All They Wanted Was Angry Meat

1.

“What was all that fury on our sensors about?”

“A Viridian delegation from Viridian Prime unveiled at close range, sir.”

“Viridian Prime?”

“Complete with warm greetings and compliments and all that, sir.”

“I don’t get it. We weren’t scheduled to receive any visitors from Viridian Prime today, were we?”

“They’re not warbirds, sir.”

“If they don’t want to fight, why creep up on stealth?”

“Apparently they just want to talk, sir. Said if they unveiled at a distance, we might fire on them.”

“Damn straight we would have. What makes them think unveiling this close to our sensors makes them safer?”

“Maybe you’d reconsider firing at civilians at close range or something. I don’t really know, sir.”

“So what do they want from a humble border defense outpost like ours? Why not bother Tenebrus Central Command directly? Those guys do conversation better than we do.”

“Said they don’t want to talk to Central Command. They want to talk to us. Like, they want to talk to you.”

“What about?”

“Said they’d tell only if you agreed.”

“Sounds supremely suspicious, if you ask me. Is some new invasion tactic of theirs?”

“I mean, we’re loaded on weapons, sir. And they’re not warbirds, you know?”

“Yeah, that’s all nice and pretty, but we’re also farthest from any neighboring defense outpost, you know?”

“Shall I say no to them then? Or do we attack and take the crew?”

“You said they’re straight from Viridian Prime, yeah? They’ve got to be some pretty important folks.”

“My bacteria farm manager always used to say, ‘A conversation never really hurt anyone’.”

“You straight from the farm to front-line service? I didn’t know that about you.”

“Farm was destroyed by the Viridian attack, sir. Then, times of hardship brought about other talents.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Well, if they’re here to exchange words, let’s go wreak some sordid havoc with our words on them, then.”

“I didn’t know you were a closet poet, sir.”

“Times of hardship bring about other talents or something.”

2.

“I can’t believe our commander decided to agree to a ‘conversation’ on board the Viridian ship.”

“I don’t see why not. It shows we’re trustworthy and that we’re not all as paranoid as you are, Szari.”

“Masara, please, this is the technologically superior enemy we’re talking about.”

“Yeah, so? We haven’t sent him alone. And that’s why we’re all on standby for an attack.”

<Sigh> “…. you ever feel like our station commander was designed for this job? The way he stomps about you’d think he’s constantly leading us to war.”

“We’re on the border, Szari. These aren’t exactly easy times. He has valid reasons for being jumpy.”

“Or maybe conversations just really get him riled up.”

“The Viridians said they wanted to negotiate. Not your average hello-how-are-you-how-is-your-farm kind of conversation.”

“Negotiations imply that the two forces are somehow comparable in power. We’re no match for the Viridians, let’s be honest. Even if they’re not warbirds or whatever.”

“My dear optimist, it’s the Viridians who called us here to negotiate. Ergo, we have something they want.”

“Or maybe this is all a great trap and we’re going to die.”

“You always this charming, Szari?”

“Only if I can blame it on being perpetually hungry and having been raised on bacterial soup my whole life.”

“Ugh, shut up and let me watch the negotiations.”

“Councilor Baccara of Viridum Prime. Who do I have the pleasure of meeting today?”

“She’s kind of pretty, I’d say.”

“Are you just saying that because she’s naked, Szari?”

“I’m not alone in this. Watch our dear commander avert his eyes.”

“Everyone knows the Viridians are naked all the time because of their green skin, except for adolescent boys – “

“And painfully conscious Tenebrus commanders with questionable conversation skills.”

“And pessimistic Tenebrus senior staff on far-flung outposts.”

“Commander Zelony of Tenebrus.”

“Please, let us be seated. We meet in difficult times, but I hope there’ll be no need for armed guards?”

“This room is safe and my people within are disarmed, ma’am. Can’t speak for yours.”

“Come, come! Viridian hospitality allows that we receive our guests in one piece.”

“No guarantees whether they depart the same”

<Chuckle> “Who knows whether we are guests even?”

“You’re keeping up, Masara!”

“For a cynic, you’re easily surprised.”

“As you know, Zelony of Tenebrus, this meeting has been sanctioned to respond to your allegations that Viridian forces recently attacked your civilian property.”

“I did not know, ma’am. But we have lost three of our best bacterial harvesters, ma’am.”

“Deplorable!”

“Watch the faces.”

“All appropriately sad. Why, what’s wrong?”

“That’s exactly what’s wrong. Do you think they wore the same faces when they attacked?”

“Unfortunately, my dear Zelony, we are unable to offer either explanation or apology for these heinous crimes. All we have is an offer, which we hope which may be the only olive branch.”

“I’m listening.”

“In summary, we both know that Tenebrus is fighting a losing war.”

“Bad start.”

“Szari, shut up! What if she proposes a peaceful union of our people?”

“Masara, please. Don’t make me bring up my last meal.”

“With all due respect to Viridium Prime, ma’am. That remains to be seen.”

“But does it really, Commander? Look at your undernourished, hungry people. Do you expect them to fight a losing war to the end, subsisting only on bacterial soup?”

“Do not insult our armies, ma’am— “

“What if we were to offer your people free chlorophyll mutations?”

“About that last meal, Szari. Did you swallow it back like your words?”

“Your starving masses cannot support growth anymore. If anything, our records show a steady decline.”

“Fewer people hurt the environment less, ma’am.”

“Does that convince the mothers of starving, dying children? With our chlorophyll mutation, all your people will need is exposure to the sun and rechargeable crystals to fulfill their nutrient needs. Sure, your people will have green skins and some will grow film over their eyes to protect them from harsh light, but can’t you see how these superficial side-effects can negate the benefits? Does our proposal not solve your problem of perpetual hunger?”

“Is this a Viridian attempt to get us to surrender, ma’am?”

“Are you so fond of archaic eating habits that you’ll watch people die rather than adopt a miracle?”

“Starvation is hard on our forces, ma’am, but—”

“Why do you choose to battle both Viridian forces and hunger? Let us help you win one over the other!”

“We provide for ourselves the best we can, ma’am!”

“…”

 “Aren’t you grateful that awkward silence isn’t disrupted by the sound of your stomach growling?

“Do you think nudity is a problem, then? Our exposed skins absorb all available light all the time to nourish ourselves. We do not need to hide in crowded, suffocating, subterranean caverns. Can your methods offer your people such freedom?”

“Our clothing protects us— “

“Your clothing adapts, or even, confines you to your cold subterranean caverns. Our nudity is a very minor cost for the privilege of nutrition and warmth. There is dignity in the simplicity of accepting our bodies as is. Consider, the guarantee of an empty stomach at the cost of clothing.”

“We can’t force people to become part-plants, ma’am.”

“But we are offering your people a lifestyle where hunger will be the least of their concerns!”

“With all due respect, ma’am, the only thing you’ve fed us is propaganda!”

<Sigh> “Undeniably, I’m making an excellent deal.”

“She wants surrender.”

“Not a bad idea, if you look at our odds.”

“If their odds are so good, then why is she here asking instead of attacking?”

“Surely the offer isn’t free, ma’am.”

“All we ask is access to your city-gates so that our vessels can collect the unfortunate from their prison. A negligible price to ask for their survival. I’m sure their family here would agree.”

“…”

“We understand that you alone cannot make this decision. We will assemble tomorrow, so that you have time to make the right decision. Please review what we have offered, since such offers are rare in their generosity.”

“Much appreciated, ma’am.”

3.

“Well, senior staff, y’all saw and heard what happened.”

“Sir, we should accept their proposal if they have something to show for it.”

“You think they wouldn’t have come here with at least some lure of convincing us to adopt their ways?”

“We don’t know if that’s really what they came for, sir.”

“That naked councilor of theirs said that she and her team could inject enough of our crew with the chlorophyll so that we could experience that life.”

“If they were willing.”

“We have starved ourselves and our people long enough, I think. You think loyalty stops hunger? You’ve been on the bacterial farms, you’ve seen what life is like when food is so hard to get.”

“But sir— “

“But sir, what? All of the things she said today. Even if it is propaganda, doesn’t it sound so good?”

“What if Tenebrus Central Command— Would this be considered mutiny, sir? “

“Central Command be damned. Have you ever lived a life without being hungry all the time? Because that’s what they’re offering. And we have to share our space and borders with them, not with the bacterial farms back on Tenebrus.”

“Permission to speak freely, sir?”

“Yes, Szari. You’ve been quiet this whole time.”

“Masara and I conclude that the deal isn’t as rosy at it seems, sir.”

“If this has anything to do with administrative, bureaucratic or loyalist something or other— “

“The Viridian offer has a giant loop-hole, and it’s not nudity and green skin. Mutating people into photosynthesizing creatures may satisfy many of the carbohydrate requirements, but it doesn’t solve everything.”

“I don’t remember asking permission on your behalf, Masara.”

“Let her catch a breath, Szari. What’s wrong with the Viridian deal?”

“The problem is protein. Photosynthesis alone can’t complete dietary protein needs. The only plants that synthesize proteins are legumes, and even then, because they have bacterial hosts in their roots, which use atmospheric nitrogen. That’s why we harvest bacteria.”

“Okay, so?”

“Biology babble aside, the Viridians must be suffering from protein deficiencies. For their survival, they have to get their protein from somewhere.”

“This deal gives them complete access our protein farms.”

“We also know, and Szari, you’ll suffer the biology babble here, that nothing grows anymore on Viridian soil because all sunlight has been monopolized, captured and reflected. The soil has been burned but those naked mutants are fed.”

