25 December 2009

"The Gift of the Maggie"

By Curtis C. Chen

She had been feeling tired all week, and now she knew why: the talisman wasn't in the hall closet with her other artifacts. Maggie calmed herself and went into the living room.

"Jonah, have you seen my bugle?" she called.

"Snacks are in the pantry," said the man sitting in the armchair. "We got some Funyuns, too."

Maggie rolled her eyes. "I'm talking about the brass musical instrument. Looks like a trumpet, but without any valves?"

"You haven't touched that in years," Jonah said, and drained his beer bottle.

"Not since high school," Maggie agreed. "But I need it now. It's important. Have you seen it anywhere?"

She walked around the armchair and stood between Jonah and the television. He muted the sound and looked up at her, the corner of his mouth twitching.

Maggie got a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. "What did you do?"

"It was supposed to be a surprise," Jonah said.

"What did you do?" Maggie repeated, her voice rising in pitch.

Jonah stood, holding his hands up, palms out—not surrender, more like pushing. "Stay here. I'll show you."

He walked past her and into the garage. Maggie folded her arms and tapped her foot on the carpet. The flashing images on the TV drew her eye, and she grabbed the remote and turned it off. Thumping noises came from the open garage door.

Jonah returned, holding a large, oddly shaped mass of wrapping paper.

Maggie's foot froze in mid-tap. "What the hell is that?"

"Merry Christmas!" Jonah said. "You might as well open it now—"

The package jerked out of Jonah's fist and sailed across the room. Maggie caught it with her left hand.

"Whoa!" Jonah gaped. "What—how did you do that?"

"Long story," Maggie muttered. She ripped open the wrapping paper and grimaced at the object inside. "You got me... an electric guitar?"

"And lessons," Jonah said quickly. "You know how we're always talking about doing more stuff together? And we both love music, right?"

Maggie glared at him. "How did you afford this?"

"Don't be mad," Jonah said. "I traded in your trumpet-thing."

"You WHAT!"

"Okay, you're mad. That's fair."

Maggie dropped the guitar, walked up to Jonah, and grabbed the collar of his t-shirt. "Where is it? Where?"

"Inside voices," Jonah said.

"Tell me where it is!"

"Okay, okay! I took it to that music store on Sixteenth Avenue! The one with the funny name, and that old dude with the glass eye."

"Pokorny's?" Maggie asked, horrified.

"That's the one," Jonah said. "You know he runs an antique shop, too? He told me—"

Maggie placed one palm flat against the side of Jonah's head. His face went slack, and he said, "Yes, dear."

He sat down in the armchair and stared at the blank TV screen.

Maggie stalked into the kitchen, yanked the telephone handset off the wall, and dialed an international number. It took forever for the woman on the other end to pick up.


"Grandmother," Maggie said, "we have a problem."


Photo: marching-band automatons at the House on the Rock, July, 2008

22 December 2009

3,900 Other Words

"The Tongue of Bees," by my Viable Paradise XII classmate Claire Humphrey, was published yesterday at Fantasy Magazine. It's a damn good piece of fiction, and one of the legendary "Evil Overlord" stories from the workshop.

The first two lines:
The children roll in clover on the other side of the hill. On this side, Raymond Holt is eating belladonna.

If you tell me you don't want more, I'll know you're lying. What are you still doing here? Go. NOW.

Read "The Tongue of Bees" by Claire Humphrey


18 December 2009


By Curtis C. Chen

"Asshole," Ivan muttered as the door closed.

"Geez, say it a little louder, why don't you?" Conrad said. "Those doors are bullet-proof, not sound-proof."

The small, circular room was empty except for the display pedestal, two consoles with chairs, and a trash bin between them. Ivan and Conrad were seated facing a holographic map of the base.

Ivan swiveled his chair around, lifted his forearm onto his console, and flipped up his middle finger.

"That's good. Real mature," Conrad said.

Ivan brought his other arm up and deployed his other middle finger as well.

"I'm going back to work now," Conrad said, ignoring the dance that Ivan's middle fingers were doing.

"Don't you ever get sick of it?" Ivan asked, withdrawing his hands. "Following orders all the time? I sure do."

"Probably shouldn't have joined the Army then."

"Didn't have much of a choice." Ivan slumped in his chair.

"Is this where you tell me a sob story and I pretend to care?" Conrad said.

Ivan slapped his console. A red light started blinking, and a shrill alarm bell sounded. "How about that? You care about that?"

Conrad worked his own controls and silenced the alarm. "What is wrong with you? Now we have to write up an incident report. After the duty officer chews us out for another false alarm. Are you trying to get thrown into stockade?"

Ivan pulled a candy bar out of his shirt pocket. He unwrapped it and had the bar halfway to his mouth when Conrad leaned over and snatched it away.

"Hey!" Ivan said.

"No food or drink," Conrad said, throwing the candy bar into the trash. "Regulations."

"That was the last nutty bar at the exchange," Ivan said. "You owe me."

Conrad grabbed his crotch. "I got your nutty bar right here."

Ivan leapt out of his chair and tackled Conrad. They fell to the ground in a tangle of fists and shouts.

The door slid open. The duty officer entered and shouted, "Attention!"

Conrad and Ivan separated, stood, and lined up against the wall.

"What is going on here?" the duty officer asked.

"He started it," Ivan said, pointing at Conrad.

"What are you, twelve years old?"

"Twelve and a half," Ivan muttered.

"WHAT DID YOU SAY?" the duty officer screamed into Ivan's face.

"Twelve and a half, SIR!" Ivan replied.

The duty officer turned to Conrad. "And what's YOUR excuse?"

"He had a candy bar, sir!" Conrad said.

"A candy bar," the duty officer repeated.

"A nutty bar," Conrad said. Then, after a moment: "They're the best."

The duty officer shook his head. "Okay. I'm going to write up both you idiots, and your C.O. can decide what to do with you later. Now sit down!"

Conrad and Ivan went back to their consoles. The duty officer walked toward the exit and stopped in the open doorway to give them one final dirty look.

"Kids these days," the duty officer muttered as he left. The door slid shut behind him.

"Asshole," Conrad and Ivan said in unison.


Photo taken at Buckingham Palace, June, 2009.

11 December 2009

"The Stories We Tell Ourselves"

By Curtis C. Chen

Gerald stirred his coffee, waiting to change the world.

The front door of the cafe swung open, and the bell jingled. A bald man wearing an overcoat entered and looked around.

Gerald waved. The man walked to the corner table.

"Gerald Mortman?" the man asked.

"That's me."

The man sat down. "Carl Point. Thank you for meeting me."

Gerald held up his hand. "You want some coffee? I ordered you a cup."

He nodded at the table, where a second mug had appeared in front of Carl.

