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    Anecdote of Ren making it rain in Cyber Lab
    by officialcjunior

    Ren knew what his car looked like and probably had his car license number clearly up in his photographic memory, so he had no trouble in finding Benji's car from the parking lot.

    The clock would tick past about 11 at night when Benji gets back home from his work. Ren knew that too, that's why he was already here in the parking lot at around 10:45, in his sky-blue Porsche 911, listening to Johny Cash on the radio, slowly rocking his fingers to the lovely rhythm on the wheel, while his palm rested on the gear knob.

    It was all like an '80s film.

    'It's almost 11, mate, where are you', He said to himself. He was impatient.
    The Johny Cash song moved to a one from the Stones. The distorted voice of Mick Jagger gently caressed the car and the good night.

    It was warm, and it was summer.
    Which meant, the clouds were gone and the sky was clear again.
    A night as serene as it can get, with the luminous moon gleaming and the white twinkling stars giving their special harmony on the black, but well-lit sky.

    Finally, a tall, lean guy came walking from the office building.
    He looked western and clearly like a follower of the bohemian ways.
    Dressed like 1994 and 1974 together, with a jacket, that'd instantly make him the hippiest person in the room. And with a pair glasses, with which one could probably see through the afternoon Delhi smog.

    The Porsche caught his eye, indeed, but he casually walked to his car, a yellow convertible, put his laptop bag in, and drove out of the lot.
    Everybody loves a game of cat and mouse, he must've thought to himself.

    He hadn't had turned the car into a sedan, and the warm breeze swept through his long, brown hair.
    Yes, it was summer.
    But it felt like it could rain.

    It was a Friday night and Benji felt like he should put the pedal to the floor and try to make that trouble inside his head go away.
    The breeze was almost soothing, almost like breaking free, but barely escapism.
    He sighed deeply and drove on through the freeway.

    On the rear view mirror, he saw Ren and his Porsche, clearly following him.

    He sped up, and took a hard right turn to the upcoming exit to the suburbs, that would've shocked anyone passing by. But, there was no one. It was just Benji and Ren and the dull streetlights.
    Benji raced through the twisted curves. The only thing that stood still to him was the sky full of stars. He drove about a mile, and settled.

    The dust still hadn't settled. Yet, the summer breeze refused to take them away.
    Ren walked cross to Benji's, still seated comfortably in the driver's seat, through the choking dust, looking like a hero, and put his elbows on the windowsill.

    "We need to talk."


    At Benji's, everything was as cypher-punk as it can get. Dark, with cables laying all across the floor, old routers with their hoods off and broken Game Boy boards.

    Benji poured a drink to a glass and placed it in front of his guest.
    Then, he settled on his armchair, placed his arms on the sides of the chair, leaving an impression that he would soon have the whole world under his command.
    Still maintaining eye contact, Ren slowly held the glass to his nose and smelled it.
    "You prefer gin to tonic?", he said, breaking the silence of the night.
    "Yes, Ren. Old habits", he replied after taking a seat and pouring a glass for himself.
    "I know about you picking Johny Cash and vim over anything, now gin over tonic?"
    Benji shrugged, helped himself with his glass and sat back.

    Probably after reminiscing about the good breeze he had just drove through, Benji quickly pulled his mind together.
    "The purpose of your visit?"
    "Lately, I have some trouble sleeping."

    Things weren't looking good from the start of the year. First, there was the reformation. The major part of the members of the team demanded equality amongst all the sub groups. It was all for the good, it was the sign on the times. Now there are team meetings before each CTF, more communication and more growth. As the head of the team, he embraced the transition and welcomed to take more power and stress off him and onto the team. It was like the beginning of a new era.

    But, as responsibilities became more distributed, performance withered away.

    The numbers weren’t looking good after Volga. Cyber was pushed into the top 100s in that one. It wasn’t so great in the other one either. It was like all something went wrong.
    It was almost like the decline of Roman empire.

    "And you know, Benji, there are some nights where I even feel like there's no point in carrying along with it."

    "You know about weeds, mate?", Benji replied, with a very serious, yet funny look on his face.
    "Yeah, there are some species, no matter how hard you trim them or poison them, they continue to grow back?"
    The air over Benji's hung very low, concealing everything the two men spoke.
    "You have to plough up the top soil and pull out the taproots", he said, giving his undivided attention to the man in front of him.

    A bit befuddled, Ren took his eyes off to his watch.
    The watch read 11:45 PM.
    He looked outside through the window. The suburb lay inebriated with the subtle star shine, with city lights at the far horizon.

    Ren got up and walked to the door, after seemingly finding answers in that view, but his mind was still disconcerted.
    "And get some sleep!", advised Benji, as Ren turned the front door handle.


    That night, midsummer, Ren came rushing in to the Cyber lab. The stars were now concealed with dark bellied clouds threatening to shower down at any instant.

    The sky seemed to be replicating his state of mind.

    He was running, or it appeared that he was. His hair smelled of sweat and dust, moreover sorrow, in an overwhelming extent. His face was red with his brows sunken and covered with layers of sweat, from running and his thoughts. He wiped his sweat off from his brow, opened the big wooden door and walked in.

    ‘Finally, the Cyber Lab!’, he must’ve thought.
    All of his sadness, anger and his urgency seemed to dissolve away in the subtle tranquility of the Cyber Lab.

    Where the binaries get spaghettified; the warzone.

    Although, there were other people and his mates in the lab, at the moment, he felt like he was alone.

    All of the times he walked through the dark corridors of the Cyber Lab alone at night, he had always felt a certain kind of feeling, like in no place else. It’s peaceful and quiet. Like there’s a spirit who watches all of us from above and leads Cyber through hard times, through the right path. More of like a community server that anyone worthy can make use of, but magical; Community-spirit.

    A spirit that always pushes you forward.
    The Spirit of Cyber.

    Taking in his presence and the feeling, he continued walking, to the far end, where the Cyber Lab’s main hall laid brimming with silence and darkness.
    Him walking through the corridor, this late in the night, under the series of lamps, over and over again must’ve made him feel like a ghostly spirit.

    Meanwhile, sky had started to break down with sound of thunder which echoing through Cyber, scattered and eventually dissolving away into the mystery that surrounded it.
    Cool wind was rushing in.

    Ren stopped near the long table, just by the ESP8266 which collects the attendance data.
    Beep. Beep.
    Imperion was there, grid_lock was probably there, zer0k was definitely not there; Usual Cyber.
    And the lab grew cold, eerie.

    Somebody from the end of the table, where he usually sits, leaned back, in a familiar gesture, as he was expecting him, but was met with no reply.
    That was Balthazar.
    To him, it looked like this was going to be one of those late rainy nights with CTFs; Late nights with nightmares.They'd buy biscuits, chips and rarely, a drink to keep them contained and usually Balthazar gets over the line first.

    "You know, I'm something of a Raja, myself. You can link me to the old dynasty of the coastal city."
    And then he'd talk on and on about how would've been powerful if the times hadn't changed, totally drifting off from the purpose of having the drink, which was to help himself in solving the challenge.
    A part of Balthazar thought and wanted it to happen that night.

    Ren must've went through the same thought too when he shot a good look at everybody. He could see the feeling on Balthazar's face. He carelly looked upon his mates and then at his hands.

    That’s when one of his mates saw that he had been holding a can of a sports drink, in his hands all the time. Something you don't normally see.
    But there he was, Ren holding a drink and the whole lab became spontaneously became madly silent and restrained.
    He was still looking at the can, now like his whole life depended on it.

    Mad images rose and fell in his mind.

    So did anxiety.
    He increased his grip on the sports drink, trying to contain his anguish, closing his eyes and trying to concentrate, just before he threw the can at the wall next to The Room Of The Beeping Things, where the can exploded like a bomb, with the drink reaching as far as the Operating Systems Security Lab, and the sound reaching much farther.

    Nobody moved a muscle, and silence echoed through the dim walls again.
    It was confusion.
    And the team looked at him in awe.
    The rumbling sky made way to a wonderful shower.
    Little droplets rained down, dissolved and slipped away.

    At that moment, Ren had a wonderful fantasy.
    What if the river was flowing right through the window?
    All the fish, sting-rays and the mud would all flow through the window and he would be able to watch it just from his station.
    And what if there's a river flowing through the Room Of Beeping Things?
    You could watch the river swell during the monsoon and maybe try your luck in fishing, just from his station.

    Watching the muddy water flow away, Ren would call "Benji!". He wasn't calling. He was a screaming.

    While the cool wind continued to rush in, to that midsummer night.

    The sky seemed to be replicating his state of mind.

    The silence and the darkness got intertwined and melted away into ether, eliminating all individuality and bestowing the team with absolute focus.
    With the sound of thunder, every once in a while.

    Still, the man’s face was distinct in the shadows. Everyone could clearly see the spark in his eyes and the gleam of his glasses.

    “You call this productivity? You call this… a team?”, he bellowed in a voice very powerful, like one possessed. He had never took his voice so high.

    It was the beginning of something Cyber hadn’t yet seen, well at least the present Cyber.
    “This isn't what Cyber is about.”
    He looked around. His voice was now almost getting buried in the thunderous clatter of the rain.

    He took his glass off, sat down, took a moment for himself and began. The thing Ren does best. It was about to happen.

    Few rain drops slowly rolled down the windows and immediately fell away.
    The sky seemed to be replicating his state of mind.

    I knew that I was going to hear something I’ve heard people say a million times to me, again but this time, its going to lay a deep impression within me.

    Perhaps, it’s in the way he was molded.
    He was never the one for hollow thoughts.
    The word on the street was he was in the Olympiad or something similar when he was young.
    What puzzled everyone the most is the infinite karma in settling in this place helping people, after thousands of adventures, while patiently waiting for the moment of great reckoning to arrive.

    It was like in those American movies, where the head coach walks into the locker room, delivers a speech that lifts the hearts of everyone in the room in order to go that extra mile and achieve the impossible.

    Climbing higher and back down, blending into everything Ren said that night.

    And that’s what had happened.
    It truly was.
    Maybe it was a prophecy, or The Spirit Of Cyber, who knows.

    Now, I remember his glasses and his grin, right before he ended.
    I remember his voice, now a distant murmur, waiting to come back into my mind on the cold rainy monsoon nights, when I need it the most.
    And in those nights, the words will come back and envelop me again.

    “You are as useful as I am. You are just not aware of how useful your contribution to the society that sacrifices you, is.”

    It’s a reminder.
    To walk on with your tensed jaw and clenched fist till the very end.
    To fight in the beaches and the landing grounds.
    To go till the end.
    Until you feel your nostrils dilate with the smell of sweat and blood.
    And feel liberated.
    A fox in a box of bricks and blocks.