“…I’m still not seeing the light here.”

“No grass means no animals, so no animal meat. Even if they attacked our farms to steal our bacteria, they can’t grow them under their harsh lights. The only other source of protein they can readily get their hands on is…”

“Us.”

“…”

<hysterical laughter>

“…”

“Sir are you alright?”

“All of this is very tenuous sir, there’s no way we can report this to Tenebrus Central Command”

“Oh yeah? You think that Central Command doesn’t understand science?”

“Forget science, you think Tenebrus Central Command doesn’t understand a black market for all that bacterial soup that’s in our bloodstream and food?”

“Enough of this. Don’t harass the liaison.”

“I was only trying to do my job, sir…”

“As I’m sure you were. But we clearly have enough scientific grounds.”

“If he’s not convinced, I would suggest being locked up alone with Masara until he can convince himself. Not that this is a punishment I would recommend. Given that I endured it myself.”

“You think you’re rare, Szari, wait till you’re medium rare.”

 “Stop it! Are y’all senior staff or children?”

“…”

“<Sigh> …I don’t know if we’re defending Tenebrus from securing their right to eat or from being eaten…”

“Sir, with all due respect and apologies and all that, Tenebrus Central Command requests urgently an update and briefing of what happened.”

“All hail to Central Command and their great sense of timing.”

“But sir, what about what Szari and I uncovered?”

“Two things, that’s what. Tell Central Command we intercepted a Viridian intruder. Refill our armory.”

“Sir, what are we doing?”

“Attacking a bunch of Viridian civilians, that’s what. They came here for meat. But they’ve forgotten from years of non-eating that it’s easier to skin unclothed meat.”

“Sir, have you ever sampled meat?”

“A long while ago, when we weren’t forced to be hungry all the time.”

“Sir, am I permitted to disclose what happened on the Central Command report?”

“Yes, go ahead. And with that poetic flair of yours, tell them we avenge your former peers at 0400 tomorrow. Meeting dispersed.”

“Do you think that’s what the Viridians wanted?”

“Whatever happens is definitely what they get.”

 

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They Who Were Wordless

Ku was named with a rare consonant and the last vowel her wordless family had to spare and she had fallen on desperate times indeed. The Qxlb recruited Ku when they discovered that she sold slang on the black-market, desperately moving from alphabet to alphabet to feed herself. Ku had always considered them her last resort, and now that she had succumbed to it, she felt her end very near. The Qxlb chose their unpronounceable names from scraping the remnants of burned lexicons on the streets, an act which endeared them to the wordless majority. They made bold claims to restore the depleting vocabulary and often acted on them, using methods that Ku could neither accept because of their extremity nor reject because of their results. The government could not capture or describe that which they could not name, which served the Qxlb’s purposes quite well.

Ku had come to realize that her introversion had moved from a choice to a survival trait. It was not only the quiet introspective silence that she had habituated to, but an impressive taciturn armor from which words had to literally be wrestled out. Ku had grown up around the increasingly thinning rationed dictionaries, watching friends and families unspeak themselves around her, whispering the last of their letters from their hoarse mouths and falling to a vocabulary of grunts which could at best communicate anguish. There were literally no words to convey what she had seen or felt so she denied herself the experience of it. If she couldn’t describe it, even to herself, what could it be? The frustration of the sudden limits on their expressive abilities often drove the wordless to death, that Eternal Silence. The sad silences, the awkward silences, the pregnant silences were not for Ku. She clung to her armor terrified, willing to risk losing her voice entirely than to risk losing the few words she had. Sometimes these words would jump to her mouth, but remain unexpressed.

The Qxlb researchers as well as the government had tried to come up with alternative languages. Could they teach an entire population of adults to sign before their language died? Could they come up with any language at all that would not suffer the same fate from their using, abusing mouths? The more outspoken members of Ku’s generation still believed they could Do Something about this situation. They directed scattered efforts to word-preservation methods or new ways to communicate without losing the expressive power they had formerly retained. The problem had to be discussed, the solutions had to be expressed. Ku guessed that they were in denial of an entire generation had been rendered disabled by the very language they spoke. Still she couldn’t blame them for trying.

Ku’s illegal transactions were conducted behind a governmental shelter that taught speakers to sign. She made words that could be used for one conversation and then died out. This made what people spoke impossible to remember (since they weren’t real words), but they gave people the illusion that they had more words to spare. They had signed till they had calluses on their hands and yet they became increasingly incoherent. It was a failing venture by a desperate government, foiled at will by the Qxlb who refused to surrender to these indignities. Large populations of adult speakers could not be converted to signers in a timespan that could retain their language. The silent inexpressible frustration that the signers now held in their hands brought literal chokeholds, broken fingers and hands. Signs failed to be accepted as the new norm, and people soon thought their hands could be better used to squeeze the remaining letters from the living and the speaking yet. The demented signers now roamed the streets muttering, “_Ny l_tt_rz pl_z h_lp-“, begging any possible letters they could from those who walked alone in the dark. Ku clutched her few vowels close to her heart, when she braved those nights.

The Qxlb had assumed that by killing the verbose, the archaic, the voluble and the redundant, they could recover yet the words and letters unspoken. Like spilled blood, the letters disappeared shortly after their death though scavengers actively hunted for short easy vowels or the occasional soft consonant. By the Qxlb’s “munificence”, they could collect as much as they could commit to their memory. The scavengers knew they were now impure with the letters of another, but at least they could lend comprehension to their speech, a voice to their demands. They comprised of the Qxlb in large numbers. They disgusted Ku, but she could never name the feeling without losing words, so she accepted their recruitment as some form of final punishment. She was one of the most passive and withdrawn recruits yet for she had no words to bandy, not even for small talk.

The raid on the old libraries tonight would be in vain, Ku thought. The Qxlb were under the impression that freeing words from the archaic manuscripts and texts would enable people to use them. Blood-curdling scavengers had been recruited for this noble task because they could memorize the letters of others so rapidly. The Qxlb also deemed it necessary to find new letters to identify themselves with. Notoriety had cut into the exclusive usage of ‘Q’s, ‘X’s, ‘L’s and ‘B’s, which would soon become rare due to overuse. The Qxlb could not afford anonymity to the extent that even their own members were unable to identify themselves. Ku herself had grown accustomed to living in the perpetual fear of unspeaking her own name. She let others assign aliases to her and did not care to repeat to herself what they were, since she didn’t want to be remembered by them. Ku knew they envied her silence. She must be holding on to a lot of words, they must have rumored, let her open her mouth and speak for a change.

Despite all of the projected bravado that the Qxlb members shared between themselves, Ku could not shake the feeling that the Qxlb had run out of alternatives. Ku watched the more aggressive members hold Silencers to the mouths of government officials, vicariously living through the memories of squeezing every last word that casually rolled from their fat mouths, spilling between the flecks of their saliva while they laughed or chortled. Did they deserve justice? Did they deserve to have their voices heard just because they could afford the waste? Ku crept into the raided library herself, assigned to secondary shifts, reading aloud from the echoes of words left behind by her shift-members. Her painfully hoarse, fragile voice carried the combined weight of disuse as well as the magnitude of “new” words. Scavengers stared at her lips hungrily, memorizing their moves, driving their own depraved growls to the sound of possible prestige and power and expression. Ku did not doubt that they had contemplated scooping the last of the words from her should they spot her alone in some dark corridor.

When the long night ended, the Qxlb poured into the streets, fresh with new words of joy and celebration. Even the wordless who could still speak joined in the revelry, since victory did not need words to be expressed. The Qxlb could shout themselves hoarse into the horizons with a “victory” that they hadn’t “earned”.  Ku did not care for the Qxlb’s losses and she certainly could not care for their successes.

“What is the point of fighting over the few letters we have among ourselves if we cannot save the history of a people?” she asked herself aloud, nearly surprising herself with the sound of her own daring. By speaking aloud to herself, Ku had unlocked the dam that had kept her words and feelings and ideas in. Now that her voice had been reluctantly put through the motions of speaking, Ku knew it was time for her wordless suicide to begin. She stalked back into the library for government bodies that still bled. She pushed past the scavengers who were ready to press words even from the ghosts of these people as spoken life left them. She dipped a sharp tip of wood in the slow-pooling blood and began to scratch words onto the recently emptied pages that had been read from.

“We are the Atlassian people. We speak a language that has abused us. Very soon, we will be silenced forever. There will be nothing left in our language. Without words to use, we will be thoughtless and nameless. Do not forget us…”

 

 

“Perfect”

This is a story inspired by the revelation of a character from one of my favorite TV shows. In a way, it is a story that tells of a situation similar to that of Dr. Julian Bashir, Chief Medical Officer from the show Star Trek, Deep Space Nine.

I stood in front of the mirror and looked at myself. The youngest Nobel Prize winner. I could remember how uproarious the media was. I was the youngest female to have ever been bestowed with such an honor. Suddenly the whole galaxy knew my name. My revolutionary spaceship designs would be implemented throughout the galaxy. I had just accepted my award and my place in history with an eloquent thanking speech. And now I stood backstage. Everybody was so proud of me. Everybody except myself.

My parents entered the room. They had just answered questions about the media’s new infatuation – me. After countless interviews, my parents stood beaming and proud. My father was an architect. My mother, a doctor. They felt so proud narrating stories of their “little” daughter. Not so little, I was twenty-five.

