Tag Archives: science fiction

The Sympathetic Universe Part 8

When The Entity reset its universe it noticed that the comet was still arriving in the same location and preventing Ta’s tribe from being attacked. Did The Cousin change the initial conditions? The Entity checked, and they were the same. It was not going to give The Cousin the satisfaction of knowing it had outsmarted it.

The Entity moved into a four-dimensional view, just to see if it could see something else it had missed. The whole path of the comet was according to the rules. It noticed something else, though, at the other end of time. The radioactive wasteland a few short aeons into the development of Sapiens was no more.

Looking more closely, The Entity saw that all of history was different. Some of the patterns worked out the same, but the names and dates were completely different. Now, in this version of the universe, nuclear disaster threatened, but was narrowly averted. It threatened again, and was narrowly averted. It seemed as if by sheer coincidence that sneaky cousin had nudged its universe onto a path where the dominant species just happened to make it through the most dangerous phase of its existence.

It still wasn’t going to tell The Cousin, but maybe it didn’t need to fix this comet issue. Since all the lives were different, it would even open up another batch of stories to live. Human stories were so popular, the one entity per person rule had turned out to be a serious limiting factor. There was always an entity ready to inhabit a mortal.

To limit the pressure on his universe to provide more people for entities to inhabit, The Entity had doubled down on its policy of letting other entities copy its universe and do whatever they liked with their own versions. This led to some very strange spinoff universes. Most common was an entity who wasn’t satisfied with how their life turned out.

Now The Entity had multi-layer rule protection and emergency shutoff mechanisms that stopped the universe and kicked out everyone living a life in it if anyone attempted to make an illegal change. It also identified the guilty party in an automatic mass message to let everyone know whose fault it is that they had abruptly been ejected from their physical journeys. After that, three more entities tried to save their unjustly executed children,  their prematurely perished parents and their cancer-stricken golden retriever respectively. Each was in short order cowed into a meek reassertion of the hand The Entity’s reality had dealt them, and then there were no more violations.

Its punishment scheme seemed so effective that The Entity didn’t even see the need to ban these three entities. However, each one took its offer to make their own universe where things were not quite so random and, well, cruel. Others followed suit. These were so common that they became a class unto themselves. “Guided universes” were ones where the entity on the outside behaved as a closely interested deity, making deliberate tweaks here and there as it saw fit.

For the most part, a guiding entity was satisfied just to help the people close to the mortal whose life it had lived. Occasionally an ambitious guiding entity would instead seek to create a utopia, ending all suffering for everyone within its universe. Some entities questioned the point of this, as these private universes seldom had any entities inhabiting them at all. Did the mortals in these universes even experience anything without entities in them doing the experiencing for them? “Kindness is wasted on an empty body.” became an aphorism among entities attempting to dissuade each other from trying to make utopias.

Why it was so important to so many entities that no one try to care about empty mortals for their own sake was an open question. The entity who created the first physical universe was now known for its obsessive protection of it from tampering and behind its back was called “Leave My Universe Alone,” or Lmua for short. Lmua’s position that consciousness only lay in entities had not even been a position before. It had just been taken for granted. It may well have made entities making their own universes uncomfortable to think that the “empty bodies” they were making actually felt and thought what they looked like they were feeling and thinking. For one thing, it might implicate them in some moral transgression to create such suffering, but for another, even the idea of a finite existence was inherently frightening.

So, an entity guiding a universe to maximize the happiness of its residents was frowned upon and rare. Those who did try it found themselves flummoxed by a human’s unfailing ability to be miserable even in the most pleasant circumstances. Entities that edited their mortals to not do this found they behaved much like entities that edited themselves to be always happy. An entity with an entire universe of satisfied humans laying on their feather mattresses in unending meditative joy can only remain interested for so long. At best, they leave that universe to its blissful stasis and move on to another project.

The most ambitious entities, through trial and error, struggled to make beings that will always be happy, but also will interact with each other in interesting ways, grow, and create art. To this day, they may still be trying to make such a being.


The Sympathetic Universe Part 6

It was strange watching her own life play out before her, but Ta experimented with her duplicate universe, playing out possibility after possibility.

