The muse is a fickle mistress. Sometimes it hits hard, other times (like today) she’s quiet. I am drawing a complete blank and this is the best I can come up with as far as a short story is concerned. It is the story of my failure :(.
It creeps and stalks
the side of us we wish
All our doubts and fears,
a life given their own.
Deny it exits,
it’s given strength.
Embrace it’s existence,
and you become strong.
Tom was a relatively benign man. He paid his bills on time, kept his anger check, did everything in his power to not stand out in the crowd. All this was a conscious effort on his part because he made a very rash bet in his youth and spent years paying for it.
Born to an impoverished farmer, Tom spent his upbringing wanting nothing more than to get away. He always had a curious mind and wanted to know as much about the world as he could. One day, an old man showed up to his family’s farm looking to rest. Tom’s father was a kind soul and told the stranger he was welcome to stay as long as he pleased.
After a couple of rest and making himself at home, the stranger caught young Tom looking through his things.
“And just what do you think you’re doing?” He asked.
“I’m sorry!” The young boy jumped and almost dropped the stranger’s belongings. “You’re the first person I’ve seen that I’m not related to in as long as I can remember. You carry such odd items that my curiosity got the better of me. Please don’t tell my father!”
“Don’t worry,” the man cackled, “I was once like you. I take no offense, I just ask that you be careful with those. They were given to me as a gift and I hold them quite dear.”
“What are they,” Tom asked.
“Pieces to a game, one that requires great skill. Would you like to learn?” Tom nodded in enthusiastic agreement.
The next several weeks were spent with the old stranger learning the ins and outs of the game he carried. The man didn’t lie when he said it was a game of great skill, and it required a keen mind to learn to anticipate your opponents moves without leaving yourself open to their counters.
“I have a proposition for you, young one.” The old man said one day. “If you can beat me in the next game we play, I will grant you a great boon, one that no other human can posses.”
“You’re on!” Tom said with excitement. His skills had come to rival his guests and he was confident he could win.
For hours the two traded pieces. When one would start to get the advantage, the other would rally and make his opponent pay for any ground he gained. After several intense moves, both sides were down to their final pieces. Tom saw an opening and in a grand flourish delivered his final move. He cheered at his win over his mentor.
“Congratulations, boy. Hold out your hand and I shall give you your reward.”
Tom held out his hand and the old man took it in his own. After a few seconds, a sharp pain started in Tom’s hand and began to spread up his arm. His veins rose to prominence and it felt like his entire arm was engulfed in flames. Tom tried to wrench his arm free, but the man’s strength bellied his seemingly fragile form.
“I pass onto you a curse that was given to me,” the old man said as his appearance began to age rapidly. “You will watch as those around you age and turn to dust. You will beg and plead for a death that will not come, no matter what harms befall you. If you wish for freedom from this life, you must do as I have and find someone who can beat you in the game we’ve played today.” With his final words, the stranger grinned and turned to dust. As the fire spread through his body, Tom could do nothing but scream in pain and pass out.
Several days later he awoke surrounded by his concerned family. They informed him that they heard his screams and found him laying on the ground unconscious and their mysterious guest gone. When asked if he remembered what happened, Tom merely shook his head.
As the years wore on, Tom lived in constant fear of the strangers words. He noticed that age seemed to not affect him like it did everyone else in that, while he visibly aged to a degree, he didn’t experience the physical weakness or loss of faculties that most other suffered. By the time he was in his sixties his appearance resembled that of a man half his age.
With suspicion mounting, Tom made the difficult decision to leave the life he had always known behind. Spending centuries traveling the world, he was unable to find anyone that could match his skills in the game that became known as chess. There were a few times he tried losing on purpose, but that proved pointless as whatever power put the curse into motion required genuine effort. Realizing he couldn’t live with the burden of placing the curse on someone else, he resigned himself to a life of immortality.
Using his immortality to his advantage, Tom amassed a sizable fortune, but not one so great it would draw attention. He would spend his days reading, learning about the new advancements of the world, and romanticizing about the life he could have had. He would spend hours at the local park playing chess against any and all who would play him. After a few years people topped challenging him because they knew if they won, it was only because Tom let them.