My mother came forward and hugged me. I couldn’t return the gesture. I was disgusted with my parents. My rage was boiling in the deep, dark pit of my stomach. Everybody has their secrets. As do I. Now, I was a beautiful, brilliant genius with a sparkling life ahead of me, supported on a strong foundation of many awards, scholarships and hard-work.

When I was six, I was the exact opposite. I was a slow, clumsy child who was awkward about everything. I had difficulty in grasping the simplest of concepts which seemed to come to all my peers with natural ease. I found it difficult to talk and I had problems differentiating between simple, everyday objects like trees and houses, while all my classmates learnt how to use a computer and solve differential equations. I never could really understand what was going on around me. I never understood what happened and why it happened. It was made very clear to me by all who were around me that I was inferior. I began to realize that I had been a constant disappointment to my parents since the time I came into my existence. Turns out I had a developmental abnormality. I was shorter than most other children my age and I appeared to be less-able than them in other ways as well.

Before my seventh birthday, I paid a visit to the Galactic Medical Federation with my parents. The best doctors all over the galaxy worked there. Yet, it wasn’t completely impervious to corruption. And then those treatments began. It started with my mental growth and ended with my appearance and that caused my change. I was genetically enhanced and engineered. My IQ jumped five points a day over two weeks. My communication and understanding of the world around me became better. My ability to grasp and absorb had increased far beyond than I what I could. Everything about me changed from awkward to normal to outstanding.

But I was genetically engineered. I was not natural. You can call me a mutant, a freak. And genetic engineering is highly illegal. Eugenics was against everybody’s basic code of ethics and morality. Yet that never stopped my parents. And the treatments unfortunately never did wipe away the memory of my previous six years, living as the exact opposite of what I was now.

My father, the architect. He falsified records and identities. He corrected and improved upon the design of his daughter. He engineered a daughter to replace the malfunctioning one he had been given. He says that if it wasn’t for him, I would have spent the rest of my life under remedial education.

I suppose you think I should thank them for changing me from an ugly duckling to a swan. Correction, a genetically-engineered swan. A fraud, an illegal masterpiece.

But in transforming me, they removed what was fundamentally me. I’m an illegal freak of nature now and it’s all my parents’ fault. They never gave me a chance. After all, six is too early to predict the future of a growing child. And behind the brilliant genius and gorgeous looks is an illegal medical therapy.

My mother is crying into my arms now as she sees the steely, cold look in my eyes. She crying into my arms now, where I’m clutching my laurels and awards and certificates. She’s trying to explain her deed to me.

She tells me she kept blaming herself for it. That she spent many sleepless nights wondering what went wrong during the pregnancy and that why did it have to be me. She couldn’t bear to watch me suffer as I fell behind a little by little every day, as I became the slowest learner. Later, after my therapy, we moved to another city and transformed from the class dunce to star genius. My parents tried to hide everything from me. “We’re so proud of her, “was their constant annoying refrain.

But unfortunately, the treatment did not wipe out whatever dull blurry memories I have. I will always remember. Even though they loved me and wanted the best for me, I was unable return the gesture to them anymore, even though I had transformed from something “ugly” to something “beautiful”. The main point is that they failed to appreciate me then and now they wanted to. Why not just accept me for what I was? Why was I not always perfect for them? Was I not their baby? Did I not have the right to be accepted as and what I was? Did I have to satisfy certain criteria to be “worthy” of being their daughter?

Now, I was the galaxy’s most promising young scientist and not to mention my gorgeous looks as well which would get me a great life ahead. But I can’t find it in myself to be arrogant or happy about it. Now that I’m the center of the media’s attraction, my secret’s bound to come out.

My father tells me that he’s willing to serve five years in a low-security penal colony. He’s willing to shoulder the blame for the fraud of genetic engineering. At best he can get a ten-year sentence because he performed the therapy without my consent and only as the power of my benefactor.

I’m touched by his gesture. Even though I despise them, they’re still my parents and I love them for some inexplicable reason. I loved them then and I promised myself that I would try and accept myself, forgive myself for being a disappointment to my parents. And after the treatment, I had to somehow continue to love them. It was the last shred of my originality. The only thing that I tried so hard not to change after all these years. But its difficult. But it’s the only bit of that six-year-old me that will stay with me now and forever.

Guilt

Thinker Raven had a very curious problem for the first time in all her life.

As a Public Philosopher, her job had been a relatively sedentary one. Through the Network, she was able to sense everyone’s feelings and emotions. And as such, her primary task was to maintain emotional equilibrium amongst all the citizens.  It was true that all the people who were connected to the Network had no emotional privacy. All their feelings were known and shared by everyone else who was on the Network. In fact, most of the citizens, and even many other Public Philosophers believed that the Network was the only reason there was no crime, malice, rumor or gossip, or even secrets among the citizens.

So, it was indeed a surprise to Thinker Raven, when the first corpse was found.

After almost centuries of no homicide or crime, the surprise was so astounding that Thinker Raven had to meditate in silence for sustained periods in order to restore equilibrium to the other citizens. Those who were rapidly alarmed, or shocked by the trauma, or disgusted, or frightened, immediately reached out for help on the Network, and the Public Philosophers were almost over-taxed in trying to restore calm and peace to everyone.  It took several hours of propagating calming thoughts and soothing emotions over the Network in order to reduce the mass panic. For someone so young, Thinker Raven seemed to have the remarkable mental stamina to work with the other Philosophers to end the crisis.

Thinker Raven and all the other public philosophers assumed it was a freak occurrence and tried to help the public mentally justify it by claiming that it was random;  it was probably a physical accident; it wasn’t anything worth being curious about and so on. Even though the Philosophers got away with it the first time, they could sense via the Network, that people were feeling impatient, unsatisfied, and the more fragile members were slowly being accustomed to the horror of death.

In the Network, unless someone was a sociopath, schizophrenic or some other serious mental illness, it was hard to discern the individual identities of the citizenry.

While on the outside, the Philosophers maintained a blind eye of calm resolve; internally, a few of them were restless.

They scanned every memory, every thought, every sensation to locate the deceased and tried to find out who, what or why could have killed that person. This was a task undertaken by only some of the Philosophers, especially those with the talent of compartmentalizing their thoughts from the rest of the citizenry, so that the images of blood and gore would not spill to the rest of the Network and serve as an incentive for further violent acts. Even then, these select Philosophers promised to undergo some form of a purge to remove the images and memories of death, before they were united back with the mainstream.

Thinker Raven was never tasked with such a problem as she faced now.

Depression, mania, obsessions and abnormal psychological or social behavior was dealt with swiftly by the combined brainwashing of several Philosophers. Nobody on the Network could harbor a motive and get away with it. And yet, a homicide had happened. For the first time ever, the telepathic power of the Network had been abused. Raven was surprised that only so few of the Philosopher’s community felt so strongly about it to take it up as a personal venture of justice.

“Please tell me we have good news,” said Raven to Thinker Augustus, a comrade in this deed, falling back to vocal communication, in order to give her thoughts some rest.

“We managed to identify the deceased,” offered Thinker Augustus, his voice and the shrug of his shoulders conveying a sense of disappointment even a non-telepath should be able to read.

Given the enormity of locating one person among millions on the Network, Raven was impressed. She wanted to know more.

“It’s classified,” offered Augustus, unhelpfully. For reasons that were obvious to both, no doubt.

“Don’t think it to everyone.”

The likelihood that anybody would be eavesdropping was much lesser than the likelihood that someone was reading their mental exchange from a distance.

Tacitly, the two of them disconnected from the rest of the Network, knowing that they had only each other’s minds to themselves.

For a moment, each Thinker had to suppress the urge to probe the other mind in the conversation, knowing that it was a gesture of trust and courtesy that each had opened up their mind only to the other. Raven ignored the by-product memories that Augustus’s mental resolve inadvertently let through. She felt Augustus cringe with embarrassment as she realized that he was filtering out her memories and emotions the same way too. The intimacy of the moment felt a bit awkward, until they thought of the other Philosophers again.

It was Thinker Taylor. Raven remembered him during the council gatherings. He was a respected figure in The Network and amongst the Philosophers. If the Network found out that the person who had died was someone so venerated, the disturbance would destabilize the Network, and Philosophers could actually die from trying to forcefully brainwash the knowledge, the trauma, the misery from so many minds. Perhaps it was a good thing that the Philosophers had instituted some form of blanket control on the masses.

Raven asked Augustus if he had accessed Taylor’s memories. Augustus was instantly contrite. It was the mental equivalent of blushing. Of course not. It was not acceptable social behavior to access someone’s memories without prior permission. Raven began to use her instinct to hone into Taylor’s legacy, his ideas, his thoughts, his component within the Network, his function within the citizenry. Augustus tried to deflect her penetrating queries.

“Why are you stopping me from his memories?!” asked Raven, unable to control some of her frustration. This was no time for modesty. Homicide was a very real terror that cast over their beloved Network.

Augustus winced as he encountered some of Raven’s angry wash of emotion. He had already copied Taylor’s memories onto his own mind, forcing himself to undergo the sensations of every experience of Taylor himself, so that those memories became his memories.

Besides, those memories were locked away carefully, monitored by the other Philosophers. As a very primitive counter measure, the Philosophers had assumed that the guilty would be the first ones to access the memories of the deceased. Usually, when the Network received such a transit request to a null member, everyone in the community was alerted. Thinker Taylor had not yet been identified as null, but in the event that someone did Raven and her entire group would be exposed. The other Philosophers would not take kindly to covert activities. The Network was an open society. They did not support covert activities.

