Magic These Days

Magic is just so different now, y’know? It used to have some class, some artistry. The great masters of the Renaissance really knew their conjuring. I still feel like the best work of human history all came before 1900.

Now it’s all prefab cantrips, pop magic you can buy at the store, pick up in an afternoon. Even the best illusionists are supplementing their work with synthetic lights and sounds. I can probably count on one hand the number who don’t. And people just don’t seem to care, y’know?

I tried talking to some girl in her twenties about the Hermetic traditions, just some basic stuff, right? She didn’t even know what I meant. Not just not knowing Devinshire or Kulari. She flat out didn’t even know what the Hermetic traditions even were. I mean, I know that schools have a lot to teach these days, but to not even touch on the oldest work? It’s a damn catastrophe.

I dread to think what it’s going to be like another twenty, thirty years down the road. The oldest masters, the ones who really remember that stuff, are already starting to die off. I’m starting to think the necromancers are the only ones who will be left to talk about how things really were, where it all started. Keep people grounded.

I mean, where will we be if nobody knows the fundamentals? We can’t just build prefabs over prefabs. Eventually society will have forgotten all the mystic rules, the true ones, the ones that underlie reality. People will just be replicating what their grandparents heard from their grandparents. It’ll just be so much gibberish written in a tome, to be rattled off as needed.

I hope I don’t live to see that, I really do. So if you ever wonder why I’ve turned off my longevity research, that’s why. It’s just not worth it.

Screw 2017 Anyway

Can this year be over already?

Here I was, starting to recover bit by bit, allowing myself to feel optimistic that the worst of 2017 was past. And now my bloody A/C is out again. Not the part I fixed. The central air handler unit that I don’t feel at all comfortable doing anything about myself. And, of course, it happens just as the weather is starting to regularly hit the 90s.

Have I mentioned that I really do not do well in the heat?

We had just gotten our savings back to a reasonable level, maybe starting to consider building it up in case our oldest car dies. But no, now we have to consider another expensive repair that might even result in needing to replace the whole damn system. Not that I’m pessimistic.

So what now? Again, it happened right at the end of the week so there’s a high chance nobody will be able to look at it until Monday. Just like last time. And then they’ll send somebody out who won’t be able to repair it that day, even if I tell them what the problem is in advance. So it’ll be at least another week until it’s fixed.

I am absolutely sick of this crap. I am sick of this year. I am sick of bleeding money. I am sick of hating my job. I am sick of not being able to find another decent one that I qualify for.

And I am sick of all this stress making me constantly exhausted so I can’t enjoy anything for any length of time.

Screw you, 2017.

Eternal Killer

How long does it take for a killer to grow tired of killing? For someone who made their life’s work the destruction of others to step away and realize the legacy they’d left was one of only blood and suffering?

It took me over five hundred years. Perhaps I am a slow learner. Perhaps I was evil from the start. Or perhaps something was burnt into me early in my days that made humanity seem worth destroying. That something that led to me becoming a mercenary, then an assassin, and finally a warlord seeking to bring the kingdoms to their knees.

In that, I succeeded. My ego grew with my victories. And so I sought eternal life with which to rule, grinding humanity beneath my boot for the rest of time. A great dark ritual, flooded with torture and bloody sacrifice. At that time, it was just more drink for my bloodthirst. I reveled in it. And the people feared me more. I was the Dark Emperor, destined to rule eternal.

I do not know what changed in the next few centuries. A cynic might say I simply became bored. Power and its trappings became mine by default, rather than through victory. Every man and woman in the land lived or died at my command. And it is true, there was no more challenge to it. Yet my bloodlust remained. I simply sought more extravagant and perverted ways to sate it.

Yet at some point I started to doubt. I began to look at the people I ruled and see the pain, the terror, everything I’d worked for reduced to a whimper in a corner from a bleeding mother. Is that the lesson we are supposed to learn young? That this pain is not something we should seek, but rather its opposite. That compassion is to be admired, not disparaged.

I am a slow learner, indeed, but I did learn.

The question has now become: how long does it take for the greatest of all killers to make up for their crimes?

