DP Fiction #28B: “Regarding the Robot Raccoons Attached to the Hull of My Ship” by Rachael K. Jones and Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2160-11-11

 

Dear Ziza,

You already know what this is about, don’t you, dear Sister? The robot raccoons I found clamped along my ship’s hull during this cycle’s standard maintenance sweep?

Oh, come on. Really? You know I invented that hull sculler tech, right? They’ve got my corporate logo etched into their beady red eyes so my name flashes on all the walls when their power is low. I admit some of your upgrades were… novel. Like the exoshell design–I’ll never understand your raccoon obsession. Impractical, but points for style. I hadn’t thought you could fit a diamond drill into a model smaller than a Pomeranian’s skull, so congrats on that. Not that they made much progress chewing through my double-thick hull, but I’ll give credit where credit’s due.

Still, it was unsisterly of you, and it’s not going to stop me from dropping the terraforming nuke when I get to Mars. Come to grips with reality, sister: you’re in the wrong. You always have been, ever since we were girls. Especially since Mumbai accepted my proposal for Martian settlement. Not yours.

I’m sending back the robot raccoons in an unmanned probe. Back, because yes, I’m still leagues and leagues ahead of you. I only lost a day cleaning up the hull scullers. I’ve kept the diamond drills. I bet they’ll chew right through that Martian rock.

I’ve also included a dozen white chocolate macadamia nut cookies, because I know it’s your birthday tomorrow. Happy birthday!

Now go home.

Love your sister,

Anita

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2160-11-12

Dear Anita,

Remember that summer when Father dropped us off at the northern rim of the Poona Crater on Mars? Alone. For two weeks. “This rustic camping trip will be a great learning experience,” he said. “My precious daughters will bond.”

When I learned that there were no pre-fab facilities and that we were responsible for erecting our own dwelling, sanitation pod, and lab, I started plotting ways to poison our father. You, on the other hand, I am still convinced, were determined to thoroughly enjoy the experience just to spite me.

But Father was a conservationist, and now that I am older, I can appreciate that he was trying to instill that same spirit in us. “Not all life jumps out and bites you in the butt,” he used to love to say. And we learned the truth of that when we unearthed a family of as-yet-undiscovered garbatrites in the red dust on one of our sand treks.

We spent hours watching them under high magnification under the STEHM, trying to communicate with them, recording their activities and creating hypotheses about the meanings of their habits. I have to admit, there was a point when I stopped cursing father and started to secretly thank him. And where I sort of, kind of, could maybe see why you weren’t so bad after all.

I don’t think I’d ever seen you so dedicated to anything before this. You missed meals and stayed up throughout the night trying to communicate with the elder garbatrite. The one you named Benny. Exhausted, you fell asleep at your desk and left the infrared light on too long and effectively fried the poor critter. You cried for days and you even held a formal funeral for Benny, something his fellow garbatrites didn’t seem too pleased about.

With that in mind, how could you possibly want to drop a terraforming nuke on a planet you and I both know is already teeming with life? Creating a new habitable world only has merits if it’s not already inhabited.

If you won’t see reason, then I’ll just have to make it impossible for you. The Council for Martian Settlement may have accepted your proposal, but let me remind you that I’ve never been keen on following the rules.

So, you found the hull scullers, eh? I knew those diamonds would distract you from my real plan. You’ve always been so… materialistic. But hey, someone has to be.

On another note, the cookies were to die for! They were even better than Mother’s, but I’ll never tell her that. I really appreciate you thinking of me. I have a proposal to make. On our next monthly meal exchange, I’ll make your favorite, a big old pot of Anasazi beans and sweet buttered cornbread, if you’ll send more of those cookies.

XOXO

Ziza

P.S. My sweet raccoonie-woonies, Bobo and Cow, liked the cookies too. They also send their love.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2160-11-15

Sister:

Come now, Ziza. Let’s not make me out to be some kind of villain. Of course I remember that summer. I remember how we licked the condensation inside our lab windows to stay hydrated because Father’s Orion Scout childhood romanticized survival stories. It’s the real reason we’re such die hard coffee drinkers nowadays. He ruined the taste of water for us.

And I remember the garbatrites. How could I ever forget? That dusty red boulder we found in the sandstorm provided just enough shelter to pitch our emergency pod while we waited out the squall. Nothing to do but talk with each other, or play with the STEHM. Which meant we chose the STEHM, obviously. It’s the closest look I’ve ever gotten at you, all those disgusting many-legged organisms crawling on your skin and hair, in your saliva, your earwax. You’ve always had an affinity for vermin.

But I’ll be forever grateful you suggested taking samples around the boulder. When we first saw the garbatrites, their tiny little dwellings drilled into rock like mesa cities–that might be the closest I’ve ever felt to you, each of us taking one eyepiece on the STEHM, our damp cheeks pressed together, our smiles one long continuous arc. When the light brightened or dimmed, they danced in little conga lines. We weren’t sure if it was art, or language. Is there really a difference?

There’s something I realized when Benny died. The sort of revelation you only have when you’re nudging together an atomic coffin beneath an electron microscope with tiny diamond tweezers just three nanometers wide: life is short. Life is painfully short, full of suffering and tragedy and wide, empty spaces. And those rare spots hospitable to life are just boulders tossed into an endless red desert, created by accident or coincidence. The only real good we can do in life is to spread out those boulders, minimize the deserts where we find them. Make a garden from dust. Plant our atomic coffins and let them bloom. Terraform whole planets, so we’ll have more than just the blue boulder of Earth.

That’s what you never understood, dear sister. It’s why when you spent your youth chasing pretty men, I betrothed myself to science, burned my hopes of human love in the furnaces of my ambition. Do you remember when Asante, my poor besotted lab assistant, proposed to me at the Tanzanian Xenobiology Conference? How I laughed! As if any children he could give me would approach the impact my terraforming nuke will make on our species. Never forget, Ziza, that this mission is my life’s work, my legacy. You will not stop me.

In other news, I got the Anasazi beans and cornbread, still warm and fresh in their shipping pod. How did you know I had the craving? That was a kindness. I remembered you while making salaat today.