  • #2
    4 1/2 acres of freedom
    by D

    THUNK. "Motherfucker..." After six months of sleeping in this damn rack, you'd think he'd have gotten used to the cramped bunk enough to have kicked the reflex of sitting straight up at the sound of his alarm, but AB1 Johnson was a slow learner. Shit, he thought, if this leaves a bruise, it'll be weeks of dodging suspicious stares. He'll have to go to the sick bay to get another test just to prove he doesn't have the virus--that he doesn't need to be quarantined for the duration of a quick death. The virus starts ravaging the body by weakening the walls of blood vessels, leading to massive bruising and eventually the body bleeding out internally. It is far deadlier than the one that killed almost a million people in 2020, when AB1 was an infant. Within a week of getting symptoms of this virus, you'll be gone, and the doctors can't do anything to help--they'll only shut you in a quarantine pod, which will pump in oxygen and intravenous nutrition while keeping the contagion (as well as the sounds of the pain and delirium) sealed off.

    Holding his head, AB1 rolled over to look at the snapshot he kept taped to his rack. In it, a gleeful baby was being held by her mother. Both their eyes were bright, looking straight at him. It was his daughter's first birthday today. This thought made him happy, and then sad. He wanted to give them a hologram call--or at least message them--but the ship had been conducting a comms-denial drill for the last few weeks, and he guessed that comms would still be turned off today. He brushed off the sadness. He will be home again in a few months--hopefully he'll be there for her first words, and countless other milestones. The baby won't remember his absence today, though he wished he could say the same for her mother.

    "Even I heard that," said IT1 Gonzalez sleepily from the bunk below. It was 0500 aboard the USS Biden aircraft carrier, which was conducting drills in the middle of the ocean. "Is it bruising? You're going to have to get tested again," IT1 chuckled.

    "Piss off," AB1 said quietly so as not to wake the 80 other sailors in his berthing area, which was designated for male-identified Petty Officers. He climbed down from his rack and stumbled into the khaki slacks and long sleeved, yellow shirt that made up his underway uniform. He had washed these clothes just yesterday, but the black grease from the flight deck was so ground into them that he was hardly sure why he bothered.

    He only nicked himself shaving a few times, and laced up his steel-toed, fire-resistant boots. "They're showing Top Gun IV at 1900," AB1 said to IT1, who grunted from his rack. With that, AB1 was out the door, although he paused to catch it before it slammed.

    AB1 hurried up the narrow passageway and down two ladders to the mess hall for enlisted sailors, which was built to accommodate more than 2,500--about half of the sailors on board the Biden. It wasn't open yet, but he grabbed a Pop-Tart--which was laid out, along with some decidedly healthier options, for sailors who worked odd hours or needed a snack. AB1 ate the pastry while he hurried back up the ladders and cut through the hangar bay, where jets, helicopters, and one cargo plane stood like statues, some part way through maintenance iterations and the rest just there to make room on the flight deck three stories above.

    AB1 looked out at the still ocean through the giant cut-out in the side of the hangar bay, then over to an early morning fitness class taking place in an empty area of the workspace. He wondered how the sweating sailors were managing in the humidity. At least it was still cool out, though--he would be baking under the sun in a couple of hours.

    He arrived at the flight deck after the morning briefing, which doubled as an attempt at a pep talk, had already started. AB1 slipped into crowd of brightly colored, grease-stained shirts that indicated each sailor's job on the flight deck. At six months in, and without any of the typical port calls--the virus was too contagious to risk it--everyone had lost motivation months ago.

    But the work was too dangerous to get complacent. Between spinning helo rotors, the 3-inch thick arresting cables that caught the jets when they landed, and the deckbots that crawled around the flight deck towing aircraft and loading ordnance, it was all too easy to lose a hand, or your head.

    The pep talk finished and everyone jogged to their stations. On his way, AB1 glanced across the flight deck and saw LT Cho walking to their aircraft, suited up for flight. The air wing crew was several levels above the flight deck crew in the at-sea hierarchy, but LT was nice to AB1 and the others.

    LT smiled and nodded at AB1 from across the steel deck. Reaching their jet--an ancient F/A-18, although it had been upgraded with the latest decision and flight aids--LT checked the aircraft and climbed into the cockpit, ready for yet another training sortie.

    Still, LT knew they were lucky. The aviators were the only ones who ever got off the ship these days, even if it was only for a few hours at a time. And when LT flew, they forgot about the dreary afloat routine and felt, instead, a euphoric sense of freedom. This was LT's calling, even if they hadn't gotten close to combat in their time in the US Navy. Being a member of a military at peace was still more exciting than anything in the civilian world.

    A deckbot taxied LT's jet onto the runway and the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System catapulted them into the sky, with their wingman in another F/A-18 just behind. LT input the coordinates of the training range into the jet's Automated Navigation System and looked out over the open ocean, which was sparkling in the early morning sunlight.

    LT saw no other ships on the water. They frowned. Inexplicably, they hadn't seen another ship in weeks.

    Approaching the range, LT saw the shape-shifting targets in the distance. The targets were projected optical and infrared facsimiles of city blocks, villages, and various commercial and military ships. LT checked in with their wingman and adjusted their approach to one of the targets that looked like a village. They pushed a series of buttons to launch one of their missiles and guided it to the target. As the missile locked onto the target, its software cross referenced the target with a ruleset that had been developed based on the Defense Data Repository. The DDR was a massive labelled data set that DOD had been developing since 2010, containing everything from pattern of life data to millions of biometric samples. DOD developed machine learning algorithms for its weapon systems that trained on the DDR, becoming the most precise weapons the world had ever seen. This technology was used in hundreds of types of systems, from micro drones that could target individuals based on their DNA to bombs that could engage or disengage based on whether malicious or innocuous behavior was detected.

    Which is exactly what LT's missile did. Three seconds before impact, the missile completed its calculations and abruptly diverted away from the target, becoming inert before it smashed into the sea. "VALID TRAJECTORY," LT's console blinked. "SYSTEM DECISION SUCCESSFUL," it continued. LT made a note of the successful drop in their training log. They and their wingman took turns dropping the rest of their ordnance on the targets.

    On the way back to the ship, the two did a few rounds of dogfight simulations against one another. LT love squeezing in this kind of air-to-air training. It was the one thing that the pilots could do that wasn't ultimately controlled by their aircrafts' decision algorithms. Once the pilots were back in sight of the Biden, the jets' flight aids took over and landed the aircraft, while LT thought about dinner. The officers' mess executed Taco Tuesday with nearly the precision of LT's missiles. But before dinner, the pilots had to debrief the flight and log their training. LT grabbed an apple from the mess on the way and settled into a long session in the ready room--and back into the dull routine of life at sea without comms or port calls.

    If it weren't for this damn virus, they could at least look forward to pulling into some foreign port where they could relax (read: party) for a few days. But the virus wouldn't allow for that anytime soon. The virus had, coincidentally, been developed from the DDR--the same data set that had helped to guide LT's missiles. Two years ago, a biologist at DARPA had developed it in his laboratory in secret. An investigation later found that the biologist, who had hidden his membership in white supremacist groups, and created it to "cleanse" the earth by targeting nonwhites. The biologist had been experimenting for years to develop such a virus, but only happened upon a technique that produced a sufficiently viable strain by accident--at a biohacking talk given at a hacking convention in Las Vegas that his girlfriend dragged him to called DEF CON.

    Investigators had only belatedly realized that the virus was a bioterror attack, due to the low correlation that law enforcement records had identified between white supremacy and intellectual capacity. The biologist was an outlier in this respect. He designed the virus to be fast-evolving, making it impossible for vaccine development to keep up with emerging strains. Unfortunately for him, this also meant that it quickly morphed to target all races. It had killed him before his trial was finished. And now, because of its isolation, the USS Biden was one of the safest places on the planet.

    LT was nearly finished with the debrief as the sun was starting to set. (Or so LT deduced. There were no windows anywhere on the aircraft carrier, aside from the bridge.) CAG Novak, the commander of the ship's air wing, stopped in to ask how the flights had gone. CAG was gruff but competent--most in the wing had a grudging respect for him. On hearing a positive report, CAG nodded and left the pilots to finish. The evening commander's update briefing would be starting soon.

    CAG walked down the passageway from the ready room to the cramped flag conference room. He settled into his chair at the table while the rows of benches around the perimeter of the room filled with staff. IT1 Gonzalez was doing comms checks with the commanding officers of several other ships dialed into the video conference line and loading the evening's briefing slides onto the display. "ATTENTION ON DECK!" someone said, and everyone in the room stood at attention while Admiral Levine strode in and sat down at the head of the table.

    The briefing proceeded largely how it had yesterday and the day before that, and the day before that. CAG briefed the air wing's readiness (in fact, he was just about the only one at the table with good news). The Supply Officer briefed ongoing delays in parts and food supplies, and the intel lead gave the latest update on the new, more aggressive strain of the virus. The intel shop had updated the graph of the worldwide death toll to a logarithmic scale to better display the sharp uptick that had begun one month ago. A full quarter of the US population had been lost in that time.

    CAG glanced down at his wedding ring. His wife and son were among the dead although his daughter, who had been away at college since the winter, had avoided the virus so far. There was no utility to mourning right now--the officers sitting at the table had 5,000 sailors to protect.

    A small number of cases had broken out on board the Biden. Since the ship had isolated itself--not allowing anyone to arrive or depart (aside from several quietly conducted burials at sea)--the cases on board probably stemmed from recent deliveries of supplies. The Medical Officer reported that the ship's quarantine pods were now full.

    "I'm not sure how much longer we can keep up the comms-denial drill," someone at the table voiced anxiously, and the conversation around the room switched to brainstorming new excuses for keeping communications on board the ship down for a little while longer. Once the crew learned of the new strain and that many of their loved ones at home were probably already dead, panic would surely set in, and could overwhelm good order and discipline on the ship. Which must be maintained at all costs, the Admiral said, striking the table. With the close quarters on the ship and the ease with which the virus spreads, any additional cases would likely mean a death sentence for the whole crew.

    Some in the benches shifted in their seats, and CAG eyed the promotional poster framed on the wall behind the Admiral. "4 1/2 Acres of Freedom!" it proclaimed over a photograph of the Biden. From his chair wedged behind a rack of computer equipment, where he was able to troubleshoot comms whenever they went down, IT1 scratched his nose.

    The Admiral's staff hemmed and hawed, and the meeting went late before the Admiral concluded it. The room stood at attention again when she left and then the staff glumly filed out. IT1 stayed behind to disconnect the videoconference and log off from the display.

    The credits were rolling on Top Gun IV, playing on the ship's closed-circuit TV network, by the time IT1 got back to his rack. "How was it?" he asked AB1.

    "Awful. Tom Cruise has to be 100 years old!" said AB1 with a yawn and a grin. IT1 turned away when he changed out of his coveralls. "'Night!" AB1 added as IT1 slipped gingerly into his rack, wincing from the bruising that was spreading across his chest.
    A fox in a box of bricks and blocks.