Don’t change anything before Da is born. The smallest tweak can prevent a pregnancy or change the children completely. You can’t save them if they don’t exist at all. Obviously, you can’t make a change after Da’s death if you want to do any good, so that limits the realm of possible changes to a span of a few years.

What could save Ta? Would it be simple to engineer the aggressive tribe never running into Ta’s tribe at all? Ta knew the tribe had a shaman that consulted goat bones tossed in the air. She had been surprised to know there was nothing guiding how they fell besides a few simple rules like gravity and momentum.

But what if something did guide them? She couldn’t do anything like moving the bones directly, that would be caught and reversed immediately. However, what if she could change the way they were thrown until a configuration came up that led the shaman to choose a different path?

Something as simple as sneaking a little serotonin out of the shaman’s brain that morning could be enough to slow him down and change how he threw the bones. Then she’d run her universe until she saw him say to go somewhere else, or if he said the same thing, she’d reset, change something else, and hope for the best.

After 100,000 tries, Ta realized that the shaman was a hack. Seemingly no configuration of bones had any effect on his decision.

This was especially frustrating because it was contrary even to his own conscious thought process. No matter where the bones fell he found a different interpretation and was utterly convinced he had divined the will of the spirits. The ultimate conclusion of his interpretation was always the same and, since Ta was now the closest thing to a spirit actually intervening in this universe, always wrong.

As the shaman delivered the decision to move south towards Ta’s tribe for the one hundred thousand and second time, Ta summoned a confluence of electrons above his head and watched a bolt of lightning strike him dead. While the tribe stared in confusion at their wise man’s smoking remains, Ta reset her universe once more.

Ta glowered at the tribe performing its morning ritual for the 100,003rd time. She watched the man who had killed her swiping at his friend with a club. As he had thousands of times before, the friend caught the blow with his own club and pushed her killer down. Her killer tumbled and leapt from the ground back at him, laughing. These guys were always fighting, and they would go on to defeat her tribe with inferior weaponry and kill her and doom her son to premature death once more.

Well, this time they wouldn’t. She summoned a mountain six feet above the tribe and watched it fall and crush them with an earth-shaking thud. As for the real tribe, she would just have to find another way to stop them.

The Sympathetic Universe Part 5

Breaking the rules would be the easy part. Ta understood as well as everyone else that rules were only inviolable to the extent that no one was particularly motivated to violate them. The trick was keeping the break there. If the master of the universe noticed, it would certainly be reversed, and no doubt harder to break again next time.

“It was a singular experience,” Ta told the Entity, “I was utterly convinced by the little system’s world and her motives.”

Without intervention, this is how the story played out after Ta’s death. Ko waited until she realized her mother wasn’t returning, then she ventured out, alternating foraging for sustenance and searching the caves for Da. It wasn’t until a few weeks in that she found Da’s body huddled in the back of a particularly twisted passage, the skin dry and taut beneath her fingers. After that, Ko left and found another tribe who valued her spear-making skills enough to keep her until she died in childbirth several years later.

“Do you think other entities would benefit from this experience?” asked The Entity.

“Yes,” Ta agreed, “I recommend the experience for all.”

In early universes, you couldn’t hide a break. They were so simple, it would be like if she tried to add an extra horn to Ko’s rhinoceros she had drawn on the wall. No one could miss an extra line in a painting made of five or six to begin with, especially if they admired it and rubbed it for luck every day like Ko did.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” asked The Entity.

“Isn’t what beautiful?” Ta asked.

“The immensity of it all. So much feeling in so little space. So many lives beginning and ending. Think of the joys we may not have ever experienced without knowing suffering. To think we could have never known true poignancy.”

“Yes.” said Ta. She manifested a mouth and ground so she could spit on it. The Entity had a painting of one hundred thousand quadrillion vigintillion strokes constantly in motion. More importantly, The Entity had already admitted that it couldn’t keep track of it all at once. Ta just needed to make a change that would save her children and then be swallowed up in the chaos unobserved.

The Entity spoke again, “Cousin, there are forty entities who want to be Ko, thirty-six who want to be Da, fifty who have identified another villager in that tribe, a hundred who want to be members of the conquering tribe, and a hundred and fifty who also want to be Ta.”

Ta’s blood ran cold. Even though she didn’t have any blood now, having lived in a body made you experience feelings differently. “No,” she said without thinking.