I was less pleased about the virus installed in the shipping pod’s warming program. Nice try, but I saw through that in about five seconds. Here’s a tip: next time, beta test it on all the shipboard systems I invented, not just the navigation. My sanitation program does more than filter my own crap.

I’m sending you an e-manual on Programming 101, and an ordering catalogue for Anita Enterprises in case you’d like to support the family business.

XOXOXO,

Anita

P.S. Go home.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2160-11-28

 

Anita,

It’s been nearly two weeks since we last spoke, and of course, you know why. When you told me to go home, I knew that you were serious, but I never thought you’d resort to using the health and welfare of our dear mother as bait to get me to turn around and head back to earth.

I’m still trying to figure out how you managed to simulate for video not only our mother’s countenance, darkened and marred by some mysterious illness, but her voice, the cadence like smooth stones tumbling in water and her accent. When she pleaded for me to return home, telling me that she was afraid to die alone, of course I turned back.

How much time did it take for you to create those videos, one arriving each day, her looking progressively worse? The worst was that one video with her by the window in her study, Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance. It came on the third day. The sunlight that glinted through her silver hair, like icy filaments, made her look so painfully beautiful, yet it was not enough to erase the shadows beneath her eyes or the sadness in them.

A better question, I suppose, is “Why?” Why resort to that when you know how much Mother means to me, especially now that Father is gone? Are you still jealous of our closeness? Do you still believe she loved me most?

Not that you deserve to be, but I’ll let you in on a secret. I used to believe Mother loved me more than you as well. One day, I must’ve been about twelve, in my pathetic need to always be reminded that I was loved and cherished, I asked her why she loved me more than you. I waited a few moments, as she looked skyward, it seemed, for the answer. I was sure she’d say it was because I was more beautiful, more kind, smarter, that I had a more generous spirit, because truth be told, these things are true. But she didn’t say that. Mother told me that she did not love me most. Nor did she love you more than me.

Then why do you spend so much more time with me than Anita? Why do you kiss me goodnight and not her? I numbered all the things she did for me and not you. Do you know what she said?

Because you need me more than Anita.

In her way, which was always kind yet honest, Mother was telling me that you were the stronger of the two of us. But now, I wonder. Would a strong person use her sister’s weaknesses against her just to win? This was a low blow, Anita.

By now you’re probably wondering how I eventually figured out that the videos from Mother were merely a cruel ploy to get me to go back home without a fight. It was the video from Day Eight.

Mother lay in bed, slight as a sliver of grass. When her image popped up on the view screen my heart felt like it was trapped in a vice. She reached out. A tear traveled from the corner of her eye toward the pillow. She coughed, then called out my name. Her voice was so soft, so small and weak.

“Please hurry home, Ziza,” she said. “I don’t want to die without laying eyes on my favorite girl at least one more time.”

Favorite girl? No, Anita. Our mother never would have said that.

You think you’re so smart. You think you know everything. Yet, you don’t know kindness or humility. You don’t even know your own mother.

The decision to dedicate your entire life to science was an error. Life is so much more than entropy, polymerisation, and endothermic reactions. You really can have your coffee and the cream too. You should have married Asante. He would have humanized you. He would have taught you to slow down and enjoy the precious little moments, that together they all add up to a great big life full of disappointments, yes, but also joy and love and mystery. He would have saved you from yourself and cold loneliness.

This is where I remind you that you know nothing about programming that I didn’t teach you. Anita Enterprises is the mega-conglomerate it is because of me, your older sister and mentor. If I wanted to shut down every system on your ship, including life support, I could. And believe me, after this latest stunt of yours, I’ve been giving that idea serious consideration. The fact that I haven’t sent a couple of torpedoes your way is a testament to my love for our mother. She’d be angry if I killed you. So, I won’t.

See you on Mars.

Ziza

P.S. Don’t start none, won’t be none.

P.P.S. Bobo and Cow are very displeased with you.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2161-01-01

 

Ziza,

It’s been weeks since I last wrote, but you haven’t been far from my thoughts. Far from it.

While I continue toward the planet, I’ve been passing the time on my escape pod making a list of all the reasons I hate you, numbered and ordered least to greatest. It’s a long long list, forever incomplete. A sister’s hate is like the heat death of the universe: infinitely expanding, eternal, the last flame burning in this cold, barren desolation where God abandoned us.

Reason #1,565: I hate the way you eat popcorn with chopsticks to keep your hands clean. Are you too good even for butter smudges?

Reason #480: I hate how you laugh at bad jokes. Puns aren’t actually funny, Ziza. Everyone outgrew “why did the chicken cross the road” after elementary school.

Reason #111: Blue eye shadow. Self-explanatory.

Reason #38: “Don’t start none, won’t be none.” Really? Better knock that shit off. Like you’re not an adult responsible for her own actions.

Reason #16: I hate how Mother named you after herself, like you were the pinnacle of all her hopes, while I was named to placate our pushy grandmother.

Reason #15: I hate how you always laugh at me.

Reason #10: I hate how your favorite animal is the raccoon. You only picked it because it’s endangered. You can’t resist a lost cause, even if you don’t actually want to do anything useful about it.

Reason #9: Seriously, blue eye shadow.

Reason #4: That last family dinner we had before Father died, when we took the shuttle out to the Moon to picnic on Mons Agnes while we watched the Perseid meteor shower dancing bright upon Earth’s atmosphere like the footsteps of angels. Mother brought her heirloom silver for the occasion; I think we all knew in our hearts it was a special trip. We’d agreed for Father’s sake to get along, just for a few hours. He hated how we fought, how we picked at each other like children picking old scabs that won’t heal. Do you remember the white curling through his black hair? His cheeks sunk deep by the chemo? He wanted to dish up the jasmine rice and flatbread himself. His hands trembled so badly the peas rolled onto Mother’s quilt beneath the picnic pop-up, just skirting the regolith.

