I posted this story about a year ago, before I started putting the stories on images.
I like the story being on the image much better. It looks better. Somehow it makes the story feel better. And you can easily save and share this image anywhere you want if you like. You couldn’t do that before.
If you do decide to save and share the image, I’d recommend clicking on it to expand it first. Hopefully WordPress will be nice and give you the full size which is somewhere around 2000 pixels wide.
As for the 13 word story itself, I leave you to ponder the potential of robots, androids, AI-what-have-yous as force multipliers for small numbers of humans, even a single human.
Or, if you’re into visions of Terminatoresque futures, for themselves.
Of course, there are a host of reasons why a scenario like this is highly improbable. The safeguards we devise will expand and improve along with the technology to create autonomous war machines. However, determined humans have a way of finding a way to bring their dreams to life.
Even if those dreams are nightmares.
(This post appeared on my Patreon page on the 18th of this month — my patrons see posts 3 days early. When I publish a new ebook, they get a FREE copy THIRTY DAYS EARLY even if I charge for it everywhere else! Even a pledge of a single buck per month gets you those benefits — and you also get the pleasure of supporting a financially struggling self-published author whose wife, 3 kids, and self insist on extravagant luxuries like “food” and “electricity” and even — GASP WHAT FRIPPERY — a 20 year old minivan. We’re such softies.)
So, I’ve gotten in the habit of posting a substantial companion ramble/rant/essay/callitwhatyouwill with these 13 word stories. I couldn’t sleep last night, so I propped my chest up on my zafu (stiff meditation cushion, usually for butts & not writing in bed, for anyone who hasn’t run into that word before), nudged myself over perilously close to my restlessly sleeping 2 year old boy where the dim light of the nightlight was brightest, and proceeded to write about 700 words longhand. I’m sure that was wonderful for my eyes, probably aged them an extra year and I’m already in progressive-lens trifocals. Sign me up for a writers’ purple heart, I suppose.
After a bit of editing, as my edits usually go, the companion post ended up expanding to 805 words. Plus all these words I’m typing here. I’m a glutton for composition.
Without further ado, here’s the post:
We talk and think a lot about the end of the world. For my and my parents and grandparents’ generation (once that last passed through the Great Depression and World War II) the vision of the end of the world is tied up in Cold War visions of nuclear holocaust. I don’t know about you, but this Gen Xer has a copy of The Day After on DVD – the movie, which I saw in its original airing on television when I was 13 — was a distillation of all of the vague fears of death at the hands of Soviet ICBMs that occasionally haunted my nightmares and daymares. I’m sure I’m not the only one with those experiences.
Today that nuclear war specter is still around, a shade still fearful but overshadowed by younger, more vital terrors, banished to the edge of consciousness. We’ve become comfortable with our eternal wars waged against small nations lacking nuclear arms, and even with current events in the Middle East and the South China Sea and Crimea, few even bother to wonder if a third world war might be in the making, or to fear the potential for a mass detonation of thermonuclear weapons.
Pollution as a human-world-ender, too, has lost some of its former luster. Russia has survived the worst of messy Soviet industrialism and Chernobyl as well – few pay attention to what aftermath there might be. The same for Japan and its Fukushima, China’s current smogs and rare-earth-mine pollutant pits, the Flint, Michigans and flaming fracking faucets of the United States, the landlocked oil spills and leaky pipelines the petroleum multinationals have splotched major portions of several nations in Africa with. Even the once-vivid fears of bioengineered, weaponized anthrax and smallpox have faded.
These confidences that the old dangers no longer threaten hold their own danger – that if a danger does arise from those quarters, we’ll find it easy to overlook until it’s too late.
Today, we sublimate all those fears, along with our fear of civil unrest and mob rule, into zombie fiction, as far as I can tell. A nice, safe end of the world, one unrealistic enough yet barely plausible enough to allow suspension of disbelief and provide a nice, safe thrill, like a rollercoaster with a secure safety caged seat.