"That wasn't there before!" Carl said.

"Just a small demonstration," Gerald said.

"Incredible." Carl looked around the coffee shop. "What happens if someone's watching when things change?"

"Nothing changes," Gerald said. "This is how it's always been."

"But I remember—"

"You'll forget soon enough," Gerald said. "Everyone does. Everyone except me." He leaned forward. "We don't have much time."

"Okay," Carl said. "It's my daughter, Emily. She passed away recently. Leukemia. She was five years old."

Gerald started pulling back. "I think you've misunderstood—"

"Just say she didn't die, say she's cured." Carl grabbed Gerald's arm. "I'll pay anything."

"I don't want money," Gerald said.

"Four words. 'Your daughter didn't die.' Simple."

"It's never simple, Mr. Point."

Carl reached under his coat and pulled out a revolver. Gerald heard gasps and murmurs all around. People moved away from the table.

"Say my daughter's alive," Carl said. "Say it!"

"Your daughter is alive, Mr. Point," Gerald said. "She's standing right behind you."

Carl stood, keeping the revolver trained on Gerald, and turned to see a teenage girl with curly brown hair. She was shaking.

"Please, Daddy," she said, "put down the gun."

Carl's head whipped back around to Gerald. "What the hell is this? That's not my daughter!"

"This isn't my story," Gerald said. "This is your story."

"Daddy!" the girl sobbed. "It's me! Allie!"

"Allison?" Carl's face went pale. "My God. You're all grown up."

"You have to stop, Daddy," Allie said.

"Look at your hair. Just like your mother's," Carl said. "God, we were both so young. We couldn't afford to raise a child..."

His arm fell just a little, and Gerald spoke.

"I'm glad you didn't bring a gun, Mr. Point. Some people get upset when I can't help them. Thank you for being reasonable."

Allie was gone, and so was the revolver. Carl looked down at Gerald, his face blank, waiting for the rest of the story.

"I'm glad you've finally accepted your daughter's death."

Carl sat down. "It's been very difficult."

"Go home, Mr. Point. Spend some time with your family. If you ever need to talk, you know how to find me."

Gerald extended his hand, and Carl shook it. "Thank you, Mr. Mortman. I think I'm going to be okay."

"I know you will be."

The bell rang as Carl walked back into the cold.

Gerald took out his notebook and started writing. He had lied to Carl. If he didn't write down all the stories, he would forget them, too. And he wanted to remember.


Photo taken at Charlotte Nature Museum, June, 2008.

This story is dedicated to Bayla. May she rest in peace.

04 December 2009

"On Orbit"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Someone," Don said, "put poison in the Coke machine?"

"Well, technically, the poison was attached to the water intake," Thomas said. "It's a good thing Richard could taste the difference. And then complained about it."

"How is he, by the way?"

"Nic says he'll be fine. She doesn't want him going EVA for a few days, so I put David into the rotation. We're checking the rest of our water supply now, but it's going to take a while."

Don shook his head. His white hair pixelated with the motion; the low-bandwidth videophone wasn't designed to support much more than talking heads.

"Right." Don tapped at something off-screen. "We'll send more potable water rations in the next supply run. Anything else go wrong this week? Alien body snatchers? A new strain of drug-resistant bacteria?"

"That was a rhinovirus," Thomas said. "And no. That's all the bad news." He tried and failed to hide his smile.

"Oh, boy," Don said. "You did it, didn't you? You nailed Penny."

"Don! I'm offended." Thomas waggled a finger. "And Penny would be, too. She much prefers the terms 'banged,' 'knocked boots,' or 'played hide-the-sausage.'"

The white-haired man sighed. "Is this a space station or a soap opera?"

Thomas shrugged. "Hey, I just work here."

"Seriously, Thomas," Don said, "I can't have you sleeping with anyone in your chain of command. It's bad for morale, not to mention just plain unprofessional."

It took Thomas a moment to process what he heard. "Wait. What are you talking about? We're not even in the same department. I'm Engineering, Penny's Bioscience—"

"You're being promoted," Don said. "Congratulations, Thomas; we're making it official. You're the new Station Chief."

"No." Thomas' finger came up again, this time threatening. "No. You can't do this to me, Don. You don't want me in charge. Cynthia! Give it to Cynthia. She's better at logistics anyway."

"Station doesn't need a log," Don said. "Station needs a leader. That's you."

"Oh, come on! Just because I happened to remember where the emergency supplies were that one time—"

"You know, most people are happy when they get promoted at work."

Thomas shook his head. "I'm flattered, Don, really I am, but this isn't what I want. Not right now." He couldn't stop thinking about Penny—her smile, her lips, her smooth, pale skin. He didn't want to stop thinking about her.

"Too bad." Don's eyes glittered under a scowl. "What everyone on station needs is more important than what you want. It's out of my hands anyway. The board voted yesterday. I'm just the messenger."

"I never wanted your job, Don," Thomas said softly.

"I know. Believe me, I know."

"'Chain of command,'" Thomas muttered. "What are we, a military shop now? Am I going to be issuing uniforms and sidearms next week?"

"I'm hoping it won't come to that," Don said. "But you've still got a—what's the term?—'locked room mystery' on your hands. We need to deal with that first."

"Yeah," Thomas said. "Let's hope it doesn't turn into a murder mystery."


Photo: mission patch from my trip to SpaceCamp in September, 2003.

27 November 2009

"Sidrav Corsol's Backstory"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Where's Feli?" Sidrav asked when he got home from Academy.

"She's not here," his father said. He held a glass of ethanol in his metal hands.

"Where is she?" Sidrav asked. "Dad, it's not my fault. I waited right outside the library for her, and I never saw her. She must have snuck out some other way. Brat."

His father stood up. He walked over to the sideboard and picked up a datapad, and Sidrav's heart jumped when he recognized the device he'd been using to track his sister's monthly cycles and medico charts—without her knowledge. They were forbidden calculations, and Sidrav always kept his curiosity hidden. He realized he had left the datapad in the pocket of his trousers before throwing them in the laundry.

Sidrav's father said, "Did you know about this?"

Fear overruled Sidrav's nobler instincts, and he said: "What is it?"

"It's blasphemy!" his father roared, and threw the datapad. Sidrav flinched at the sound of plastic breaking against the wall. His father sat down and shook his head.

"Dad," Sidrav asked quietly, "what happened to Feli?"

"She's gone," his father said. "And good riddance to her. I always knew she would be trouble. I blame your mother." He pointed a chrome finger at Sidrav. "She's at temple now, asking forgiveness, and we're joining her right after I finish my drink."