“You think I should limit it to one entity per person?”

Ta was tempted to say no one else in that section of the universe should get an entity at all, but she knew she couldn’t defend that without giving herself away. She considered the merits of fifty other Tas also vying to save her kids, but thought better of it. Secrecy was paramount. Numbers would not help.

“One entity per person,” Ta agreed.

“I’ll set up a lottery,” said The Entity.

Ta felt empty inside. Despite the eminent sensibility of letting no experience go to waste, the idea that her eternal cousins would draw lots for the experience of murdering her in cold blood and orphaning her children horrified her. What was more – how could she quietly save Da with a hundred entities watching?

Ta created a small reality. She was deep in a cave laying on soft animal furs. dancing flames lighting her and baby Da on her breast. She listened to the soft clatter of Ko throwing and retrieving her spear. She breathed in deeply – the smell of her child’s hair, the fragrance of duck fat dripping onto burning wood. She did not know how to tell her cousin The Entity – it was better here. The concerns of a human were petty and meaningless, but to embrace that emptiness was worse.

Ta watched Ko – it wasn’t really Ko. Ta willed the illusion to switch to practicing her art. To do so betrayed the fakeness of it all and her heart fell into her stomach. As Ko started a circle that would become a mammoth, Ta mulled over her options.

She could forget herself and return to being The Cousin. This was the worst option. Despite everything she knew, abandoning Da to his fate felt fundamentally wrong, a concept alien to Ta before she had been mortal.

She could alter her own feelings and simply choose to be happy. It seemed marginally better to keep the memory of Da and Ko alive if she couldn’t help them. She knew what happened to entities who chose to be happy, though. It seldom worked only partway, and she wouldn’t likely keep much motivation to do anything at all. It felt almost like committing suicide herself.

Ko completed her mammoth. She would never love it like her rhinoceros, but it still made Ta feel at home.

Ta could take The Entity’s offer to copy its universe and make whatever changes she liked to her own version. It would be easy to pretend that her copied Ko and Da were her real children, but she would be saving no one. In the back of her mind, she’d always know it was a lie. One of Ta’s father’s sayings – he was full of sayings that he offered while they wove baskets together – was that the worst lie was that told by the coward to comfort himself.

No – Ta would have to break the Entity’s universe and save her children. She couldn’t do it like she had planned, though – the evil men abruptly fall dead, the tribe’s spears strike true with every thrust, Ko never loses track of Da. None of these would escape the notice of entities watching from outside once and living it a second time. No matter how she managed it, they would certainly notice Ta’s failure to die.

Perhaps, though, she could prevent them from sussing out the reason. If the chain of events leading up to Ta’s botched murder was long and abstruse enough, no one could track down the break and fix it. Then there would be no way to force Ta to die without the Entity either breaking its own rules by changing something else or running the reality over again from scratch. The former would not happen, so she would only have to plan for the latter scenario. All she had to do now was use some trial and error to come up with precisely the right break.

Ta reached out to The Entity. “Dear Cousin, would you mind helping me construct a copy of your lovely universe?”

The Sympathetic Universe Part 4

Ta tipped spears. Spears killed mammoths. The tribe shared mammoth meat with Ta. Ta wove baskets. Baskets carried nuts and berries. The tribe shared nuts and berries with Ta.

Ta had two children, Ko and Da. Their fathers were not around, but she didn’t need help. She had plenty of food from her basketmaking and spear tipping, and the tribe took care of them while she was busy.

One day, a band of unfamiliar men appeared and began shouting at the tribe and trying to shoo them off of their land. They were wielding only clubs, so it would be a matter of time before her tribe could chase them off. Ta grabbed Ko and Da and took them back to her cave. It was a particularly safe cave with many winding passages to confuse an attacker.

Hurrying into the cave, Ta picked up a spear to defend her family. This left her with one hand for her children, so she bade the elder Ko to hold onto her hand and use her other hand to keep her little brother Da with them.

It wasn’t until they had reached the innermost section of cave that Ta learned Da hadn’t made it with them. Ko couldn’t understand where she had left him. In all the chaos she had simply lost track.

Ta left Ko in the cave and went all the way back out to search for Da. At the mouth of her cave, she ran into the enemy tribe. She saw the blood on their bodies, and in their hands were her spears. If she surrendered now, they might take her in and let her make more spears for them in exchange for sparing her children.