“Oh”, vocalized Thinker Raven, understanding the protective measures that Augustus had taken.

She hesitated a bit about accessing Augustus’ memories, unsure of how she would be able to differentiate between those that were relevant and those that were expressly private. Augustus shrugged off the awkwardness brought on by such chance intimacy and then released specifically those memories that belonged to Taylor. Given the penetrating telepath that Raven was, she couldn’t help brushing past some of Augustus’ memories, understanding the general tenor of some of his personal opinions. She was surprised to find herself resurfaced in some of them, especially in very complimentary terms. She internalized a slight sense of glee that he might have been thinking about her. She quietly suppressed it before Augustus detected the breach in his own defenses.

Thinker Taylor was indeed one of the first Thinkers to have conceptualized the Network. Raven and Augustus rushed past the sensations and memories of the creation of the fabric of their society. How easier it was to lie then, how much easier it was to kill, to steal, to be violent. Images of cruelty and violence passed by, staining their minds. Raven was sure that they would be discovered if they did not undergo some form of the purge once they were connected back to the Network.

But wait. Wait. Augustus paused their adventure. We have started from the middle.

Raven was a hesitant again, about taking the plunge. Thus far they had been accessing Taylor’s memories that were associated with the Network. But what about those that came before?

Augustus took her back to Taylor’s birth. Raven’s professional training of years and years of mental calm prevented her from getting as shocked as she should have been. Thinker Taylor had been born outside the Network.

A woman with long, comforting hair stood by the window. Her skirts were dirty, and there were stains of blood on it, but she smiled down at me and asked me to be good. 

There was a lot of noise outside. People were screaming and shouting. The woman had now moved away from the window and was coming to get me. The glass of the window shattered as someone punched through it. “Damned mind readers are here! They’re going to have us all!” 

“What should I do?” asked the woman of me. I just wanted to hold her skirts close to me and stay there in the comfort of her arms forever. 

A drunken brawl invaded the door. Again, noise and confusion, and there was even some blood. 

“I killed the bastards, ye hear!” said one of the big burly people entering the door. 

“I’m taking Taylor with me!” screamed the woman as she ran from the group, half in tears, half in rage. She stumbled over a miscellaneous collection of corpses. Some charred. Some deformed. But almost all were certainly dead. 

Fear. So much fear. And hate. There was so much confusion and angst.  How did Thinker Taylor suppress all of these memories before he joined the Network?

Raven’s mind was reeling at the sight of so much destruction and gore. Augustus rallied around his reserves of mental strength to support her. He must have been very strong during the transfer procedure then, to watch such horrible images all alone and not need the additional support of some calm.

“Augustus,” Raven, called out, her nerves frayed at those images, unable to continue to take any further mental stress. More images, more detail every time. Truly, if she was a Thinker who had to suppress all of these she would have died too.

“Augustus…” she called again, sensing her own helplessness.

“I’m here,” said Augustus. The sound of his calm, re-assuring voice brought back the reality of their being.  Raven was instinctively about to reach out to the Network for some tranquility to restore her own destabilized calm, to somehow clean herself of the memory of so much hate. Then, she remembered, this was covert. She would risk contaminating the entire Network if she reached out to them in this state.

She was alone. Forsaken by the beloved comfort of her Network.

But Augustus was still there. And he was buttressing her mental defenses with his own. Despite the fact that Raven had managed to penetrate his resolve, the strength of his support now made Raven realize that she could sense his thoughts only because Augustus let her.

“We can continue only if you’re ready,” said Augustus, sounding immensely warm and gentle.

Thinker Raven evaluated her prospects again. She could obviously hear it summarized from Thinker Augustus, and a passing probe would be enough to know whether he was fabricating any part of the story or not. But then, his entire evidence gathering effort would have been in vain. As a Public Philosopher, her first duty was service to the public. The other Philosophers might find some comfort in wrapping all this up under an accident, but Raven wanted a conclusive answer. For the sake of the people. Not just her curiosity.

Besides, she was immensely surprised to discover, that she enjoyed this communion with Augustus. And while he might have been shy about it, she wasn’t going to be. Might as well mask it under professionalism.

But Augustus had already embarked on the other journey as soon as he sensed she was ready.

“Taylor, what is this?” asked the old man sitting near me. It was the same man who had staggered in drunk, who had separated me from my mother, driven us out onto all those corpses. 

“You’ll soon find out, “I said, being mysterious. I knew the thing worked. Of course it would work, as soon as another mind was connected. And it was going to be him. 

“Do you want to try it?”

“Wha…?Who? Me?!”

My contraption quivered a bit ominously, as if knowing full well what was going to happen. Fueled by my mind and controlled by my memories, I could sense that it appeared dangerous. After all, why shouldn’t it?

“Yes. You,” I said. With one swift strike, I had him pinned to the floor, while I extended my machine’s other receptacle to him. He struggled and he struggled. I could see his doom in his own eyes. My reflection was all over his eyes. I was in control. In power. And once the receptacle was activated…

“Okay, so we know that Taylor is a power maniac,” said Raven, unable to suppress the waves of revulsion and disgust any longer. Augustus felt them and paused, confused and apologetic.

“I thought you wanted to experience Taylor’s memories by yourself?” he asked, a little scared at Raven’s crumbling strength.

She had always assumed that transferring memories was an easy process. No wonder it was forbidden by the Philosophers on the Network.

“Please…please summarize the entirety of his experience.” I’m not strong enough for this, realized Raven, feeling strangely humbled. Instantly, Augustus performed the mental equivalent of calming her down, surrounding her with positivity, relaxation and soothing thoughts. Raven let her gratitude engulf him.

Augustus vocalized the thoughts for their mutual benefit. This transfer of thoughts was getting a little too intense for both of them right now.

“Our home world was overrun with violence and pain before the Network was created.”

Yeah, I gathered as much, wondered Raven. But then she checked her impatience.

“I’m sorry I have to preface the cause of death with so many publicly known facts.”

“Just…just…”

“The Network was originally created to mentally condition and coerce people. To force them into submission.”

Beg. And Die. 

The force of power, the intoxication, the sheer control. Augustus couldn’t hold them back. And Raven was dragged along with him in the roller coaster ride. The Network, it’s powerful conditioning, it’s massive force binding the fabric of society together. The Network. Peace. Harmony. Forced Harmony.

“This….man……died of………”

Guilt. He died of forcing so many people to conform to his mind. He died because all those memories that he had repressed within the Network were being forced back into him. Taylor may have joined the Network. But he couldn’t purge his feelings from it. His need for power, authority, control came back to him in a feedback loop and the Network decided to kill him for it’s own sake.

“Augustus! You know what this means?”

Was the very thing that they were trying so hard to sustain capable of killing them?

“….that the Network can kill us?”

Raven did not know how the purge was going to clean that off her memory. Nor did Augustus.

 

Sabotage IV: Termination

<Recap: Watchtower and Fingers are two operatives who are using an exiled spy’s robotic companion to constantly monitor him. Unfortunately, the robot is built on a missile guidance system which is incredibly lethal and adaptive.>

Watchtower was woken from his fitful sleep by a very white and pale Fingers. Immediately, he knew it was trouble.

“It’s that robot, isn’t it?”

Watchtower waited for his blurry eyes to focus on the poor screen rendition of what had once been Bishop. The old man had been smashed in the head and his pillow appeared to be drenched in blood.

Fingers was restless and fidgety and absolutely incoherent.

“I swear I was just trying to make the thing move away from him! The damned firewall began to spout gibberish and started to corrupt the data, so I went back into the system and tried to clean it up but…”

“Fingers…”

“But the system override malfunctioned at the same time and then I was…”

“Fingers. Stop,” said Watchtower, now almost shaking the younger man back to sanity.

“I can’t Watchtower! I think I just killed the old man!”

“Calm down and tell me what happened.”

Fingers sighed deeply. He pushed his glasses up against his nose and then began his tale.

“So, after you fell asleep, I started watching some of the videos. It was mostly the usual stuff I expected. Him showing off his survival skills in the forest. How many birds he’d killed and eaten. The right way to hunt for one of the more edible species. Tree climbing 101 and suchlike.”

“That’s some seriously gruesome content, but go on.”

“Then, he started telling the robot about itself. About what are the things it first learned to do. How the new appendages were working and so on. The last few longs are basically about how to hack at trees, you know with knives and stuff.”

“Okay, and?”

“And Friend sort of began to move his arms. It sort of looked like he was imitating Bishop’s motion from the last video, because I’d played it. I got worried that I had inadvertently activated a routine, so I tried to go back into the system and then turn the damn thing off, or at least move it away from the old man, without blowing our cover. Friend’s security firewall suddenly locked me out. And when I was scrambling to uncover why, the visuals knocked out as well. The system came back online only after I’d stopped trying to access it, and then our visual trace opened up to show me this.”

Fingers sighed after he’d finished. There was a long pause while Watchtower’s mind was in overdrive. He wasn’t completely illiterate when it came to managing computers. Fingers looked tired and harassed. It was almost as if the guilt of having actually killing another person was wearing him down and he didn’t know how to manage it. Watchtower scrutinized him carefully. He wasn’t used to bloodshed. He wouldn’t be able to survive more than a few minutes in battle, unless he was behind an electronic device.

“Wait, there’s something I need to confirm for myself,” said Watchtower, leaning over the computer.

“You can have it,” said Fingers, pushing the keyboard away from him in some expression of revulsion and disgust. he didn’t know how he was going to explain his actions to anyone. It was obviously an accident, but with such a high-sensitivity target, who would believe that?