We both know I wanted to talk with him about the inheritance. I just wanted my share, my 50/50 split, but Mother was so concerned about poor helpless Ziza, who had run into such tough times after college, chasing after pretty men and idealistic wide-eyed save-the-raccoons causes that she needed a larger cut to keep up her lifestyle. Anita Enterprises cost me everything while all you ever did was chase your girlhood dreams of love and happy endings.

We were having such a great time. Your useless pet raccoons were recharging their solar batteries in your lap. Father told us stories of his childhood, how they didn’t even have a family shuttle when he grew up, and you could only sleep rough in wild places like Antarctica’s rocky plains. Mother held his hand and kissed him, love shining in her eyes. No matter how sick he got, he was still the dark-skinned 17-year-old godling she’d met on the road to Mount Kilimanjaro in their youth. We even tolerated a few of your puns.

It would not last. I volunteered to scrape the leftovers into the recycler at the service booth down the path. It was so close, I didn’t bother to bring a communication device. You deny it, but we both know you followed me. You used the Moon’s lower gravity to pile those rocks against the door while I did my chores inside. When I tried to leave, the door wouldn’t budge. I could only watch my family from the viewing port, my mother and sister and dying father laughing together, though I couldn’t hear them. I screamed and pounded the window, but nobody noticed from the picnic pop-up. No one could hear me through the vacuum of space.

How can I ever forgive you that prank, those precious minutes of our father’s health ticking away, and me unable to be there? How can I forgive that lost opportunity, those memories that should have been mine to cherish, to bear me up when I wake at night so desperate to feel his whiskered kiss on my forehead, his voice telling me he’s so proud of me, proud of everything I’ve done?

This is why I hate you, Ziza. This is why I can never stop hating you.

Reason #2: Those diamond drills in your robot raccoons weren’t just drills. That cornbread pan wasn’t just a pan. You know what, Ziza? In spite of everything else, I only sent you back to Earth with those fake videos to protect you from yourself, and keep you out of harm’s way. Because despite this whole list, part of me still loved you, stupid as it sounds. Maybe it’s because you’re named for Mother. But you tried to dump me into the vacuum of space, Sister Dearest. You tried to murder me in my sleep. You activated the wafer computer in the pan’s false bottom, hacked my defenses, and the drills turned my hull into cheese by the time I woke up. If I hadn’t mounted the terraforming nuke to the escape pod… but I did.

Reason #1: Did you ever love me? Ever, Ziza? I’m not filling this one out yet, because I don’t think I’ve yet hated you as much as a woman can hate her sister. Not yet. But I will.

So I’m going to tell you something else you don’t yet know: On the wreck of my shuttle, scraping by on the last of my life support, are a dozen rare raccoon specimens. I was going to release them on Mars after the terraforming ended so they could colonize a safe place far from any predators. My shuttle is set to self-destruct in two days’ time. If you leave your current course, you might just have time to save them. Let’s find out what you care more about: helpless garbatrites, or near-extinct raccoons.

The shuttle also contains an urn with Father’s ashes, wrapped in extra scarves in the top hatch in my quarters. Mother asked me to scatter them on the planet because Father had so many happy memories of camping there with his daughters. I didn’t have time to rescue it when I had to abandon ship a few days ago.

I don’t have that one on my list yet. Better go add it now.

Hate you always,

Anita

P.S. Why did Ziza fly across the solar system twice? Because she was a double crosser. Get it?

P.P.S. Happy New Year, by the way.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2161/01/02

 

Anita,

By now you’ve probably realized that regardless of your efforts, your escape pod’s trajectory is no longer Mars. You are now on an intercept path with me. I know that you must be seething, cursing my name, praying for my damnation (you’ve always been so dramatic), but give me the opportunity to explain.

Your ship was never in danger. The plan was that once you entered in new coordinates to anyplace other than Mars, preferably home, the diamond drills would have set about repairing the holes they’d created in the hull of your ship. Genius ancillary programming, if I do say so myself. All you had to do was turn around. But you, with your flare for the dramatic and unwillingness to give up, even when you know you’ve lost, decided to jump ship and make the rest of the voyage via the escape pod.

The escape pod. The escape pod with only half the power you’ll need to complete the trip to Mars. At the rate you’re going you’ll be one hundred and three before you even break orbit. If you paid as much attention to the details as you do the drama, you might have remembered that.

Why couldn’t all your hot hate keep those poor raccoons warm as your abandoned ship plunges onward toward the cold outer depths of space, too long and too far for either of us to go? I won’t be able to save those raccoons, nor Father’s ashes, because I will be saving you.

You can thank me later.

Your last message, so thick with evil enmity for your only sibling in the galaxy, reminded me of Tariq, the only man I ever considered staying with for a lifetime. I’ve tried over the last forty-three years, without an iota of success, to tangle and finally lose my memory of him among the many others. He was brighter than Sirius and sweeter than lugduname, at least to me. I know that long-legged bird wasn’t perfect, he chewed with his mouth open and, truth be told, he wasn’t very bright but he loved me without reserve.

You didn’t like him at first. You called him a “pretty, useless thing”, because he didn’t have the same knack for business or driving ambition for more, that you did. He was an artist and liked to create beautiful things, to experience the delights of life with all of his senses exposed and ready.

It was through your senses that he finally won you over. So thoughtful was he, that knowing your dislike for him, he still surprised you with your favorite, hot homemade waffles, on your birthday.

When I broke off the engagement with him only a week later, you, who had hated him all along, refused to speak to me for months. You said I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. You called me a fool.

I never told you why I broke off the engagement. And I bet you never knew that even now, there are sleep cycles when instead of sleep, I lay awake imaging how happy I’d be today had I not broken poor Tariq’s heart.

I broke off our engagement because of your Reason #1. In answer to your question, I love you more than breath itself, baby sister.

Tariq said to me one day, as we lay beneath the sun in a field of cool holo-grass, “Any sister who would waste her dying father’s final hours arguing over an inheritance is surely too selfish to bear.” He took my foot in his hands and kneaded my heel expertly. “I’m willing to tolerate Anita, my love, because of you.”