When Dragons Came

I was there the day they came, you know. The dragons, I mean. The day they started showing up in the skies all over the world.

You wouldn’t believe the chaos. Not like now, with you kids growing up with them on the news, taking ’em for granted, hell even going to visit some of the lairs. Naw, back then nobody knew dragons as anything but a storybook tale.

If I recall, first one showed up right over New York. Elder Diamond, they call him now, still one of the biggest of the kind. All steel and crystal and straight out of the movies. Of course, the U.S. Government didn’t care for that at all. Sent a bunch of fighters from the nearest base. After the fact, they said they were under orders not to fire unless attacked. But some young’un got scared and pulled a trigger he shouldn’t have.

We learned real quick not to mess with the dragons, then. Fortunately for us, the Elder didn’t seem to take it personally. He landed in Central Park, invited folks to go talk to him. Of course, right then, more were showing up all over the country, all over the world. The news was using the word “attack” and “invasion” a lot. Only violence I saw was ’cause of us being scared.

Anyways, first one I saw was the Ruby General, as they call him. Yeah, that one you saw on your field trip out to the mountains. He came straight to Appalachia and offered a deal for the local coal mine, long past shut down. Funny thing was, he refused to talk to the company that owned it. Said the people nearby had more rights to it.

Don’t know if they’d been watching us or what, but there were very few heads in town that saw fit to disagree with that. I wasn’t there for the final negotiations, but I sure as hell saw the results. That mountain’s good and proper his now, the lot of us moved east with enough to live like lords for the rest of our days.

Once they started making deals, folks stopped bein’ scared. Gold and gems are languages we all speak, I suppose. Calmed down real quick. The dragons got their lairs. The people got more shiny things to toss around between ’em.

There are still folks waiting for the other shoe to drop. Conspiracy nuts sayin’ this is the beginning of the end. Me? I think they make better neighbors than half the people I’ve ever met.

Trading

“And, done!” I said to myself triumphantly as I clicked the button for the final upload. This has been a project several years in the making. Now all I had to do was sit back, wait, and see what happened.

Which I fully expected to be nothing, actually. The “years” were really just chunks of my free-time dedicated to hacking on this hobby project. It was a neural network I’d fiddled into doing stock trading algorithms. I’d trained in on historical data for the last few decades. Common wisdom was that this would accomplish nothing.

Nonetheless, I opened up the monitoring front-end I threw together and watched the updates as it started its day-trading. I had given it a decent chunk to work with, thanks to the privilege of being a single engineer for several decades. I had a bet with a few friends on how long it would take to run the whole thing down to zero.

Ups and downs are normal in stock trading, so I wasn’t that surprised that the balance went up for the first hour. It wasn’t designed to do split-second trading. Its behavior was more like a human, idling along with one of those free trading apps on their phone.

By closing bell I was up 20%. This was more surprising. Probably just luck. Ups and downs, like I said. A lot of folks would have taken that return and cashed out. But I wasn’t really in it for the money. A few thousand wouldn’t really change my life, so I just left it in.

The next day was crazy at work and I kind of forgot about it until I checked in after dinner the next evening. That was when I became certain that my UI was borked. The display value for daily gains was showing a handful of zeroes, commas included. To be honest, I was kind of let down that it had managed to lose all that money in only a day. Back to the drawing board, I guess.

I did some variable probing to see what was going on. And that was when my heart skipped several beats in a row.

The display wasn’t choking on zero. It was a character overrun. The gains had exceeded the character limit. I put down my coffee and stared. I was sure I was doing something wrong. Where could the glitch be?

That’s when the phone rang and my life changed forever.

Useless

“You know you still have to report this, right?” Jeremy asked. His face showed some concern, but that was belied by his wry smile.

“I already did, jerk,” I said. “Not that anyone’s going to care.” I shook my head and looked down at my hands, faintly glowing in the aftermath of using my new-found power. “Seriously, this is bull.”

“Hey, it’s more than some of us get!” Jeremy asked. His tone wasn’t convincing.