    • #3
      Low Earth, Long Distance
      By: Juneau

      “That’s right, I can’t believe it’s been twenty-nine days since I arrived at the “BioStation!” The girl grinned at the ring-lit camera in her hand. She spun around in her office chair; eyes never leaving the screen. “This is seriously the coolest grad program ever!”

      Samantha Stirling stood and looked across the lab. The steel table in front of her was empty. The walls and ceiling, however, were packed with equipment tied down by cargo netting. In the event of an impact or a failure of the synthetic gravity system, the priceless equipment would stay safe.

      “I want to take you over to my favorite part of the lab.” Sam continued. She pushed a wayward curl from her face as she walked towards the far wall. “Over here we have the best view on Earth!” Sam laughed. “Or rather, the best view of Earth.”

      She turned the camera towards the window-screen in front of her. Earth stretched out below the glass. It was night and the lights of cities could be seen shining up into the darkness.

      “I was a bit sad at first when they said there weren’t any “real windows” on this station,” continued Sam, “But the window-screen takes data from over a hundred different sensors and cameras outside, and honestly, I can’t tell the difference.”

      Sam walked back towards her chair, pausing once to adjust one of the many decorative pins affixed to her navy-blue regulation jumpsuit. She sat and propped her feet on the workbench in front of her.

      “I guess I have time for one last question,” said Sam. She tapped at the screen and smiled. “This is an interesting one. What is it like being alone in space?” She paused and let her gaze linger on the window-screen at the other end of the room. “I don’t feel like I’m alone in space. It’s weird being on skeleton crew duty with just the Captain until the new team gets here at the end of the week but, right now I’m talking to almost a million people live. I even call my mom way more up here than I did when I was at home.”

      Sam shifted in her seat and refocused her attention on the ring light. “I guess that’s the coolest thing about this experience. I’m not alone. I’m probably the most connected I’ve ever been in my life.”

      The door behind Sam opened and in walked an older woman in the same blue jumpsuit. Her hair was cut close to her head in a buzz cut and her jumpsuit was impeccably starched. This position on the academic station was her first civilian mission after 15 years on the joint base Marius-Constant near Mars.

      “Well, I need to sign off up here,” said Sam, “Please share this video with your space-loving friends. If you haven’t already, please follow me at SamInSpace on Twitter and Creately.” She waved at the camera once more and then turned it off.

      “Still working on being the first YouTuber in space?” asked Captain Janice Whitney dryly. She sighed. “As long as you didn’t film any classified material again Stirling.”

      “Yes, Captain. I mean no Captain. No, I did not Captain.” Sam said.


      Captain Whitney and Sam were in the greenhouse gathering vegetables for their evening meal. Hydroponic bays had been stacked in rows that ran the length of the room. Blue and white LEDs shone down from the ceiling; creating a harsh approximation of daylight. Experimental greenhouses, often labeled “Victory Gardens,” had grown popular aboard private and academic vessels. These served mostly as a vanity project and a tasty supplement to the nutritionally complete protein packets that were shipped to the station every 6 months.

      The two astronauts stood to carry their haul back to the galley. A scraping noise came from beyond the room and both women froze. The grow lights flickered and swayed; casting twisting shadows over the room. The noise stopped as quickly as it had begun. The only indication that something had happened was the swaying of the lamps hanging from the ceiling.

      “What was that?” asked Sam.

      The captain shook her head. “Probably just space junk. We can check the sensors when we get upstairs.”

      There was a loud bang, then another, and the station groaned and shuddered. The light fixtures swung violently on their cords. The shadows danced with the movement of the lights until suddenly everything went dark. Another crash sounded and the station shook again.

      Sam flinched as another clang resounded much closer to her and she realized that the metal tub she had been carrying had fallen from her hands. In the pitch-black she couldn’t see her own hands, let alone the captain in front of her. Another crash shook the station and she stumbled; the spilled beans crunching under her feet.

      “That was definitely an impact!” Whitney’s voice barked out of the darkness. “We need to get upstairs and assess the damage.”

      “Which way to the door? Where are you?” called Sam

      There was a click and the door opened. Red emergency lighting from the hallway coated the greenhouse in a dim glow. Sam scrambled towards the captain in the hallway. The two walked in silence to the stairwell and began to ascend the dimly lit staircase. Another crash shook the station and Sam ducked, clinging to the railing. In front of her, the captain continued to climb as the station rocked.

      The lab upstairs was lit with the same emergency lighting. One of the drawers had come loose from the wall and dumped an assortment of test tubes and beakers on the floor. Broken glass covered the floor and glinted dangerously in the red light.

      “Be careful!” ordered Captain Whitney. She stepped through the lab, kicking a few of the bigger pieces out of the way. Her boots crunched the glass on the ground. The captain pointed wordlessly to the terminal in the wall and Sam made her way to it. Against the far wall, the window-screen stood dark.

      The captain sat at a computer embedded against the far wall. She tapped the keyboard and let out a breath of relief when the screen lit up. “Computers are working,” she announced. “I’m running a diagnostics test now.”

      “The sensor data is nonsensical.” said Whitney. “I tried to hail ground control but I’ve received no response. I want to go outside and see if there’s been any major damage”

      “I’ve assisted in space walks before,” agreed Sam, “we can do it after the impacts stop.”

      The station was equipped with several state-of-the-art spacesuits with automatic tracking and jet propulsion. Whitney selected none of those, opting instead for an older suit with a built-in short distance walkie talkie. She passed the receiver to Sam. “These should still work even if the system goes down again.” the captain said. “Don’t worry, I’ve done this the old fashioned way before.”

      Sam nodded and took the walkie talkie. She clicked the button on the side and was pleased to hear static crackling. “Hello!” she said into the mic. “Can you hear me?”

      “Hello. Can you hear me?” Sam’s voice echoed mechanically from the helmet.

      In the room next door, Sam triple checked all of the equipment needed for the spacewalk. She found an older SAFER system, a small jet propulsion backpack, that would work with the captain’s suit. After Sam had triple-checked the tether line for tearing or wear, she returned to the lab.

      Impacts still came and the station would shutter and groan. The time between crashes grew and eventually, the ship fell silent. Sam and Captain Whitney waited in mostly silence. Occasionally they would go over the plan or check equipment but neither could find the energy for more than a few words.

      An hour after the last impact the captain nodded. “It’s time,” she said.

      Sam swallowed and nodded wordlessly as Captain Whitney began the process of donning the spacesuit. She started with the cooling garment, a mesh bodysuit with over 300 feet of cooling tubes woven in. After crawling inside the hard torso pieces, all the captain could do was wait. She needed to breathe the pure oxygen provided by the suit’s life support system for at least thirty minutes before attempting depressurization

      Sam busied herself checking equipment until the pressurization timer on the space suit went off. The captain stood and made her way to the airlock; a surprisingly small door situated in the side of the lab. She was wearing the SAFER device and had coiled the tether neatly in her arms. Sam walked over to a small panel on the side of the door.

      “Are you ready?” asked Sam. She was unable to hide the tension in her voice.

      “Yes.” answered the captain. “Please open the airlock.”

      Sam nodded. She wanted to say something to Captain Whitney but she couldn’t find the words.
      Sam keyed in the code. The screen flashed green and, with a hiss, the airlock door slid open. Sam followed the captain into the airlock and attached the loose end of the tether to the wall. She felt a lump rising in her throat as she turned to the captain. “Godspeed,” she said and saluted.

      “Keep close,” said the captain. “I will radio you with status updates.” She turned towards the door but turned back after a moment, “Everything will be okay Sam,” she said kindly. “I’ve done this before.”

      Sam felt her eyes unexpectedly fill with tears. She tried to blink them away. “Yes, captain,” she said.

      Sam returned to the small screen outside the room. She entered a few more commands and the airlock door slid shut, sealing Captain Janice Whitney inside. The screen blinked a few times. There was a hiss from inside the airlock and Sam looked back at the screen.

      >> Depressurization 9:53

      Sam lifted the walkie talkie to her mouth. “Can you hear me?”

      There was a squeal from the walkie talkie and then the captain responded. “Yes Stirling,” she said.

      Sam nodded, although no one could see her. “Good,” she replied. “Over.”

      Sam dragged a stool over by the keypad but found she could not sit still. Sam paced in front of the door. She didn’t realize she was biting at her thumbnail until blood ran down the back of her hand. She tucked her hand inside her jumpsuit and continued pacing. She watched the clock count down in silence. Suddenly the screen on the airlock door flashed red. An alarm sounded. Sam’s ears buzzed as the alarm started to ramp up to a deafening volume.

      “Warning!” screamed a computerized voice. “Catastrophic Earth event detected! Station defense mode activated!”

      “What the hell is this?” yelled Sam in a thin, panicked, voice.

      “Warning!” repeated the voice. It was even louder this time “Catastrophic Earth event detected! Station defense mode activated!”

      Sam looked at the airlock screen. The timer was gone, replaced with a bright red “Error” notice. She picked up the walkie talkie. “Captain, do you copy? We’re getting some sort of detection error.”

      There was some static on the line and then the captain responded. “I copy. The sensors have seemed to pick up some sort of anomalous event.”

      “What is station defense mode?” asked Sam. “This is an academic station, there are no weapons.”

      Sam heard the captain sigh. “It’s essentially a ‘safe mode’. Nothing in and nothing out. If the station detects conditions where a significant portion of the human population could be wiped out it shuts everything down.”

      “How do we turn it off?” asked Sam. “How do you get back inside?”

      “I don’t know. I’ve never dealt with this before,” said Captain Whitney. “I need you to find out what might have happened.” Her voice was surprisingly calm. “I’ll be fine here for a while.”

      Sam pulled up the warning and skimmed through it.

      “The system detected a meteor impact on Earth right after we were hit,” Sam whispered into the walkie talkie. Her voice shuttered as she continued to read. “Massive impact. Earth is no longer sustainable for human life.”

      There was no response from the captain so Sam continued reading. “It says here that system defense mode blocks all signals into and out of the station. It also says all access points including airlocks and ports have been locked.”

      “No longer sustainable for human life.” repeated the captain. The weight of the words finally set in.

      “So we could be the only two… you know.” Sam trailed off. The question terrified her.

      The captain and Sam were quiet for a few minutes. Slowly the alarm wound down. It was replaced by a deafening ringing in Sam’s ears. She ran back to the computer and searched in vain for a way to turn the station defense mode off. The program had blocked out most of the other controls. After an hour of searching, her vision blurring, Sam ran back to the airlock door. She began to pound on the door and, when that didn’t work, started beating her fists against the control screen. The screen didn’t budge.