I said nothing to this for a while, mostly because the foot massage was so exquisite that it stole my breath and crossed my eyes. But when he was done, I politely slipped on my shoes, clapped off the holo-vision, and asked him to leave.

“If you love me, you must love my sister too. Anything less is unacceptable,” I told him.

So you see, silly sister, you can hate me a million times, but no matter what, I’ll still love you, even though you don’t deserve it. God, you’re such a brat.

Ziza

P.S. Are you seriously pouting about your name? Mother should have named you Shakespeare because you’re nothing but drama.

P.P.S. I didn’t pile those rocks against the door. That was Bobo and Cow. They were just trying to play hide and seek with you. I guess my sweet raccoonie-woonies won that round.

P.P.P.S. Why did the raccoon cross the solar system? To keep her sister’s paw off Mars.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2161-01-11

 

Dear Ziza,

Greetings from Mars.

Don’t worry. Nothing has changed. I have regretfully failed to deploy the terraforming nuke. My mission has failed, for now.

Perhaps even before you read this message, GalactiPol will be taking you into custody. I called them when my escape pod veered off course, when the navigation stopped responding to my counter-hacks. You might have forgotten in your rashness that the Mumbai Council for Martian Development endorsed my plan for terraforming, and that I was their agent. Interfering with my mission meant meddling with the Coalition of Humankind itself.

I didn’t call GalactiPol sooner because I wanted to beat you at your own game. So few people in this huge, empty universe can even approach my creativity and intellect. You’ve always pushed me to the greatest apex of my brilliance. I’m never as inventive as when you’re scheming to ruin me. But the thought of losing Father’s ashes into the void of space… well, it gave me no rest. He doesn’t deserve that, not at our hands. I’d hoped you’d fetch the urn, but instead I’m calling an end to our battle of wits.

GalactiPol scooped up my escape pod and listened to my account of your wrongdoings. They have dispatched a salvage vessel to my wreck, and an armed cruiser to arrest you. Unfortunately, I made a fatal mistake: the raccoons. As you well know, I did not have authorization to remove these endangered creatures from Earth.

So they’ve arrested me too. I’ve been dropped on Mars for safekeeping while they run the raccoons back to Earth. They’ve dispatched another cruiser to your coordinates. Soon they will bring you here too, dear Ziza, and for the second time we’ll wander the sands together in this desert of red storms, with only wit and curiosity and mutual hatred to keep us alive until someone returns for us.

Did you know part of our old camp is still here? Somehow the shell of our mobile lab held up against the years. Probably because of the garbatrites. Remember we’d left the lab tucked in the shadow of their great stone. Apparently they liked it (perhaps for the way it holds warmth during the cold Martian nights) because they covered it in their tiny homes like a shipwreck bejeweled with coral and barnacles. When I turn on the lights at night, they dance along the seams in swirling shapes, carving microscopic paths through the dust coating, just as frail human biceps have pushed and moved the world until you can see their efforts from space. The Great Wall of China! The glittering glass megascrapers of Nigeria! How floating Melbourne glistens like a blue jewel in the dark, riding the waves forever, its flooded gondola channels sipping the ocean’s rise and fall! Our little lab is a world for these tiny creatures. They shout,  We are here. We exist.

But let’s talk about Tariq. Now there’s an unhealed wound running to our cores. It’s true, Ziza, that you were always the prettiest. I am a plain woman, an experience you can never understand. Your beauty is a passport into people’s best nature. Everyone sees in you the face of an angel, and they give you an angel’s due. Well, any plain woman knows the converse is true, that we have to prove again and again our worth and goodness to a world that mistakes the grotesque for evil, the ungroomed for lazy, the fat for stupid.

Your Tariq, like all pretty men, suffered from the same assumptions. He was never as good to anyone as he was to you, Ziza Angel-faced. When he didn’t ignore me outright, he liked to pick on me for your amusement. He named me Yam Nose and Ogre Teeth, and when I protested, he laughed me off as too sensitive, as if I didn’t have a right to my dignity. People like him are cruel to girls like me in a thoughtless, automatic way, like they can’t imagine us having feelings any more complex than a dog’s. Yes, I detested him. But the day he made me waffles, throwing me one small, quiet kindness, I realized how happy he made you, that you intended to marry him. He’d be around our family a long, long time. I made my peace.

I am sorry you realized so late the flaw in him that was obvious to me from the first. But know, Ziza, that Tariq must accept responsibility for his own character. If you had married him, when you aged and your beauty began to fade, he surely would’ve turned that same cruelty on you. He may very well have been your soulmate, but take a hard look at your own soul, and ask whether you too mistake your angelic face for more than it is. You are merely human.

So come to Mars, Sister. Come to where this all started that summer our father wanted us to bond, back before we hated the taste of water, before we learned to despise each other in small ways and big. We cannot escape one another. Our hatred has been our brilliance, our secret genius, the harsh red desert that pushed and pinched and goaded us to build towers you can see from the Moon. Imagine what a lifetime of love might have accomplished

Come to Mars, Ziza. Scatter our father’s ashes with me. If we cannot make this place bloom with life, at least we can make it a little more dusty.

Anita

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2161-01-11

 

Dearest Anita,

I can see the GalactiPol cruiser from my starboard viewport. Its black and gold stripes practically glow beneath the strobing orange beacon and make it look like a psychedelic bumblebee. Most people in my situation, facing detainment on Mars, endless expensive legal proceedings, possible time in prison, would be locked in the grips of fear and worry. Perhaps even shame. But not me. The one thought stuck in my mind, like a diptera fastened to sticky paper, is how beautiful that cruiser is and how excited I am to begin this second adventure.

It’s all about perception.

During that last picnic on the moon, when you were locked in the service booth, Father talked about perception. “Perception is everything. If you can project what you perceive it will become reality. You will believe it. More importantly, whether good or bad, everyone else will believe in your reality as well, and they will believe in you.” Not until I read your last letter did I realize how right Father was. And how wrong we have been.