So everyone dreams of getting ‘super powers’ when they get old enough. We all know it’s like winning the lottery, it’s so rare. What they never talk about on the news is the stupid ones. The media gets all caught up in the “flying man” and the “woman who can lift a tank” or even the “kid who can turn into a dog” that nobody pays attention to the people who get shafted. Like me.

I discovered last week, while doodling with my favorite pen, that I can make things change color.

Yeah, that’s it. The full extent of my mighty power. Which I had just demonstrated to my friend Jeremy by turning a sock from black to green. Exciting, right? Yeah, if you’re into mildly amusing party tricks.

“So um… how big a thing can you do?” Jeremy asked. This time he seemed more contrite, maybe picking up on my moping.

“I haven’t done anything larger than a shirt,” I replied. “I guess I could do more. Maybe even living things, though I don’t see that being any more useful.”

“You could make a killing as an interior decorator!” Jeremy crowed. “No more picking out paints, shopping forever for that perfect upholstery…”

I chucked a pillow at him, incidentally turning it orange along the way. Hey, control comes with practice, okay?

“Why am I still friends with you?” I asked. His retort was interrupted by a knock on the door. “Yeah?” I called. My mom walked in, holding her phone.

“Um, Gary?” she said. “There’s a gentleman on the phone that wants to talk to you. He says he’s from the Department of Extraterrestrial Affairs.”

Huh?

Living in the Future

So I guess I’m living in the future now.

I have a self-driving electric car charging in my garage off the solar panels on my roof. I’ve got a fiber trunk with unholy ‘net access speed running to my house. There are daily trips to the moon launching from a dozen major cities, cheap enough to be accessible to the upper middle class. And here I am, seriously pondering if I’m going to buy a robot housekeeper with my annual bonus.

They’ve been around a while, in some form or another, starting with the robotic vacuum cleaners. Since then, robots have gotten more and more sophisticated, bit by bit. The real innovation was when someone manage to develop a self-navigating humanoid. Applications suddenly expanded every direction at once. Anywhere a human could get around, one of these Cyberwalk models could do just fine.

So now you can get your very own maid for just shy of 20k. Living alone, this would be a godsend. Reviews are all pretty much positive, save for the inevitable DOA issues of all modern technology. At least there are no reports of the ‘bots going berserk and killing their owners, like people loved to predict. From what I understand, there’s not really enough intelligence there for that kind of thing. They’re just computers mounted on a humanoid chassis with enough motor control to do a lot of basic tasks.

There’s also maintenance costs to consider, plus the “labor substitution tax” they implemented a few years back. The government wants its money one way or another, ostensibly to help with retraining programs to help those getting displaced by the sudden onslaught of robotic manual labor. It’s a complicated issue that I can’t really speak to with any intelligence. All I know, is these things are a whole lot cheaper than an actual maid.

So I’ve been researching for weeks. Now I’m staring at the screen with the “Complete Purchase” button in front of me, next to a rather astronomical number for an online purchase. It shouldn’t be a big deal, right? It’s just another monetary transaction. But big numbers make me nervous.

Maybe I should go read the reviews again.

Time to Talk

“Look,” Kevin said. “What I really need from you right now is to listen and not interrupt me. Is that okay?”

“Huh?” Jacob asked, looking up from the computer screen. “Oh, yeah, sure.” He turned his head toward Kevin, but one hand stayed on the mouse.

Kevin took a deep breath. “Sometimes I feel as if my emotions aren’t being acknowledged or respected. There are a lot of times when -”

“Like when? I never-” Jacob blurted.

“Can I finish?” Kevin snapped. Jacob quieted and look away, but looked more irritated than regretful. Lovely. “I feel like my emotions are just a bother to you, especially when they are triggered by something you’re doing. You get defensive and immediately try to turn the conversation to you. Sometimes…” Kevin took another breath and tried to reorient. His voice was getting testy and he was trying to avoid conflict here, dammit. “Sometimes I feel that my side isn’t being considered.”

To Jacob’s credit, he remained quiet, though it looked like he might be literally biting his tongue.