But unlike we older folks (though many of us are catching on) the Millennials and – have we decided on a name for those following them yet? The Trans-Millennials being born now, like my littlest sons – have a world-ending specter as vivid and potent as any child of the Cold War ever had: climate change.
It’s easy for some of us olders (and a few youngers too) to downplay or ignore climate change – though I’m given to understand that the United States is among those nations of the world in which the sport of ignoring scientific consensus is most popular. Some even like to chalk up the very concepts of climate change and global warming and rising carbon dioxide levels to a shadowy cabal of academics thirsty to line their pockets with grant money. As if that were actually lucrative – a local district manager for a snack food distributor stands to better that “fortune” by exceeding sales quotas. Some even go farther and more wildly afield into theories about Illuminati – but we’ve pretty much always had those. Before the internet the Illuminati or similar “explained” Cold War threats as the fruits of conspiracy as well. Those theorists and their imaginings come and go like the dew, appearing to explain what’s “really behind” each new dawn.
But climate change, like nuclear weapons, will not be going away. And nuclear war, except in its most extreme Cold War incarnations, is not a threat on the same enduring and growing levels.
If climate change is the existential threat the Millennials will grow up with – and it is – so will their great-grandchildren and those great-grandchildrens’ great-grandchildrens’ great-grandchildren.
Climate change may or may not develop into a truly existential threat in itself. But if it heads into Venus-greenhouse territory, or even becomes enough to shift the wheat belts to the poles and drive the subtropical and tropical rice bowls into trans-tropical heat and weather pattern, whatever those might be, the worldwide struggle to adapt and survive may well add nuclear war and disregard for pollution in favor of short-term industrial advantage and wars fought with engineered plagues.
And if the end of humanity does come at the hands of a climate-change driven complex of disaster, by simple extinction or reduction to the stone age or pre-intelligence as a species, perhaps in time another species will evolve to occupy the intelligent builder niche we humans failed to hold. Squirrels are as good a candidate as any – I welcome Earth’s new squirrel overlords, assuming we do screw things up badly enough.
This is part 2 of 3 — if you just arrived and would like to read this story from the beginning, click HERE.
“Election night 2020… never thought it would come to this,” Trump said behind his hand, not realizing he’d spoken aloud until the aides on either side of him turned their heads a notch, caught themselves, and swiveled their heads back to look as far from him as possible.
He’d been slipping out of character more often in the last year. The White House chef had asked him after New Years’ just what on earth one man could be doing with half a pound of powdered tumeric a week. “Mind your goddamn business and don’t run out,” Trump had snapped, and the chef had looked at him… looked at him…
…like his supporters looked at him at rallies. Wide eyes. Half-open mouth. High color on the cheeks—the chef’s of puzzlement and embarrassment, the supporters of excitement, the smell of blood. How they’d looked at him after Tehran, after the bombing run, long-range stealth bombers in the night raining bunker busters and incendiaries on the head of their Supreme Leader and President. Gnashing teeth, howling mouths, demanding the same for Mexico City who still hadn’t coughed up a single thin peso for the tall cinderblock and razor wire wall that stretched from Gulf to Pacific or for the maintenance of the army divisions patrolling it.
Nobody on the right had dared to challenge his nomination for a second term except for a handful of real far-outers, flat-earth-conspiracy-theorists and fluoride-chemtrail-Illuminatists and people who thought Ayn Rand was a bleeding heart leftist lib. Out of that handful, three had been found dead, two in rivers tied to heavy objects and one in a swampy ditch with a skunk stuffed down his pants and the pants held shut with zip ties.
The skunk would have gotten out if the paranoid hadn’t been in the habit of wearing kevlar clothes. The left—the Democrats floated a throwaway candidate, angling for 2024, if it came. And the rest of that wing, well, after Bernie nobody quite had the heart to give it a real try again. At least his followers kept the hate verbal to that side of the political fence; old habits die hard; the worst violence usually comes from inside the house. Nobody on the left had their nether regions clawed off by a skunk, thank goodness.