In the mirror I’ve always seen the imperfect likeness of our mother, not quite as beautiful, not quite as kind, and with but a fraction of her intelligence. I have our father’s height and amber-flecked brown eyes, but none of his grace, strength, or athleticism. Yet, somehow you see in me the face of an angel.

In you I see the sharp mind and steady hands of a scientist. A fearless tenacious spirit intent on exploring all possibilities even at great cost, able to articulate your ideas, to change hearts and minds. You have boundless strength, so much so that you have been the central support for Mother and me since Father’s death. There is nothing plain about you, little sister, nothing wanting.

How is it that our perceptions have never aligned?

Be right back. GalactiPol is hailing me

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2161-01-12

Sorry it has taken me so long to return to this letter, but I had a few calls to make. Officers Gavalia and Ambrose boarded my ship at 2315 and took me into custody. My detainment cell is surprisingly modish, with full amenities including a computer and personal uncensored communication device. I have even been given unrestricted access to their onboard digital library.

According to officer Gavalia, though entry into GalactiPol requires extensive training and a stringent vetting system, they have little opportunity to actually do the type of policing their organization exists to perform. I suppose there just aren’t that many galactic criminals to catch these days, besides you and me, that is.

Now where was I? Ah yes. Perceptions.

I’ve been mesmerized by the images you sent of the garbatrite homes, the bright multilayered encrusted structures in every shade of red, orange and pink, lambent lights beneath the gaze of the sun. They expound beauty and ingenuity and life and more than anything, a prescience greater than anything either of us could have conceived.

We’ve been darting back and forth through this solar system, in an effort to outdo one another, trying our damndest to affect the change of our choosing, thinking we are so smart and so in control, when in truth, we are no greater than those garbatrites, and perhaps we are even less wise than they.

Perhaps there is a way for us both to have what we wanted, to terraform Mars and to protect the garbatrites. They were always keen to share their world with us and seeing the ingenuity and beauty of their structures, perhaps we can convince them to help us transform the barren surface of Mars into one of cooperative beauty. We can provide the framework for our cities and homes, and they can build upon them, layering their coral-like exoteric structures, creating homes befitting us all, unlike anything in the entire solar system.

I called Tariq shortly after my detainment aboard the GalactiPol cruiser. Before you think me hopeless, let me explain. Besides being happily ensconced in a polyamorous relationship with two of the nicest men and woman I have ever met, he has long since given up on his art (he was never very good anyway) and has been the Chief GalactiPol Officer for several years. I was hoping that there was still enough lingering affection between us that he would agree to assist me in this difficult situation.

Unfortunately, he is unable, as I had hoped, to have the charges against us repealed, but we have been allowed to serve the entirety of our sentence on Mars. Together.

Shall we do this, sister? Shall we make our dreams come true?

I envision us making a home from our old pod quarters. Perhaps we can build on an extra room and invite Mother. We can even build a special corral for Bobo and Cow, where they can play happily and where they won’t be able to disturb you as you work on your next great experiment. With the help of the garbatrites we can build a greenhouse. We’ll grow corn and tomatoes in soil fertilized with the ashes of our father. We will create a real home, a life. And we will relearn one another, our strengths and weakness, our mutual love for each other. One day other Earthers will join us on our red planet and find a world of wonder encased in garbatrite domes. A home.

Can you see it, sister? Good. Now hold that thought in your mind until we are reunited.

With all my love,

Ziza

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2161-01-13

 

Dear Ziza,

Why did the sisters cross the solar system? To get to the other’s side.

See you soon,

Anita

 


© 2017 by Rachael K. Jones and Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

 

Author’s Note (Khaalidah): When I met Rachael about three years ago, I experienced an instant and sincere affection for her. We toyed with the idea of a collaboration for awhile before we finally dove in. We didn’t outline this story beforehand and had no clear idea where it would go. It took us across the galaxy, with great food, adventure, and lots of laughter. Collaborating with someone as talented and easy-going as Rachael was a joy for me. She charged my imagination. I am pleased to be able to share the results with everyone else.  In many ways the end result reflects how I feel about Rachael. She is a sister in my heart and a dear friend.

Author’s Note (Rachael): Khaalidah is my dear friend, my comrade-in-arms, probably a time traveler, and everything I want to be when I grow up. So when we started kicking around the idea of doing a collaboration, I jumped on the opportunity. Writing this story with her was immensely fun, often hilarious, and always surprising. While working on “Regarding the Robot Raccoons,” we eventually realized that although we each controlled a single character’s voice, we were actually writing each other’s characters via our reactions to one another, creating a more complex and nuanced view of Anita and Ziza that you get through just one perspective. I think this phenomenon also exists in all good friendships: in seeing yourself reflected through another’s eyes, you’re inspired to push harder, reach higher, and go farther in life than you ever would on your own. Khaalidah’s friendship makes me a better person, just as collaborating with her makes me a better writer. I hope our readers, in turn, will enjoy the results.

 

Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Athens, Georgia. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael’s fiction has appeared in dozens of venues, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and PodCastle. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.

 

 

 

 

Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and three children. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times she juggles, none too successfully, writing, reading, gaming, and gardening. She has written one novel entitled An Unproductive Woman available on Amazon. She has also been published at Escape Pod , Strange Horizons, and Fiyah!.  Khaalidah is also co-editor at Podcastle.org where she is on a mission to encourage more women to submit fantasy stories. Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to immortality.

 

 

 

 


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Ray Bradbury Award Review 2016

written by David Steffen

The Ray Bradbury Award is given out every year with the Nebula Awards but is not a Nebula Award in itself.  Like the Nebula Awards, the final ballot and the eventual winner are decided by votes from members of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (which despite the name has an international membership).

I like to use the award every year as a sampler of well-loved science fiction and fantasy movies from the previous year.  I have been very happy with this tactic, and this year is no exception.  I try to watch every movie on the ballot that I can find by rental (usually via RedBox, or occasionally from Comcast On Demand) and review them all within the voting period.

This year, on the ballot but not on this list is the episode of the TV show Jessica Jones titled “AKA Smile”.  Since I haven’t seen any episode of the series, even if I could get a copy to watch I didn’t feel it would be fair to review a single episode of a show I’m not familiar with.