Sidrav wondered how long his father had been home, and how much he'd already drunk. He wondered when Feliax had been taken away. Maybe there was still time. Maybe he could tell the Pealers that it wasn't her datapad—

And then what? Of course Feli would have denied ownership. She knew it wasn't hers. She had to know it was Sidrav's. She could have given him up. Why hadn't she tried to save herself?

Sidrav agonized about it all night, and finally decided that he had to incriminate himself. He woke early the next morning and searched for some other evidence of his wrongdoing, something traceable to him directly but not Feliax.

He found her message under the bathroom sink, where they used to hide their childhood treasures. It was a palm-sized repro disk, the kind girls used to pass notes and boys used to literally hurl insults at each other. The timeprint showed Feli had written the disk yesterday afternoon.

The message read: "Dear Sid, CONTINUE. Love, Feli."

Sidrav sat on the floor and wept.

"Continue" was what Feli and Sid said to each other in rare, tender moments, when they actually sought permission to persist in teasing each other. "Continue" was what Feliax had said to more than one boy who started asking her out, but became intimidated by the big brother standing beside her.

"Continue" was what Sidrav now heard all over Academy, and he wondered if he and Feliax had been leading a trend, or if he was just noticing it more because of his guilt.

CONTINUE was what Sidrav did. But he vowed to never again risk anyone else's life for his beliefs. Especially not his family.


This week's 512 is an excerpt from my 2009 NaNoWriMo novel, which is based on a previous 512 story, "Better."

20 November 2009

"Rieta Linbitter's Backstory"

By Curtis C. Chen

It still amazed Rieta that her husband could do so many delicate things with his metal appendages. The men in Rieta's family were rarely gentle. Her own father had earned his arms through military service, and he would have stayed in except that the rulers had discharged him. It happened to a few soldiers every year. The rulers never explained why, and nobody dared to complain.

Rieta's mother was happy to have her father home instead of being deployed to faraway lands at some commander's whim, but he had been denied a lifetime of glorious conquest and a warrior's death on the battlefield, and he felt cheated. Rieta's grandfather had been a ground general in the Amphibious War. All the men in Rieta's family had grown up in a martial atmosphere, conditioned to respect strength in others and cultivate it in themselves.

Rieta had learned the same lessons from the receiving end. Men were protectors, or destroyers, and for the longest time she believed that her own happiness and safety depended on choosing the right kind to be her husband. Then her father had been discharged, and she had watched him turn from a good man into something else.

She would always hesitate to say what he became after leaving the army. It wasn't that she couldn't put a name to it; she just feared that saying the word aloud would cement the concept in reality. Rieta knew the power of incantation, and she did not want to curse her father any more than he already had been.

He had only struck her once in her life. Rieta had been nine years old and late getting home for dinner one night. She had walked into the dining room to find the table set with food, and her parents sitting but not eating.

Rieta couldn't remember if she or her father had said anything. She remembered that her mother had stayed silent, with wide eyes and a pale face. She remembered that her father had stood and raised his arm, and she had wondered what he was going to do with it.

She remembered the pain. She winced when she thought of it, and her tongue went involuntarily to the space in her mouth where there used to be a tooth. She remembered blacking out for a moment, and her father being gone when she struggled back to her feet, and her mother still sitting at the table.

He had only struck Rieta once, and never again. The Pealers found him asleep in an alley the next morning and brought him home.

Rieta had not looked at made men and their metal arms the same after that. Where once she saw strength, she also now saw terrible power. She understood that even though those metal arms and legs were bonded to human bodies, they were no more or less tools than the shovels and lasers used by builders. And tools could be used for good or ill.


This week's 512 is an excerpt from my 2009 NaNoWriMo novel, which is based on a previous 512 story, "Better."

13 November 2009

"Harold & Kumar Get Left 4 Dead Once Upon A Time In Mexico"

By Curtis C. Chen

Tijuana after the zombie apocalypse didn't look that different to Harold Lee. Of course, all the previous times he'd visited, he'd been drunk, stoned, or both.

He heard rustling outside the front door of the motel. Harold crouched down behind the counter and aimed his assault rifle.

The doorknob turned, and Harold hesitated. Zombies don't do that! Do they?

Kumar Patel threw open the door and ran in, holding an automatic shotgun in one hand and a brown paper bag in the other. "Harold! Where are you?"

Harold stood up, his heart still pounding. "Close the door and keep your voice down, man!"

Kumar kicked the door shut. "You're not going to believe—"

"Dude!" Harold said. "Knock before entering. I almost blew your head off!"

"It's cool, I forgive you. Check this out!" Kumar laid his shotgun on the counter, opened the paper bag, and pulled out a plastic-wrapped green bundle.

Harold stared at the bundle. "What is it with you?"

"I know! It's like a sixth sense or something. I was just coming back through the alley—"

Harold slapped Kumar across the face.

"What the fuck!" Kumar said.

"Exactly," Harold said. "We're stranded in Tijuana. There are thousands of zombies between us and the border. We have two guns. It's going to be dark soon.

"And all you can think about is getting high?" he screamed.

Kumar nodded. "You're right. We'll probably be dead in a few hours." He held up the bundle. "So do you want to bite it with a stick up your ass, or do you want to go out in a haze of glory?"

Harold glared at him.


The back door of the motel clanged open. The noise echoed down the alley.

"Fuck me, that was loud," Kumar said, stepping through.

"It's cool, man," Harold said, following. "Zombies can't hear shit."

Harold had to admit, Kumar had found some amazing weed. He took a long drag off the joint and handed it over.

Kumar puffed and said, "Fucking zombies." He hefted his shotgun. "Come and suck on this, you undead assholes!"

"Sshhh!" Harold hissed.

They stopped. The sound of a little girl crying drifted toward them. They inched forward until they saw a thin, pale body kneeling at the end of the alley, rocking back and forth.

"Witch!" Harold whispered. "Turn off your flashlight. We gotta sneak around her."

Kumar put a hand on his belt. "I have a better idea."

"What? Nooooo..."

Harold seemed to move in slow motion as Kumar raised the bottle, touched the gasoline-soaked rag in its neck to the burning joint in his mouth, and threw the Molotov. It smashed open against the witch's head, spilling flame everywhere. She screamed.

Kumar chuckled. A sparkle in the distance caught his eye. He squinted at a building across the street. A figure walked into the amber light of sunset. Kumar saw cowboy boots with spurs, a sequined shirt, and a giant sombrero. A dark mustache obscured much of the face, but it looked like—

"Neil Patrick Harris?" Kumar said.


06 November 2009

"Part of the Solution"

By Curtis C. Chen

"This job is killing me," Tim said.

"Maybe you should find a new job," Karl said.

"That's funny." Tim tossed back the rest of his drink.

"I think you've had enough." Karl waved a bill at the bartender. "I'll drive you home."

"I'll call a cab."