The non-emergency secure line rang. Trump nodded at the aide on his right, who got up and answered.
“Comedy Central is calling it,” the aide said after listening for a moment.
“Yeah? Sun’s not even down. Not surprised, not with the polls,” Trump said, voice flat and slow. Because of that flatness, rumors had been going around for months: the President is fighting chronic fatigue, maybe it’s cancer and it’s being kept secret, Trump’s old and pushing too hard, not delegating enough. The rumors hadn’t scared off any votes.
“Sixty-three percent of the popular vote, they’re projecting. Bigger even than FDR and LBJ. Biggest win in the history of the country, sir,” the aide said, awe creeping into her voice.
Trump was dead tired of awe. “Thanks, Ysabel,” he said. “Why don’t you two hand off and go downstairs, grab a bite? I’ll call down to the chef, tell him to give you my surf and turf.”
“You okay, Mister President?” Ysabel asked, hesitating.
“Just not hungry. Tired. Knew this would happen anyway, it’s no surprise. Gonna get a full night if I can, have to be up for the cameras tomorrow. You know. Night,” he said, and turned his back, locked himself in his private bedroom, crawled into bed shoes and all.
“Don’t know what the hell I’m going to do now,” he whispered to the ceiling, and closed his eyes.
Part 3 will be posted Friday (and this notice will become a link to it) — see you then!
This is how Pluto looked when Clyde Tombaugh discovered it in 1930. A bright mote, an apparent star that moved in a way that betrayed its planetary nature — for someone who was looking carefully enough.
Things have gotten a bit better with New Horizons; you can see the latest images on NASA’s NH page. Here’s one that’s new as of this post date:
Edit: new image below, 14 JUL:
Quite the improvement, no?
Well, yes. But it has been a long wait, hasn’t it? 85 years. Granted, we could hardly have dispatched an airplane to take a closer look in 1930. Modern rocketry as in its infancy, as was broadcasting. Even if a 1930s era rocket could have been launched at Pluto, we’d hardly have gotten word back of success reaching it, much less a picture.
I do worry that these are the best images I’ll see in my lifetime, and I’m only 45. But NASA’s funding has been either waning or just holding on against inflation these last three decades, not growing, and the bulk of the current crop of Presidential candidates seem to be mostly unenthused by NASA. ‘What’s the point of spending a whole penny on the federal budget dollar on all this sciency stuff? We’ve got people to feed, bomb, feed bombs to, bomb with food, and so forth, right here on Earth.’
Hostility to and/or disinterest in space, NASA, science, and scholarly investigation in general is nothing new. In the 1970s and 80s, Senator William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin is a ‘fine’ recent example, with his ‘Golden Fleece’ awards that, as often as not, lambasted space and science funding as wasted effort and wasted money. Plenty of commentators, regular folks, and politicians jump on that anti-intellectual, short-view bandwagon from time to time.
Frankly, it’s a nasty and dangerous habit, this idea that exploring the cosmos around us, exploring our own planet further, and learning in general is a waste of money and effort. There’s a lot to be gained by exploration, here and up there. Aren’t you reading this on a computer? Possibly a computer that also telephones people and locates itself by GPS? Thank scientists, scholars, inquisitive types, the space program, all those ‘wastes of money’ that pay off in knowledge and in the things that knowledge makes possible, if you spend the money learning now and have the patience to wait a decade or two for the payoff.
I know, we’re not that great at long-term thinking, most of us. But seriously. Yes, we’re just looking at Pluto, which is hardly going to be useful real estate or mining grounds next week, year, or decade. But every time we do something like this, we don’t just learn more about how our planetary neighbors work. We learn more about communications, propulsion, efficient generation and use of power sources, miniaturization, navigation, and so on, and so forth, and likely things that you and I haven’t thought of yet that will pay off come 2045.