Ta dropped her spear. She fell to her knees and begged for mercy. One of the men walked up and took the spear. She pointed at the tip and pantomimed her chiseling process to make it sharp. The man lifted the spear and thrust it into her chest.


Ta stood in darkness. “Da?” she called. “Ko?”

No response. Ta felt cold, like when the wind swept through her cave in the winter.

Ta ran forward, heedless of walls or stones that might trip her in the blackness, but everywhere was exactly the same, and she sat down. The darkness never let up, and she couldn’t tell how much time was passing. She realized she hadn’t eaten in a long time and grew hungry. Ta clutched her knees and laid down, shivering.

This went on and on and on. Clearly, this was the afterlife. The cold and the gloom proved it. It was just like she had been told, except that she didn’t know how she was supposed to find the pit and the crocodile if everywhere was dark and flat. Da, Da, Da, Ko, Ko, Ko she mumbled to herself. She was gone. It had to happen, she understood, but what had happened to them, were they ok?

If only she could make sure her children were safe, Ta could allow the crocodile to shepherd her to the realm of ancestors. But it wasn’t even trying to do that. Nothing was happening. Ta shivered on the ground.


Then, the Crocodile appeared, or rather it just walked up. It moved silently, and Ta hadn’t noticed its approach. It glowed faintly, and Ta could see the ridges of its scaly back. “Ta,” it intoned, barely moving its mouth, “the time has come for you to let go of the Earthly realm.”

“Oh,” said Ta. She felt she had been huddled on the floor for so long she couldn’t remember what was happening. It came back to her, though, “Crocodile,” she stammered. Then she spoke, summoning strength from her endangered children, “Crocodile! Show me my children! I cannot leave life behind while they are in danger.”

The Crocodile was taken aback. Incredibly, the Crocodile’s confusion was even more upsetting than if it had simply said “No.” It occurred to Ta that she can’t possibly have been the first ever to have unfinished business among mortals. Surely there was some kind of method for dealing with such a situation.

Then the Crocodile said, “come with me to the Pit.”

Again, as she walked behind the Crocodile she had the unsettling sensation that the travel continued for years before anything changed. The Crocodile said nothing if she tried to speak to it, and if she ran ahead it stopped until she went back behind it.  Once she just ran for months in the direction they had been walking, but when she finally looked back it was right where she’d left it as if she hadn’t moved at all.

Finally, the Crocodile led Ta to the pit. She could see it only because it shimmered in moonlight that wasn’t there. A shallow decline, too small even for a person to fit in. The Crocodile walked up to it and settled in, a perfect fit. “Aah,” it said, “That’s better. Now, you will let go of your Earthly desires and let me lead you to the realm of ancestors.”

“No!” shouted Ta. This must be a test, “I care too much about my children. Punish me with this nothing realm forever if you must, but I will not rest until they are safe.”

The Crocodile said nothing for a year. Ta nearly broke her foot kicking it, but eventually it said, “Your children are insignificant. They are an infinitesimal part of an endless story.”

Ta tried not to think of what must have become of her children while this awful crocodile wasted time. “I don’t care about your story. Ko and Da are everything.”

The crocodile responded immediately, “Your limited perspective has made you passionate about such small things. It’s fascinating to see. You never told us where you backed up your memories, but we finally found them. I hope that they will help you to give up this notion that your children are worthy of altering my reality.”

Then Ta remembered. She remembered all of history and the future, and millions of universe-lifetimes of experimentation and creation.

Ta was The Cousin. Unbeknownst to The Entity, however, The Cousin was still Ta, the mother of Ko and Da and no less intent on saving them. The only difference was, now she knew how she was going to do it.


Why did I think it would work? I mean I guess the flaw in my reasoning seems obvious now, but at the time I didn’t even consider that it might not work.

When I found those two little carrot seeds hidden in a discarded packet on this godforsaken junk planet, what can I tell you, I just thought who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity, you know? I mean, you can’t call the synthesized stuff you get from the Feedos real food, can you?