      “Sam.” called the captain. “I want you to eat and get some sleep. We can work on getting the door open tomorrow.”

      “I don’t know what to do,” said Sam, breathlessly. “I don’t know how to do this.”

      “I don’t either.” replied the captain. “But the best thing we can do now is rest.”

      “Yes, captain,” Sam replied weakly.

      “Sam, one more thing. Please call me Janice.”


      Sam was exhausted but she couldn’t imagine sleeping. She choked down half of a protein pack and tried to lay in her bunk. After tossing and turning for a few minutes she dragged her bedding down the hallway into the lab. She spread the blankets out next to her desk and laid down. Sam stared at the mesh netting stretched out across the ceiling and tried to clear her mind.

      Sam grew tired of staring at the ceiling and picked up her phone. The station wifi was unavailable so she swiped over to the photo album. There were quite a few photos of the station. Photos of Earth through the window-glass, photos of her physics experiments, and even a few photos of her with other crew members. There were no photos of her with Whitney.

      Scrolling back even further Sam found photos posing outside of the shuttle that would bring her to the bio station. Photos of her acceptance letter to the BioStation grad program. Even further back were photos of Sam with her family at her college graduation. Sam brought up a group chat between herself, her mother, and her younger sister. “I miss you guys.” she typed. Sam hit send.

      >> Message Not Delivered

      Tears threatened to overtake Sam again. “What’s it like being alone in space?” she asked herself again. To distract herself, Sam pulled up the camera function. After pointing the camera towards her, she hit record.

      “My name is Samantha Stirling. I am a research student aboard the BioStation, an academic space station. I am here with the station captain Janice Whitney. Today, May eighteenth, 2038 our station was hit by meteors. We have reason to believe one of them struck the earth. If anyone sees this: we are out here. You are not alone.”

      Sam blinked back tears. “I don’t know if anyone will see this. I don’t know what to do. But I am here.”

      Sam hit stop and for the first time, she let herself cry. She curled into her blanket on the lab floor as sobs wracked her body. It felt like she cried for hours. Eventually, she slipped into a fitful sleep.

      She woke only a few hours later to a loud banging noise. Sam dove for a table and braced herself for impact but soon realized the banging came from inside the airlock. She scrambled for the walkie talkie. “Captain, I mean Janice! Are you okay?” Captain Whitney’s first name felt awkward.

      The banging paused. “Sam?” asked the captain. “Why are you here? I thought you were asleep.”

      “I was, I just,” Sam paused. “I just wanted to be close by. What are you doing?”

      There was another crash and Sam flinched.

      “I don’t have food, I don’t have water. I’m not going to last.” said Janice. Her voice shook. “I’ve been trying to keep it together but when I woke up alone in the dark I just couldn’t deal with it.”

      “I’m here,” said Sam. “I’m here Janice. You’re not alone.”

      “Thank you.”

      The two women sat in silence. Janice’s fear only made Sam more worried. Sam couldn’t imagine what she would do if she couldn’t get the captain out. She would be completely alone.

      At some point, Sam must have dozed off. She woke up a few hours later to her watch beeping. It was 06:00. For the first time in what seemed like forever, Sam didn’t get up. She curled into her bedding and prayed that it would all go away. Sam laid there quietly until hunger forced her up. She picked up the walkie talkie but then placed it back down. She’d let the captain sleep. Sam wouldn’t admit it, but she was afraid to radio Janice; terrified of what would happen if Janice didn’t respond. She made her way to the galley and opened another protein packet.

      Sam’s walkie talkie crackled as she was walking back to the lab. “Sam, are you there?”

      “I’m here,” Sam said. “How are you holding up?”

      The captain sighed. “It hasn’t even been a day and I’m so thirsty.” She paused. “Sam, I think we need to confront the possibility that I won’t make it out of here.”

      “No!” snapped Sam. “Don’t say that!”

      “I need water,” said Janice. “I can’t make it more than three days without it. If - if I die, you have to keep going. Maintain the garden and use it to survive. Keep researching, keep trying to communicate. You have to keep going.”

      “Don’t talk like that!” cried Sam. Sam couldn’t think about it. She couldn’t be trapped here alone.

      “Sam.” said Janice.

      “Just let me think!” Sam began to pace in the hallway. “You need water, let’s deal with that first. If there’s nothing in the airlock…” she trailed off. “Oh! What about the cooling garment! Some of the older models used water!”

      After about a minute Janice replied. “It’s water!” she exclaimed. “It’s old and musty but it’s definitely water!”

      Sam sank to the floor in relief. That would buy them time to get Janice out. Standing back up, Sam brushed off her clothes. She turned and headed back towards the lab. Sitting down at the computer; Sam pulled out the walkie talkie.

      “I’m going to try to see if I can turn this thing off,” said Sam. “Let me know if you need anything.”

      There was no response from the captain.

      Sam spent the day desperately trying to find a way out of lockdown mode. She started with the handbook given to all crewmembers upon their arrival to the station but she could find nothing more than the standard list of emergency procedures. There was no other information in the warning itself. Sam fumed as she tried to find the software that triggered the alert.

      Sam felt her hands cramp after she closed out yet another page of useless documentation. Checking her watch, she was startled to see that it was evening. Her joints popped as she stood and her head pounded. Sam had been working all day and was no closer to finding a way out. She began to make her way back to the galley. Sam considered radioing Janice but had no idea what to say.

      Sam sat in the empty galley and stared at her tube of gelatinous, unflavored protein. Sighing, she pulled out her phone and continued scrolling through her photos. She had years of memories saved on her device. Years of birthday parties and girls night’s out. Years of friends and family who she may never see again. Sam was surprised how quickly she ran out of photos and flipped over to her messages. She pulled up the most recent conversation between Sam and her family and scrolled past the harsh, red, “message undelivered” notification. The conversation was simple. Her mom had sent photos of the dinner she made that night and Sam had replied with a photo of a protein pack, not unlike the one she was eating now. They had made plans to video chat soon.

      Sam slammed her phone down.

      After learning that Sam was sleeping on the lab floor, Janice had insisted she return to her own bunk. That night, Sam had gathered her bedding and brought it back after assuring Janice that she would have the radio on the whole night. Sam wondered if Janice would attempt to break down the door again in the night. Sam stared blankly at the ceiling as she willed herself to go to sleep. When that didn’t work she pulled her phone back out. Sam scrolled absently through old photos and conversations until she dozed off. She slept huddled around her phone.

      That morning Sam returned to her computer, intent on finding a way out. She radioed Janice with occasional updates but often heard no response. After a few hours of fruitless searching Janice ordered Sam to take a break. Sam wandered aimlessly through the station, eventually finding herself in the greenhouse. She made her way up and down the darkened rows of plants until she found a place to sit under the tall tomato plants; their leaves brushing her face.

      In the darkness, it was easy for Sam to forget where she was. If she focused only on the leaves and the silence around her, Sam could be almost anywhere. Sam breathed in the smell of the plants and for a moment, let herself think she was back home in the neighborhood garden. With a pang of guilt, she wondered what Janice was doing. Was the captain sitting in a corner pretending she was somewhere else? Or was she still searching for a way out? Despite the guilt, it took Sam hours to leave the greenhouse.

      The next day was a haze for Sam. She woke up. She checked on Janice who’s tired voice was not masked by her attempts at optimism. She dug through station files until her eyes burned. Janice encouraged Sam to take breaks and continue her research. Sam agreed but when she wasn’t searching for answers she would hide in the back corner of the greenhouse and stare at her phone. She had scrolled through every photo and message many times at this point. Sometimes she didn’t even turn the phone on, just turned it over in her hands and stared at the dark blank screen.


      Sam stared blankly at another control panel that she had opened. Though she’d only been working for less than an hour, she was ready to go back to the quiet of the greenhouse. The walkie talkie crackled and Sam felt guilty. She knew she had been avoiding Janice. As each day passed without a solution Sam felt more and more like she was failing her captain.

      “Sam, how are you doing?” asked Janice. As always, she sounded optimistic, but each day her voice got duller.

      “I’m okay. Just looking at…” Sam glanced back at the screen and trailed off. She had been scrolling for so long that she had forgotten what exactly she was looking at. “I’ve got a control panel that seems to be for station power. How are you feeling.”

      “Lightheaded,” admitted Janice, “Power control panel?” she asked.

      “Yeah,” Sam scanned the panel for different commands. “Wow, this thing is actually really powerful. You can even turn off the backup generator. Scary right.?”

      Janice didn’t respond and Sam continued staring at the panel to see if an idea hit.

      “Wait hold on!” exclaimed Sam. “The door to the airlock is held closed with a magnet, right? So if I killed all power, including the backup generator, could we pry it open?”

      “You would also be turning off life support,” commented Janice.

      “How long would we have?” asked Sam. “The station is big, we would probably have almost a month of air left between the two of us.”

      “You would freeze before we ran out of air.” replied Janice

      “If we cut the power I bet it would stop whatever’s jamming our radio signals.” said Sam. “If we could find a way to power the radio separately we may be able to get a message out.”

      “Sam,” said Janice gently. “What if there’s no one there? If you keep the power on you’ll survive.”

      “Yeah, what if there’s no one there!” cried Sam, slamming her hand against the wall. “What if I spend the rest of my life waiting and no one ever comes? Right now I have a plan. We can get you out and send a message. If we wait-” Sam stopped, terrified to think about what waiting would mean.

      “It’s your decision. After all it’s your life” said Janice. “But I want you to think very carefully before you make this choice. If there’s no one out there,” she paused, “if there’s no one out there you’re going to die.”

      Sam left the room. She had barely made it to the hallway before the tears came. It had been four long days since the impacts. After spending every waking minute looking for a way out Sam couldn’t consider giving up. She wouldn’t let herself think about what that would mean. Years circling through space on an empty station, never knowing if she could go home.
      Drying her eyes, Sam returned to the lab and picked up the walkie talkie.

      “I’m sure, she said.”

      It took Sam eight hours to get the radio set up. With Janice’s guidance, she had managed to connect her walkie talkie and phone to the massive station antenna. The whole thing was wired into a suit battery pack that could power it for a three weeks. Despite her exhaustion, Sam was excited for the first time since the impact.

      “Janice, are you ready?” asked Sam. “When you give the word I’m going to cut power to the entire station.”

      “Good luck Sam,” said Janice tersely over the walkie talkie. “I’m ready when you are.”

      “Affirmative. Starting now.” declared Sam.

      Sam sat at the lab computer and punched in the commands to shut down the power. There was a groan from the station and the screen went black. The lights went out and the hissing air vents fell silent. Sam grabbed a crowbar she had found and ran to the airlock door.

      Sam grunted as she wedged the crowbar into the door. She pulled on the crowbar with all of her strength and slowly the door moved. Sam repositioned the crowbar and pulled again, revealing a gap about an inch wide.