"Like hell you will." Karl paid their tab and grabbed Tim's left arm.

Tim made a halfhearted attempt to break free of Karl's grip. "What time is it?"

"Half past midnight," Karl said, shoving Tim forward.

"One more for the road," Tim said, spinning himself around.

Karl twisted Tim's arm behind his back and pushed him down into an empty chair by the door. "I'm the brawn, remember?"

Tim grimaced with pain. "Make it a coffee?"

Karl shook his head and flagged down a waitress.


Tim's wristwatch beeped on the hour at one o'clock, and he stopped struggling and let Karl maneuver him the rest of the way up to his apartment.

"You're a great partner," Tim said.

"Don't kiss me," Karl said.

"I ain't that drunk."

At the top of the stairs, Karl lowered Tim to a sitting position in the hallway, facing away from the door to Tim's apartment. Karl had to use both hands to turn the key in the ancient lock. He had stopped complaining after the first dozen times.

Tim closed his eyes and hummed loudly, trying to muffle the sounds he knew were coming.

Karl had been a good partner. It wasn't just his formerly sense-resistant brain structure or his physical strength. They had been a team. Karl hadn't simply shielded Tim's sensitive noggin, though he had lasted longer at that than anyone else. Karl had also helped with their investigations. He had been least as much a solver as Tim had. Sometimes more.

The whiskey was wearing off. Tim could feel the familiar tingling in his head which preceded the intrusion of another person's subconscious. The company called it a gift, but it felt more like a curse—he couldn't control it, couldn't even read people clearly most of the time, usually just got jumbled images—

Should have let him have that last drink. Might have been asleep by now. Wouldn't have to listen to his off-key humming.

Tim's head snapped up, and the thought flashed through his mind before he could speak: I'm reading Karl? That's impossible!

Karl looked down at Tim, frowning. "What's impossible?"

The door creaked open.

Tim launched himself sideways, slamming his shoulder into Karl's legs and knocking him down. The shotgun discharged a split second after Karl's head dropped out of the doorway.

Karl had already drawn his sidearm and was pulling his cell phone out of his jacket. Tim grabbed his partner's hand and stopped him from pushing the panic button.

Twelve-gauge rigged to a magnetic switch, activated by light and motion sensors, Tim thought, looking straight at Karl. Plausible deniability.

Karl blinked twice, then lowered his weapon. "You're—I'm—"

Tim pulled out his own cell phone, opened the case, and removed the battery. "Disappear first. Talk later."


30 October 2009


By Curtis C. Chen

Alice put on her boots and gloves and went outside. The shoveling might have waited, but the tears wouldn't, and she preferred to be doing something rather than just sitting by the window using up Kleenex. Besides, the cat wouldn't shut up, and Alice didn't need the grief today.

An hour later, her muscles ached, her cheeks were cold and wet, and there still seemed to be an entire mountain range of snow between her and the street. She looked back toward her front door. The winding path she'd dug along the walkway was a twisted, purposeless trench, going nowhere, coming from despair.

The cat was staring at her through the window. Alice stared back, catching her breath, exhaling fog. The cat blinked slowly, then began grooming itself, licking one paw and dragging it over its face.

"Stupid cat," Alice muttered. She hadn't even wanted a pet. The cat had been a stray, and adopting it had been Nathan's idea. It was also the last thing Nathan had touched before leaving the house that day, exactly one year ago. He had kissed Alice, the cat had rubbed up against his leg, and he'd scratched its head and smiled at Alice and then vanished. Probably forever.

Some people still held out hope that their loved ones might reappear someday, returned by the whim of whatever mysterious force had snatched them away in the first place, but Alice knew better than to delude herself. Even if he did return, he would be different, changed by whatever experience he'd had. And if, as some supposed, he was trapped inside a time bubble, frozen while the rest of the world spun on—well, then Alice would be the changed one, and they would still be separated by a gulf of difference. She had long ago decided to move on.

But Alice couldn't get rid of the cat. She just couldn't.

The cat stopped grooming, sat up, opened its mouth, and began convulsing.

"Not again!" Alice dropped the shovel and ran back into the house. She managed to scoop up the cat and position it on the tiled kitchen floor before it coughed up a very large hairball.

"What is wrong with you?" Alice asked the cat. "I've told you, if you think you're going to puke, go into the bathroom."

"Right," said the cat. "You remember that the next time you're on a tequila bender."

Stupid cat, Alice thought. The vanishings by themselves were bad enough without all the animals on the planet also starting to talk on the same damn day. How many weird things did the world need in it, anyway? "Are you done?"

"Yeah. Thanks a million." The cat squirmed out of her grip and sauntered down the hallway. "By the way, you're going to need more Kleenex."

Alice looked up at the windowsill. The side of the cardboard box was torn open, and a pile of shredded tissue paper sat on the carpet below.

"I hate you," Alice said.

"Hate you too," the cat sang, and disappeared into the bedroom.


26 October 2009

512 Words After Hours

My appearance on last Friday's Strange Love Live: After Hours (NSFW) included an exclusive reading of "The Wren and the Hen and the Men in the Pen." To get to the reading, scroll the video forward a few minutes until you see me staring down at a piece of paper. It's shortly after I flash a copy of Cory Doctorow's Overclocked and offer to read from it (I would have done "Printcrime"). If streaming video isn't your thing, you can also just listen to the audio.

Thanks to Cami Kaos and Dr. Normal for having me on the show!


23 October 2009

This Is It

I'm a guest on the Strange Love Live tech podcast tonight. Watch the streaming video starting at 10PM Pacific! And for the 512 podcast fans (both of you), there's a good chance I'll be reading something aloud.


"Why You Watch"

By Curtis C. Chen

I want to—no, actually, I need to tell you how I lost my virginity. I want you to understand why I do what I do.

He was an actor. I won't tell you his name, for oh so many reasons. My dad worked on his show, I had met him on set a few times, and—this part's not really important. The point is, he asked me out, and I thought I was the luckiest girl on the planet.

So he took me to dinner, and then we were supposed to attend a performance, but he said he didn't want any paparazzi to snap me, and did I just want to watch something in his hotel suite instead? Of course I said yes, because I was a stupid kid with stars in her eyes and I was crushing on him even harder for being so considerate.

Back at his hotel, he put on some music, we drank, we danced, he held me and kissed me—I know, it's all so clichéd, but back then, in the moment, it was like a dream. I was the princess, he was the prince, and he was So. Damn. Charming. I didn't have a chance.

He had a vid capture setup in the bedroom. He didn't ask me, just started recording. He didn't ask me a lot of things. He hurt me and he didn't stop, and I couldn't stop him. The look on his face—it was like I wasn't even a person to him, like I was just a prop.