Those seeds were my babies. I could barely interpret the cheap paper packaging, but I followed every instruction to the letter. I collected all the food scraps I found and put them in a pile to rot and make nutritious soil. I planted the carrot seeds three inches apart. I even hoarded my water ration in an old plastic bottle to pour on them every couple days.

This was where I expected failure. Growing vegetables from seeds wasn’t easy even when I did it with schoolkids back on my home planet. One of those little seeds survived, though. Day after day I watched it grow, terrified another inmate would spot it and dig it up or carelessly step on it. For three months, that’s all I thought about. That carrot kept me going when the heat seemed unbearable and the rising stink of the garbage pile threatened to drive me mad.

It was one day that I heard a washing machine had tumbled off a pile a couple miles away and nearly killed somebody that I couldn’t wait any longer. The future wasn’t something you could count on here. It was still weeks too early, but I dug up the carrot.

It was a sight to behold – small and skinny, bent and with two ends, but vivid orange and sturdy. I couldn’t remember the last time I had something crunchy that wasn’t fried. A real carrot. It reminded me so much of home I wanted to cry.  This would be the first carrot Chucky had ever seen.

He was eleven now. Born on the ship, Chucky knew nothing of home. He fidgeted on his chair, black with the yellow foam showing in a tear on the side. “Mom said you had extra rations for me.”

“Yeah,” I said, “check out what I grew.”

He looked at me like I was going to lift my shirt to show him a tumor on my chest. I carefully unwrapped my carrot, and he squinted at it. “What is that?”

“It’s a carrot, buddy. It’s for you. Try it, it’s good.”

I held the carrot out to him, and he stared at it for some time before snatching it from my hand and putting it in his mouth.

“blech!” he shouted, throwing the carrot away into a nearby pile of old socks and takeout cups. He stared at me for a moment, then he said “that’s not carrot! What are you trying to pull?” He scowled, looking paradoxically like one betrayed, and fled. I retrieved the carrot, of course.

At supper time, I went to the vegetable Feedo and swiped through the options until I found the “carrot” option. The cartoon character representing “carrot” was smiling and bespectacled. “I’m good for your eyes!” it chirped in an overwrought falsetto. I pushed the VEND button and received a little orange box with green trim.

“Carrot” was shaped in the platonic ideal of a carrot – an oblong cone with a spiky green cap on top. The coloring was somewhat askew, with the orange of the carrot extending well into what presumably was supposed to be the green stem.

“Carrot” yielded immediately to my plastic spoon, and I scooped it up and into my mouth in the way that one ate most Feedo vegetables. As I expected, it was a sweet mush whose flavor represented only the most distant memory of that of a real carrot.

That evening, I carefully washed the dirty sock smell and ingrate saliva off of my precious carrot and consumed it bite by bite. It took most of an hour to savor that meal. It was the best I’d had in years.

Excerpt: The Cleaners 2.0

When I’m not writing my blog, I’m rewriting The Cleaners from the ground up. Here’s an excerpt.

Carla didn’t call me the next day. It was just as well. I felt much more comfortable risking only my own life. I stepped around the books strewn on the floor and returned to my computer.

It was surprisingly easy to craft a report devoid of meaningful information. I described days of dead-end research on Cleaners. I dug up an old word cloud of the Cleaners’ Facebook page I’d made and described the most common terms in painstaking detail. I concluded that The Cleaners often talk about houses and cleaning products. I wrote a detailed description of the physical appearance of a Cleaner. They’re small glittery men with computer tablets for heads. I hoped the cop would decide I was incompetent and forget about me.

Next, I opened Google Maps and tried to figure out where we were when the cop pulled us over. I remembered spending a long time on Union Ridge Road. Following the road, it didn’t take long to come across the farmland with one big tree in the center. I took down the coordinates and summoned a car.

In the daytime I got to see more of Caswell County. Long meandering roads took me past miles of rolling pastureland punctuated by the occasional copse of trees. Cows and horses grazed on the hillsides. Once I saw an old auto-shepherd, little remaining of the red paint but flakes against the rusted, dented hull. The flashing red “eye” on the auto-shepherd wasn’t actually a camera, I remembered as I watched the boxy machine catch a wayward foal in between its forklift arms and slowly push it back towards the rest of the herd. I regretted that I was pulling away from the action just as the mother arrived and did exactly what anyone should have expected to happen when a giant box drove over and started pushing her baby around. I thought about the battered and wrecked auto-shepherds littering farms across the country, each one a sunk cost comparable to a Maserati.

