Writer’s Log: 2520 Benny & Anka

Benny and Anka stood on a promontory overlooking a broad New Mexican valley. The point was secluded enough for the both of them.

Benny etched a circle in the sand at Anka’s feet. He leaned back, tilting his body—his neck, if you could call it that, didn’t bend that way. The look he gave her said: You remember, this is the limit.

“Ya, ya Benny, we still got cameras out to there.” Anka’s cabin, high in the mountains, miles from Taos, came under attack from hunters every fall as her property butted up against national forest. Her half-mile driveway, spurred off a BLM road, collected deer-hungry Californian yahoos who frequently wandered in lost—disturbing her privacy. It was this privacy that had, for fifteen years, protected Benny’s identity.

The thickset Benny, his arms hanging past what Anka would call his knees, rubbed out the circle and drew, instead, a rectangle. He began filling in the tall box, one line at a time. When he reached the top, Anka took a quick breath and raised an arthritic hand to her mouth.

“You mean… You mean you’re finished? All done. All, ready…” She pinched her lips together, lowered her hand to her chest and hugged herself. “So… So soon?”

Benny spread his long arms, palms up. A glance would indicate normal hands. However, close inspection would reveal the actual number of fingers and digits. Such a revelation would compel anyone to knit their brow, force a smile, and step slowly away.

He tried to shrug, a tree stump attempting to shift in the earth. Benny had learned to articulate many of Anka’s words, and his hearing, Anka would admit, was exquisite, but his native range and manipulation of sound was pitched much higher, ultra-sonic. With effort he drew out a low register reply, “Ssooon?”

It came out like the squeak of a dying-mouse.

Anka understood. She chuckled and twirled a finger around her temple. “Ah, look at me. Fifteen years go by and I think it’s like yesterday. You’d think I’d gone daffy.”

“Quaaaaccck, quaaaaccck,” Benny said, reaching for her hand.

She let him take it and the pair worked their way back to the cabin, she, cautious of the stony path, he, waddling on his pedestal like legs.

~~~

“When will you go?” Anka asked. She stood at the wood stove adjusting the flavor of their stew. It was composed primarily of the mushrooms Benny cultivated in a cave a short distance away. His metabolism, they’d found, couldn’t stand animal or plant proteins. He could consume some fats, a few starches, but the fungi served his unique physiology best. Anka had made adjustments. From time to time, while in town getting supplies or doing other things, she’d splurge at local fast food restaurants. Benny said he could smell the evidence wafting from her skin. “Ain’t my fault you’re sensitive,” she’d say.

Benny watched her cook. “Beeeen ready, twenty nights. Leave, soooon.”

“You should’a spoke up.” She took a sip of stew, nodded her approval. “Be good to finally be rid o’ you.”

He set two bowls on the counter and rested a hand on her shoulder, with his long arms it was an easy reach. “Miss you, three.”

Anka tsk’d, “Miss you, too!”

His laugh came like a squeegee stuttering on a window.

“Oh, you, come here.” She stooped and gave him a hug. He felt like immovable granite. The floorboards groaned at his every step. Over the years, he’d managed to find the words to explain his world to her and how its gravity was more than twice that of Earth’s. Anka had bought Astrophysics for Dummies, which helped, but mostly she came to realize that his extraordinary strength and weight came standard for his race. He was, after all, an alien.

Her alien.

She wondered aloud, “If you’ve been ready for weeks…”

“Waiting, planet position, and…”

Anka set his bowl of stew on the table and helped herself to the flatbread she’d cooked. She sat and began dipping her bread. Between bites she said, her voice edgy, “And you what? What else have you been up to in the cave of yours?” She looked away less often now. Benny’s eating style disturbed her still, yet, the fleeting thought that he’d soon be gone endeared him more with his eccentric behavior. He had made adjustments too, she admitted. For instance, he now used a spoon.

“Will show you, ingestion complete.” Benny, with his exquisite motor skills, could have consumed the meal in seconds. On her behalf, he’d learned to pace himself. He stood before the table, sitting was not something his race often did, and methodically ate his meal.

“You have a surprise for me?”

“Gift.”

“A gift?” Anka swallowed hard and pushed away her bowl. She bit her lower lip and fought back a tear. “I… I have a surprise for you as well.”

“Exchange?”

Anka rose abruptly and vanished into her bedroom.

“Injured?”

“I’m sorry, Benny, I’m sorry. Leave me be for now.”

~~~

Benny’s mushroom cavern, nestled against the foot of the mesa, provided more than just a source of food. Buried within, he’d hidden his vessel and alongside, an assembly of equipment used to extract heavy water—the fuel he required for his return journey. During the process he’d managed to extract other elements as well.

He reflected on his short time here, a fraction of his race’s longevity.