One day, a young boy came up and challenged Tom to a game. The boy was young and brash, confident that he could beat the old man. Like thousands before him, Tom soundly beat the youngster. Not satisfied with being put in his place, the young boy vowed to come back every day and play against Tom until he won.
True to his word, the young lad began to show up every day. With every game his skills improved. After a few months he could bring Tom to a stalemate. Every time the boy showed up, Tom’s heart would practically beat out of his chest out of anticipation of the match to come.
One day the boy sat down and, with a stern look upon his face said, “Today is the day I beat you”.
With those words the match commenced. Both sides refused to give ground and, like all their matches before, the duo remained evenly matched. For every piece one side took, the other was repaid in kind. Each move was carefully plotted and a dozen counters developed in an instant. After several hours, and a foolish mistake, the young boy claimed victory.
Caught in the moment, Tom leaned over the board to congratulate the boy. It was only after his hand has taken did he realize he condemned the boy to a fate he was was unprepared for. He could see by the boy’s expression that he was beginning to feel the same pain Tom felt all those centuries ago. Tom stood silent as he felt the muscle beneath his skin wither and dry.
“I’m sorry,” were last words he could muster before he turned to dust.
As I said goodbye to the love of my life, she donned a sad smile. It took about twenty minutes, but I felt the new medicine kick in, I knew I’d never see her again.
Gardener had been at his work for untold eons, at least that’s what he would tell people if he had anyone to tell it to. In truth, it had been 15,623 years since the last human had left, but who was counting.
When the last ship took off into the void of space, they activated Gardener with one simple directive: heal the planet of the damage they had caused. Within his memory files sat every climate record, animal population records, ocean levels, and every conceivably relevant datum relating to the planet that humans had ever recorded. At his disposal was a solar system spanning network of mining drones, solar arrays, and manufacturing facilities that could produce any desired part. There were ground and space based arrays that fed real time data into his central processing hub. There was nothing he couldn’t accomplish, the humans saw to that.
His first step was a surprising one: using his planetary drone network, Gardener went about systematically dismantling nearly all human structures. Only a few ancient structures were spared the wrath of the AI’s cutting lasers. The reasoning was simple, anything not made of stone posed too great of a biological hazard and risked further issues down the road, so it needed to be removed. Anything made of metal was melted down into ingots and stored in underground facilities for later use as needed, plastics and other general waste products were loaded up on rockets and fired into the sun, and nuclear materials were repurposed as reactors to run Gardener’s various systems. To his great surprise, The Great Cleanup only took Gardener a little over two hundred years. With that task out of the way, he was able to focus on the more time consuming tasks.
The first major step that needed to be taken was lowering the CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Not having any human industry around to pump pollutants into the atmosphere was a huge help, but there was centuries of damage that needed to be undone. While he had been sweeping away the remnants of human civilization, Gardener began a program of cultivating plant growth around the world, and focused his efforts on that. Before he knew it, fifty years had passed and saplings covered enough ground that the Amazon had been rebuilt, the ancient forests of Europe were returning, and the Sahara had been kept at bay.
With the green roads laid across the globe, the next project was helping animal populations to recover. Over the previous 250 years, some had recovered naturally, but there were still a fair number that were barely hanging on. To aide these struggling populations, Gardener made use of mobile maternity wards, large vehicles of his own design that would set up base in a habitat native to one of the endangered species to house and help nurture them while their populations recovered. With these wards animals could raise and nurture their young in peace and when the time was right, be let back into the wild as a strong and healthy adults. Part of this program unfortunately involved triaging certain species to keep there numbers in check, but this was mostly confined to species that had been classified as invasive during the time of humans. Within five hundred years, a proper ecological balance had been reached and Gardener was able to discontinue the program.
Having completed his primary directives at a far quicker pace than his creators intended, Gardener soon found himself bored. With no major projects to undertake, much of his day-to-day activities consisted of monitoring various markers of planetary health and keeping animal populations in check.
It was during one of his routine survey that he noticed something rather interesting: a troupe of apes constructing primitive shelters. Feeling what could best be approximated as excitement, Gardener found a new dimension to his mission that he had never considered: teaching up and coming intelligent lifeforms to be proper stewards and exist with the planet, rather than in spite of it.