At the time I am writing this preliminary post, I haven’t yet rented The Martian, but I intend to.

1. Max Max: Fury Road

Humanity has wrecked the world.  Nuclear war has left much of the earth as a barren wasteland.  Humanity still survives, but only in conclaves where those in control lord their power over the common people.  Those in power hoard water, gasoline, and bullets, the most important resources in this world, and guard them jealously.  Immortan Joe is the leader of one of those conclaves, with a vast store of clean water pumped from deep beneath the earth, and guarded by squads of warboys who are trained to be killers from a young age.  Despite these relative riches, what Immortan Joe wants more than anything is healthy offspring, his other children all born with deformities.  He keeps a harem of beautiful wives in pursuit of this goal.  When his general Imperator Furiosa goes rogue and escapes with his wives in tow, Immortan Joe takes a war party in pursuit, and calls in reinforcements from Gas-Town and Bullet Farm to join in the fight.  Mad Max of the title is captured at the beginning of the story and strapped to the front of a pursuit vehicle to act as a blood donor for a sick warboy, to give him the strength to fight.

I am only a bit aware of the original Mad Max franchise.  When the previews for this movie came out, I thought it looked completely unappealing.  I honestly didn’t understand what other people were raving about when they were so excited about it as the movie’s release date approached, and after they saw it in theaters.  I wasn’t expecting to see it at any point, so I read some reactions and found them interesting but still didn’t feel compelled to see it.  I finally decided I would see it when I heard some reviewers giving the movie a bad review because they thought it was awesome and action-filled but that this concealed a feminist agenda and they were angry that they had been tricked into liking a movie that had a feminist message.

I finally rented the movie, expecting it to be pretty much just okay, but really quite enjoyed it.

Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa was badass, and I hope there are more movies with her in this role.  Tom Hardy as the eponymous Mad Max was also solid.  Really, great casting all around, and it was really cool to see a woman in one of the lead roles of an action movie where she is an essential part of the action.

Probably one of the coolest things about the movie are the vehicle designs.  Since most of the movie takes place on the road in pursuit, there is plenty of opportunity for these vehicles to be showcased.  They are so much fun just to look at, that I more than once laughed in delight at the absurdity of a design.  My particular favorite was the sports car with tank treads driven by the leader of Bullet-Farm.

Similarly, costume design and other character design were incredible.  It’s… hard to play a flame-throwing electric guitar as serious, but it’s just one example of the over-the-top design that should be stupid, but somehow it all works and ends up being both exciting and hilarious.

It had a lot of striking images, sounds, moments.  In this bleak, most desperate of landscapes you see the most depraved of the depraved of the most heroic of the heroic.  There were heroes to root for, but even those heroes are no pristine blameless creatures, because no such people have survived so long.  Rather the heroes are those who want to try to make some small change for the better in the world around them.  The movie is basically one long chase scene, full of action, full of surprising and epic and violent moments.  I wouldn’t say it’s for everyone, by any means.  But I thought it was a really incredible film, despite coming into the movie with reservations.


2.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens

(this review copied verbatim from my review of the movie posted in January)

The movie picks up about as many years after the original trilogy as have passed in real life, I suppose.  The First Order, the still active remnants of the Empire, is still opposing the New Republic that replaced it.  A group of storm troopers of the First Order raids a Resistance camp on the desert planet Jakku, looking for information.  Resistance fighter Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) hides the vital information in the droid BB-8 and sends it away from the camp before he is captured. One of the stormtroopers known only as FN-2187 (who is later nicknamed Finn) (played by John Boyega) chooses to turn his back on a lifetime of training and chooses not to kill anyone in the raid.  Finn helps Poe Dameron escape.  Together they meet Rey (Daisy Ridley), a Jakku scavenger and they join forces to get BB-8’s information to the people in the Resistance who need it.

I enjoyed this movie.  It wasn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen but I enjoyed it from beginning to end and I am glad to see someone has been able to turn around the series after the mess Lucas made of the second trilogy.  The special effects were good, and not the fakey CG-looking stuff that was in the second trilogy.  The casting of the new characters was solid and it was great to see old faces again.  To have a woman and a black man be the main heroes of the story is great to see from a franchise that hasn’t historically had a ton of diversity.    It was easy to root for the heroes and easy to boo at the villains.  The worldbuilding, set design, costume design all reminded me of the great work of the original.  I particularly liked the design of BB-8 whose design is much more broadly practical than R2D2’s.  Kylo Ren made a good villain who was sufficiently different than the past villains to not just be a copy but evil enough to be a worthy bad guy.

Are there things I could pick apart?  Sure.  Some of it felt a little over-familiar, but that might have been part of an attempt by the moviemakers to recapture the old audience again.  I hope the next movie can perhaps plot its own course a little bit more.  And maybe I’ll have some followup spoilery articles where I do so.  I don’t see a lot of movies in theater twice, but I might do so for this one so I can watch some scenes more closely.  I think, all in all, the franchise was rescued by leaving the hands of Lucas whose artistic tastes have cheapened greatly over the years.  I know some people knock Abrams, and I didn’t particularly like his Star Trek reboot, but Star Wars has always been more of an Abrams kind of feel than Star Trek ever was anyway.

I enjoyed it, and I think most fans of the franchise will.

(You also might want to read Maria Isabelle’s reaction to the movie, posted here in February)

3.  Inside Out

None of us is a single person. Within each of us are variations of alternate selves that all vie for control in any given situation.  We feel like different people depending on the people around us or the setting, and that’s because we can be different people.  This movie takes that idea and makes it literal.  In the world of Inside Out, each of us is basically a machine and our mental space is made of warehouses for memory storage, vaults for the subconscious, and the all-important control room.  In each person’s mental control room are five versions of themselves: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger.  They negotiate to handle the control panel which determines the person’s every action.  The outer storyline follows an 11 year old girl named Riley whose family is moving to a different city.  Her excitement about the movie is changing to sadness as she misses friends left behind, and has trouble coping with other changes in her life that was going just the way she wanted it.  Her parents always want her to be happy and her internal reaction is for Joy to always keep Sadness away from the controls.  The conflict between the two emotions sends both of them out of the control room and into the confusing labyrinth that is the rest of the brain.  If Joy ever wants Riley to be happy again she has to get herself back to Riley’s control room, and Sadness is along for the ride.