Watchtower considered the situation carefully. Even though they had managed to locate such a target, there had been no conclusive evidence that they would have been able to gather any information from this source anyway. Besides, most of Bishop’s data would have details about the war, foregone information that would work serve only to rile up tensions and serve as more fodder for conspiracy theorists and historians. What need had this generation for such tensions?

“Fingers….”

“I have no chance out of this, do I?” asked the younger man, face sick with guilt and with the thought of the inevitable consequences.

“Fingers, answer me this. Can you somehow retrieve the footage of the last few minutes before Bishop died?”

“What good will that do? I’m incriminated as I am.”

“Fingers, just trust me on this. Try to hack into it, one last time.”

Last time, he remembered, a robot like Friend would still have it’s underlying locomotive control managed by….

Fingers groaned and began to type furiously all over again. A wall of corrupted alphanumeric data blocked Fingers out.

Watchtower’s eyes widened as a calm, smooth voice recite…..

“Target assigned. Codename classification: Bishop. Status: Exiled. Location confirmed. Target confirmed. Mission completed.”

 

Sabotage III: Suspicion

<Recap: Watchtower and Fingers are two operatives who are using an exiled spy’s robotic companion to constantly monitor him. Unfortunately, the robot is built on a missile guidance system which is incredibly lethal and adaptive.>

“I think he’s onto us,” said Watchtower, after the old man was asleep. He spoke in a hushed whisper, almost afraid that Bishop could hear him.

“There’s no way he could be,” replied Fingers in a flippant tone “And there’s no need for you to be so hushed up. We can hear him, but he can’t hear us.”

“Did you see the way he just stared at the robot the whole time? We saw it through the robot’s own eyes!”

“Just because he was looking doesn’t mean anything.”

“What if he built in a fail-safe or some form of intruder detection?”

“Tower, I have to stop you here. Did that poor old man look anything remotely like a spy?! He probably couldn’t even remember his own name!”

“Oh yeah? Then tell me why did he not choose to input any data files today? He probably suspected his Friend had been hacked into.”

“Tower, give the man a break. He has nothing to say. Nothing! What could you possibly have to say after living so many years by yourself in exile?!”

“I would have a lot to say if I was carrying so many state secrets that I had to be exiled!”

There was a momentary pause in the hostilities. The crickets in the forests had fallen silent.

Fingers tried a more diplomatic approach.

“Tower, do you really think that Bishop is capable of remembering memories from so long ago? He’s an old guy, and people forget things, you know? Especially old people.”

“Look, Fingers, I’m not asking you to find him and coerce information out of him. Just go through whatever content he’s stored inside his robot and then we can start with that.”

“You do realize that means keeping the robot up all night?”

“What? Robots don’t sleep.”

“This one does have a standby cycle programmed into it. And it will consume energy. Bishop will know if his toy’s batteries run out.” said Fingers, swiveling back to his keyboard and pulling up Friend’s encoding again. The translucent wash of code did not hide the old man sleeping peacefully underneath his blankets behind it.

“File repeat,” said Friend’s voice to itself once the humming loop was over.

Watchtower couldn’t help but jump a bit once he heard that voice again. After encountering that voice in several unpleasant contexts at the front lines, Watchtower had a conditioned adrenaline reflex to it. Fingers noticed his discomfort. You had to have survived some really nasty experiences if  voice was bad enough to frighten you. Watchtower was, by no means, an easily frightened person.

“Tell you what, Tower, I’ll go over all the data. You catch some sleep, yeah?”

“You’ll do that?”

“Yeah, I’ll be up all night.”

“I owe you coffee,” said Watchtower.

“Not a problem,” said Fingers, busy working on the encryption protocol. The code transformed before his very eyes. Fingers really enjoyed his job.

“Just…just be careful not to tinker with it too much, okay?”

“Don’t worry. I won’t.”

</to be continued/>

Sabotage II: Isolation

<Recap: Watchtower and Fingers are two operatives who are using an exiled spy’s robotic companion to constantly monitor him. Unfortunately, the robot is built on a missile guidance system which is incredibly lethal and adaptive.>

Bishop sat in the cozy chair he had once made for himself several years ago, and felt his withered fingers outline the scratches and marks he had made in the walls of his cabin. Solitary exile was not a thing for the weak. The incessant silence had a way of making memories come larger to life, of making random voices in his head sound louder than reality. It had come to a point when Bishop had realized that he was screaming and screaming to himself until his voice was hoarse and yet, the memories returned with a vengeance.

“Do you want a drink?” asked Friend’s smooth, calming voice. Miles away, Watchtower and Fingers stared at Bishop through Friend’s poorly pieced-together visualizer. Watchtower gripped his companion’s chair strongly as the pixels tried to gather themselves into the face of one of the most wanted fugitives of the last generation.

“Thank you, Friend,” said Bishop, accepting one from the Robot’s extended arm, blissfully unaware of two humans watching him via Friend’s visual scanners.

He watched reflectively as the machine bustled around the makeshift kitchen that he had put together. His entire residence was a tribute to the accumulated strength of several years of survival skills in the wild. Yet, the comfort of having another mobile presence in this void was so fulfilling. There was that one day when Friend’s vocal transmitters failed. Bishop remembered the dread he had felt during the night Friend was silent. That terrifying sense of being flung into the unfathomable depths of some inconceivable darkness, the sense of being lost in the void. The absolute, complete, and invulnerable sense of nihilism had driven Bishop to suicide many times over. For a man who was trained in self-survival, the task of trying to kill himself was a very rebellion against the essence of his being, and his physical conditioning forced those ventures to be a failure.

Terrible. Terrible. The silence had been screaming at his ears for long enough now. How many years had it been? His senile brain lost count.

Until he had found a Friend.

“You’re very quiet today,” said Friend, staying faithful to its programming and breaking the lull.

Bishop smiled paternally at the hideous conglomeration of metal and scrap goods that formed Friend’s face.  He wondered why, of all things, had he fashioned a powerful guidance system into a humanoid robot that was nothing more than a talking, functional toy. He knew why.

In that pitch black silence, in the height of his depravity, in the misery of his pain and terror, there had been a voice that had saved him.

“Warning: Central core disengaged”, it had said.

Bishop could have cried hearing another voice. It was a guidance missile, true. It could have been lethal, true. It could have been set on targeting him, true. But, for that one moment, Bishop had heard a humanoid voice that spoke a language he understood after a decade. He was not giving up on that. He was not letting go. And running away, was very possibly the last thought he had in his mind.

Exile wasn’t going to be so bad once he had a friend.

“Is everything all right?” asked the same voice that occupied his thoughts. Once the voice of a killer, now the voice of a friend.

“I’m fine,” said the usually garrulous old man.

“Do you want to record the events of today?”

Bishop laughed until his lungs gave up and he wheezed a bit. Recordings. He had stopped entering his logs and recording his memories a long time ago. Granted, the contents of his thoughts would have cost a human soul in the last generation. And in fact, they did. They cost many human souls. Those that lay on the cemetery. Those that manned the weapons. Those that mounted guidance systems on automated missiles. He had once known some of the most terrible scandals ever, some of the most closely guarded secrets of states and dignitaries and weapon systems.

But the silence had taken them all away. The primal human need for a person, just someone to hold, to regard, to speak to was more stronger than integrity.

It was after making several video logs and several diary entries that Bishop learned a new flavor of exile. Beyond the occasional tree he used to climb, or the random bird that he hunted or some mundane activity that he could manage besides daily housekeeping, he had nothing else to say. Now that he was too old to do or be anything, he felt reluctant to record. What possible content would it have?

One of the first things that Friend had learned to do was repeat the logs back to him. Bishop heard himself for a while, and then realized that the ennui was as terrible as the silence itself.

Where was death where you needed it? Had he truly spent all his life avoiding death so skillfully that he had escaped it forever?

Of course not! Bishop, you’re impatient even in your senility, he told himself and smiled at nothing in particular.

“I am unable to engage you in conversation, or keep you entertained. My repository of stories is limited and I cannot access any more amusement for you. You refuse to enter new content into me. Am I not functioning satisfactorily enough?” asked Friend.

Bishop avoided choking on his drink. Since when was Friend suffering an existential dilemma?

“Friend, you’re fine.” he said, clasping one of the hand-shaped appendages, all five fingers. Such a comfort to hold. The joy of feeling a presence through actual tactile response was a privilege that Bishop had been long-denied.

“Are you sure everything is okay?” repeated Friend, its eyes peering into Bishop’s closer than before.

“Yes, Friend. I’m just tired. An old man like me needs some of his quiet moments, no?”

Friend turned away and performed a superb imitation of sipping its own drink. Avoiding silent moments was the sole purpose of Friend’s existence. Yet, Friend had adapted to the increasing frequency of these needs as well. The adaptive system was genius, pure genius. Especially how it seemed to intuitively guess human wants.

Bishop regarded the robot with his weary eyes. He felt a rush of paternal affection. It was his own creation. His child. His caretaker. His companion. His Friend.

“Help me get to bed please, friend?” The robot obliged almost instantly. It’s flexible arms helped the old man out of his makeshift chair and provided him with the structural support he needed as he hobbled to his bed. Then, Friend covered him with a blanket and without a prompt, began to play a soft humming melody from it’s data reserves. It was a tune that Bishop himself had recorded several years ago, and then played it to himself every night. The audio file was labeled “Mother’s lullaby”.

