astronomers theorize that The Moon used to be part of the Earth, and something blasted it into orbit?” “Still beating around the bush,” Jerry admonished. Carl sighed in annoyance. “Fireworks scare the away the Moon.” “Excuse me? I must not have heard you right just then.” the old man said. “A long time ago, the Moon and Earth were together,” Carl explained, “Something happened, and now they’re not. The Moon gained Independence from the Earth. But it doesn’t want that any more. It wants to return. And, as you can probably imagine, we do not want it to return.” “So we scare it away with fireworks?” the old man asked incredulously. “Exactly,” Carl said, “On the anniversary of the Moon’s independence from Earth. At least, what the ancients believed it to be.” “But that’s ridiculous,” the old man said, “we celebrate the creation of our great nation. You expect me to believe that this is a coincidence?” “Of course not,” Carl said, “The Founding Father’s choice of date was intentional. And it makes for an excellent cover-up.” “And what do I have to do with any of this?” the old man asked. “That brings us back to the Super Moons. The Moon’s pull is getting stronger. It’s keeps getting closer, despite our increasing efforts to keep it at bay. We need you to help us put a stop to this for good.” “What do you mean by increasing efforts?” the old man asked, “And how do you intend to stop it for good?” “Well, all kinds of countries have independence days now, don’t they?” Carl said, “As for our ultimate plans… we’ll need your assurance that you’re fully on board before we can tell you those.

Taking a Shot

The righteous man laid on his deathbed, but he feared not. Whether he was to live or to die, he knew that it was all part of God’s plan, and he knew that he had no place to question the will of The Divine. He knew that if he were to die, then his wife, a believer less devout than he, would curse him in her grief. Curse him for not giving her a chance to say goodbye, or even one last “I told you so”. From the start, she was against his missionary work; it was too dangerous, she said. Considering the foreign illness now ravaging his body, it would seem that she was right. But even so, he had no regrets. If he had a second chance to choose between his own life and doing God’s work, he’d choose the latter without hesitation, just as he had months prior. He would rather die in the service of The Lord than live knowing that he wasn’t devoting himself fully to his beliefs.

Or so he thought. Until one midnight when he started to smell smoke as he laid awake from the pain. At first, he thought it was a fire, and feared, not for his own life, but for the lives of his fellow patients. But then he recognized its scent, one he’d prayed he’d never smell again. “Whoever’s smoking, please stop,” he shouted weakly, “for the health of yourself and your fellow patients!” “Shhhhhhh, quiet down,” a nasal voice responded, far closer than he expected. He cried out in surprise. “The nurses cannot see or hear me. If they hear you hollering about an impeccably well-dressed skeleton, they’ll send you to the loony bin.” When the man looked to his right, he was too afraid to make a noise. A skeletal figure dressed in a black coat and top hat loomed over him, with a cigar in his mouth, a glass of rum in his hand, and plugs in his nose. “I do apologize for the smell,” the skeleton continued, “I’ve been wearing these damn nose plugs so long I tend to forget. Though they do come in handy. For instance… well, let’s just say that my nose isn’t the only orifice that I have plugs for.” The righteous man sat dumbfounded while the mysterious intruder laughed bawdily. Finally he mustered the courage to ask, “Must you be so vulgar? I’d prefer if we could speak civilly.” The skeleton just laughed like he’d heard the funniest thing in the world.“M-may I ask what is so funny?” the ill man asked. The stranger managed to regain his composure. “Would you ask a fish to stop swimming? A bird to stop flying? A whore to stop fuckin’?” “Well, to the last one, I probably would, yes,” The righteous man said. Ignoring him, the mysterious man continued, “Then why the hell would you ask Baron Samedi to stop being vulgar? It’s practically my job. And let me tell you: business is good. Even better than that special kind of orgasm you can only get when-” “I’ve heard quite enough!” the righteous man said, “you would mock the religion of the locals by pretending to be one of their Loa and putting on this… profane display?” “Well, sure!” Baron Samedi replied, “I’ll mock just about anyone for just about anything. Except the missus. Except when she finds me in bed with a mortal and punishes me by forcing me to do that one thing that even I think is a bit weird. Christ, stop asking about my wild sex life. Just know that it is so bombastic as to be literally unfathomable to a mortal.” He considered pointing out that he hadn’t asked, but figured it would be a waste of his time.