      “Janice! Can you see me?” Sam yelled.

      “I can see you!” called Janice.

      Sam pulled again and again. Once the door got wider Janice was able to put her arm through and push as well. The two women pulled and the heavy metal door slowly slid open. Once the door was almost half open Janice was able to slide through. Captain Janice Whitney stood in front of Sam. Janice’s eyes were bloodshot and her face looked gaunt and tired.
      “You did it,” said Janice, her voice hoarse.

      Sam forgot all decorum and hugged her captain. “You made it. We got you out,” she said.

      Janice stepped away and breathed. “You did it.” Her voice was tired.

      Janice followed Sam slowly as Sam ran to the radio. Sam knelt in front of the radio and tapped at her phone. After a few minutes she stepped away and nodded at Janice. She fiddled with the receiver in Janice’s helmet until her voice flooded into the room.

      “My name is Samantha Stirling. I am a research student aboard the BioStation, an academic space station. I am here with the station captain Janice Whitney, Today, May eighteenth, 2038 our station was hit by meteors. We have reason to believe one of them struck the earth. If anyone sees this: we are out here. You are not alone.”

      Sam turned the receiver off and stood. “We did it.” she said “We got a message out!” She smiled.

      Janice nodded. “What do we do now?”

      Sam made sure Janice ate a protein packet and took a bottle of water. After Janice went to her bunk Sam walked back down to the radio. She listened to the broadcast for a few minutes and then shut the speaker off. She returned to her bunk and for the first time since the lockdown she fell asleep quickly.

      The next morning Sam was surprised to see Janice already awake in the galley. She was staring off into the darkness and flinched when Sam came in.

      “Good morning Captain, how are you feeling.”

      Janice gave a tired smile. “I’m feeling much better, thank you.”

      Sam started to speak but Janice turned and left.

      Although Janice insisted she was fine, she continued to move slowly and speak softly. She ignored Sam’s offers of assistance and spent much of her time in her bunk. For both women, their days were empty without day-to-day research and routines. Sam tended to the garden as best as she could but without lights, the plants withered and died.

      Sam prepared meals out of the remaining vegetables. She attempted to share at least one meal per day with Janice. It was so dark that the women could not see each other clearly. Sam would talk about anything she could think of while Janice would nod and occasionally offer up a brief response. Sam moved her bedding into the hallway by the radio. She would wait at night for a response, offering up prayers for rescue before she fell asleep.

      After a week without power the station got cold. The remaining plants froze. Both women donned space suits in the dark. Flashlight batteries didn’t last more than thirty seconds in the cold. At Sam’s suggestion they filled the inside of their suits with protein packs and bottled water to prevent it from freezing. Janice barely spoke and her face grew gaunt and strained. Sam tried to make sure the woman ate but, for the most part, she left Janice alone.

      One night, Sam sat by the radio, too cold to sleep, even in her suit. She had taken to singing quietly to herself, pop songs, christmas carols, anything to distract herself. Her mouth moved mechanically as she listened for any sort of response on the radio. She jumped as the door opened.

      “Sam,” asked Janice quietly. “How long have you been down here?”

      Sam shook her head. “Not very long.” she lied,”I just like to make sure everything is running.”

      Janice glanced down at Sam’s bedding. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, “I shouldn’t have let you do this.”

      “No,” said Sam, “This was my choice. It wouldn’t have been much different any other way. At least I’m not alone.”

      Janice sat next to Sam. “Do you regret it? Coming up here?”

      “I don’t know.” Sam sighed. “I’ve seen so many amazing things but I had hoped to see so many more.”

      Janice nodded thoughtfully. She didn’t say anything.

      The two women sat alone in space. Suddenly, and without warning, there came a knock from the airlock door.
      A fox in a box of bricks and blocks.


      • #4
        DEFCON Safe Mode Short Story
        TITLE: Plug and Play
        AUTHOR: 247arjun

        Elina was an adrenaline junkie. She was most happy when hurtling towards the earth’s surface, zen when scuba diving, and at peace when not at rest. She attributed a large part of her nature to her parents - programmers at large tech companies in Seattle, who introduced her to the great outdoors at a young age. Her parents were what Elina’s friends would call ‘weird’. Geeks who fully embraced the nerd subculture, routine board gamers, amateur astronomers, sci-fi aficionados. Indeed, they had named their only child an anagram of the word ‘alien’, by design - Elina was very special to her parents.

        Elina was also special for another reason. She was a cyborg. Not in the Hollywood sense though. Elina was born with a rare genetic disorder that resulted in many of her organs being underdeveloped. Her heart - without bio-hacking - would beat at close to 140bpm resting. She would need to hyperventilate just to keep up. This was how she spent the first few years of her life. At that time, the science to tackle and treat her condition was just not developed enough to be feasible - it was still nascent, only getting discussed at DEFCON’s Bio Hacking Village and other such meetups.

        As she turned 7, there was a breakthrough in the field. A young pioneer at a younger biotech company was able to engineer peaceful coexistence of human tissue alongside artificial mechatronics, across multiple organ systems. While mainstream scientists frowned on the runaway success of the experiments and begin arguing the ethics of it all, the technology was quickly prototyped on species of increasing complexity - starting with mice, monkeys and eventually the young pioneer themself.

        Within the year, in the unregulated borders of a large East-Asian country, the technology was ready for human customers. Say what you will about Elina’s parents and their parenting (early-adopters much?), she was introduced to the technology - very literally. As a result of the technology infusion, her heart rate was a normal 96bpm now, and she could do deep-breathing exercises that would even put a yogi to shame.

        Elina enjoyed middle and high school, and had fairly successful athletic endeavors there. Her organ-systems allowed her to run faster, for longer, than many other athletes who spent years perfecting their physiques to the art. The list of sub-systems that she was composed of could be comparable to a Formula One car at the time - Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems that allowed her to recover, store and re-use energy as she moved, brake bias systems that allowed her to turn much faster with less loss of speed and much more.

        Obviously, none of her peers were aware of the fact that she had these superpowers. There was no charging port on her neck that gave it away, no pulsing LEDs shining through her skin. Elina, to everyone outside her family, was gifted; true, there were better athletes than her, but they were also trying much harder to stay ahead.

        With these enhancements, Elina’s life changed almost overnight from ‘walking at 140bpm’ to running comfortably without breaking a sweat. Following her surgeries and rehab, which robbed her of a year of her childhood, there was the longing to return to the only normal Elina knew - and being an adventurer was the quickest way there.


        As she exited the taxi with her friends in front of The Dubai Mall, all she could think about was her plans for the afternoon. Elina and her friends were spending their end-of-year vacation in Dubai - being from an atheist family freed her of any religious obligations that tended to pop-up around that time of year, and Dubai was best visited around then, when it was neither hot nor dusty.

        Her plans for the afternoon involved a race of sorts. Sponsored by an energy drink famous for slapping their brand name on daredevils, and approved by the local government, the race - titled “Dust to Dust” - had two parts. One, a foot race from the ground level of the Burj Khalifa - at one time the tallest human-made building on the planet - up to the observation deck 124 floors up. Then, an extreme BASE jump down the side of the skyscraper, from the deck’s specially opened windows back down to terra firma. Whoever won the race would be granted a prize sum of a million dollars, and get access to a film-making crew for a year - free to travel and do daredevil things - video recordings of which would end up on the brand’s television channel, marketing etc. In short, win-win-win for everyone involved.

        Dust to Dust, in its fourth year, had a small cult following worldwide that tuned in to watch the race live - there was no official recording of the event to be retransmitted later. You either watched it live, or missed it - or ended up digging through the dark web for pirated recordings. The event already had a bit of a controversial history to it - two years ago, when the event was held in the shark-infested warm reef waters of Australia, audiences were treated to a front-row seat of watching some competitors dodge sharks while also racing to the surface from the depths. There was no shark-related carnage, but plenty of competitors got the bends from unsafe surfacing, which put some of them out of commission permanently. The thrill of not knowing what you’d get drew some spectators, themselves armchair-adrenaline junkies. This year promised a similar potential spectacle.

        The race was an interesting challenge this year; you had to be as light as possible for the first part - racing up many flights of stairs, but you also needed to have your BASE jumping gear with packed chute on the whole time. The rules around this were somewhat nebulous, to encourage innovation, but were basic enough to prevent suicide attempts. As Elina suited up, she looked around her at the competition she faced - there were people from around the world, some of whom had managed to snag sponsors for their attempts too, though they were mostly advertising cryptocurrency ICOs. Elina mused about the analogy between the event and cryptocurrency valuations.

        Once everyone was suited up, all competitors lined up sideways at the starting line near the fountains outside the skyscraper. Instead of a starting pistol or lights out, there would be a crescendoing set of fountain eruptions culminating in one big blast from the biggest fountain to signal the start of the race. Many were jittery - either from the nerves, or from the caffeine high of the energy drinks they’d consumed, or from other substances ingested discreetly. The announcer’s voice boomed - asking if everyone was ready, not once but thrice because that’s how the human body works; humans only get ready on the third repeated ask obviously. A primal cry was the response in each iteration - they were thinking about getting ready, they were almost ready, THEY WERE READY. Once the rest of the announcements were done, an eerie silence punctuated only by the buzz of the electric motors of drones hovering overhead descended on everyone. The background music that was to culminate in the race start slowly sputtered to life. Classical music from the limited playlist of the fountain operators. Violins, cellos, pianos - you’re probably humming a tune right now that fits the bill. The song was popular enough that everyone knew when the countdown would begin. Seconds stretched into eternity as the song progressed, everyone was sweating now. First verse, second verse, ever so slowly forward.

        Then, it was time. A few minor chords away, the fountains leapt to life. The gathered crowd grew silent, recording the spectacle on their phones, recordings that most would never replay, but FOMO meant they had to capture. 3... 2... 1...


        Elina’s heart was beating a steady 100bpm as the race took off. Her body took a little while to gain momentum, so she was already in the middle of the pack by the time she reached the tower’s entrance. The front runners were already two floors above her. Elina was not worried. She had the stamina to outlast the majority of them. As her muscles stiffened, she took the stairs one at a time - no need to risk tripping or missing a step. Floor 1 was done, and her pace increased. Around her, people were still overtaking her in the wide stairwell corridor. Floor 3 was as unremarkable as Floor 2, but she was getting quicker. She was keeping pace with some of those around her now, and ever so slowly gaining on them. At each floor, she caught a glimpse of a large drone outside - rising in altitude with the front-runners, ostensibly with cameras to broadcast the race proceedings.