</to be continued/>

Sabotage I: Malfunction

Prologue:

Target assigned.
Codename classification: Bishop
Status: Exiled.
Location confirmed.
Target confirmed.
Launch co-ordinates selected.
Departure confirmed.
Warning: Projectile trajectory deviation detected.
Warning: Central core disengaged. 
Warning: q2837687ASYD08uqgeW-a-arning————//////<system failure>///////

1.

The little vehicle was parked against the backdrop of the forest. Its two occupants had decided that it was a convenient location to avoid any stray electromagnetic radiation that could interfere with the fragility of their endeavor. It was located close enough to the town’s pizza outlet. Inside the little vehicle was a large array of impressive gadgetry, with two people huddling over. One was tall, and clearly uncomfortable at being confined in such a cramped space for so long. The other was younger, keener and perpetually clattering away the keyboard. For a moment, they had opened the windows of that stuffy car, in order to let some of the cool forest air enter in and drive out the semi-pervading odor of a little too many onion-garlic pizzas.

“Fingers, what’s happening?” asked Watchtower, impatiently.

There was the sound of staccato keyboard typing, and the occasional accompanying beeps from inside the surveillance vehicle. Watchtower had been a little awe of his partner when this project began. Fingers was barely a college graduate. It was only afterwards that Watchtower found out that Fingers had hacked into every high security website with uncanny ease. The government was tired of asking him to suppress information, and threats against him didn’t seem to work. So they hired him.

Watchtower watched Fingers’ fingers twitch over the keyboard in some form of ghost typing. In the dim blue reflected light, he mused a bit about the generation gap between himself and Fingers. Too many geniuses packed into an era, he wondered. Where was human evolution heading?

“Friend is making breakfast,” said Fingers, cheerfully. He swiveled around in his chair, flexing in the tiny vehicle. “Told you, Tower, there was no need to rush. Bishop is the human embodiment of predictability.”

“We can’t know that for sure.”

Fingers scoffed mildly and interlaced his long fingers at the back of his head. “Of course we can. He’s an old man, who’s lived in solitary exile for way too many decades.”

“Doesn’t make him any less dangerous.”

“Tower, come on. There’s no way he’s capable of anything. He’s so disconnected from the rest of humanity, he doesn’t even connect to the Internet. I mean, if it wasn’t for his robot, we wouldn’t have even known he still existed.”

“Who knows what else that thing is capable of? The damn thing was constructed from a missile guidance system.” asked Tower, philosophically.

Fingers scrambled a bit over his keyboard. A few rapid clicks later, Friend’s specifications illuminated their faces.

“Hmmm…..the robot seems to share the same operating core as the old missile guidance systems. Obviously,  Bishop’s heavily modified it. But most of the functionality is still managed by the guidance AI…..The physical appendages seemed to be comprised of a miscellaneous collection of metallic junk….”

“Metallic junk can be quite dangerous in the hands of a veteran spy. Especially when it’s in the hand of a missile guidance systems. I mean, Fingers, you were probably just a kid then, but those guidance systems were…. ”

Memories of gunshots. Haste, evasion, capture. Human attackers would at least stop for a moment and recuperate. A small defect that was easily countered by using automated systems. That was how Watchtower had earned his name. He used to stay out and snipe the machines down, one by one. Careful. Precise. He didn’t need to waste an entire magazine emptying bullets like torrents on the enemy, watching their blood spatter on the faces of the fallen…..

“….Were?” prompted Fingers, interrupting Watchtower’s memories.

Then a generation of geniuses came along, and decided that having merely automated killing machines wasn’t good enough. So, they made them adaptive automated machines. Let’s teach our machines how to kill ourselves better. Watchtower still got goosebumps from hearing the voice of those guidance systems. Cold smooth, calming metal voices, zoning in on their position with less than 0.000001% error. Target assigned. Target confirmed.

“…were homicidal AI’s,” finished Watchtower, shrugging his shoulders in an instinctive attempt to get the memory of that voice out of his head.

There was an awkward silence between them, while Watchtower wondered why in the world would anyone want to design a companion out of that. You needed to be a some level of desperation to be able to truly have the voice that haunted the entire generation live with you. The same voice that coldly, ruthlessly drove missiles into people was now telling a spy like Bishop how he should live his life?

“Oh come on, really?! Friend is the kind of thing a high school kid designs for a class project! The AI is older than Bishop himself!”

Watchtower didn’t buy it. He stayed quiet for a while, as Friend’s encoding flashed across the screen. What could Bishop be doing with that guidance system? Was he planning a secret attack somewhere? Was he outfitting the system for something nastier? An assassination, maybe?

The “Friend” had once tried to access it’s sub-networks to search for replacement parts as it was a model designed to optimize it’s own functioning. It’s specifications were now outdated, and if Fingers hadn’t particularly been scanning for it, he wouldn’t have found them. Within two seconds of the AI accessing the Internet, Fingers had jumped on its IP and after several traces, located Bishop as an unexpected surprise.

The authorities had been after Bishop ever since he was recorded as missing from exile. If they known at least a decade earlier that one of the AI had joined forces with him, they would have sent an entire army instead of two operatives. But now times had changed. An old exiled spy in possession of an even older failed machine did not represent an alarming threat. Hence Fingers and Tower were assigned to full surveillance, knowing that their heads would be on the line if they summoned the cavalry without probable cause.

Fingers didn’t ask before he looked past Friend’s basic shell encoding, and crept into Friend’s inner database. They watched the seemingly endless stream of code. Random segments of alphanumeric characters that comprised Friend, and his machine psychology.

“Whoa, wait. What was that?” asked Tower, pausing the stream with a tap on the keyboard.

“What?” asked Fingers, already crawling his own over the keyboard, identifying the selection by syntax and keywords.

“That bit of code. Is that a…..is that a…..”

“Memory module. Yeah. Tons of encrypted files overwriting the geographical data the original guidance system used to have. See, the very fact that we can access it means that some of it’s former security has been disabled.”

Watchtower wasn’t quite convinced. It could be a lure. The old guidance system used to do that too, in order to fool the intruders that they had taken control of the projectile, until it backfired on them.

“Wait, so he’s replacing the geographical data? Why?”

“He’s storing some form of date log in them. It’s chronologically structured, and it’s….voluminous. Since the geographical data hasn’t been in use ever since the system hardware was replaced, the operating system is pushing all this new data over the old ones. ”

Fingers scrolled ahead.

“The hardware additions are designed to manage kitchen utensils and the like. Friend’s so harmless, Tower!” He sounded as though he was justifying for the robot himself.

“What kind of data?” asked Watchtower, unable to suppress his paranoia.

“Um, mostly entered texts, some videos, and audio recordings….”

“…containing?”

“They’re largely about himself, I presume.  If I didn’t know any better, I would guess that it’s some form of his personal diary.”

“HE STORES HIS SECRETS?!”

“I guess. Lonely man like him is probably gonna talk. Friend seems to be designed for the sole purpose of being a….friend, really.”

Watchtower felt a bit confused at this discovery. Bishop had, in all these years, forged a personal companion from a formidable targeting system, and was now using it as an extended repository of memories? He was a fool to believe such a thing could be true. No, no. Now that they had identified his location and they knew where he existed, it was evident that they hack into it and try to find out more about what information Bishop had stored.

“Why can’t you just break in and confirm if the data’s about him? What if it’s about sealed government records or something?”

Fingers’ long fingers twitched over the keyboard. For once he hesitated.

“Um, Tower, I don’t know how to break this to you, but since he’s started modifying it so heavily, the original operating system doesn’t organize it as it used to. All this overriding information is  dispersed all over the kernel of the guidance system.”

“So, you’re saying that we would have to rewrite some of the protocols that the original guidance system used to have?”

“Um….I sincerely hope not, but we might have to. You know what they say about AI’s that have been hacked into, right?”

“They go corrupt and homicidal?”

“Right. And those that are homicidal to begin with? They just get worse.”

“So, you can’t do it?”

“Of course I can,” Fingers scoffed. “I just wanted to let you know what the consequences were.”

“Fingers, I haven’t come where I am today without taking a few risks,” said Watchtower, sounding braver than he felt.

Fingers was smart enough not to fall for it. Or maybe it was the way Watchtower’s face flinched as Fingers peeled past the guidance system’s code.

“Whatever you say,” said Fingers, and began to edit the code.

</to be continued/>

Pets and lovers

I was still confused as to what I was supposed to do with Kayla. No, that’s not her real name. I just find it a more convenient method of referring to her. I think if I told anyone the truth about Kayla, I would instantly be famous and rich and shortly contacted with the suspicious people the government send along. You know what I’m talking about. Those tall, well-dressed fellows always with sun-glasses and really impressive badges. They also refer to you formally and look up on your criminal records. The unpleasant ones will also carry a weapon of some form as well.

So Kayla is an alien. Yes, you heard me right. No, I am not delusional. I was watching meteors in the desert, collecting data and looking for inspiration for a story or two. All of a sudden, one of the meteorites falls and we have visitors. There was the entire blaze in the sky, smoke on the ground sort of business. Hi. We’re these species who were just buzzing past and our engines failed. Just thought we’d drop by. Pun completely unintended yet absolutely unavoidable.

I apologize. I’m rambling. I won’t go into the details of how I found her and how I discovered that she didn’t know a word of any of the languages in the world and had this weird tendency to fuse all my gadgets together with her hands. I honestly didn’t know what I should be doing with her, as she refused to leave me alone and the authorities needed documentation I was unable to provide. I decided to keep her. Like a pet, albeit unauthorized. See, I’ve got a well-bred alien. Say hello to Kayla. Except that’s not how things worked out.