When they’d first met, fifteen years ago, it was he who’d saved her. His ship, though triply redundant, had suffered a catastrophic puncture; he’d had to make an emergency, but controlled landing. During descent and while scanning for a hiding place, his sensors had discovered a planetary native who’d become stranded in a deep ravine. His race’s knowledge of this species indicated this individual required immediate assistance: immobile and cooling, it would soon perish.

Against better judgement, he’d rescued and nursed it back to stability. During lucid moments, it had appeared to become aware of its predicament, yet had remained calm. He later surmised that his comically high-pitched noises had disarmed it despite his obvious, non-native appearance.

“A real, goddamn alien. Holy shit.” had been its first words. “Holy shit.”

He’d recorded the event, that first one and from then on. Against his expectations, the native became amenable to his presence. Within days, it had regained mobility and returned to its home. He’d expected broad exposure, a contingency his mission forbid. Leave no evidence, the directive stipulated. But no exposure came.

She, not it—he learned later, returned alone to the cavern and now, fifteen planetary revolutions had elapsed and he’d collected enough fuel to power his trip home.

And, despite better judgement, he’d become captivated.

~~~

“What’s this?” Anka asked, recomposed. Her voice tight.

“Open.”

She unfolded the cloth, one of the shirts she’d purchased for him, his own clothing would have caused concern had he been seen. Folding back the sleeve, a glimmer caught her eye. “Is this?” She exposed the full length of a five pound bar of gold.

“One here. Ten and six more. Hidey-hole.”

Early on, Anka and he had worked out a plan for him to quickly vanish. The hidey-hole, a root cellar twenty yards from the cabin, disguised like a rock pile, was the solution. They’d had to use it for the hunters and twice for the law; the sheriff had come calling, once for poachers, and once for an escaped convict.

Anka began to cry.

“Happy tears?”

“No,” she sobbed. “I’m sorry, Benny. I’m so sorry.”

He moved to console her and she shook him off.

Multiple sweeps of red light flashed through the cabin’s windows. Anka had disabled the alarm system.

“Betrayal?”

“I learned more than you know,” she said, tears streaming down. “I learned what your ship can do. Its energy and how it works.” Again, she pushed his hand away, like moving a stiff oaken branch. “I told you I don’t care about the planet, about what happens to humanity.” Anka stood and moved away from him. “But, I do. And I know you can help us.”

“No. Not allowed.”

“You, Benny, you can help us.”

Benny spread his arms and she moved hesitantly into them. She pressed his head, as she could, to her belly. He wrapped his arms around her…

And squeezed.

And kept squeezing.

“Benny, I can’t breathe.” She struggled to push him away. She began beating on his rock hard skull. “Let… Let me go.”

“So sorry, Anka.”

When she passed out, he carried her inert body to her bed. Back in the kitchen, he lifted the trapdoor and descended to the escape tunnel that led to the hidey-hole. From there, avoiding the eyes of the half-dozen law enforcement officers, he made his way to his mushroom cavern.

~~~

That night, after the ambulance had left, and all the red lights had pulled away, Benny, the alien, bid a bitter farewell. His reflections, for his final report: a species blood runs thick. Thicker than friendship. Thicker than love.

Writer’s Log: 2515 Pigeon Hunters of Venice

Bamboo makes the best darts, or so Tolly instructs the others. They’re a group of almost-teens sitting around a brick fire pit cobbled together on the roof of a hotel less than a block from the famous, now submerged, Piazza San Marcos. It’s evening and the scent of cooking hangs in the air like a drug.

“It’s strong, and light, and holds a point.” Tolly unrolls a leather sheath. Arrayed like an executioner’s instruments are two dozen darts of various lengths, each bamboo spike fletched with a ball of colorful fluff. “You guys who use bike spokes ain’t got a clue. You miss? Your darts sink. I miss, which is like, never. But, if I do, my darts float.” She holds one up, slides it into the mouth-end of her gun, gives it a puff and sends it flying. It sticks into an embroidered cushion scavenged from the abandoned city.

“Yeah?” challenges Raej, a year older but shorter and with a nasty lip-scar that forces him to suck spit every time he speaks. “Maybe bamboo be good for pidg,” slurp. “I hunt mackerel. Give me roast mack any day,” slurp. Pidg ain’t but a bite. Shit bite at that.”

He mimics Tolly’s demonstration. His wire dart however, strikes a wooden panel with a thunk, while Tolly’s merely snicked.

The pair feign their war, but each knows how tenuous their lives are, how intertwined and interdependent, and that the ruffians who patrol the inundated coast of Italy are the greater enemy.

“Shit bite? Then you won’t mind me taking your share then will ya?” Sagiya, a child of indiscriminate gender, who shadows Tolly on every hunt, reaches through the flames to lift the seared carcass of a skewered pigeon.

Slurp, “Touch that and feel my wrath, you little imp,” slurp.