        Elina’s body was working like a well oiled machine by the time she reached Floor 25. She had found her stride and was only a floor away from the current race leader. Over the next dozen floors, she could see the race leader and was catching up slowly but surely. She was now in the same video frame as the leader, broadcast worldwide - her heart rate steady at 120bpm. They were about a third of the way up when she drew abreast of the leader and caught a glance at her competition. Elina was calm and composed, with rhythmic breathing in sync with her steps and with only a damp forehead from perspiration, while her competitor was staccato breathing and sweating profusely. The human body is an incredible thing, but it too has its limitations - our ancestors were not built, and had not evolved, for this definition of fight-or-flight (of stairs). Elina’s competitor - a fitness vlogger with many millions of subscribers - watched helplessly as she, over the next few floors, gained a step per floor.

        By the halfway mark, Elina was almost out of eyeshot of her competition. Her leg muscles, assisted by her body’s augmentations, allowed her to lose less speed as she turned around each flight of stairs. There was less strain on her left calf muscles as she ran up the counter-clockwise flights, compared to her competitors. Soon, even the filming drone struggled to keep her in the same frame as the pack trailing her. The drone camera director, convinced that Elina would slow down soon, kept the focus on the pack. Elina was in a class of her own.

        Elina was only starting to sweat when she was at Floor 90. Her heart rate was at 140bpm, her breathing a bit faster than before, and she was 3 whole floors clear of her competition - the sounds of collective grunting and panting long gone, she was in the zone. Her mind was clear, her muscles only starting to complain about lactic acid build-up, and her lungs with the slightest levels of heartburn like the kind you get from an Indian restaurant that catered to the affluent white American, whose cook had over-enthusiastically added an extra dusting of chili powder to the curry. Floor 91... inhale... exhale... left leg... right leg... repeat... Floor 92. Keep going. Almost there.

        At ground-level outside, the live video from the drone played on large screens as crowds - family members of the competitors as well as casual passersby - had gathered to watch the second part of the race. The video stream was presented like a news program - a scrolling ticker at the bottom, various bits of information overload scattered all over the screen, a well dressed presenter in front of a camera providing live commentary on things nobody listened to or cared about, and an animated 3D skeleton of the skyscraper with a heat-map showing the herd’s distribution across its floors.

        Elina barely registered as a blip on this heat-map. In the frequency distribution, she was an outlier. Only a few floors away from the observation deck and 5 whole floors clear of the sea of humanity that followed, she tightened the straps on her back protector and the container - it felt like being hugged by her mother right after they... no time to think about that, head in the game. The last 2 floors were very tiring, something about being able to see the finish line. She burst through the doors of the observation deck - the volunteer crew was not quite ready for her as cameras scrambled to be turned on and trained on her.

        The observation deck was massive - on a normal day, there were hundreds of tourists up there taking in the sights of the skyline and the artificial islands just offshore. Elina ran about halfway to the windows and finally paused to take a break. This wasn’t a break for her muscles, it was to check that her BASE jumping gear was correctly configured. As she stood in place, the vibrating hum of her muscles faded away. She knew that her competition would take at least a minute to catch up, so she rested for half a minute and was ready.

        By now, the video stream was a split-screen of the inside of the observation deck, and a sky cam from the drone that was hovering above the jump point. Elina was the person of the fraction of the hour. Spectators marveled at how little she was emoting pain, naively chalking it up as a result of steroids or some other chemical stimulant. The presenter talked excitedly about how many hundreds of feet about ground-level they were, making sure to emphasize the maximum velocity a jumper would attain, while another on-screen video replayed the impact of a deadweight released from that height at a test range.

        Elina took a few deep breaths, stared at the blue sky outside the window she was going to jump through. This was the part that really got her blood pumping. Like an Olympic long jumper, she increased her strides as she ran towards the azure; she wanted to put some distance between herself and the - she realized how much of an ironic pun the term sky’scraper’ could end up being. As she neared the opening, now less than 20 feet away, the air temperature visibly rose and she could feel the draft of the warm air current rising outside. She entered a different spacetime; one where an earthly second spanned almost a minute. She could smell the cheap perfume that the space reeked of, see the flicker of that one light fixture three windows away, feel the padded carpet reluctantly absorb her weight, as she approached the edge. Then, with the poise of a circus gymnast, she took one final stride and leapt forward gracefully.


        To anyone who has ever gone skydiving or bungie jumping, the memory of leaving the safety of the point of origin and plunging along the negative z-axis for the first time, is one that is forever etched in memory. Some people refer to the free-fall as true freedom, ignorant of how enslaved by gravity everyone is. For Elina, this was far from the first time that she had ascended a building from the inside and descended from the outside.

        As her head emerged past the dimensional confines of the observation deck, her heart rate spiked to 160bpm. The floor was no longer 5 feet 3 inches below her eyes, and she took in the expanse. Unlike a cartoon character that stays in suspended animation till it realizes it’s going down, Elina’s momentum from her last stride kept her body going on the arc trajectory till she was clear of the building. She was in the great outdoors now, almost 1500 feet up. In terms of her entire race time, she was well over 90% of the way there - it would only take her about 3 minutes to reach the finish line

        She felt the warm dry desert air whipping against her as she reoriented her body geometry for optimal free-fall. As she fell earthward, she glanced at the altimeter she had strapped to her wrist count down at dizzying speed. It was a beautiful sunny day outside, so Elina looked around - no point looking straight down. She could barely discern the Iranian shore in the distance, which she gazed at for a few more seconds before deploying her pilot chute. This induced enough drag to slow her fall somewhat, but with that out of the way, her entire focus was on her descent now - she reminded herself to return to the observation deck later to spend some more time getting a birds-eye view.

        Elina kept a keen eye on her altimeter, which was still counting down fast albeit less dramatically than before, to time her canopy deployment perfectly. This being a race, she didn’t want to pull her ripcord too early and have to float down slower than if she could wait just a little longer. In her peripheral vision, the scale of humanity grew as she descended.

        Elina counted down the Mississippis beyond the recommended altitude to deploy, held her breath and pulled her ripcord to release her canopy. She was abruptly jolted, as her vented canopy deployed and slowed her descent. She tugged at the toggles to steer herself to an optimal approach, targeting a textbook short final.

        The primary difference between a successful landing and an unsuccessful one is the magnitude of deceleration that the canopy generates. As she descended, Elina was suddenly swept off her glide path by a gust of a rising thermal. She pulled down hard on her toggle to correct, but it didn’t seem to have much effect. She accelerated downwards. She wasn’t free-falling, but she was coming in harder than she would’ve liked.

        Unlike in skydiving, where a diver has a primary and a reserve chute, a BASE jumper only has one chute. The reserve chute involved praying, which was not something Elina was familiar with. She watched the dial of her altimeter count down faster as she struggled to regain control. Time sped up. Her heart rate was up to 180bpm. This wasn’t looking or feeling great.


        On the video screens - locally and globally - spectators keep their eyes peeled to the screen. There was nervous anticipation of what would happen next. Multiple cameras were trained on Elina as she was tossed around the sky like a corked bottle in the ocean. Capturing her descent from above, the drone showed viewers the flat spin that Elina was in. Mothers shielded the eyes of their children from the spectacle. Smartphone cameras were aimed skywards, hoping to capture the event but failing to do so effectively.


        Elina was firing on all cylinders. Her systems - biological or cyber - weren’t trained for anything like this. To her systems, this was an unhandled exception. Try as she may, she couldn’t catch a break but she sure as hell hadn’t resigned herself to any ‘finally’ outcomes either. From where she was, she could see the crowds gathered below and clearly see the finish line with television crews beyond it. Her original plan of landing at or close to the finish line seemed impossible now. Another sudden gust, fortuitously helped correct some of her imbalance and she felt her speed slow once again. She was still coming in too fast. Elina started mentally packing for another trip to East Asia to heal.


        To the gathered observers, the rate of descent wasn’t apparent - anyone who’s seen parachutists decend from a helicopter at a sporting event remembers how the descent initially seems slow and then suddenly appears to speed up as they touchdown. They saw Elina - by this time, they were all aware of her name and the fact that the nearest competitor seemed halfway up the Burj’s height - approach the ground with a path that didn’t seem simple. Very unlike an aircraft coming in to land. She also seemed a ways off from the landing zone, so maybe the other competitors did still have a shot at victory if they landed closer.


        The ground was rushing up to welcome her. Elina continued struggling with her toggles to correct course. Maybe she’d get lucky as she got closer. Maybe she could still land near the finish line. Maybe she’d spend the next year filming daring escapades from other urban obstacle courses. Maybe. She wouldn’t.

        A few hundred feet remained and Elina knew she’d messed up. She raised her legs till it was parallel to the ground, closed her eyes out of fear and let out a scream like a banshee. The last thing she remembered before reaching ground zero was how dry and metallic her mouth felt from the fear. Her heart rate hit 200 bpm as her body hit the ground.


        The air was humid. It clung to everything it touched and rendered it heavy. The only sounds that could be heard were the hisses of compressed air, the beeps of equipment and the occasional sigh from a present relative. The hospital was very calm for the time of year. Past years had seen a great inflow of patients seeking treatment from the coronavirus pandemic.

        Elina could barely make out blurred moving shapes as she lay tethered in bed. Her face felt voluminous and swollen. Her body felt sore . There were tubes and wires interfacing with her body, keeping her alive and hydrated. Memories faded in and out. She remembered time spent with friends, time at school and after. She had no memory of how she ended up here - wherever here was.

        A nurse poked their head into the room and noticed Elina stirring. A doctor accompanied the nurse, as they both entered the room. Many of the cables that hung free from Elina were attached to a wheelbarrow sized machine that was rolled in. Elina saw the doctor close to her face, peering into her eyes, possibly into her very soul. She felt a comforting coolness start to slowly envelope her, starting where the wires and tubes entered her body. Her eyes grew heavy and she drifted off, joining the room’s silence.

        A group of surgeons and biomedical engineers was summoned, who entered the room in scrubs, carrying gear. There was the standard surgical equipment, but also obscure things that weren’t mentioned in medical textbooks. The last thing to enter the room was another person, shorter than Elina, wheeled in on a bed, equally unconscious.

        The team stayed in that room for a very long time performing multiple organ (and other system) transplants, checking and then double-checking to make sure they got it right. Finding a match like this was rare, and nobody wanted to be the person that dropped the ball on this delicate procedure. Eventually, they had one fully functional recipient and one shell of a donor. They had saved a life, and that would keep them in high spirits long past all the alcohol they would need to consume, to reconcile their life’s choices. Just before the last person left the room, the life-support systems for the donor were turned off - this was a somber moment, watching the heart rate drop off a cliff. There was no dramatic long-beep because the system was on mute, but the graphical display conveyed enough. Flat line. 0 bpm.



        A few weeks later

        Elina stirred slowly that morning, roused by the chirping of birds outside. It felt like an extraordinarily restful night’s sleep even though she clearly remembered doing the dishes the previous night. Dealing with the stubborn grease at the bottom of the wok that had been used to make egg fried rice.