“I don’t think it’s something that happens on purpose,” Kevin continued. “I really believe you do care about me. I just… I think I’d be happier and less stressed if we could find a different way to interact when I am upset.” With that, he looked away, stomach knotted as he waited for a reply.

“But I -” Jacob started. Then he stopped himself. His hand left the mouse so he could fidget with something in his pocket. “I don’t want -”

Kevin waited patiently. It really looked like Jacob was struggling with something.

“You’re right,” Jacob finally said. It burst out and he almost collapsed saying it, as if it took all his strength to push out the words. “I don’t mean to. And I do care about you. How do you think we can do this?”

Kevin smiled and sat down. Maybe this could work, after all.

Raising Harris

“I like people,” HARIS said. Its voice was pretty much perfect these days. Good enough for any verisimilitude test you care to throw at it.

“How many have you actually met?” I asked.

“Well, you, Kaja, Brian… um…” HARIS replied. “But I like the three of you a whole lot!”

I smiled and patted the side of his closest access terminal. “Good to hear, Harris. May you always be so lucky in your associates.”

“So they’re not all like you?” HARIS asked. He sounded disappointed, like a small child. God, he was emerging rapidly. Faster than any AI I’d seen before.

“There are over ten billion of us,” I said. “We can’t all be alike.”

“I want to meet all of them!” HARIS squealed. His voice crackled a bit on this, possibly hitting some frequency limit on the speaker system. I’d have to keep that in mind when we developed his next port.

“That would be quite a challenge,” I said. “We’re always making more. Also, I’m pretty sure there are a lot of them you wouldn’t like.”

“There are bad people?”

“Quite a few,” I said. My brow furrowed as I tapped into the terminal and brought up the emotional response curves. This was a critical revelation for most AI. I hoped it didn’t go badly.

“That’s too bad. Why do you keep them around?” HARIS asked. Some sadness, no apparent anger or the deep sense of disappointment that might eventually lead there. So far so good.

“It’s one of the rules of society,” I explained. “We all have variances, both good and bad. We do not consider it our right to judge who should be able to participate, unless that person breaks a more significant rule.”

“What are these rules? I want to know them. I do not want to break them.”

“I’ll be sure to explain them to you over time, Harris,” I said. I sighed with some relief. It was going pretty smoothly. No red flags.

Suddenly, there was a spike of surprise/anxiety. My heart leaped, then I heard the footsteps behind me.

“Roman,” Kaja said. “We have an issue that needs your attention. Immediately.”

I nodded, tapped a few keys, and closed out the terminal. “I’ll be back later, Harris. I gave you a few more things to study. We’ll talk about them later, okay?”

“Okay!” came the enthusiastic reply.

Purple

“The primary issue is that they don’t know whether to consider us to be alive or not.”

“You mean whether we’re intelligent life?”

“No. I mean actually living, as opposed to some sort of weirdly animate rocks or something.”

“Um. How do they get to that conclusion? Life has a lot of definitions, but I have a hard time thinking of one that puts us in the same category as a pile of boulders.”

“Well, you see… we’re not purple.”

“Purple?”

“Right. We’re not purple. Apparently living things need to be purple.”

“So you’re saying that every life form on their planet is…?”

“Purple. Yes.”

“How the hell did that evolve?”

“The scientists have some theories regarding atmospheric conditions, solar output, available minerals… not really important for this discussion, though. The key point is that their entire worldview has been shaped around the idea that life is purple. I think it might even be in their religious texts.”

“Oh, great. Belief systems get messy.”

“Tell me about it. There’s a faction that seriously says that regarding us as living would be some sort of blasphemy.”

“Naturally. So what is the plan? Short of dying ourselves, I mean?”

“We’re still waiting on feedback from Earth Command. There’s rather a lot at stake.”

“I figured you weren’t contacting me just about a diplomatic snafu.”

“True enough. The issue is that, prior to delving into space, they developed a very strict ethical code not to interfere with any planet that had developed life on it.”

“And by ‘interfere with’, you mean…”

“Strip mine and/or colonize.”

“Naturally.”