What was more, as I tried to make my back through human-populated areas to my residence, I discovered that different people perceived Kayla differently. Kids think she’s a harmless teddy bear. A really old woman at the gas station thought she was her son. When Kayla tried to explore some of the forested areas near my modest settlement herself, the forest ranger even mistook her to be a bear. The man went berserk as he saw me strap her into the passenger seat of my car. Well, it was late at night and visibility was poor. I was going to pass through his scrutiny looking perfectly normal with a bear for a companion. To me, she always seemed to be this really pretty girl whom if I had any guts at all, should have been able to charm with my supposed wit. But coming from the stereotypical species of social outcasts, I tried to look normal and be friendly without breaking a sweat. I needn’t have worried though. Aliens, particularly the shape-shifting variety, don’t judge.

For the first few days, she stuck close by me, listening carefully to every word that came out of my mouth. She watched me eat and learned that was how I derived sustenance and so on. In the beginning, I was obviously a bit intimidated by her. I mean, imagine a lonely writer that doesn’t get much company and all of a sudden there’s this gorgeous….ahem, guest that’s living with him. You’d guess he’d be a little awkward about it at first.

It was hard to remember that Kayla was an alien, especially since she looked very human to me. She was just quiet for the most part, had this weird look about her when she got hungry and stayed glued to the television or my laptop. When agitated, she would promptly fuse those devices and the next morning my neighbors would watch me throw out hideously mutated scraps of previously useful metal and plastic.

If I had known that she was actually learning the English language from me, I would have taken care to use my urbane sections of my vocabulary more often. Or watched better TV. Or read better literature than pulp fiction. I cannot describe the sheer shock when the creature you rescue from a mass of smoke from an extraterrestrial deposit in the middle of the desert starts spouting mixed up slang back to you. For those of you who host pet aliens with language learning capabilities, you might want to sit down somewhere sturdy before you make that discovery. You might not also want to keep liquids, sharp objects or tiny miscellaneous articles in your vicinity. They may not be hazardous to the alien, but they could be hazardous to you.

My thesis advisor chose this time of the year to be a menace again. He’s an astronomy professor, you know? It was because of his assignment that I was stuck in the desert in the first place. But since I was too busy boldly going forth where every thriller hero had been before, I hadn’t collected any data. My publisher was also after me for not having written anything substantial for the past few weeks. If I lost my job at the magazine, I would have to find some other way of supporting my thesis project stipend. I know it’s not glamorous, but you have to take what you get. Besides, you’d think writing science fiction comes easily to a guy who is an astronomer and has a background of physics, right? But with my alien baby-sitting duties, I was at a loss for data and ideas. Hey, if Kayla turned out to actually be hostile, I wouldn’t even be here ranting to you now. Helping her adjust to earth gravity, teaching her the ways of or highly complex society and so on takes more time than you’d think.

Anyway, it’s been a few weeks since she’s been around. We’ve struck this verbal deal, now that she speaks an entirely new dialect of English which I call “Universal Slang”. It involves me being her caretaker in exchange for her telling me stories. Never again do I have to bother about a writer’s block. My thesis is well on it’s way to completion thanks to the funding from my writing assignments. I even have a companion at home that knows all of my jargon well enough to seem natural at it. Everyday, after dinner, she sits down and tells me about her home world. I try to transcribe as much of it as I can, mostly because it takes a while to interpret what she’s actually saying.

The material that Kayla tells me is actually fairly normal. You know, family fights, romances, friendships and so on. Ordinarily, I would just copy her stories as is and hand them in, but then I realize I’m writing for a science fiction magazine and there has to be an element of other-worldliness in it. After I’m done editing the basic English, I add a couple of more tentacles to my favorite characters and they’re good to go.  The magazine is happy, it’s readers are happy, I am happy. I cannot tell if Kayla is, though.

When Kayla talks to me about her world, and I’ve heard a lot of it, believe me, I find it sometimes hard to remember she’s an alien. Most of the interpersonal interactions that she describes with people seem so ordinary. Honestly, if I didn’t tell you she was an alien and that her world was actually different, with a stronger gravity and so on, you could completely picture her talking about her life from some family here on Earth. It turns out they’re a liquid species. The atmospheric pressures on their world is so strong that they have no choice but to exist as one large liquid pool on the surface. When any one of them dies, they join the gaseous layers of the atmosphere. Due to their fluid nature, they are also interconnected mentally, as well as physically. Consider the orange juice on the table. Now imagine if it were alive and not orange. That is Kayla in her native state. Due to some form of telepathic projection people here on earth see her as whatever they think she is. I mean, the forest ranger had a lot of bears in his mind and when he should chance upon a random being in his territory, he naturally assumes it would be a bear. In his mind, Kayla = bear.

Why do I think of her as Kayla?

You’re giving me that look which says I am not describing the entirety of the situation to you, and as my best friend, I do happen to owe you at least that. Yes, she’s pretty. It’s been three years since my last relationship. I like having her around. I’m not going to deny it. Don’t smirk like there’s something going on. It’s not what you’re thinking. I don’t know why I thought having a pretty female companion in the middle of a star-watch assignment was a good idea. But it turns out, that’s  what I was thinking about because that’s the form Kayla manifests in around me. Nobody really knows what her true form is, though. For all I know, when I’m not looking at her she’s merely a puddle on the floor. It’s a bit like Schrodinger’s cat. I can’t really tell what state she is in until I look at her.

To be honest though, I don’t know what I feel about her. I mean, eventually she will run out of stories. I don’t know how to explain to her that I don’t mind having her around even when she’s not being useful. Also, I’m pretty sure she misses her own home from time to time. But it’s just not safe! What if a cop sees her as a criminal or something? I can’t take her back to the desert and hope that she somehow manages to evaporate herself into outer space. There was also this weird incident last week when a group of these teenagers from the nearby high school were playing around with her in the super market. I mean, to them Kayla instantly adopted the physical form of what that they had in their minds. They’re raging on hormones, so you can guess what the general tenor of Kayla’s impressions were. They got pretty obscene about it, though. But the incident proved that I can’t possible let Kayla out in public by herself.

I’m overreacting?! Of course I’m not!

Okay. Okay. Okay. I may have inadvertently allowed a molecule of jealousy to form inside me. A molecule, not any more. Stop gloating at me like you knew this was coming. You asked for this, that’s why you’re here. Look, this speculation is pointless anyway. We both know that if, hypothetically, there was anything between us it would still be one-sided. What could possibly come out of it? Eventually, I’m sure Kayla’s parent pool is going to want their puddle back. Besides it’s not like she knows what love is all about. She did describe similar concepts on her world, but they’re basically between liquids of their own kind. She’s learned how to hug, purely as a platonic gesture. She tries to attempt it sometimes on me, on the days I don’t yell at her for making my phone and my tablet conjoined twins. Yeah, it’s cute in a way. But she’s probably never going to think of me in that way. She may look pretty and be nice to me, but I still don’t know what her standards are, let alone whether they even have romantic liaisons.

I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m going to stop now.

I have to finish a few more stories for the night, so I’ll probably be staying up even after you leave. Usually, they’re very spaced out assignments, but I’m going to the other Observatory next week, with my fellow researchers and with Kayla. They don’t know she’s coming. She’s asked me to send out a high frequency burst from the communications array. It’s supposed to serve a message to her people that she wants to go back home now. I’ll get over it, eventually I guess. It’s probably just a minor infatuation and there’s really nothing to it. I don’t even know her true form, you know? She’s just appearing to me as I think she would….

 A week later:

I’m sorry this is so rushed and I barely have time to explain it all. But Kayla left  yesterday and I just needed to be able to tell someone without being convicted. I didn’t know how the arrangement was, because Kayla said her puddles would not appreciate me messing in on them. When I woke up, she was just gone. There was no more of her voice, of wondering if my gadgets were okay, of reviewing any more story drafts. I just feel empty. Everything just felt empty. I’m feeling a bit angry with myself, because I shouldn’t be feeling so debilitated without her. Strangely enough, I actually miss her half-botched concoctions of swear words now. No, I don’t have abandonment issues. I can assure you with as much certainty as possible that this emptiness is just a momentary feeling and it will perhaps pass. Or not. Granted that I am an idiot over her, especially to even think I could have her with me forever, but you know I can’t help it.

I’m trying to focus on the Observatory’s telescopes, being actually productive for a change without having anyone else’s assistance in the matter, anyone else being the non-human…..forget it. Anyone else being Kayla here.

Someone seems to have tampered with the usual co-ordinates the telescope is targeted to. We’re watching a completely different part of space, now. I can’t help but think this is some sort of Kayla’s doing. It would be just her style. For all we know she could be leading me to her home. We did manage to locate a huge gas giant in that area. Highly dense atmosphere, rapidly oxidizing. The pressure forces some of the layers to liquid after a while. We’re observing this planet hoping to find some way to understand the nature of it’s crust. The others are assuming that the random motion of the liquid currents are caused by the heavy storms. I’m hoping it’s because Kayla’s pool is happy to have her back.

You know what she did right before she left me. She kissed me. I didn’t even know she could do that. When I asked her why, it turns out she was just following the behavior I had secretly expected of her inside my head. I will never be able to tell if she was pleasing me by nature or just choosing to be that way. But I do know this. I have the story of a lifetime and I’m going to miss her.