The good news is, I spent those minutes figuring out how I could get away. And I noticed the blinking red light in the corner. So after he finished, when he let go of my arms and rolled off of me, I went straight for the capture to grab that disc.

His last bad decision of the night was to chase me across the room, yelling the whole time so I knew exactly where he was. I picked up the capture and swung it as hard as I could into the side of his head. Smashed the equipment and knocked him out cold. I took the disc and called Emergency. I was still crying when the medics showed up.

But I didn't destroy the disc. I kept it after the trial. The thing is, the vid itself isn't even that shocking. It's ugly and sickening, but it's ordinary. That was the worst part: realizing that something so horrible could be so mundane.

I have no illusions about what I do. I know it's all impulse-mapped and computer-enhanced, but I don't lie to my audience, and it's the best sex that some of them will ever experience. They need to know that sex can be enjoyable, even beautiful. Even if this is the only time they feel that, at least they can keep the memory of it.

That's why I do this. If you can't accept that, well, then you need to leave.

But I'd really prefer it if you stayed.


* With apologies to http://whyiwatch.com

Photo credits: "My eye" by Jean-Jacques MILAN; "Canon FD lens rear" by Matthew J. Brown; editing done in GIMP 2.6.3.

16 October 2009

"Broken Morning"

By Curtis C. Chen

There's a unique color, the dark blue of distant mountains behind fog, that Helen has never seen in a city. It's not the most important reason she left, but it is the one she remembers every morning.

Today, there's noise. Percival's whinnies draw Helen out of the tent. She sees a bright orange dot in the sky, trailing a corkscrew of smoke. There's no chance it's natural.

"Well, Percy," she says, "we'd better make sure that doesn't burn."

No aviation alerts have appeared on the datalink. That either means nobody's noticed the falling star yet, or nobody wants to talk about it. She tweets her status to the nearest ranger station and rides into the forest.

Helen is surprised to see that none of the timber downed by the crash is burning. The pilot must have doused the engine fire before hitting the ground—which means a dead-stick landing. That's no mean feat.

She ties Percival to a tree about fifty yards from the wreckage, then checks the load on her revolver. The wolves get bolder all the time. Helen holsters the pistol and moves forward, stepping around debris.

This is no ordinary aircraft. The tail number isn't a civilian series, and the engine pods have no air intakes. The cabin hatch has been blown open. Helen's reaching for her penlight when a woman springs up on the other side of the fuselage.

"Stop right there!" the woman shouts. She's holding a shotgun and wearing combat fatigues.

Helen raises both hands and studies the face: sharp nose, pale skin, angry blue eyes, blond hair. Nothing like Helen, who is short, stocky, and dark.

"Who the hell are you?" the woman asks.

"Just passing through," Helen says. "I heard the crash and thought someone might need help."

The woman's eyes flick from side to side. "You a park ranger or something?"

"Nope," Helen says.

"That your horse back there?" the woman asks.

Helen shifts her weight slightly, feeling the ground. "I call him Percy."

"Well, me and 'Percy' are going for a little ride," the blond woman says. She starts walking backwards, limping.

"You need a doctor," Helen says.

"And I'm going to get one," the woman says. "Don't worry, I'm sure someone tracked me on the way down. They'll find you in a few hours."

Helen keeps her hands in the air and stands perfectly still.

Halfway to Percival, the blond woman turns and starts running. She probably figures she's gotten far enough away that Helen can't catch up. She didn't count on Helen having bullets.

Helen draws, breathes, and fires two rounds into the blond woman's back. The woman stumbles and falls. Her shotgun topples into the dirt.

Percy is still braying when Helen reaches him. "Hush," she says. "I wasn't going to shoot you."

The blond woman groans. "You... bitch..."

Helen looks down. "Don't worry. I tagged you with tranquilizer pellets. The authorities will be here long before you wake up. Maybe they'll even bring a doctor."

The woman swipes at the air and closes her eyes.


Photo credits: "Mount Hood seen from OHSU" by Cacophony; "Texas cowboys 2" by Pschemp; editing done with GIMP 2.6.0

09 October 2009

"The Wren and the Hen and the Men in the Pen"

By Curtis C. Chen

Every morning, the wren descended from the baron's airship to visit with the hen in the barnyard. The hen neither desired or encouraged these conversations, but, confined as she was within her coop, could do little to prevent their occurrence.

On this morning, the wren shouted from far across the barnyard, "They're here! Can you see them? They're almost here!"

"Go away," said the hen, delivering her customary greeting.

The wren hit the ground and tumbled into the wire barrier around the chicken coop. "The baron's getting at least a hundred interns! They came by rail but the baron had to send trucks to bring them from the station to the north pasture!"

"I suppose that explains all the construction," the hen muttered. The humans had been running their machines day and night, building fences and towers and inexplicable metal things. "What are 'interns?'"

The wren said, "I don't know. But they're humans! I think they're like visitors. They're going to stay here in the baron's care!"

"Great," said the hen. She could hear the rumble of engines approaching. "More mouths to feed."

The farmer emerged from his house carrying an empty basket and stomped over to the coop.

"Morning, Rosie," he said. The hen ignored him.

"We're getting interns!" the wren shouted.

"None of my business," said the farmer, opening the chute at the bottom of the coop. "A little light today, Rosie?"

"Winter's coming," said the hen.

"You let me know if anyone starts shutting down for the season," the farmer said. "We just fenced off some new ground in the north pasture. Girls might enjoy the outdoors if they're not producing."

The hen knew Thirteen and Twenty-Two hadn't laid in almost a week. But no hens ever came back after being relocated.

"I'll let you know," said the hen.

The farmer turned and walked back into the house.

"You're not laying anymore!" the wren said to the hen.

"Shut up," said the hen.

"You could relocate with the other hens—"

"I said shut up!"

The hen snapped her beak. The wren hopped backward and cowered.

A caravan of trucks rolled up to the edge of the fence at the north pasture. The hen could see most of the enclosure behind the edge of the barn.

The baron's guards prodded a line of thin, bald men into the enclosure. The bald men all wore gray, and there were human symbols painted on their clothes and foreheads.

One of the bald men staggered and fell. The nearest guard ran up and began kicking him. The other bald men did nothing. They didn't even try.

The hen watched and wondered when the baron had decided to treat these men more like animals than humans. She also wondered how long it would be before the baron decided that even animals should be treated like property.

"How far can you fly?" the hen asked the wren.

The wren puffed out his chest with pride. "I've flown all the way to the ocean!"

The hen braced herself and said, "Tell me about it."


02 October 2009

Prime Time on the Interwebs

On Friday, October 23rd at 10PM Pacific, I will be a guest on Strange Love Live, a weekly online show featuring "the movers and shakers of the social web" (an earlier episode of which I rebroadcast from this very blog).