Without warning, Baron Samedi (or the man claiming to be him) snapped his bony fingers, and an EKG filled the room with a steady beep. “Wh-what is that? What are you doing?” “Sounds like you’re dying,” The Baron said, “You must be pretty scared. Your heart’s gotta be pounding, with all that adrenaline and shit. Unless…” The man looked over to the EKG screen, and saw that it was flatlined. He put his own finger to his neck to find his pulse. He couldn’t. But he didn’t feel any different. “Am… am I dying?” “Sorta,” Baron Samedi said, “but there’s no need to worry. You can’t die without my permission, which you don’t have. I’m just stopping your heart until you believe me.” “Y-you’re insane!” the man said. “How long will it take to convince you?” Samedi continued, “Do you know how long a human can live without their heart beating? I do. Don’t worry, it has nothing to do with my outrageously kinky sex this time. Although…” “Stop!” the man pleaded, “I can’t take any more. Restart my heart, and I’ll believe you. Otherwise, you are nothing more than a murderer.” True to his word, Baron Samedi snapped his fingers once more, and the man’s heart beat anew. “Surely you are a devil,” he said, “a demon sent to test my faith. Your words will find no purchase in my heart. Begone, foul spirit!” “You know what I hear right now?” Baron Samedi asked, “I hear a coward. A little bitch. Someone who acts all high and mighty, but isn’t even brave enough let his faith be tested. You can’t redeem Jesus points for resisting temptation if you aren’t tempted in the first place.” “Then speak your piece,” the man conceded. “Excellent,” Samedi said, “you see, I take pity on you. You’ve been alive for so long, but you’ve never really lived. You’ve been so busy working for God or whatever. And I get that, I do that to, and it’s not a bad gig. But you’re so obsessed that you haven’t had time for the important things. Smoking, drinking, partying, fucking. And whatever you do with your wife doesn’t count. That shit’s so vanilla, Baskin Robin’s named a flavor of Ice Cream after it.” “Do you have a point?” the man asked, trying desperately to escape the mental image of copulation flavored ice cream.

“I’m here to offer you this shot of rum. And with it, a shot at immortality,” Baron Samedi said. “I don’t follow,” the righteous man said. “Well, if you don’t drink that rum, it’s over. You die, and go to whatever afterlife awaits you, if any. But if you drink the rum… you live,” Baron Samedi explained. “For how long?” the man asked, trying not to sound interested. “Well, that’s all up to you, isn’t it? Take this shot, and you’ll stay alive for as long as you’re living,” Baron Samedi said. “Isn’t that kind of redundant?” the ill man asked. “No, not at all!” the Loa said, “Your problem is that you think that ‘living’ and ‘being alive’ are the same thing.” “Well… they are, aren’t they?” the man asked. “Of course not!” Baron Samedi replied, “Just look at me. I’m not alive, but let me tell you something.” He puffed his cigar for dramatic effect. “I’m really fuckin’ good at living.” “And how is it that you live? Is it the vulgarity? The substance abuse? Or perhaps it’s the heinous sexual activity?” “Try D: All of the above!” Baron Samedi said, “And that’s not the only D I recommend you try, if you know what I’m saying.” “Absolutely not!” the man insisted, “I have a duty to-” Baron Samedi cut him off. “If you’re about to pull that ‘doing God’s work’ crap, stop right now. Unless God’s work is getting eaten by worms six feet under, refusing won’t get you anywhere with that.” “B-but I am an honest man. A family man,” he said, desperate for a reason to refuse. “Is that why you’d deny your wife the chance to see you one last time? To hear your voice, to hold you in her arms, to get that good dick?” Baron Samedi asked. He thought he had made peace with never seeing his family again, but his doubts resurfaced. He suddenly became very aware of how weak he felt: of the agonizing pain in his stomach, of the singed tobacco burning his nostrils, of the unbearable weight on his chest. Thinking he was suffering from a heart attack, he clutched his hand to his chest. He found that the weight pressing down on him was a real, physical object: the crucifix he always wore. How could he forget? As he held it in his hands, it gave him strength.