Unit 4207’s Failed Assignment

Decrypted sections of the file are as follows:

Data log attributes: Begun on 5787th day of 23rd Lunar Cycle; Type: Personal

Today was the day I started on the gene project. It was fortunately not as complicated as I expected. Unit 5481 tells me the beginning is always easy. All you have to do is choose the number of genes you want to work with. It’s maintaining the culture that’s the nightmare.

The data bank consists of a million different types of genomes. Some Units get really creative and make their own chemical combinations, if the ones listed don’t suffice. These are also the ones with the lowest survival rates in the laboratory. They  take it upon themselves to push the boundaries. They can afford the failures. You need to have collected some level of credit in order to make those choices. I have barely any credits to my account. That’s why I’m hoping my first project will work out well enough.

I didn’t know how many to choose from. I definitely needed to do something better than making another useless bacterium with two genomes.

5481 finished his last project yesterday. It was a plant species. 5 genomes. Not too bad for a beginner, I suppose. There’s a rumor in the laboratories that if you choose the number of genes as the date of the lunar cycle, there’s a higher chance of success. Even though this is statistically proven, the result does not compute.

I chose 83 genomes. A fair number. Enough to display my competence with. If things went bad, I could always allot it to a lower level on the food-web and create only a few of the species.

I can’t stop obsessing about my culture. There are so many other Units that are using at least a 1000 genomes, and due to lack of space I’ve been assigned to one of their empty cubicles. I feel really awed by their specimens, though theirs are mostly tiny. I register their condescension.  Hopefully it will all work out…..

Data log attributes: Begun on 5825th day of 23rd Lunar Cycle; Type: Personal

5481 told me he’s doing a mammal this time. 23 genomes. Standard terrestrial non-arboreal vertebrate. Two fore appendages. Two end appendages. Sexual reproduction. He’s already completed his first template. Now he’s adding designer touches. He says these will enable the species to be selected during the demonstrations. I asked him what they specifically were. He won’t tell me. Competitive confidentiality, or some such subroutine.

My culture is coming along beautifully. Multiple epidermal layers. Extended appendages. My own customized arboreal reptile format. I wonder if that classifies as “diverse” enough?  Sexual reproduction, as well. It’s a complex design, but hopefully, the creature should grow out okay. I’m simultaneously creating another female. So that I can prove that the species is self-sustaining.

I peeked into some of the other specimens today. Especially some of the ones from the laboratory cubicles next door. The 1000 genome creatures seem to be very physically small. So fragile. What was the value of their genetic diversity if they were incapable of survival?

One of them caught me employing my snigger subroutine at the simulations of their specimens. They glowered at me and threatened to have me reported for trespass. Such bullies. Bullies do not compute. Why do I get all the bullies all the time?

Ah well, dimensions had never been an evaluating criteria for survival. Most of them are categorized under entomological names. Insects. Ooh. I worried for a bit what would happen if my culture grew before theirs. What if my creature started feeding on their specimens. I would be in unimaginable trouble. Not only that, what if they decided to tamper with my specimen? So, I took extra care to lock my laboratory. The other Units might be highly venerated, but we were still competing to create fine upstanding members of the food web.

In terms of the designer touches that 5481 was talking about, I think I’m going to create a whole new phylum for myself. Why should I classify my first endeavor under some already known phylum? I was going to make my own. it would have it’s own food web. It’s own food chain. It was going to be brilliant. One of the best species put down on the petri dish the elders had fondly labeled “Earth”.

Data log attributes: Begun on 6201st day of 25th Lunar Cycle; Type: Personal

I am so dead. I should have never started on this project in the first place. How in the universe did I ever think this was going to work out properly?

When I walked into the lab today, I bumped into 5481. He seemed to be using his smug subroutine at maximum levels. I enquired why. Says he finished his specimen. He was going to present it today, even. Then I walked into my lab to discover that I had been locked out of it. Spite, no doubt. The other Units in the lab jeered at me while their 1000 genome annoying tiny things buzzed to life and I was still trying to unlock my door. How does locking my door justify an inescapable snigger on the size of their specimens my part? It does not compute. Fairness does not compute.

More so, without the diurnal addition of nutrients, my culture was going to be ruined. By the time the authorities got my cubicle unlocked, the DNA was almost unraveling. My sensors were overloaded with sniggers from the rest of the laboratory. More so, now my emergency panic sub-routines are rapidly executing themselves. While they are running around in my CPU, I can only panic.

….I am just a novice. This sort of unjust behavior is mean. Meanness is a valid result. It does compute. What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?

I passed over to 5481’s cubicle in search of some assistance. His laboratory had been cleaned out. His presentation was successful and the authorities had agreed to placing his specimen on the planet. It was moderately sized hominid. Animalia, chordata, mammalia. A fine addition to the library of primates. Due to the genetic flexibility, it would even evolve to other forms in the future and diverge, so it was going to be a lovely stable creature in the ecosystem. Formally known as Hominidae Pan troglodytes. Turns out 5481 called his design “Ape”. He wanted a simple name.

I DON’T HAVE ANYTHING TO NAME. WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY PATHETIC EXISTENCE?!

My secondary coolant engines are locking into place now. I should be able to generate some ideas given the time constraint. After all, I am not a dysfunctional machine. Generating ideas is my job. I can do this.

The first algorithm my heated CPU churns out is to steal 5481’s specimen. Before the sanitizers eradicate all traces of the DNA tomorrow, I could have collected enough samples to create a copy of the creature. I still have the modification systems in place. Perhaps I could use 5481’s fabled genetic flexibility and vary the creature without making it appear like blatant plagiarism. If things turned out well, I wouldn’t need a new phylum. My species would be comfortably tucked into the same niche as 5481’s in the food web.  We could call each other hominid buddies and design friendship subroutines and I would still have my job and everything would be all right and all I needed was 12 hours to accomplish this.

Then my absolutely unnecessary morality core kicked in, and I wondered if stealing was really such a good idea. Why not just create a parasite that fed on the so-called “insects” and reduce their numbers? Computationally, it seemed like a good idea. It would finally equate the fairness. But then, it was beyond my time constraint, so I think I will design it for my next project.

With a small spatula, I collected some of the DNA off 5481’s simulator. Covertly. Now I have to modify it enough to make it appear as unrecognizable to 5481 as possible. At first I wondered about physiological changes. How about red fur instead of black fur or something? Too superficial. Everyone would know. How about carnivorous appetites? How about symbiosis with the environment? Too much to alter in too little span of time…

Must go work now before 5481’s samples are also lost.

Data log attributes: Begun on 6202nd day of 25th Lunar Cycle; Type: Personal

Finally, the specimens are complete. It has a lot less body hair, for one.

I’m sorry. I haven’t had my stand-by cycle yet, so I’m probably very incoherent right now. I’m sure when I read back this entry later, my data processing centers will understand what I wanted to say.

Fortunately, the review by the authorities went off well. They assumed it was a standard primate. Nothing too exceptional. Which is correct. My genius was ruined by “insects”.

They asked me about the “designer touches”. I had given this a lot of thought as this was a final boundary between plagiarism and creativity. They were going to be the strongest differentiating factors from 5481’s specimens.

I made a neural adaptation to the creatures, whereby they could extend their own sense of being. It was very subtle (very easy to implement as well) and not so apparent. I made the creatures self-adaptive. I think the local term for that is “intelligent”. You can locate in the directory under sentient. Designed a few evolutionary stages for it. For one thing, I removed most of the body hair from the “Ape”. 5481 cannot stop talking about that ugly thing. His aesthetic sensors must have malfunctioned.

I emphasized a bit on the sexual dimorphism, made it omnivorous. 3% genetic variation across all evolutionary forms. All the slight subtle changes. Due to the exceptional glory of 5481’s design, he has his own family of species. Due to the not-so-surprising similarity with 5481’s design, they also classified it as a hominid.

There you go. I don’t have much to expect of this creature, since it is so similar in genetics to 5481’s. It should be okay in the existing ecosystem. I expect it will be extinct in probably 8 million years, which is a normal number for a creature of such biological mediocrity. I’ve parked it mid way in the food web, so it can be consumed as well. Just in case my creation gets too annoying for the likes of 5481’s.

I don’t know if giving the creature added intelligence and cognitive capabilities was a good idea or not. It seemed to be the only sort of addition I could add to an already well-conceptualized work like 5481’s. I don’t know if it has any remarkable biological value or not. Don’t think it does. It’s too puny to survive most of the the big ones on the planet, anyway.

Must not let pessimism cloud my endeavors.

There you go. That was the story of my creation. It’s listed formally under the records as Homo habilis. It has a few other fancy evolutionary stages I put in to evade close scrutiny by those who suspected anything.

I don’t experience any grandiloquence when I record their names, sine I can’t even tell if they’ll be able to make it that long. But here they are: Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis  and maybe Homo sapiens, if it lives that long. So finally I get to call it my own name. I wanted to call it “Hoo-mahn.”. Or maybe “Human?” It is not as aesthetic as “Ape”. But I think it will suffice. Besides, I always wanted to name my own species. The authorities may choose to add a suffix or a prefix if they think it has too many similarities with the original hominid name.

At any rate, this entire experience in the laboratory is something I want to put behind me as soon as possible while I enjoy some uninterrupted stand-by cycles. The other units say it’s not bad for a beginner. 5481 had started out skeptical during the presentation. But at the end of it, he was convinced. Unimpressed, but convinced. Now I had better encrypt these logs before anyone finds out that I stole his specimens…..

 Warning: The data you are trying to access has been corrupted. Erasure of those sections is in progress.