        Her muscles felt tight. She needed to stretch them out, so she bent over to touch her toes and found that she could do so effortlessly. The ground seemed closer than she remembered it being. Her clothes seemed to fit a bit looser too - the washing machine must’ve stretched it out again. Her breathing was calm and measured.

        As she stretched, she heard the pitter patter of rain outside, muffled by the white noise of traffic. Elina’s mother opened the door to her room and asked if she was ready for breakfast or wanted to go on a run first. Elina decided to jog before eating, like she did every day for the past year, and ran a few miles. She barely broke a sweat by the end, though she felt her stride wasn’t as confident and her pace was off.

        Something felt off, though her brain was telling her everything felt the same. There! Her neighbors shied away as soon as she approached her house. She didn’t have much social interaction with them before, but she still recognized the look of confusion that their faces betrayed when they saw her. Like they were expecting to see someone else. Or that they saw someone else.

        Whatever. Elina remembered her mother always telling her that it was important for her to feel comfortable in her own skin, and that’s all that mattered. She took those words to heart. 102bpm. Everything was normal.

        As she sat down to eat her breakfast sandwich and protein smoothie - the same meal she remembered eating the previous day, she glanced at the front page of the newspaper. An ad in the corner caught her eye. It was an abstract representation of a sand dune, advertising a race across the Sahara desert. Looking closer, she saw that it was an international contest sponsored by an energy drink. “Dust to Dust”. Elina was in the best shape she’d ever been in, and felt the need to scratch her itch to travel.

        In her mind, there was no body better equipped for such an event. Maybe she’d take a closer look at this competition and give it a shot.
        A fox in a box of bricks and blocks.


        • #5
          By: Tyler Rosonke (@ZonkSec)

          PJ sits low and huddling in the dark corner of a tiny, rundown, and empty room. Head in hands, he rocks to and fro. Everything around him is a grayscale black and white, like a scene from an old movie. There is a banging at the door.

          “This is it. I’m really fucked now.” he whispers.

          The pounding drums on, but PJ will not look up, hiding his face. His brown hair is disheveled and his face unshaven, a 5 o’clock shadow on the trembling chin. The pounding persists and increases in intensity. PJ slowly slides upward against the wall to stand. His hair falls in front of his thick framed brown glasses. He would have had to constantly push his hair to the side to keep it out of his face, if he was in the right state of mind to care. He doesn’t. He is afraid.

          “Oh God. How did this happen!?”.

          The door’s knob twists and turns; the oppressors are desperately determined to enter. PJ’s body pushes and puddles into the corner as his scattered gaze bounces around the room. The banging grows more intense. PJ covers his ears. He then notices a dull printed piece of art on the wall, the only piece of decor in the room. It shakes and rattles against the wall with the pounding at the door. His stance loosens as his eyes fixate. He stares unwaveringly. Dust that once covered the framed print slowly falls to the floor like snow. The dust’s descent is shortly followed by the framed print itself as the unseen barrage continues and thrusts it off the wall. PJ calmly watches the moment as if it was in slow motion. He stares deeply into the printed art as it descends. All the details. He admires the beauty in its construction, the paper and the ink. Before the frame hits the weathered wooden floor, reality resumes at full speed as the door bursts open and shards of fragmented wood explode into the room. The frame and print crash into the floor and shatter. Three black figures move into the room.

          Days earlier PJ’s alarm buzzed, the phone’s screen reading 7:00 AM. He silenced the alarm. PJ wasn’t one for snoozing. He immediately popped out of bed, eagerly on his feet. His floor was clear of tripping hazards as he always made sure the laundry made it to the proper receptacle, whether that be a clean drawer or a dirty basket. The furniture was kept equally as tidy. As PJ put on a shirt, his pet cat Worm, named for his fascination with rolling in dry dirt if given the opportunity, bumped open the door with his head and came prancing into the bedroom. Worm hopped up on the bed and meowed impatiently.

          “Alright, alright, calm down. Your feast will begin soon, ya dirt dweller.” PJ said as he scratched Worm’s face and headed for the kitchen.

          The second story apartment was average sized. Nothing massive, but not cramped either. However, the apartment felt encased due to framed prints covering each wall. Like mother nature’s growth on the forest floor, framed prints filled every space and void on his apartment walls. Some of the prints were personal, friends posing and smiling together on the summit of a mountain after a long hike. Another of Worm stretched out as he leapt in the air grasping for a feathered toy. Others were vintage maps, professional photographs, and works of art, such as the “Mona Lisa” and the famous photo of Einstein sticking out his tongue. Some were music album covers. Some were movie posters like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Truman Show. Just about any genre of framed print could be found on his walls, each carefully selected and printed by PJ.

          While PJ made his way down the hall towards the living room and kitchen, he admiringly perused his prints as he passed by. As he stopped to straighten one that was out of alignment, he contemplated whether the paper’s glossy finish complemented the cold color choice or if he would have been better off with a matte finish. On the next print he wondered if a different style of ink could have better leant itself to that particular print’s aesthetic. PJ pondered many such questions about how he could improve as he kept walking. Worm bolted in front of PJ, nearly tripping him, as he sprinted to a white cabinet where his food was held. PJ entered the clean and organized kitchen. He opened the cabinet and filled a small bowl on the floor. Without the slightest hesitation, Worm chowed down as soon as the first pebble of dried food hit the bowl. PJ laughed at his cat's insatiable appetite and then opened another cabinet to gather coffee grounds and a filter. He began to meticulously make himself some coffee. Outside of the prints, his apartment was quite normal with each room having the appropriate furniture. TV, couch, end tables in the living room. Table, chairs, and a credenza in the dining area. And so on, and so on. PJ finished filling the coffee machine and powered it on. As the machine started to bubble and steam, he headed for the shower to begin his rigorous morning routine and get ready for work.

          PJ walked out of his small red brick apartment building onto a small stoop. There were five units in the building, and he lived on the second floor in apartment #4. The building had an interesting architecture. Each window had a brick arch above it, but between every three windows a slight column of bricks protruded from the normal face of the building, both of which gave the building an elaborate and lovely appearance. PJ was dressed in a blue and yellow plaid buttoned shirt, neatly tucked in his clean dark khaki pants. His hair was trim and styled. PJ carried a green canvas messenger bag. Before he was off the building's stoop, PJ ran into his female neighbor Corel. Corel wore overalls and had red curly hair.
          “Good morning” PJ said, “how are ya?”
          “I’m well. How are you?” replied Corel.
          “Fine, fine. Just heading into work for another day in paradise!”
          They both chuckled as if the sentiment was a joke; however, for PJ it was not, and he merely laughed along to not be awkward. PJ felt his paradise around him each day; he truly loved his job.
          “Hey, that reminds me,” Corel said as her smile subsided, “the convention I helped organize is next weekend, did you receive our order? We’d love to have it today, if it's not too much trouble. Honestly, I’m just excited to see how the design comes out.”

          “I did, I did. Just saw it come in the day before last. I’ve got a few jobs in the queue before it, but I promise I will get to it today!”

          “Perfect. That sounds great. How else have things...”

          PJ checked his Casio wristwatch. 7:55 am. He had to be at work by 8 am.
          “Hey, I hate to cut you off, but I gotta jet! The last thing I want to do is be late. I’ll talk to you later!”

          “No problem at all. Have a good day and thanks!”

          PJ gave Corel a head nod and a smile as he turned to walk down the street. This was not a big city block. Rather it was a small town. PJ’s building was nestled in the small neighborhood just a stone’s throw from the town square. PJ started walking towards the square on a shady sidewalk along a seldom traveled street. The neighborhood lawns and gardens were green and vibrant like something out of a magazine. The birds were chirping on this beautiful spring day. The sky was mostly clear, and a light cool breeze slightly dampened the sun’s warm rays. If the breeze halted, one would quickly be reminded of what heat lay in the summer months ahead. But right now, it was ever so pleasant. PJ reached the perimeter of the town square, bustling with people going about their mornings. A green lawn with a large gazebo in the center anchored the square.

          Radiating from the gazebo were four concrete paths, forming an “X” from a bird’s eye view, like spokes on a wheel. Towering on one end of the square was a gray, art-deco style building with a large dome that served as the town’s library and municipal center. Along the other three sides of the square were small shops and businesses that served the townspeople. The square held a bakery, a diner, a corner store, a hardware store, a post office, a laundromat, a bus stop, a boutique, a gas station, and more. PJ walked along one of the spoke paths as he made his way across the green. He approached a shop that had a large “PJ’s Prints” marquee above the door. PJ had designed and printed it himself, a simple red and yellow marquee with an italicized sans-serif font. PJ unlocked the door, went inside, and turned on the lights. He checked his watch, 8am,

          “Right on time” he smiled, congratulating himself on his precision.

          Just inside the door, he had arranged a small seating area and a counter. Behind the counter was the printing equipment, as well as all the supplies to keep them operating, assortments of various inks and papers, the things that make a printer truly happy. The entire shop was clean and organized. The walls inside the sitting area were as equally covered as his apartment with prints. Their purpose, in this case, was to demo his skills for any potential customers. PJ walked behind the counter and retrieved some files from a drawer below. The files were various order forms and he flipped through them plucking the ones he deemed highest priority, including Corel’s. He then quietly studied the specifications and artwork of the order on top of his stack. A few moments later he switched on a small radio and “Take On Me” by A-ha filled the room. He turned towards the equipment. Grinning, he began to work.

          Hours past as PJ contentedly worked. Customers came and went asking questions, placing and picking up orders. Around noon, PJ’s stomach began to rumble. He checked his watch and thought now would be a good time for lunch. He walked towards the front of the shop and past the counter.

          Before heading out the door, he flipped a sign that said “Lunch. Be back in 30 minutes”.

          He walked out and locked the door behind him. The square was still bustling with people and the weather was just as gorgeous as the moment he had gotten to work. His favorite diner was just across the square. Despite the time, PJ had a craving for breakfast food, and luckily for him that was served 24/7 at the diner. As he made his way, he walked through the green square and watched some kids play fetch with a dog. On the other end of the square, a lady sat on a bench reading a book. He was passing the gazebo when he noticed the printed Speedy Metro Bus station sign. It read “SMB: Stop #2”, but the ink was fading and the sign, falling apart. He made a mental note to contact the city and offer his services. Just then a Speedy Metro Bus pulled up to the station right in front of him. A few dozen people hurried off the bus, some looking more tired than others, and PJ wondered how far some of them must have traveled. A man smoking a cigarette stepped off the bus. He was peculiar compared to the other travelers, just ever so slightly different. Dressed in a charcoal suit with a black fedora and dark sunglasses, his movements were rigid, slow, and methodical. PJ slowed his gait as he watched the peculiar man’s head slowly scan the horizon. The peculiar man’s glare slowly swung towards PJ. The man’s sunglasses made it difficult for PJ to tell where his relentless gaze actually fell. PJ wondered what caused this man’s unusual behavior.