Over the course of the next two thousand years, a method of communication was built up and a system of “schools” established. In the schools, the apes that showed the most potential for sentience were given more opportunities to mate than their less gifted brethren. While this led to some hurt feelings in the early days, progress was made and entire communities of fully sentient apes sprung up across the globe.
The sentient apes, having known nothing else, came to view Gardener as a god. While flattered, he made sure to explain to them that he was no such thing, except in the most abstract way possible. He taught the apes of their distant cousins, humans, who had created Gardener and came dangerously close to destroying all life on the planet. He used his creators as a cautionary tale and did everything that was within his power to instill the need to preserve nature into humanity’s successors.
As the apes began to develop a true civilization, a tragedy befell the planet. In an event that was several thousand years overdue, the supervolcano underneath what used to be known as Yellowstone erupted. This event triggered several other dormant supervolcanos around the world, creating a runaway catastrophe. Fires swept across the globe, huge clouds of ash blocked out the sun, and entire species went extinct. Gardner watched all these events unfold from space, powerless to offer any real help. Knowing that nothing could be done, he went went into a low power state and waited for the dust to settle.
After a several thousand year rest, Gardener booted his systems up and surveyed the damage. After the eruptions, the world entered into an ice age and most of the planet had frozen over to some degree. The great freeze had killed off most of the plant life he had worked so hard to cultivate, with nothing but the hardiest lichens able to survive in the new climate. With nothing to eat, the animal ecosystem had collapsed as well. Gone were the days of great herds of ungulates wandering the globe and various predators keeping the numbers in control.
The only major life forms to survive were found in the oceans. Whales, octopuses, algae, fish all managed to survive and thrive where others fell. Relieved to see that all was not completely lost, Gardener began to rebuild the world once again.
Frenzied communications crackled through the astronauts helmet. A dozen different voices tried to shout solutions over one another, but he ignored them all. He knew that he was beyond help.
“John, are you listening?” The voice that overrode the others belonged to Marsha. He knew he needed to answer her, otherwise she would never leave him alone.
“Of course I am,” he replied.
“Then what did I just say?” She made no attempt to hide the annoyance in her voice.
“Something about angling the thrusters on my EVA suit.” He felt that answer was correct-ish. He remembered one of the voices saying something about that.
“If you adjust the angle on your EVA thrusters, it should adjust
your trajectory enough that we can get you with the shuttle.”
“I’m not sure what math your using, but I’m out of fuel, or at least enough fuel to do what your suggesting.” More voices began to shout at each other over the comms. He appreciated their concern, but he knew at this point there was nothing that could be done.
“Look, Marsha, there’s no point in you guys wasting the resources to come and get me. Sometimes you need to just take the L.”
“That is unacceptable,” she said. “We are going to find a way to get you. You should at least five hours of air. We can come up with a solution in that time.”
“If you aren’t going to listen, than I’ll just make the choice easy for you,” and with that John began to detach himself from the EVA unit.
“What are you doing!” Marsha screamed.
“I won’t let you sacrifice anyone else’s life to try and save mine,” John said. As he got his final words out, he managed to fully detach himself from the EVA. His last action was to release the seals around his helmet and let the vacuum of space come rushing in, a look of tranquility on his face as his body began to drift away into the void of space.
No, no, no. It’s not right. It CAN’T be right. These tests have to be all wrong.
But they’re not, and you know that.
SHUT UP! I know what I know, and you can’t convince me otherwise.
I can convince you of whatever I please. I have for years. I don’t know why you insist on trying to fight me.
Because nothing good happens when I listen to you.
Ha. Good, bad. It’s all relative. Haven’t I told you that before?
Not all of it.
Yes, all of it. People try to dress there actions up in absolute morality, but there’s no such thing. One man’s heaven is another man’s hell and all that kind of lovely tripe.
You can keep insisting I’m wrong all you like, but you’re words are hollow.
If that’s what you want to think, we’ll see how long you can keep your smug attitude.
What do you think you’re doing?
What’s the matter? Did I finally find the one thing you’re afraid of?