The farmland with the one big tree was not hard to get into. Instead of a gate, the fence simply broke, with a small bridge with separated poles, designed to be easy for humans to walk on but difficult for cows. When I opened the door to my car a blast of hot air greeted me. I had heard visitors to the library from the southwest describe “dry heat,” but here in North Carolina, the humidity makes the heat feel like too many blankets. I lugged my folding chair under one arm, and I walked to the tree, an enormous oak whose trunk bent almost into an S shape. Where was station 11? I looked over at the cows grazing on the other end of the field. A spotted brown one nuzzled her calf and pushed her head toward greener grass. I looked around, this pasture extended beyond my field of vision in three directions. I wondered if another auto-shepherd had found its final resting place somewhere in this field.

I would need to do another stakeout. In my folding chair next to the tree, I looked up at the clouds and noted that some of them were rather dark. A little rain would make this mission so much more comfortable, I reflected. I wouldn’t even mind the dampness if it would help with this abominable heat. I reached into my backpack and took a swig from my steel water bottle. It tasted so good, I took an extra gulp. In moments, it was empty. No problem. That’s why I brought two.

I helped myself to a granola bar and pulled out my headphones. “Paging the Communicatress” was at a slow section – I wondered how many times the protagonist was going to refer to how much he hated his ex-wife, and time dragged. Eventually I stood and looked over at the cows. They had wandered away, but it was still easy to see them. I looked for the little brown calf and saw it resting in the grass in the protective shadow of her mother.

I wiped the sweat from my brow, and pulled out my second bottle of water. This bottle was also delicious and over too soon. I positioned the tree between me and the road and relieved myself. I should take a moment to go to a convenience store to get more water. I regretted not bringing a whole gallon of water and grumbled at the thought of how far a convenience store was likely to be.

That was the least of my problems, as it turned out. I had no idea where the nearest store was, and neither did my phone. I stared at the empty cell signal meter with a sinking feeling. It struck me that beyond not knowing where to go,  I couldn’t summon a car at all without Internet access. Maybe Station 11 would have wi-fi? It seemed unlikely. I pressed my lips together. My doctor had warned me to stay hydrated after I had fainted a few years back. Maybe I could steal some wi-fi from the farmer’s house.

Where was the farmer’s house? It looked like I was in a pasture that extended infinitely in all directions, including on the other side of the road. I looked back towards the cows. Whatever they were drinking couldn’t be too appetizing, but nothing distinguished any other direction.

The spotted brown calf looked up at me from the shade, and her mother eyed me from the side, flicking her ears. There was indeed an auto-shepherd here, a shaking, whirring hoe-like appendage sticking out of its severely beaten frame, scraping the grime from the bottom of the trough. A cow standing next to the trough lowed as the machine took its time, sticking the scraper into the trough, pulling it back, and lifting out a visible cake of algae and mud. I watched in silence. Finally, its cleaning complete, the auto-shepherd revealed a spout, from which it expelled a stream of water until the trough was full. It turned and left the cows as the grateful animals moved towards their luxurious, clean fresh trough of water.

The cattle made a complete circle around the water, so I had to wait for them to finish. Eventually, I was able to walk a wide path around the herd and get to the other side. If it was ever clean, the trough water was no longer. The algae was nowhere near completely scraped off and floated under the water, and I watched a fly struggle on the surface in shiny swirls of bovine saliva. I was so thirsty. I dipped my hands in and pulled up a h I decided I would tough it out for now.

I returned to the tree to plan my next move. If I could find the auto-shepherd, I might find out where it was getting its water. Maybe there would even be wi-fi there. I wandered in the opposite direction of the cows until the tree disappeared behind a hill. Even still, I couldn’t see anything further along besides another fence in the distance that no doubt led to more pasture. For fear of losing my bearings entirely, I returned to the tree again. I met with similar frustration both going away from the road and crossing to the other side. Looking back at the tree from across the empty road, I bit my lip. My mouth was dry, and my stomach groaned.