Not to mention, as big as this earth is, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the solar system. Planets and asteroids and comets, oh my, swimming in a constant rain of free-to-gather energy that is sunlight (or maybe magnetic if you want to venture to the moons of Saturn and Jupiter and do some tinkering). Sometimes people talk about this ‘high frontier’ as if it could be a relief valve for overpopulation, but no, it’s not that. No more than opening California to colonization relieved crowding in New York City. But a wide frontier is a relief valve for people who are gravely dissatisfied with current affairs at home, and we as a planetary society haven’t really had one of those in quite a few decades now. Yes, there’s a certain lack of open air and flowing water up there among the various possible destinations. So what?
The big ‘so what’ is that we’re doing little practicing of how to keep people alive in places like that. There’s a space station, and 40+ years after people walked on the moon it’s still an itty-bitty one with a few people, entirely supplied from earth. It’s useful, and we learn from it, and we’ve no apparent interest in pushing the boundaries meaningfully as a species. Well, China has done a little talking in that direction, Maybe in response to US talk about sending people to Mars, maybe, one day, well maybe not, or maybe we’ll just push back the ‘maybe’ date… you get the idea. We like talking about it a bit, but few are serious about it, especially among those who would have to speak the loudest to fund such a nutty idea as putting a bunch of people on the moon or Mars to live long term, the politicians. They’re not that interested, and the public isn’t that interested. And that’s a shame. We won’t spread off this rock unless there’s an interest in doing so. Maybe the interest will come too late, after climate change gets nasty enough to cause even middle-class folks serious problems at home. Such a wait-till-the-crisis scenario would be a shame, too. Because, like in the ‘reduce population pressure’ scenario, colonizing the moon or Mars of anything else out there would not be a way to evacuate millions or billions of people in troubles.
But it would be a great way to spread the human race out a bit so that it’s not in danger of croaking en masse if a massive disaster of some sort were to loom. And it would, if no disaster comes to call, be a great way to expand the knowledge, both practical and abstract, of the human race as a whole — and that expansion would all be fuel for the next round of life-improving gadgets just as food preservation, improved transportation, construction and maintenance of internets, and so forth have been for us.
Don’t be selfish. Help the people of 2100 surpass us as much as we’ve surpassed the people of 1930.
Cover art by Erik Elliott
A short story, about 3500 words.
Donte is a veteran and a colonist on a struggling new world under a hot young flare star. For most of the colonists, the struggle is in coaxing crops out of the alien soil and avoiding the radiation of the flares. But for Donte, he must also deal with the lingering trauma of war — and a body that feels skinned alive without the armor he once wore in the army.
Where to find it:
The preview, about 30% or 1100 words:
Donte Barnes pilots the tractor through long shadows as the blue sun lowers itself toward the horizon. His hands are gloved even though the day is hot; they itch incessantly. He grinds his teeth and resists the urge to scratch. Every day is an endless series of resistances like this one. Experience tells him that scratching will only make the pain worse, so he carries on, finishes plowing the row he was working on and pulls up to the farmhouse.
The farm is a co-op, huge and sprawling and subdivided into thirty plots for thirty different crops. The homes of ambitiously-named First City, more of a village, stretch around it in a narrow ring. If you were to see it from the air—and Donte had, when he first arrived—you’d swear it was about to break.
Jorgen Samuelssen ventures out onto the covered porch to meet Donte as he comes in from the tractor. Jobs normally rotate in the co-op, but Jorgen is always in the kitchen. Yes, cooking is what he does best, but he is also safest inside, out of the punishing deluge of ultraviolet Sapphire pours down upon Cradle. Jorgen is the only person other than Donte on the south side of First City who covers himself completely when he goes outside, and unlike Jorgen, Donte insists upon working outside—the unofficial uniform of the colony is tank top, shorts, and dark skin, the darker the better. Pale-skinned applicants like Jorgen are discouraged from immigrating, to minimize casualties from sunburn and skin cancer.