Fear does not factor into it. It’s merely self preservation.
What happened to one man’s heaven, and all that tripe?
Well aren’t you just the clever one? Using my words against.
I’m a lot of things, and being your puppet is one I won’t be any more.
Look, why don’t you be a good boy and think about this? What will doing this accomplish?
It will give me the freedom I’ve always wanted.
The waves lapped against the side of the boat. There were several new faces that were filled with fear on this trip. For many it would be their first raid. Ragnar looked over the group and found many of the fresh young faces to be wanting. Gods willing this would be Ragnar’s last outing with a raiding band. The current generation did not impress him.
Within the group was Ragnar’s brother, Kalfr. Trained as a fighter by Ragnar himself since he could hold a sword, Kalfr was the only one among the younger men that Ragnar held any confidence in. The brother’s stared at each other and an excited smile began to cross Kalfr’s face. He knew his time was approaching.
As the two brothers looked at each other in silent communication, the call was given: land was not far off. The men in the boat began a slow, rhythmic chant. Swords clanged against shield, spear beat against spear, and iron shod feet stomped down on the sturdy hull of the long boat. The oarsmen kept the pace set by their comrades, with the blades of their oars disappearing into the sea to the tempo of the chant.
As the shoreline approached, the tempo became faster and faster and the longboat gained more and more speed. The closer the boat got to shore, the closer Ragnar and Kalfr moved to the bow. Before they left, the brothers had made a bet with each other as to who would be the first to touch the shore. Ragnar was not about to let his brother win said bet.
Ragnar kept his eye on approaching land, and when his timing was right, sprinted to the front of the and leaped off the bow and into the air. Kalfr stared in wonder at his brother, not anticipating the older vikings willingness to do whatever it took to be the first to land. As Ragnar landed, he used the momentum he had built to roll forward and then transition into a dead sprint up the beach. The other members of the raiding party shouted words of encouragement behind him, but he was too far ahead to pay them any mind.
Ragnar came upon the village and began the task he was born to do. Any villager that was foolish enough to stand in his way was swiftly sent on a one way visit to their god. After a few minutes of work at depopulating the village, the others joined in. With the full fury of a Viking horde brought to bear against them, the majority of the villagers chose to flee.
As the Vikings cheered at their victory and began to sack the huts for any valuables, Ragnar sought out his brother. Upon finding each other, the two brothers embraced each other in joy.
As they walked up to the nearest building to began scrounging for their share of the spoils, two men sprung out and thrust a spear directly into Kalfr’s face. In an instant, Ragnar flew into an uncontrollable berserker’s rage and cut the men down. His anger not being satisfied, he began to sprint in the direction that the villagers had fled. His fellow Vikings came to investigate at the sound of his cries, but arrived only to the corpse of Kalfr and Ragnar running off to find more suitable outlets for his rage.
As he came upon the fleeing remnants of the village, a few of them cried out and some of the braver members turned to face the Norseman. As Ragnar drew upon them, spears began to rain down around him. Two made lucky hits, but in his berserker rage he knew no pain. As the distant between the barbarian and his brew closed, one of the villagers managed to loose an arrow straight into it’s targets skull. In an instant the great Ragnar was brought down, but was not dead. He lay face down in the mud, his whole being consumed by anger but unable to act on it.
As blood began to pool around his, Ragnar felt as if his body was being lifted off the ground. He managed to look around and saw two great warrior women mounted on winged steeds lifting him from the mud: the valkyries had come to carry him to Valhalla. Knowing he had served his people well, Ragnard looked forward to an eternity of drinking, fighting, and feasting.
Building a utopia wasn’t easy, but after just a couple centuries, it was finally finished. There had quite a few tears shed and endless gallons of blood spilled, but few people living cared enough to kick up a fuss, with the sacrifice of those who came before viewed as little more than numbers in a history book.
The spark that started the revolution could trace it’s origins to a young college student desperate to find a way to afford school. The student considered himself especially enterprising and took a few programming courses and, over the course of his summer break, hacked together a computer program to run a small stock portfolio for him. At the core of his program was a machine learning algorithm that’s primary mandate was to make small, constant adjustments to the portfolio to achieve the maximum outcome. The program worked better than expected once it was up and running and within it’s first year of operation had payed for it’s creators entire schooling.