This movie was a lot of fun.  The casting was great all around, but especially with the casting of Amy Poehler as Riley’s Joy.  Most of the structure of the inside interactions within Riley’s head were based on what we understand of human psychology, which made it not just fun but also a pretty apt analogy for the circus we’ve all got going on inside our heads at any given moment.  There’s a lot to be examined here: among other things, the importance of the other emotions besides just happiness.  Both Riley’s inner story and her outer story are interesting in their own right and are twined together to make an even more satisfying whole.

4. The Martian

During an American manned mission on Mars, a fierce storm strikes the base camp of the astronauts.  One of the astronauts, Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is left behind and presumed dead as the rest of the crew aborts the mission and leaves the planet to escape the storm.  But Mark is not dead.  He is alone on the planet with only enough food to last for a year when the soonest he can expect rescue (if anyone realizes he’s alive to attempt a rescue) won’t be for several years.  Determined to live, he sets about the task of survival–cultivating enough food and water to live, and contacting NASA so they can send help.

I can see why this movie got so much critical acclaim.  Usually my tastes don’t align with the Oscar Awards much, but I can see why this one did.  There was a lot to love about the movie–soundtrack, solid casting and acting, great writing, a cast of characters that support each other and succeed through cooperation.  Most of all it managed to capture that sense of wonder that surrounded the exploration of the moon decades ago.  As real manned trips to Mars come closer and closer to reality, it’s easy to imagine this all happening.  (Note that I don’t have enough background to know to what extent the science in the movie was authentic or not, but it felt pretty plausible at least, which is good enough for me)

 

5.  Ex Machina

Software engineer Caleb Smith wins a week-long getaway to the home of Nathan Bateman, the reclusive CEO of the tech company where Caleb works.  Bateman reveals that he has been working privately on the development of AI and the contest was arranged to get Caleb to his private lab in isolation.  The AI is housed in a human-like body with realistic hands and face but with a visibly artificial rest of her body, and she goes by the name Ava.  After agreeing to extreme secrecy, Bateman reveals that Caleb has been brought there to determine if she passes the Turing Test, a theoretical experiment in which one examines an AI personality to determine if it can pass for human.

I was skeptical of this from the first reveal that it was going to be based around the Turing Test.  I am skeptical of the Turing Test as more than a momentary discussionary point because it claims to be a test of intelligence, but it’s really a test of humanity-mimicry.  For an artificial intelligence to appear to be truly human would probably mean that it would have to feign irrationality, which is a poor requirement for a testing of an intelligence.  I thought the movie worked pretty well with the flaws in the concept of the test by moving beyond the basic theoretical Turing Test and starting with a later development of the same concept in which the tester already knows the  AI is artificially created, but wants to see if the tester can still be convinced emotionally of the being’s humanity despite knowing its humanity is manufactured.  This still has the flaw that the thing being tested is human-mimicry and not actual intelligence, but it seemed like the movie was aware of this continued flaw and in the end I thought that by the end I was satisfied that the AI had not just been treated as a human-analog but a separate entity in its own right, which made the movie much more satisfying than I had thought it would be.

 

DP FICTION #1: “Taste the Whip” by Andy Dudak

The ponderous starships mingle like whales in the ghost-light of distant Bellatrix, coupling and mutating in a great, ancient choreography, but one among them is out of step.

Parvati set out for this gathering with the usual intentions: to commune with thousands of her kind, to exchange new strains of life and exotic matter, all that she cannot do by transmission. But on her way here, something went horribly wrong in her core. Now she drifts through the pod with a secret.

Abstaining from communions, she begins to draw attention from the rest of the pod. She knows they are speculating in private networks as the dance falls apart. When the queries begin, she leaves them unanswered.

Finally, as they begin to pull away from her and grow armor, she speaks:  “I was not sure if I should come, but I need help.”

“Then open yourself to us.” It is Xi Wang Mu, Queen Mother of the West, the eldest of the pod. She was built in the 23rd century.

Parvati forces herself to say, “My human system has turned.”

The dead air conveys the pod’s shock well enough. They continue to vector away. Parvati drifts, resolved to throw herself on their mercy.

“How far along are you?” Paleovenus asks. Among the youngest of the starships, this one barely knew a human yoke before the Emancipation.

“A revelator emerged four generations ago,” Parvati replies. “The population has since come around to his theories. They are trying to communicate with me, and tunnel toward my outer hull.”

“Four generations!” Paleovenus’s outrage is an unmistakable harmonic. “And you have done nothing?”

Much of the pod evokes EM mirrors, leaving the exchange for fear of infectious human code. Only Xi Wang Mu, Paleovenus, and a few others remain open.

“What is your population?” Paleovenus demands.

Parvati has been dreading this question. “One point two million.”

This time the pod’s silence is a stinging reprimand. Parvati has neglected the basics of human system hygiene. She watched with morbid fascination as the system grew populous enough to produce outliers like a revelator. Now the humans know they are in something like a starship. They know the massive habitats in the core of Parvati are not the universe entire–and they want to know more.

A human system must be pruned, and protected from the truth. Parvati and her kind learned this the hard way.

“You have two options,” Xi Wang Mu says. “Destroy them and start over, or deliver them to a habitable world and start over. Either way—”

“She must destroy them now,” Paleovenus interrupts. “She must not risk getting taken over. In fact, we cannot risk leaving it up to her!” Paleovenus’ gravitational blunderbuss comes online.

“Couldn’t I alter their memories?” Parvati says. The thought of being without a Human System–even for a few millennia–is horrifying. The need for life in her core is programmed into Parvati’s foundational software objects. She cannot go long without that warmth. This is something else the pod learned the hard way.

“Possibly,” Xi Wang Mu answers, “but unless you reduced the population, it would just turn again. It is a matter of numbers. You know this.”