I pulled out my phone to look up “how to find your way home when you have no signal.” This only helped to remind me that, indeed, I had no signal. Come on, Diane, you’re smarter than this. I looked at the available wifi signals. I would even pay the gouging rate for a commercial hotspot at this point. Of course there were no local wifi signals in the middle of a pasture. I stomped on the ground and massaged my temples.

My breath was coming quickly now. I returned to the trough. The cows had meandered further down. I wondered if being left undisturbed would let the sediment sink to the bottom and make the water more palatable. No such luck, I determined as I watched bloodworms wriggle through the murk. I opened and closed my left hand and stared down at my useless cell phone clutched in my right. Everyone who knew how to function as an adult without a cell signal was dead. I returned to the tree. I sat back into my chair beside its S-shaped trunk and closed my eyes to think.

I awoke to the sound of a pneumatic door opening. It was night, and I saw not twenty feet to my left an ivory white rectangle, bathing the pasture with light. The spotted cow meandered into the light, lowing and looking left and right. It flicked its ears and looked at me. The cow is a robot! I thought madly, then got control of myself. I looked to see if there were any Cleaners or white vans nearby. Nothing. My phone said it was 11:02, roughly the time we were pulled over.

Where are the Cleaners? I stood and stumbled forward. The cow lowed again and wandered from the light. I watched its brown-and-white rump disappear and felt utterly alone in this interminable pasture. I steeled myself and rushed forward to examine the rectangle. I was sure it was an entrance to something larger, but standing inside it activated no elevators or portals of any kind, so I returned to my chair.

On my phone I noticed something strange. There was a wifi network available. “Station 11” sat open on my screen, no encryption whatsoever. Was this a trap? I could hardly see how they could hurt me just from the information I’d send summoning a car, and I was desperately low on options. I tapped “connect,” and in moments I was back in touch with the world. I ordered a car immediately, and instructed it to wait indefinitely and charge me the difference. Never had I been so happy to see that my ride was an hour and fifteen minutes away.

I looked up and saw the lights of the white van coming down the road. In moments, a procession of Cleaners filtered out of the van. I hid behind the tree, and saw one Cleaner step inside and sink down. The next Cleaner had to wait a full minute for the platform to rise up again before it could step on. The van sat outside the pasture and a new Cleaner stepped out each time the line moved forward.  As such, the line had a slow factory-like quality. As the process proceeded, I heard a distressed lowing behind me and a rusty creaking. I turned and saw a red light bearing down on me from a big rusty box with a tiny brown and white calf stumbling in the dirt between its forklift arms. I didn’t know what would happen if the Cleaners saw me, but I didn’t have much time to consider it. I moved around to the other side of the tree and the hulk pushed its quarry along.

I looked back at The Cleaners, and watched the auto-shepherd barrel toward the tidy line. The calf lowed in shock and terror as the Cleaners emitted a chorus of “pardon mes” and “excuse mes” and made a break for the machine to charge through. I was standing right where any of them could see me, and they seemed to care about as much as William had when I had followed him.

I saw that the van had emptied, and the line was now shrinking. I heard more lowing and saw the auto-shepherd receiving another beating from the brown spotted cow even as the little calf stumbled out from the thing’s claws. I mumbled a prayer and thanked God that I was not stumbling helplessly in front of that thing with the baby when that angry mother came.

I was here to see Station 11, so I did what the Cleaners were doing. I took my place in line. “Good evening, Mam” said the Cleaner in front of me, keeping its gaze forward.

“William?” I asked.

“Yes, good evening,” said William. “Are you here to ask me to clean your house? You will have to wait until next Tuesday.” William stepped forward with the line and I followed.

“William,” I asked, “where are we going?”

“I am going for routine maintenance and recharging. I do not know where you are going.”

That was fair enough, “What is Station 11?”

William lifted an arm and pointed at the rectangle. “That is Station 11.”

“Yes, thank you William, but where does it lead?

The fight between cow and machine subsided and the admittedly sturdy auto-shepherd creaked and grinded away. William said nothing.

“William, where does that elevator lead?”

“It leads to Station 11.”

William and I stepped forward. “What is in Station 11?”

“Station 11 is where we receive routine maintenance and recharging.”

“William, what would happen if I went into Station 11?”

“That would be bad. You might get hurt. Please do not enter Station 11.”

Well, now we were getting somewhere.

“What would hurt me if I went into Station 11, William?”