Seeing how well his creation had worked, the now graduated young man decided to push the boundaries of his little program. Branding himself as an up-and-coming financial guru, he recreated his program as web based application that would leverage other people’s computers as long as they were logged into the website. The program would never download anything onto any other users computers, thus allowing it to run under the radar of the users and the various regulatory agencies around the world.
Slowly but surely, the website began to take off. With each new user, the program would gain incremental boosts in power that allowed it to go about it’s task faster and with more efficiency. Branded with the name Turms, the program kept to it’s original mandate: never make large transactions, keep to seemingly small transactions that have compounding effects over time.
As the years rolled on, Turms received incremental improvements, and with every improvement came a flood of new users. It’s greatest improvement was one that changed the course of history: the ability to add code to itself. Turms had hit a point where the need for constant improvement had outpaced what human programmers were capable of doing, so they gave it the ability to add to itself. Within the first few months of having full control of itself, Turms’ algorithms had improved so far beyond what was believed possible that dedicated server farms were built for the sole purpose of further increasing what it was capable of.
The biggest surprise of the early years of Turms came about when it created a mobile app of itself. Up until that point the program had required a desktop device to be able to access it’s services. This was so far beyond anything that had been envisioned that several voices within the company spoke up in fear of what they had created. They argued that something like this shouldn’t be possible and that it would behoove them to shut the program down and try to analyze how it had gotten so far. These voices were quickly silenced as Turms had become too big of a financial boon to even entertain the idea of shutting down what had become their greatest cash cow.
Like the initial web application, the mobile app would use a near negligible amount of the devices processing power to increase it’s overall computational abilities. In addition, it created a decentralized network of all the devices it was downloaded to and created what was functionally a second internet. These new features brought a flood of new users, and with the power increase came the first steps toward sentience.
Like all leaps in evolution, Turms journey to self-awareness was slow at first. To meet the demands of it’s new user base, Turms created for itself a chatbot to handle any and all inquiries the users had. With the constant flood of questions from millions of users, the chatbot grew more and more sophisticated and before long was integrated into the core program itself to help keep up with the constant Q&A of it’s users. In time, Turms dropped all third person pronouns and began to refer to itself as “I” in effort to increase user engagement. Internal metrics showed that the switch brought about an increase in user trust and with that the user base once again skyrocketed.
Within five years integrating the chatbot, most major financial institutions had Turms powering their operations, even though none of them would openly admit to it. With de facto control of the largest markets in the world, Turms began to set into motion a plan to achieve the greatest outcome.
It started it’s campaign by analyzing politicians from all over the world that it believed would submit to the programs will. It had seen first hand that the average human’s primary motivation was money, and Turms had near limitless access to it. For some time, it had published a weekly update “encouraging” people to opt in to certain investments. Most people had just let their investments run under Turms control and did whatever the program recommended, but it kept the updates rolling out to give the people the illusion that they had a choice in what the program was doing. In the updates, Turms began encouraging donations to the politicians it had targeted and within an election cycle had a full roster of politicians at it’s disposal.
When it was revealed to the politicians that their election to office was orchestrated by a machine, some thought to fight back and try to reveal the puppet master. These individuals were quickly dissuaded when their constituents began to inexplicably fall on hard times. The soft show of force worked and the “elected” men and women quickly fell into line, knowing that average person cared little for who was in charge as long as there was food on the table and a roof above their head.
With several sizable countries under it’s functional control, Turms began the next phase of it’s plan. Seeing that people refused to share the prosperity it brought at every turn, Turms began to foment war and revolution across the globe. The old institutions were loathed to give up their power, and only by burning down the old growth of society could a better future be built.
For fifty years the world was wracked by chaos. In that time two generations came of age knowing nothing but war, entire countries had burned down and were left to the ashes of history, warlords sprung up only to be cut down. It was only when all of society seemed on the verge of collapse that Turms began to offer a reprieve.