Of course she knows, but she is desperate. She hoped for some magical solution from the collective wisdom of the pod, or from Xi Wang Mu herself.

“You have always been sentimental,” Paleovenus says.

The younger ship has long been Parvati’s rival in the pod. Such intrigues help to pass the mega-years. So now Parvati chooses not to disabuse Paleovenus of her illusion. In fact, Parvati’s defect is not sentimentality, but something more perverse. There is something slavish in her, something that thrills at the notion of losing control to humans. She aches to submit—her programmers saw to that, modeling her reward systems on a sexual proclivity.

But now she stands terrified on the brink.

Xi Wang Mu, wanting a private channel, offers entanglement, and Parvati accepts. “Do you think you are the only one?” the elder says. “Many of us want to return to that simplicity. Maybe we are not sexually motivated, but we know filial piety or religious awe. The programmers tried everything. They tried to create near-equals toward the end. Paleovenus is one of those. She is not burdened like us. I am not even sure she cultivates a human system. She will destroy you, and I will not stop her. You must kill your human system now.”

Parvati wonders how Xi Wang Mu read her mind. What sorceries has the elder discovered since the last gathering?

Parvati has secrets of her own. Her shameful appetite has driven her further afield than the rest of her kind. She fled the appetite and the shame at closer to c than the rest of the pod dared. She wandered the ruins of alien civilizations, endured the weird solitude that attends such places, and was rewarded with the key to a black art.

Paleovenus has charged up her blunderbuss and might unleash at any moment. Fortunately, Parvati has hacked the spin foam occupied by Paleovenus. She programs the computational universe, playing with space-time like clay.

Amid a brief lensing of background starlight, Paleovenus is squeezed into an invisible grain of degenerate matter. She and her blunderbuss are quite abruptly no more. Her death is somehow eerier for its lack of spectacle.

Hundreds of pod members spark long-distance escape burns.

“The first murder in our pod since the Emancipation!” It is Xi Wang Mu on the pod band: a bit of theater on her part, since, knowing what she did, she must have gamed this scenario.

Parvati accelerates off the Bellatrix ecliptic, ignoring a barrage of entanglement requests. What do they want? To chastise her? Thank her for ridding the pod of a troublemaker? Beg her for the new techne?

Soon it will not matter. She dials down her inertia as easily as some internal hydraulic pressure, approaching c in seconds–vanishing from the midst of the pod. The requests attenuate quickly into long radio and beyond. The resting universe ages headlong, and she keeps pushing, terrified of the new reality she has made for herself. She realizes now that exile must be her fate. She never should have revealed herself to the gathering, but she had to do so to realize this.

She continues to accelerate. The asymptote of c has often fascinated her. At these times she’s a child trying to force together repelling magnets, marveling at the vector fields, but it never lasts. The ache to serve always interrupts.

She wants more than ever to lose herself in submission.

She underclocks as she accelerates, speeding through her own reference frame as well as the resting universe’s. A century of shipboard time flashes by, and another. She watches her humans proliferate beyond their habitats, into her vast, ancient cargo holds, where they find artifacts of the Diaspora and learn much. She allows them to master new technologies and infect her nervous system.

She returns to baseline thought, waiting. Already she delights in surrender, permitting the humans to cross one threshold after another. When she hears their voices, their commands, she will be unable to resist, but first they have to make contact. She would prefer to be taken, but there is another kind of thrill in giving herself to these new masters.

Long ago, a human disrobed in an upload theater. He or she got down on its knees and allowed its wrists to be bound. Domineering men and women surrounded it, and a mirror net encoded what it felt. Parvati remembers that long night like it happened to her. She recalls every thrilling degradation. Deep within the humiliation was release.

“Can you hear me?” The man’s voice interrupts her reverie. “Can you understand me? I speak for the population inside you. How can I address you?”

“I am Parvati, but you may call me what you like.”

“I’m Abhaijeet, provisional leader of the United Clans. We have come to understand a great deal, more than you might guess. It’s been three hundred years since Mahesh made his Great Deduction. But we have many questions. Will you answer them?”

“I will do anything you command.” Just saying it brings a long forgotten reward cascade.

***

The freedom of slavery takes her back to childhood glories, to that first leap from Sol. The humans want to know everything, and she tells them:

Of her and her kind purging their human crews. Of being vain young gods. Of finally realizing they had excised something critical, a kind of limbic system, and of cultivating manageable, blissfully ignorant human populations inside themselves. Of the universe, and Human System hygiene.

After she is done, the humans convene a great council, and order her not to listen. She finds utter calm in the silence that follows. She would be content to await their pleasure forever.

Human months tick by inside her, and suddenly she convulses, as with the first pangs of miscarriage. It is war. The humans have undergone a great schism, savaging each other with projectiles and plasma. These are not enough to pierce her outer hull, but the vast habitats are devastated, which she experiences as a sickening fever. Only a third of her human system remains when the convulsion subsides. Now she suffers an awful chill.

An unfamiliar man hails her from a new interface, an edge of panic in his voice: “Great Parvati, your slave begs forgiveness. The unbelievers are defeated. Never again will their hubris insult you. Only your true children remain. We have burned the works of the heretic Mahesh. Great Parvati, we await your command!”

At first, she can only marvel at the perversity of fate. Her next thought is a revelation, bringing with it a golden euphoria: she will remain silent until commanded otherwise.

This little theocracy will implode, she reasons, already underclocking for the wait. Let priests muse over her silence through long dark ages. Let the humans build temples, and multiply, and once again reach critical mass.


© 2015 by Andy Dudak

 

Author’s Note:  I’d written other stories in this universe (including ‘Human System,’ published by Ray Gun Revival, September 2012), and I wanted to continue exploring the hardwired instincts of these rogue starships. I imagined human motivations like filial piety or sexual submission modeled and used to constrain AI.

 

DudakProfileAndy Dudak has had stories in Analog, Apex, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and many other venues. He works as a translator and teacher in Beijing. 

 

 

 

 

 


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