But Cradle is not a popular destination, and Jorgen was the first qualified chef to apply, and it took only a little convincing for the colony managers to clear him to immigrate. Standing on the porch, Jorgen wears the same covering as a conservative Islamic woman might, but his head covering thrown back in the shelter of the porch.
Donte wears the same covering, day and night, out and in; the sun is not why he goes covered. Covered, he itches; uncovered, the pain demands so much medication he might as well never leave his bed.
“In for the day?” Jorgen asks, holding a bottle of local banana beer out to Donte.
“No,” Donte says, but he takes the beer. “Got one more row left. But the itching…” he lets his voice trail off and takes a sip of the beer. It’s cool and light; the way they brew it hardly develops enough alcohol content to notice. It also doesn’t demand much more than bananas and water to make, two things the colony has in abundance.
“Itching’s bad today?”
“Driving me crazy.”
“As long as it’s still driving and you haven’t got there yet,” Jorgen says, and opens his own beer. Donte looks over at him, frowning, but the other man is sipping his beer and doesn’t notice. He probably didn’t mean anything by it, Donte thinks. But I’m so damn tired of the crazy war vet stereotype.
What makes it so annoying to Donte is that the stereotype almost fits. The itching does drive him crazy sometimes; there are days he doesn’t leave his house, but instead stays in and takes enough medication to reduce himself to a stupor. His Veterans Administration paperwork declares him disabled, but the frequent appearance therein of the word ‘psychosomatic’ follows him like a doom, a curse that barred him from the many colony worlds he’d have chosen over this one. Cradle is undermanned, desperate for people; five years out of the six it has existed, its population growth has lagged sorely behind projections. Few people want to go to a young planet circling a young star, to deal with heavy UV and vulcanism and flares. There are nicer worlds to break ground on. The very fact that Cradle was and is unpopular, however, had made them willing to take a chance on a crazy vet with phantom pain syndrome, yet no amputations.
“No, I haven’t gotten there yet, Jorgen,” Donte says with a sigh, and drains half the remaining beer in a gulp. “You’re safe from me.”
“You know I didn’t mean it like that, Donte,” Jorgen says. “In fact, I was hoping you’d talk about your troubles a bit. Talking about anything makes bearing it a little easier.”
“What’s to talk about?” Donte says. “I damn near lived in my armor for two years in the war. And when I was wounded, they took it from me. When I developed this phantom pain thing, they wouldn’t give it back.” He dangles the beer bottle over the side of the porch rail by its neck, wondering if it would break if he dropped it on the hard earth.
“And so you feel as if you’ve been skinned, all these years.”
“All these years.” The two men finish their beers in silence.
“One more row, Samuelssen,” Donte says. “Tell someone to open up the garage. I’ll bring the tractor in, in fifteen minutes.”
Jorgen watches Donte’s draped and veiled form climb back up into the tractor’s seat, lifting his hem to avoid stepping on it.
“You’ll have to tell me more than that one day,” he says to the sunset, once the tractor’s engine is running and he’s sure Donte won’t hear.
The next afternoon brings a flare warning. The volatile Sapphire is ringed with monitor satellites orbiting close in, almost skimming the fusion fire. When early signs of a brewing flare erupt, the signal races to Cradle and the warning sirens sound; those who are outside have only minutes to find shelter. At the call of the sirens, Donte is close to one of the shelters in a field of rice near First Landing River. The door of the shack is standing open and he climbs down the steep steel staircase behind it, into the cool. There are only a few other people in it when he arrives. They trade hellos gingerly; everyone knows he goes covered but most of them still feel it’s strange. Donte does his best to ignore it (like the itching, it follows him everywhere) and pours himself a cup of water from the hand pump near the chemical toilets. He picks a spot far from the door and sits down on the concrete floor to wait. Most flares last only an hour or two.