More details over at CKL's HotSheet.


"I'll Sleep When I'm Dead"

By Curtis C. Chen

The woman in the black jacket hesitated before opening the container. The man in the blue suit stared at her. She had seen many different expressions cross his square-jawed face over the years, but now she saw something new: desperation.

"I'm going to ask you one more time," she said. "Don't do this."

He gave her the thinnest of smiles, and she remembered the first time they'd met and the fleeting thought of romance she'd entertained. But he was never interested in her. He had never wanted anyone except Lois.

"I appreciate your concern," he said, his voice steady and comforting, as if the woman in the black jacket was the one who needed reassuring. But she did, didn't she? If something went wrong—if he died here—she would have to live with it. She would be the woman who killed Earth's greatest hero.

"You understand that the change will be permanent," she said.

He nodded. "You mean, until the next time the universe is reshaped by events beyond our control? Yes. I understand."

She knew he wasn't talking about some cataclysmic battle against supervillains or extraterrestrial conquerors. He was talking about losing his wife in something as mundane as a traffic accident. There had been no warning, no evil plot, no significance to it. If she hadn't been his wife, few people would even have noticed.

The woman in the black jacket couldn't leave it alone. "We all feel powerless sometimes," she said. "But even you can't save everyone. Nobody can. It's not meant to be."

"I know that," he said. "But I can do more."

"You'll die sooner," she said. "Maybe that means only hundreds of years instead of thousands, but you don't know when the world will need you most—"

"Last Tuesday morning," said the man in the blue suit. "Twelve minutes after eight. And I wasn't there."

"It wasn't your fault!" she said. "You can't save everyone, Clark!"

"I don't want to save everyone," he said. "But if I can save one more life because of this—prevent one more family's suffering—it will be worth it."

She couldn't think of another argument, so she just said, "Please."

He smiled at her. Not condescending, just—compassionate. He was always so damn nice. He put a hand on her shoulder.

"I'm ready," he said.

She nodded and opened the container. A white glow emanated from its interior. He leaned forward, and reflections danced over his eyes. She wondered if he was trying to see through the relic, or using his microscopic vision to inspect its surface.

It wouldn't work. His powers were useless against magic. That was why he had come to her.

"What do I do?" he asked.

"Put your hand into the mist," she said. "The relic will do the rest."

The man in the blue suit raised his hand, then looked up at her. "Thank you, Zee," he said. "Whatever happens—thank you."

The woman in the black jacket shook her head. "I just hope you'll forgive me tomorrow."

He reached into the mist.



This week's story, the first of 512 Words or Fewer: Year Two, introduces a new feature to replace the audio podcast: illustrations!

As mentioned previously, I've loved comics for a long time. When I was younger, I drew my own comic strips and books, featuring anthropomorphized animals as the main characters because I had trouble drawing human faces. I could tell you about the Star Trek parody with Garfield as Doctor McCoy and--on second thought, I've probably said too much already.

Thankfully, my drawing skills matured in high school, and I did NOT turn to the dark side.

I dropped out of the comic scene in college, mostly because there was no convenient way for me to hit a comic shop every week. Also, I had by then slogged through several massive, multi-title, continuity-altering, universe-changing crossover EventsTM, and I'd grown a bit weary of the mainstream publishers' storytelling excesses.

The world of comics has grown up considerably in recent years, and there's some excellent, weird, amazing stuff out there. I started reconnecting while doing "research" for the Justice Unlimited Game, and I'm glad I did; otherwise, I might not have found Fables, Y: The Last Man, PS238, or Queen & Country. And my life would be all the poorer for it.

This week's illustration is just a pencil sketch. My drawing skills are a little rusty, but I hope to move up to finished inks and colors and maybe some other, more experimental stuff before the end of 512 Words or Fewer: Year Two. Watch this space, true believers!


01 October 2009

Happy Birthday to Us

Today is my actual birthday,* and this Saturday will mark the one-year anniversary of the launch of 512 Words or Fewer.

As we sail into the second year of this project, I thought it would be fun to review some statistics from the first 52 weeks. I've never really trusted web analytics, because it's impossible to infer intent from raw hit counts, but it's fun to look at the numbers every now and then:

Current feed subscribers: 104
Reach, last 30 days: 9**
Average reach, all time: 6

Percentage of traffic from Direct links: 25.50
Percentage of traffic from Referring Sites: 51.83
Percentage of traffic from Search Engines: 22.55

Most unusual repeated search keywords:
gangsta words
beautiful descriptions
im super thanks for asking
funny voices
audio about the earth
how do you say robot in french
laura barson
words that rhythm with open
words that stay the same

Top Ten Referring Sites:
  1. facebook.com
  2. friendfeed.com
  3. twitter.com
  4. boingboing.net
  5. staticzombie.com
  6. ccmixter.org
  7. blog.nella.org
  8. linkedin.com
  9. playdash.org
  10. blog.stephenharred.com

Most popular stories, by hit count:
  1. "The Incredible Machine"
  2. "Martian Standard Time"
  3. "Better"
  4. "Ghosts of Earth"
  5. "Bad Boy of the Spelling Bee"
  6. "Finale"
  7. "The Coronation Will Not Be Televised"
  8. "Bachelor of Science"
  9. "Sam Spayed"
  10. "Universal Language"

Most popular podcasts (based on FeedBurner "item use"):
    "The Incredible Machine"
    "Kangaroo's First Day with the Eye"
    "Martian Standard Time"
    "Ghost Machine"
    "What You Should Know About Water Rites"
    "True Story"
    "The More Things Change"
    "Bad Boy of the Spelling Bee"
    "Sam Spayed"

Thanks for reading, and if you enjoy these stories, please tell your friends! (That's what the SHARE button at the bottom of each post is for.)

* I am now 2*2*3*3 years old. Or, if you prefer, 1001002.

** Yeah, I'm not real happy with these "reach" numbers, but I imagine I'd be more upset if I understood what they actually meant and trusted the calculation method. For now, I'm just going to shrug and move on.


28 September 2009


Well, there's good news and there's bad news.

The good news:

100% of survey participants want more 512 Words! So I will be continuing this project for another year. Thanks for all your lovely comments; they're very encouraging.

The bad news:

Only two people said they listen to the podcast. So I'm discontinuing the audio portion of this program for now. (Sorry, "Poor College Kid," but thanks for the positive review on iTunes. May I recommend Cory Doctorow's podcast for your listening enjoyment? You can find that at craphound.com.)

I will also be changing the 512 Words or Fewer blog format a little bit. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!


Music: instrumental stems from "Chiron Beta Prime" by Jonathan Coulton, licensed under Creative Commons.