Laughter simmers for a heartbeat then bubbles up; the rooftop tribe busts up giggling.

“Shhh,” Tolly says harshly. “Cover the fire.”

A child grabs a metal hood and drops it noisily on the brick ring. “Sorry.”

The white gravel roof glows from starlight only, the moon has yet to rise. They run to the edge and balance on the ridge. Northeast they spot the Paolo Gang’s fire, the only light across the whole of the city. Then the murmur of a petrol engine pulses, slips away then pulses again.

“Rogues, running the streets in their boat.”

Sagiya inches closer to Tolly. “Will they find us?”

“How long we been in this spot?”

Whispers trade between them. A boy, ten, who always wears a set of overalls that drag when he walks, says, “This be our number four night here. We s’posed to move tomorrow.”

“Well, we watch these stronzi, see what they know ’bout us.”

“Let’s finish,” slurp, “our dinner first.”

Tolly hops down, grabs a stick and levers up the tin hood. “Ah, sorry, Raej, looks like yours got all burnt up.” She pulls out the skewer revealing a perfectly roasted bird. “Kidding,” she says. “Here, have your shit bite. I know you want it.”

~~~

In the night, the renegade patrol passes them by allowing the Barozzi de Morti gang to sleep well past sunrise. The girls knot themselves in a circle of gangly arms and legs, the boys encroach the nest of warmth, but none too closely.

Overalls rises to piss, out of sight. Leaning over the edge, his stream falls to the Mediterranean Sea, barely causing a ripple. Raej and another boy with long, nearly translucent blonde hair, join him. They watch as a pod of dolphins chase a school of mackerel up the channel directly below.

“Shit, that’s a big school,” slurp, “let’s go get ’em.”

They grab their gear and descend the open stairway to the flooded second floor where they can hunt from the luxury of a hundred different water-level windows. As they leave, they kick the girls awake. “Huntin’ macs,” says Blondie, who waves shyly at Sagiya.

Sagiya waves shyly back.

Tolly yawns and stretches. “Let’s try a new roof today.” She takes a turn in a corner that hosts a rooftop drain. “I saw a huge flock soar west last night. Maybe they’re still there.”

The weather patterns, altered with the climate, send storm clouds, even in the dry season. The gangs have learned to entrap fresh water—as they can. So far, they’ve been lucky.

From a bucket, Sagiya fills a hard-plastic water bottle, a treasure plucked from a locker in the flooded first floor of the hotel. She, like the rest of the crew, can swim like an otter. “Water’s about gone. Good thing we movin’ today.”

The four girls grab their own gear: blowguns, satchels of equipment to help in emergencies: rope, knives, fishing hooks and line, hats for the sun, jackets for the rain, and they walk east to a set of planks that connect this building to others around the Piazza. The pigeons live, as they have for ages, in alcoves, eaves, and in ransacked penthouses all over the drowned city. What they eat, Tolly can only guess.

“I thought we were going west.” a girl who calls herself Angel, says. Her matted snarl of dark hair and pronounced eye teeth make her look more devil than any godly agent.

“East, north, west. Can’t just jump the Barozzi canal.” Tolly drops onto the slanted roof next door and waits for everyone to cross. Angel teeters ungainly. “Pick it up, Angel. Christmas is waitin’.”

“Christmas, my ass,” the girl curses, nearly missing her last step. “Whoa. That… That’s just a myth. Never was no Christmas.” She peers over the edge. The water shimmers at least forty feet below and is about ten feet deep. Each of them has fallen more than once. They all avoid the plunge if possible.

The small troop skips from rooftop to rooftop, sometimes descending to lower levels where their bridge-planks have been placed over the years, some by them, most by others. The wooden timbers show the scars from where they’d been ripped from their place as rafters or joists. The footing is treacherous.

Six plank-walks later, Tolly holds a finger to her mouth. She leads while the other three girls follow. At the western face of the block of apartments they traverse, they look out the window and spy a line of grey birds sitting like gargoyles on the gutter of the far building. On this side, the windows have all been shattered. They each load a dart in their blowgun—some made from copper, others from PVC. They poke the ends through the jagged glass and wait.

“On my shot,” Tolly whispers.

The team are dead-eyes. It’s kill or go hungry, and hunger, they’ve learned, hurts—a pain deep and wretched.

“One, two,” pffffft.

Pffffft-pffffft-pffffft.

Four plump pigeons twitch, one flaps twice, but all fall to the water below.

“Reload.”

Across the way, the brethren nearest the victims take flight. But farther down, the line holds steady.

The girls shuffle over three windows.

The countdown restarts and the susurration of death flits across the gap. Angel misses, but three additional birds tumble and splash.

“Looks like lunch.” Tolly hustles from the Renaissance decorated room. “Nice shot, Angel. You miss, you pluck.”

They follow the floating bodies as the tide pushes them deeper into shadow. With a fishing net attached to their lethal tubes—slipped together, they’re able to collect their bounty. With the birds slung in a sack, the crew begins their return journey.