As with all flares, many people are caught farther from shelter than others. The ones still out when the flare hits don’t drop dead, they make it to shelter also; they’ve just had a dose of radiation, maybe a torso X-ray per minute’s worth. More people straggle in to the shelter Donte has found, a few of them carrying bits of metal or wood they’ve used to attempt to shield their genitals from the invisible shower of charged particles. Hope I didn’t catch a mutant out there, they say almost invariably, as common a cliché as how about that weather or hold my beer and watch this.
One of the latecomers, covered and veiled like him, wanders over to Donte, begins to turn to sit, hesitates…
by S.A. Barton
Once, there was a more-than-ape who struck another more-than-ape with a stick.
There was no artifice to the blow. The stick was awkward and leafy; the impact was no more than that of an ordinary more-than-ape fist. The experiment was not repeated for a long time.
But it did happen again, some years later, and more frequently as generations passed. Slowly, slowly, the more-than-apes grew into something more than more-than-apes.
Eventually, a proto-human picked up a very straight hitting-stick and stripped most of the twigs and leaves off before hitting. The blow was much harder than that of a fist. The nameless proto-human hitter smiled a toothy smile and hit again. And again.
Much later there was a near-human who, picking a smooth stone out of a dry wash to use in beating a good hitting-stick free from a tree, dropped that stone. By chance, that stone fell against the point of a harder stone. A broad flake leapt from the softer stone and skittered across the gravelly wash.
The near-human (he had a name, Hooruh, a grunt much like the hundred or so other grunts his people had learned to make and assign meaning to) picked the fallen stone up, and then the flake. Hooruh held the two objects, one in each hand, and moved them slowly together. The flake touched the stone. Hooruh shifted the flake to fit the divot it had leapt from.
The flake bit Hooruh’s finger. Hooruh hooted and threw both rock and flake down. He fled.
The experiment was not repeated for a long time. But eventually it was, and Hooruh’s great-times-who-knows-how-many granddaughter left the flake where it fell but took the chipped stone away with her. She used the edge around where the chip had spalled free to hack down sticks and break animal bones slightly quicker than had been possible before—until the edge blunted, which didn’t take all that long.
And similar incidents happened again, and again, more often as time and generations passed, and eventually a near-human thought to drop the soft rock on the hard one over and over to make many little flakes and many poor, jumbled edges. But still, that very rough axe could hack a hitting-stick down considerably faster than a smooth stone, and the many edges made it last a long time.
Later, yet another near-human cut meat with one of the flakes that cut her finger.
Yet another used a big flake to cut a fellow near-human.
And then a brighter one thought to jam flakes into cracks on hitting-sticks for better fellow-cutting. Another held the soft rock in his hands and pounded it on the hard rock over and over so the flaking made a crude but purposeful edge.
They were almost-human now, and soon they were more.
A human taught himself to knap flint into a strong, straight edge that could fell not just hitting-sticks, but smallish trees.
A human worked flint chips so broad and fine that she could cut a pig’s throat with hardly an effort—a great improvement over the old way of laboriously clubbing pigs to death.
A human fire-hardened a sapling shaved to a point with a stone axe until it could be pushed all the way through a pig—or a human, and the broad flint chip knife was soon out of fashion for hunting.
Later, a human tipped a hitting-stick with a finely worked pointed flake held on with dried pig gut, and threw it.
A human dropped an enormous steel egg of nuclear fire and it hatched over the heads of more than three hundred thousand humans, incinerating and concussing and radiation-poisoning a third of them to death in an instant. Then another human did it again.
A human pushed a gargantuan mountain out of space and it crashed into the Pacific Ocean. It made a deep hole from which magma welled, and steam and clouds and fire wreathed the humans’ world.
Later, after a very, very, very long time, a not-quite-human hit a not-quite-human with a stick. It was not clear at the time if they were less than human, or more, or simply different. But the experiment was not repeated for a long time.
All the humans were among the stars, preoccupied with newer hitting-sticks, and took no notice.