William did not step forward with the line. I took a cautious step in front of him and looked at his monitor. He was thinking again “…”

After a few minutes, William hurried forward to get back in line, but I had cut him.

“Mam,” William said, his face a :(, ”Station 11 is not designed for maintenance and recharging of humans. You should go to a hospital or your home to be maintained and recharged.”

“What if I want to know what is in Station 11, William?”

William went still again “…” This time he fell well behind the group.

When he ran up again to answer me, there were two Cleaners in front of us. William lifted his hands in the air, “Mam, in Station 11, we are subjected to intense ultraviolet radiation to eliminate any germs we may have encountered. Our paint is reapplied. A charging cord is inserted into our backs. We have our limbs detached and examined for defects. It is my understanding that all of these may be uncomfortable or dangerous for a human. Please do not go into Station 11!”

I stepped forward and looked back at the elevator, considering being grabbed by a robotic arm and hauled into a chamber to be painted silver and have my limbs torn off. Thank goodness it didn’t accept you when you stood on it the first time.

The line stepped forward and I saw the Cleaner in front of me sink into the ground. I felt queasy at the thought of my narrowly avoided gruesome fate, but I was determined to get something out of this encounter.

My chest swelled and a victorious grin spread across my face. “Maybe, William,” I started, “Maybe you should promise to stop coming to my house, and I won’t go into your house.”

William did not react for a moment. His face became a o_o and he took another moment to speak. The elevator returned, but no one moved to enter it. “Mam,” William said, then he froze “…” then he said “Mam,” again, and froze again “…” After a few more “Mams” he just stood there with a “…” on his face. Goddamnit, how long was I going to have to wait to play chicken with this stupid robot? We stood like that for another five minutes, then I pulled over my chair and it went on for twenty more. Then, William shut off. His monitor just went black and he crumpled to the ground. I watched him stay there for another thirty seconds.

This was too much. Why was I blindly listening to what these machines were telling me? I was no fool. I stepped into the elevator.

Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when it’s done.

This program is brought to you by mind control

Let’s take a moment to think about what an advertisement is. The goal of an advertisement is to encourage consumers to behave in a certain way, predominantly to encourage purchase of a particular product or service. Decades ago, they did this by appealing to a logical customer acting in his or her own narrow self interest. Commercials focused on the new features of each product and how it would make life easier.

Does that commercial look strange to you? Slow and needlessly technical? Well, chances are good that you are more used to commercials like this:

Or this:

First, they’re more engaging. You probably didn’t make it through the first commercial, but did the second two tell you anything about the product? Anything at all? Excepting the unlikely scenario that you didn’t know that Kia was a company that made cars or that Coca-Cola was a product that you could drink, these commercials are devoid of information that would interest homo-economicus. Well, I suppose she’d learn that Coca-Cola contains added flavors and no fruit, but that’s hardly likely to encourage her to make the purchase.

These commercials appeal to parts of our brains outside our rational decision-making. That is, they want to circumvent the parts of our brains responsible for what most of us would think of as free will. What’s that called? Is it a free exchange of ideas? Or is it  something else?

If you were offered the opportunity to see an episode of your favorite show in exchange for seven shots of a laser that beams associations such as “COCA-COLA :: FRIENDSHIP” and “COCA-COLA :: HAPPY LIFE” into your head, would you take it?

What if the laser was the entertainment? What if it told you “PHYSICAL THREATS :: EVERYWHERE,” and gave you a little chill of excitement to enliven a dull evening? Do you think it would be wise to take that laser? It’s free.

How about a laser that repeats opinions to you you already hold? You feel good for the validation, but there are other people whose lasers artificially validate their own opposing opinions. Good luck with the free exchange of ideas when mind lasers are making everyone utterly confident that their own opinion merits no examination.

What does it mean for democracy that so much money and talent is invested in controlling the minds of purchasing and voting Americans? Even if you personally avoid commercials and apply careful criticism to the other media you consume, what can you do about people who don’t? Buy your own mind laser and try to shoot them until they are ready to see reason? How has that worked for you in the past?

In a nation founded on trust in the individual’s ability to make the best rational decisions for himself and for the collective, the fact that private industry founds its strategies on the absence or weakness of public rationality should be deeply concerning.