As they tightrope the first set of planks, sliding over a baluster and jumping through a pair of wounded-wing French doors, an unfamiliar voice, gruff with sly notes, wrecks their happy mood.

“Well, well, well. Four little girls out for a picnic. Got enough in that bag for us, too?”

Fermi Paradox: RNA forms on basaltic glass

How did life arise on Earth?

The mechanisms of that process continue to elude scientists. The answer could provide both the foundation and exasperation of many human disciplines.

  • Knowing how life arose would support the continued separation of science from theology.
  • Creating artificial life using the discovered process could aid in genetics, medicine and the development of artificial general intelligence.
  • Confirming the process could solidify the estimations of the prevalence of life in the Universe.

Fermi’s Paradox poses, at its most basic: if there are trillions of life supporting planets, where are all the aliens? As a correlated argument, Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosopher and physicist, posed the theory of “Great Filters”: assuming Fermi’s lack of observational aliens, what aspects of existence “filter” out the aliens?

The answers to Bostrom’s question fall into essentially two groups where, given humanity exists (duh):

  1. Is life itself hard to create, hard to manifest and generally rare in the Universe? That is, the Great Filter is behind humanity. (Yay!) Or,
  2. If life is easy to create and shows up everywhere in the Universe, what kills off (filters) the myriad alien civilizations that should exist? And, are some of those Great Filters ahead of humanity? (Boo!)

Essentially, is humanity “in the clear” or are there a shit-ton of existential threats, known and unknown, waiting to pounce and smudge us out of existence?

Pushing this boulder further up the hill… Finding that life is hard to create—is good for us. We have, in mostly likelihood, squeezed through the Great Filter that throttles life. But, finding out that life is easy to create, is bloody everywhere in the Universe—is bad for us. There should be a slew of aliens out there, but there ain’t, so, something kills them off, and will probably kill us off too.

Enter RNA and the fact that it forms on basaltic glass.

Recent studies (reference: Catalytic Synthesis of Polyribonucleic Acid on Prebiotic Rock Glasses) have shown that, perhaps, the mechanism for creating the building blocks of life looks like this. And, given that we believe life bloomed damn fast, geologically speaking, on Earth perhaps only five-hundred million years after Earth formed, this method could help explain why.

From Science.org:

In lab experiments, they show how rocks called basaltic glasses help individual RNA letters, known as nucleoside triphosphates, link into strands up to 200 letters long. The glasses would have been abundant in the fire and brimstone of early Earth; they are created when lava is quenched in air or water or when the melted rock created in asteroid strikes cools off rapidly. (link)

Bottom line? Scientists may have found an intriguing and perhaps prevalent “bio-genesis” mechanism that could indicate the relatively straightforward process of creating life in the Universe. (Yay!)

Which means that, following most Fermi Paradoxers and Nick Bostrom’s Great Filter theories, humanity is doomed. (Yay! Ha.)


(Of course, we’re all doomed. In 100 years, everyone reading this is guaranteed to be dead, so, why the hell should we care about the future of humanity? I’ll be dead. You’ll be dead. We’ll all be dead.)

Brittleware, Mushware, Someware, Noware

A constant sense of dread accompanies the work I do. It never leaves me. Right this instant transactions flow through code I’ve written which, if malformed—in any way—could trigger failures that percolate and permeate systems deep and vast.

Of course, contingencies are expected, precautions taken and fail-overs set to trip. But it’s never enough. Preempting every possible wrinkle cannot be done. Holes will always exist. It is these holes that haunt me.

Critical software operates the world over. RTOSs, real-time operating systems in aircraft, medical equipment, telecommunications, financial systems can run error free for years. This software is not that. It’s not mission critical, life-or-death code. It’s software tracking the most pathetic of information: e-commerce. The word feels toxic on my tongue.

E-Commerce reigns, second only to “social” software, as the bane of society. There are few industries I despise more. Yet, here I am, worrying about the next alert, the next “incident” predicated on some coding assumption I’ve made. As careful and cautious as I can be, there will always be some unknown unknown that creeps up to bite me.

I hate computers.

Found in a mine

The deepest mine gives purest stones,
of sapphire eyes and diamond tears.
The darkest nook hides murder bones,
that yearn to scream their story dear.
~
Scrape the skin of earthen mounds,
revealing gems so fair, so fine.
Midnight walks, deserted towns,
embrace foul shadows dressed to dine.
~
On rubies dipped in molten gold,
lay draped and searing milk-white throats.
While foolish flailing miners bold,
thrust sterile hips to Pan’s wry notes.
~
Her jaded jade mind, green with envy,
his turquoise marbles, blue with lust,
bear no substance, shatter freely,
return to Mother, return as dust.