25 September 2009

"Wake-Up Call"

By Curtis C. Chen

It was early, and still dark on the fourth floor of the Townsend Insurance Group offices. The overhead lights flickered to life as Garrity Fort passed the motion sensors. He walked into the kitchen, started a pot of coffee, and went to his office.

Garrity sat down, wiggled the computer mouse, typed in his password, and double-clicked the e-mail icon. He got an error message. He tried to open a web page. Another error.

"Happy Monday," Garrity said.

He picked up his desk phone and dialed tech support. As expected, he got the recorded greeting and then elevator music. He put the call on speakerphone and tried opening his calendar. Nothing.

The phone crackled. A male voice said, "Garrity! Are you there?"

Garrity frowned and picked up the handset. "Hello?"

"What are you doing?" the man said. "Coffee's ready!"

"Coffee?" Garrity repeated, confused.

"In the kitchen!" said the man. "The hot coffee?"

"Is this the help desk?"

"Jesus, not this again," the man said. "Bellerophon, Amontillado, Vertanen!"

Garrity felt dizzy. "I don't know what that means."

"Go get the coffee! Now!"

"Who are you?"

"Bellerophon! Amontillado! Vertanen!" the man said.

Something flashed behind Garrity's eyes, and he went blind for a moment.

"Are you still there?" the man said.

"I'm here," Garrity croaked. His mouth tasted like smoke and dirt.

"This is going to be an expensive call," the man muttered. "Look down at your desk."

Garrity watched as his desk changed color, shimmering from dark mahogany to pale birch. Its size and shape remained the same, and it felt solid when he rapped his knuckles against it.

"That's impossible," Garrity said.

"You've got thirty seconds," the man on the phone said.

"Who are you?"

"Twenty-eight!" the man shouted. "Bellerophon—"

Garrity hung up. He glanced at his desk again, then ran out of his office and down the hall to the kitchen.

The red light on the coffee maker was dark. The clear glass container was still dry. Inside it was a handgun, black and menacing.

Garrity tapped the grip of the handgun with one finger. It wasn't hot at all. He lifted the gun out of the coffee pot. As soon as he closed his fingers around the grip, his hands began acting of their own volition—ejecting the clip, checking the ammunition, loading the weapon, chambering a round. Quick, efficient, involuntary.

"What am I supposed to do with this?" Garrity said.

Something growled behind him. Garrity turned around and saw, filling the kitchen doorway, a mass of hair and teeth that could generously be called a creature. The thing opened something that could have been a mouth and made another noise, halfway between a keen and a screech.

Garrity's arms moved themselves, aiming the handgun at the creature. His left hand wrapped around his right hand, and his right index finger pulled the trigger three times. The creature fell forward. Garrity's aim followed it down, and he fired once more into the back of what might have been its head. It stopped moving.

His cell phone rang.


Audio: "Wake-Up Call"

Why, yes, Grand Theft Auto fans, that "hot coffee" reference is a little inside joke just for you. Even if it does mean something slightly different in this context.

Music: 'Bass,' 'Guitar 1,' and 'Drums' stems from "I Feel Fantastic" by Jonathan Coulton, licensed under Creative Commons.


Third Person Shooter

Oh, like you've never written any Matrix fan fiction. Glass houses, my friend. Glass houses.

In related news, DeeAnn and I have been having a lot of fun playing Left 4 Dead online with our friends Chris and Karl. We're definitely looking forward to the sequel.

And, yes, this is the end of Year One of 512 Words or Fewer. Some changes are coming. More about that on Monday.


18 September 2009


By Curtis C. Chen

"I'll take the bad news first," the President said to his science advisor.

Xander Frain nodded. "We're having some difficulty verifying the age of the artifact," he said. "It's completely inorganic."

"No carbon," said the President, "so no carbon dating."

"Actually," Xander said, "Carbon-14 is only accurate up to about sixty thousand years. If what the Varna'ut are saying is true, this artifact is billions of years old. We can try other radiometric dating methods, but we need to identify the material first to establish a baseline."

"What about the translation?" the President asked.

"We've got two teams working on it," Xander said. "The first team is following the Varna'ut instructions with a full-size replica of the artifact. The second team is working with the original artifact, not using any external information."

"You don't want to bias the second team," the President said.

"Correct," said Xander. "The first team is getting pretty much the same message the Varna'ut delivered. There are small grammatical differences here and there, but nothing that affects the meaning.

"Here's where it gets interesting. Because we didn't tell the second team anything about the artifact, they started trying to decode it from a different orientation—rotated ninety degrees clockwise from what the Varna'ut instructions said it should be.

"Both teams found that the script had a linear flow, but in the case of the second team, they were actually reading it vertically, from top to bottom."

The President frowned. "How is that possible?"

"It's the way the language is written," Xander said. He placed a photograph of the artifact on the President's desk. "It's an alphabet-based system, and each symbol has different presentations—like upper- and lower-case letters, but multiple forms, at least five per symbol. Each visual variation has a different semantic meaning, and the ways the various ornamentations interact can also form new symbols."

Xander pointed to one corner of the photograph. "Both teams treated this region as the starting point of the message, based on the unique border pattern and the thicker lines used here. But where team one went left-to-right, team two went top-to-bottom, thinking it was right-to-left.

"See how the descender on this first symbol curves and extends, so it looks like a leading terminal when rotated? And it intersects the ascender from this symbol on the next line, making what appears to be a ligature."

"Are you saying there's some kind of hidden message in here?" the President asked.

"Well, a secondary message, anyway," Xander said. "We can't really infer any intent until we decode the whole thing."

"Mister Frain, you said you also had some good news for me."

Xander nodded. "Yes. The good news is, both teams have translated the same starting words for their messages. It appears to be a greeting: 'Dear Caretakers.' "

" 'Caretakers?' " the President repeated.

"Yes, sir."

"Well," said the President. "That would be ironic, wouldn't it? If it finally took aliens from another planet to convince us that we had to save this one."


Audio: "Xenotypography"

Dear Listener, herewith please find my inferior Fred Dalton Thompson impression. I really should have sold the drawl a little more on aay-lee-uhnzz...

And yes, I did reuse the name Varna'ut from an earlier story, "Universal Language." This does not necessarily mean the two stories take place in the same world. Do you know how long I spent making up that name? I'm going to get as much mileage out of it as I can!

Music: instrumental stems from "Wil Wheaton" "My Monkey" by Jonathan Coulton, licensed under Creative Commons.


Another Reason to Want a Publisher

This week's story was inspired in part by my friend Jeff's sojourn in DocBook ligature hell earlier this year. An excerpt:
Since I was obsessing about the way the page looked, I decided it would be nice to turn on whatever magic DocBook has available to make printed pages look nice. After all, if DocBook is good enough for O'Reilly, it ought to be good enough for me. I'd already noticed that DocBook was making my quotes curve (as long as you use the hideously verbose <quote></quote> tags). Then I looked into getting my apostrophes to curve.