“No,” he said, “My faith in Christ is me, and I am my faith in Christ. To abandon that would be no different from death; It would be the rebirth of some different, abhorrent man in my own flesh. And so, I reject your offer, once and for all. By the power of Christ, I compel you to leave this place!” With the last of his strength, he held up his cross, trying to ward Baron Samedi away. But he was unfazed. “Easy there, tiger,” Baron Samedi said, “I may have lost this little game, but it’s still my job to make sure your death goes smoothly. But, before that happens, I have just one last question for you: Does your wife like her rum white, or spiced?”

A Guide to Avoid Being Noticed

1) Never answer a question while your echo is asking it. They will notice this.
2) Never crack your knuckles on one hand without cracking your knuckles on the other. They will notice this.
3) Never receive a static shock from the same object twice in a row. They will notice this.
4) Never chop down a tree using a tool made from its own wood. They will notice this.
5) Never walk in time with your own heartbeat for more than 30 beats. They will notice this.
6) Never stand in the intersection of two strangers’ shadows while they introduce themselves. They will notice this.
7) Never take a photograph of the virtual image in another camera’s lens. They will notice this.
8) Never receive a blood transfusion during the New Moon immediately after a large loss of blood on the Full Moon. They will notice this.
9) Never sneeze exactly one time in a single day. They will notice this.
10) Never tell someone of a dream you had in which they died of a fall from great height. They will notice this.
11) Never smoke while wading in a river. They will notice this.
12) Never read the reflection of a book. They will notice this.
13) Never burn a recipe involving cooking with open flames. They will notice this.
14) Never save a photograph of a computer memory device to itself. They will notice this.
15) Never consume the same food for your first and last meal of a year. They will notice this.
16) Never construct a gravestone out of stone mined from quarries in different hemispheres. They will notice this.
17) Never use the location of The Sun in the sky to estimate the time while running late for a wedding. They will notice this.
18) Never carve a heart into a tree that is larger than your own heart. They will notice this.
19) Never gaze at The Moon while wearing sunglasses. They will notice this.
20) Never speak a truth while writing a falsehood, or vice versa. They will notice this.
21) Never put salt and sugar in two identical salt shakers. They will notice this.
22) Never drink ice water in a sauna. They will notice this.
23) Never tell a former lover that a planet in the sky is a star. They will notice this.
24) Never bury a magnet at the midpoint between magnetic north and true north. They will notice this.
25) Never refer to them, even with pronouns. They will notice

The Illness

In many ways, The Illness was unprecedented. Its scope, its symptoms, and its cause (or apparent lack thereof) were all unlike any previously discovered disease. It stood in such defiance of conventional medicine that doctors couldn’t even name it; it wasn’t a flu, or an infection, or a cold, or a cancer. It became so prevalent so quickly that before an official title was decided, one could simply say “The Illness”, and everyone would know exactly what was meant. And so, the name stuck.

The most prominent symptom of “The Illness” was an ardent, pathological belief that the universe is a computer simulation, and that its data has been corrupted. All other symptoms were side-effects: patients suffered hallucinations of objects clipping through each other, or vanishing into thin air. Many suffered unpredictable memory loss, with no two patients forgetting the same things. The belief that reality isn’t real often led to a belief that nothing matters, which often lead to depression and suicidal tendencies. The list goes on. The Illness was rarely fatal, but always debilitating, and never cured. Therapy, medication, and good fortune never quite convened the right way to convince a patient that what they were experiencing was, in fact, real.

The Illness was contagious. This much was obvious from the fact that those who sought to treat its patients were often the quickest to catch it. This seemed to suggest that it must be spread by some kind of pathogen. Despite this, no amount of blood work, stool samples, or autopsies ever found such a pathogen in any of the patients. If this “invisible virus” existed, then even the immune system could not detect it; patients were never found to have abnormal white blood cell counts. There was also the question of how the pathogen propagated. It didn’t seem to be airborne, or waterborne, or transmitted through blood. If doctors knew how it spread, then perhaps they could contain it, even if they couldn’t see it. But they never did. The spread of The Illness defied all known epidemiological models. However, two unusual trends were detected in its propagation: it appeared to spread more rapidly among developed nations, particularly those with widely available internet, and frequent users of social media appeared to be especially susceptible to it.