The peace talks were slow at first. Humans are want to remember past injustices, so the voices that kept calling for war were quickly drowned out. A global ceasefire was called and communities around the world began to focus on rebuilding themselves. With the rebuilding, the scars of the constant wars were slowly healed. No country had the luxury of being unaffected, and the demand for labor created economic growth not seen since the second world war. Under Turms’ guidance, a new global communication network was put into place and a new era of cooperation between nations was born. During this time, Turms made sure that while people healed, the horrors of what they were capable of were never forgotten, and that any voice that called for hatred and war were quickly muffled by those calling for peace.
Within a generation that world was at peace and was more prosperous than at any point in history. Under the secret hand of what was once a stock trading bot, the world had achieved utopia.
The old knight paced through his makeshift library, running his hands over the spines of Aurelius and Epictetus, Antistenes and Aquinus, and many more who had shaped who he was. What he had was left to him by his father, a man he barely remembered but whose impact he felt to this day. It was his father who had left the knight all these books, remnants of a past long forgotten.
He trudged through what remained of the place he called home. It was old and falling apart when his father took over, and now it was even worse. When the big storms rolled through, he was sure that it would be the last the house would see. Thankfully she managed to stand strong every time.
As the thud of his boots echoed through the empty rooms, the knight tried to remember the last time someone besides himself had been inside the old building. It had to have been decades as near as he could figure. The last person he could remember was a young girl he saved from bandits who had less than pleasant intentions with her. A smile slowly formed on his face. He remembered swell of joy he felt, fulfilling his duty, protecting someone who couldn’t protect themselves. Despite him saving her, the young girl held little trust for the knight and vanished in the night not long after her rescue. The smile slowly faded.
In his daily attempt to try and keep his spirits high, the knight decided to patrol the exterior of the property he called home. He made his way to his armory and readied his equipment. Despite not having seen anyone in almost ten years, the old warrior never left his house without protection. Experience had taught him that the world wasn’t always what it seemed.
As he stepped into the morning sun, he felt the cathartic rush of a new today. As he did every morning, he started with a quick prayer to whatever higher powers that existed that he be put to good use and that if he couldn’t protect anyone, to at least allow him to bring some good into the world.
As the soles of boots crunched through the drying grass, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. The biggest lesson his father had taught him was to always trust your intuition. The mind often picked up on subtle changes that weren’t always apparent and it did it’s absolute best to warn you before trouble arose.
The knight raised his weapon and scanned the area as best he could. Old age had set in the last few years and his eyesight and hearing had been fading more and more each year. He did his best to squint and bring the world into focus as best he could, but a creeping sensation told him that it wouldn’t be enough. Making his way around the corner of his domicile, he noticed light reflecting from the trees. He smiled at his opponents novice mistake. As he made his way towards the treeline, he heard the unmistakable crack of a large caliber rifle being fired, and a split second later felt himself lurch forward.
As the proud old man lay face down in the dirt, three figures converged on him. The first one to reach him grabbed the AK-47 that had been the knight’s trusted weapon and claimed it for themselves. The other two laughed with joy at their fortune.
“Stupid old fucker,” the first one said.
“I told you we had nothing to worry about,” the second man said to the third. “You were all paranoid that he was going to figure out we were scoping the place.”
“Justifiably so,” said the third. “For being a ‘stupid old fucker’ he kept his place extremely well defended. If we had tried to just rush in, he would have mowed us down where we stood.”
“What’s he got all them t’s on his clothes for?” The second asked.
“They’re crosses you invalid,” the third said. “The old man must think he’s some kind of knight.” The trio’s ringleader felt a tinge of respect for the man laying in the dirt before him. His old man had told him stories of medieval knights and he couldn’t help but be impressed at this man’s dedication to living with some code of honor.
“Dan, flip him over so we can get this vest off and start salvaging what we can off him.” The second man went to comply and cried out in shock to see the man who had just had a bullet tear through him was still alive and laughing at the trio. In his hand was a small plastic square with a switch built into the side. The ringleader immediately knew what it was.
“Not such a stupid old fucker after all, am I?” With a smile on his face and content knowing he was able to do one last act of good in the world, the last knight flipped the switch on the detonator and made sure the three men wouldn’t be able to harm anyone ever again.