Hello? Tap tap. Is this thing on?

Turns out the number one rule of the DocBook Club is you don’t talk about the DocBook Club. There’s plenty of mailing lists and stuff, but there are no answers. Eventually, it seemed to me the actual answer is "insert the Unicode symbol for them yourself".

Wow, that's seriously fucking stupid. Not even [Microsoft] Word is that stupid... and I thought Word had the market cornered on stupid.

Geek rants--hilarious! Visit jra's thoughts to read more about font decoration and why SGML sucks.


17 September 2009

Is there anybody out there? Take the 512 survey



It is entirely possible that I'm just talking to myself here, and a grand total of only five people in the whole world are reading this blog. Or maybe the rest of you don't like taking surveys. I'm hoping it's the latter, and I can persuade you to send some feedback my way.

This survey is real short, I promise--a flash survey, ha ha! Sorry. SRSLY. Just two multiple-choice questions and a single, optional text field. Won't take you more than two minutes to complete. C'mon, help a brother out?



16 September 2009

Audio: "Amélioré" (French translation of "Better")

A special bonus podcast for all you Francophiles. Thanks to my friend Pauline for lending her voice to this project!

(She may also have corrected one or two words from Jeff's original translation. Dude, how would I know?)

Music: "FoDorchestrastrings" by queeniemusic, licensed under Creative Commons from ccMixter.


11 September 2009

"World Trader"

By Curtis C. Chen

I was in the North Tower on September 11, 2001. I saw the first plane turning toward us, and I heard it when it hit, shattering glass and steel and concrete. That was the last sound I heard with my own ears.

There were fifty-six passengers on that flight, five of them hijackers. I couldn't control my power then—didn't even know I had it—and I traded through every single one of them, in a split second, before my brutish survival instinct deposited me in Leonard Spitzer, riding a subway train headed uptown.

Leonard didn't make it to work that day. Leonard wailed like a banshee until the transit cops pulled him off the train. NYPD threw Leonard in a cell and forgot to process him for two days, which was just as well, because I needed that long to get my shit together.

I still have some guilt. I wonder if I could have pulled myself together faster, if I could have separated those hijackers' memories from the tangle of sixty different people's thoughts crowding my head, if I could have warned someone and maybe stopped the second or third plane. I suspect no one would have believed me anyway.

It's taken me the better part of eight years to figure out how to control my ability. This is how it works: when I trade with someone, our minds swap bodies. But there's a residue, an echo, left behind by each original mind. If the new mind isn't strong enough, it can be overpowered by the original reasserting itself. Obviously that hasn't ever happened to me, but I've had to fight pretty hard in some cases.

At this point, I'm strong enough that I don't ever have to fully vacate any of the bodies I trade out of. My own echo can assimilate any new mind it encounters. The person I'm trading with doesn't die; no, no, that would be cruel. They just get merged into my existing personality, and I maintain control. Well, a copy of me, but we are, literally, of one mind.

I used to manage salespeople for a living. It is so much easier to work with others when you know they share your beliefs and goals. We all have slightly different perspectives, naturally, based on our unique experiences and acquired expertise, but we all want the same thing in the end. I don't have to make speeches or try to motivate anyone. I know my echoes will follow orders without question.

The only downside is that they don't inherit the ability to trade themselves into other minds. It would be so much easier if I didn't have to keep flying back and forth across the oceans, re-seeding cells in key locations as they get destroyed or compromised. But we're getting close, I'm sure of it. Bin Laden can't hide forever.

This latest message from Istanbul was cryptic, but their insistence on seeing me in person means it must be important. I can't wait for them to show me what they've found.


Audio: "World Trader"

This week's unusual reading voice is partly for dramatic effect, but mostly because I caught some kind of virus at PAX and have been sick for the past few days.

Music: instrumental stems from "Creepy Doll" by Jonathan Coulton, licensed under Creative Commons.


Source Materials


04 September 2009

"Newbody Does It Better"

By Curtis C. Chen

Two men in a bar.

"Why don't you like talking to Lisa?"
    "Come on, man."
"No, really, tell me why you don't like talking to my wife."
    "Dude. It's not your wife. It's a computer simulation running inside a robot."
"It's not a simulation. It's her mind—all the same thoughts, feelings, and memories—just running on a different substrate."
    "Wow. Is that straight out of the brochure?"
"This is a common misconception. We don't make a copy, we perform a transfer."
    "Are we going to have this argument, too? It's information. There isn't some magical brain energy that gets siphoned off and deposited into the newbody. You scan someone's skull for activity patterns and program the newbody's main computer to replay those patterns. Hell, that's not even a copy. That's mimicry."
"Look, I can't talk about it in detail, but—we know it works. One hundred percent, no doubt, it's a perfect transfer."
    "And I should just take your word for it?"
"You'll just have to trust me. It's a big deal. We've been working on this problem for a long time, but we're not ready to tell the public yet."
    "Wait. You said 'problem.'"
"No. Sorry. Poor choice of words. It's... an issue we have to resolve."
    "What's going on?"
"You are not getting a story out of this."
    "Wouldn't dream of it. Come on. Off the record."
"I can't."
    "Will this big secret convince me that Lisa is not a robot?"
Laughter. "If this doesn't, then nothing will."
    "Jeff. You can trust me."
A pause. "We can't talk in here."


Two men in a taxicab.
    "I swear. On the graves of all my forefathers, I swear. I will die before repeating any of this."
A deep breath. "Okay. You're right about how we initialize the newbrains. We scan the biological brain to reverse-engineer the physical neuron structure. Once we have that information, we manufacture the newbrain, imprint it, and power up the newbody."
    "I'm not hearing any secrets so far."
"You were wrong about one thing. We can be certain that the newbrain is an exact duplicate of the original. We know when it works, because the old brain stops functioning."
    A pause. "What?"
"When we power up the newbrain, the old, biological, human brain stops working."
    "Because you destroy the old body."
"No. This is what I'm telling you. The old brain just dies. Immediately. We don't know how—"
    "Wait. Wait! What do you mean, it dies? You're just making a copy of some energy patterns!"
"We're duplicating a mind at the quantum level. Apparently the universe won't allow two identical minds to exist simultaneously, and the newbrain supersedes the old one because it's more durable. This is our current theory, anyway."
    "Christ. If you're right, then you could kidnap someone—anyone—just by scanning them and imprinting a newbrain somewhere? Fuck, you wouldn't even need a body!"
"Yeah. You see why you can't tell anyone?"
    "I think I'm going to be sick."
"Well, you did have a lot to drink."
    "That's fucking hilarious."