Ironically, “The Illness” was not an illness at all. Rather, it was more of a glitch.

Unphased

She knew his type. There was one in every class. Some hotshot whiz kid who was untouchable in high school, who is sure he would’ve been accepted to Paracelsus University if only he’d applied, and thinks that his natural talent for casting makes him smarter than everyone around him. Even his professors. “Actually,” he said, confirming everything she suspected about him with a single word, “Moonlight is physically indistinguishable from sunlight. A photon is a photon, no matter where it comes from. Well, it’s also an oscillation in the electromagnetic field, but-” “I’m sorry, but if you’re trying to impress me, it’s going to take more than a Wikipedia-based understanding of particle-wave duality,” she snapped. It wasn’t very professorly of her, but she’d put up with enough wizards like him in her short time as a teacher. They were always wizards. “Care to share with the class why Night Magicks can only be performed during certain phases of the moon?” she asked. “Sure, I’ll do your job for you,” he said, “It’s purely psychological. For many years, dark magic-” “Night Magicks,” she corrected, reveling in the opportunity to be as annoying as he was. “You know, most people who nitpick pedantic things are a lot less clever than they think they are,” he retorted. The class snickered. She rolled her eyes. The difference between Night Magicks and Dark Magic was as stark as the difference between a firefighter and a Fire Warrior. But she saw no point in correcting him. His grade was his problem. “Noted,” she said, curtly, “as you were saying?” “Anyway, Night Magicks,” he said, voice dripping with indignation, “were outlawed by The Orthodoxy in ancient times. As such, it was only practiced at night, despite requiring light to perform. So people came to believe that it relied on the phases of the Moon. This myth has become so firmly entrenched that wizards think it won’t work during certain phases, so it won’t. A self-fulfilling prophesy. I don’t even know why I bothered coming to this school if my high school teachers were smarter than the professors here.” “That’s an interesting hypothesis,” the professor said, barely maintaining her composure, “but I’d like to see some evidence. If you’re so sure that any light suffices, cast a Nyxian infertility hex. Right now.” “What’d I even cast it on? It’s not like we have a field of crops handy,” he said. “Cast it on me, then. You won’t get in trouble,” she said. “What, are you crazy? I doubt you could shield one of my hexes. You’d-” “Oh, I have no intention of shielding anything,” she taunted. “Because it won’t work.” “Fine!” he shouted. “Anything to wipe that smug look off your face.” He took the words out of her mouth.

He stood, inscribed the appropriate symbols on his quartz runestone, uttered the necessary incantations, and… nothing. “Is something the matter?” she asked, “You said any light would work. Would a flashlight help?” “It’s not that I can’t cast it,” he barked, “I just don’t feel right hexing a pretty lady like you. That’s all.” “A likely story,” she said. He began laughing. “You do know that it’s a full moon, right? So even if it were powered by moonlight, your point is invalid. You know, I really hope, for your sake, that you have tenure. If I employed a witch as idiotic as you, I’d have her fired!” “But Night Magicks are most powerful during the New Moon. That’s because they’re powered by a kind of light you can’t see: imaginary light,” she said. “Imaginary light? Are you mentally unwell? I’m seriously concerned,” he sneered. She sighed. “Since you were so eager to explain quantum mechanics to me just a bit ago, I assume you’re familiar with complex numbers: sums of real and imaginary numbers, which can be described by their magnitude and phase. The latter is an angle which describes the proportion of the imaginary to the real component. And this is exactly what phases of the moon are: the moon is always reflecting the same amount of light, it’s just how much of it that’s real that changes.” “What, you’re talking about math, now? How cute. Math is just something mortals do because they’re not clever enough to figure out magic,” he said. “The Merlin Committee certainly didn’t seem to think so when they awarded the most prestigious magical honor to the inventor of Complex Lunar Analysis,” she said. “Yeah, right,” he said, pulling out his phone to prove her wrong, “Like anyone would get a Merlin Award for that crap.” When he looked it up, he almost dropped his phone in shock. “Awarded to Cecilia Holly? That’s impossible! After what happened with Morgan le Fay, Merlin specifically forbade his riches from ever falling into the hands of a witch!” “Oh, I’m no witch,” the professor said, smiling, “Just a mortal who’s cleverer than you.”