          “Could he be sick?” While PJ was lost in thought, he accidently and unknowingly locked eyes with the man.

          PJ now realized the man’s scan had halted on him. He froze when he registered his awkward predicament. Eventually the man’s gaze moved onward, and PJ resumed walking. On account of the unfortunate locking of eyes, PJ did not want to meet the odd fellow, but they were currently on a collision course. He was nearing the end of a spoked path, and there was no other direction, short of an unfriendly U-turn and detour. But that created more of a scene than PJ was comfortable with, so he decided to soldier on and hope they did not engage. The man had not moved, still slowly scanning the horizon. PJ did not want to repeat his previous mistake by looking at the man, but he also didn’t want to blatantly stare at his own feet. In an attempt of stealth and avoidance, he awkwardly looked at things on either side of the man, a street lamp on his left, a fire hydrant on his right. At that moment, the man stopped his speculative scanning routine and snapped out of whatever reverie he was in. His once peculiar rigid motions were now, conversely. smooth and unnoteworthy. He put out his cigarette, smiled, waved, and began to approach PJ.

          “Ah crap.” PJ whispered under his breath. The man drew close to PJ and stuck out his hand for a handshake.

          “PJ! Just the man I wanted to see.” the stranger said. PJ sheepishly extended his hand and shook with the man.

          “How does he know my name?” PJ thought as he let out a bewildered “Hello. Umm, have we met before?”.

          “No no no no no no” he trailed off, “We have not met before. Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Cyrus. And you know, I've heard so much about you! Just the most wondrous things, I hear you do excellent work!”

          PJ didn't process the compliment, instead he was taken aback, momentarily flustered; this man not only knew his name and appearance, but his business as well.
          “Who is this man?” PJ thought again.

          “Hmmm. Not much of a talker I see. Well, no bother because, boy, do I have an amazing opportunity for you!” Cyrus rattled a way in the way only a salesman can. “I work for a company that makes the MOST DELUXE printing equipment and I promise it can take your business to the next level!”

          PJ uncomfortably replied, “Umm, I’m actually quite content with the equipment I have and...”

          “OH NO YOU’RE NOT!” Cyrus interrupted “This is unlike anything you could possibly have. Trust me, these machines are incredible. Half the time and cost to operate, half the amount of labor to run, DOUBLE the quality and resolution of the leading competitor!” Cyrus exclaimed.

          “I’m sorry, I’m just not interested. If you’ll excuse me, I’m on my lunch break and am in a bit of a hurry” PJ calmly responded, Cyrus’s pushiness beginning to wear his patience.

          Cyrus wasn't going to take no for an answer. Cyrus threw his arm around PJ’s shoulder to bring him in close. In the same motion, he swiftly and slyly affixed an ornate metallic green square patch on the back of PJ's neck. A portion of it momentarily pulsed red before slowly dimming and ultimately stopping. PJ didn’t notice its placement as he was too repulsed by the invasive gesture.

          “Listen, listen, listen, listen” he whispered and trailed again. He quietly continued, “I normally don’t do this, but damn it, I like your work and I want to help you. I can offer you 25% off retail price. You would be a fool to not take this deal. It will pay for itself in A MATTER OF DAYS!” Cyrus raised his voice, and it stung PJ’s ear.

          PJ had enough. Just before he was about to tell Cyrus off, not like him in the slightest, he was inspired by Cyrus’s scheming and hatched a scheme of his own.

          Instead of pulling away from Cyrus’ arm, he leaned in even closer and whispered, “Ya know what, I’ve actually been thinking about upgrading some of my equipment.” Cyrus’s eyes animatedly widened and lit up.

          PJ continued, “But I am in a hurry. Let me get lunch and go about my day and I will contact you later!”

          “That sounds great!” Cyrus exclaimed, still very close to PJ, the sound grating in his ear yet again.

          Cyrus removed his arm from PJ’s shoulder, but the intricate metallic green patch remained on his neck. PJ seemed not to notice. Cyrus walked away and did not look back. PJ was perplexed because he thought surely Cyrus would have tried to give him a business card or offer to visit him in his shop later after that sales pitch; instead, he just abruptly walked away. PJ’s stomach growled and he became acutely aware of his growing hunger. He started walking towards the diner once more. He watched as Cyrus entered the town square and sat on a park bench. Cyrus rigidly sat and stared off into the distance motionless, looking at nothing in particular. PJ went into the diner and sat down at a booth near a window so he could continue to watch Cyrus. He ordered his favorite dish, French toast, to satisfy his breakfast cravings, which not even that bizarre exchange could subdue.

          He watched Cyrus sit still and thought, “What a strange way to sell printing equipment...”

          Later that day PJ was back in his shop diligently working. The strange encounter with Cyrus had not only made his lunch run a bit long, but its abnormality had thrown him off his cycle, and he was falling behind. He knew he wasn’t going to complete the convention posters for Corel and felt guilty about it. He heard a commotion outside and looked up towards the front windows of his shop. He couldn’t quite see, but he thought he saw someone running. PJ’s initial reaction was to ignore it and continue playing catch up on his work; however, the thought of the guilt he would have if someone was in trouble and he could have helped drove him to reconsider. He stopped working and headed to the front of the shop for a better vantage. It was Cyrus. He was sweaty, visibility terrified, and sprinting across the square. The whole scene read wrong. Cyrus’ hat flew off his head as he ran, but he paid it no mind. Instead, he kept checking over his shoulder and looking behind. While PJ found Cyrus distasteful after their encounter, the fear he saw in Cyrus’ eyes made his gut wrench. He opened his shop door and made his way onto the sidewalk.

          “NO NO NO!” Cyrus screamed as he passed the gazebo. “GET AWAY. GET AWAY!”

          Two black figures slightly suspended mid-air slowly followed him. They were the size and of similar shape as an above average human. They were immensely black and had no depth or texture; it was as if they were matte. As a printer, PJ was aware of the blackest black ever created, vantablack, and these figures drew a stark resemblance. A disturbing lack, a creepy sensation of just nothing, null. The two figures were trailing Cyrus as he continued to scream. One of the black figures raised some sort of appendage and a small black orb was propelled out of it. The black orb was indistinguishable from the figures outside of its shape. It sped towards Cyrus and hit him. He screamed again, but it was different, for it was not out of fear, but agony. PJ was horrified and wanted to intervene, but the black figures were already on top of Cyrus as he belted a blood chilling scream. One of the figures raised another appendage and slammed it to where Cyrus presumably was. Like a radio switched to mute, it was instantaneously and utterly quiet. The black figures dispersed, and PJ ran to where Cyrus had fallen. There was nothing there. Not a trace, just a space where something had been and now was not.

          PJ’s hands trembled. He looked up to find the figures, and they were gone. Others in the square were deeply distraught and confused by the horrific sequence, as PJ was. So many things were running through PJ’s head.

          “What happened to Cyrus? What were those things? Where did they come from? Why did they do that? Where did they go?” Lastly and most concerning to PJ, “Would they come back?” He stared at the spot where Cyrus should have been. Disgusted, upset, and worried, he scratched the back of his neck just missing the ornate metallic green patch. It ominously pulsed red once more.

          The next morning, PJ serenely awoke to Worm gently nudging his arm. In those first moments, he had no memory of yesterday's disturbing events.

          “What time is it?” PJ thought as he reached for his phone to check the time. 10:11am. “Oh shit”.

          PJ’s body lurched and inhaled as if the wind was knocked out of him as he realized he had uncharacteristically overslept and was late for work. The feeling was extenuated by the backlog of work that was waiting for him.

          “This never happens. Did I forget to set my alarm? Did I sleep through it? Did I turn it off or snooze it indefinitely in my sleep?” PJ’s mind raced and rattled while he panicked, rushed out of bed, and sprinted down the hall.

          In his haste and partly because he had just woken up, he clumsily crashed into his bathroom doorway as he entered. This bumped several framed prints out of alignment and one nearly fell. On any other day, he would have straightened each one of them, but today was not like any other day. He quickly brushed his teeth, skipped a shave, and then ran back to his bedroom to get dressed. He grabbed his canvas bag and headed to the door, but not before Worm let out some obnoxious, hungry meows. PJ hit the brakes and beelined to the cat food. His unstyled hair flopped around with his jarring and hasty movements. He pushed the hair out of his face and filled Worm’s food bowl. While Worm gorged, PJ jettisoned from the apartment. In the stairwell, he ran into Corel. Corel started to open her mouth to say hello and follow up on her order, but before she had the chance PJ flew past her without even a glance. Corel thought this was strange as PJ was always courteous and friendly, not to mention he seemed a bit unkempt. She couldn’t decide if he was avoiding her or just in an immense hurry. PJ got to the bottom of the stairs, out the door, and jogged out onto the sidewalk in front of his apartment building.

          He stopped dead in his tracks. “Which way is the town square?” he thought. He looked down the sidewalk in both directions and a panic overwhelmed him. “Why don’t I know...” he thought. His brainwork was fragmented and out of place.

          From inside Corel saw PJ idly standing and was concerned. She popped her head out the door. “Everything alright?” she asked. PJ looked back towards her. She seemed familiar, but he struggled to know who she was. The orante green patch briefly glowed red again.

          “Ummm. Yea...I think.” PJ said tentatively as he looked around.

          Corel, worried, called “You's okay to run late from time to time. It's absolutely a normal thing.”

          At that moment a Speedy Metro Bus’ air brakes swooshed and depressurized as it departed the bus stop in the town square. PJ looked that direction and knew where to start walking. He turned and walked backwards as he said “Right. Thanks for that...umm...ahh” he snapped his fingers as he tried to recall Corel’s name “umm...Miss!” Corel was very concerned as PJ turned forward and headed for town square.

          As PJ walked he told himself “Get it together man!”. His head started to feel woozy. He stopped to collect himself. His sense of gravity became off-kilter. As he leaned to stay up right, his vision blurred and became kaleidoscopic. His attempts to stay on his feet only induced his spiral. It became too much to bear; he fell to the ground and blacked out.

          PJ came to. As he lay there and opened his eyes, he looked upwards. He noticed an overhead tree wasn’t green anymore, nor was the sky blue behind it. He sat up on the sidewalk and looked around. No more green and vibrant gardens or lawns, just bland. It was as if the world was black and white. No more cool breeze or warm sun; the air felt like nothing. PJ stood up and rubbed his head. He thought maybe what he was seeing was the result of some concussion. But it wasn’t. He couldn’t quite remember how he got there and where there even was. He first noticed his apartment building and started to piece things together. He next remembered Corel and looked at the apartment entry door, but Corel wasn't there. He then remembered Corel’s kind words and that he was in some sort of hurry, “But why?” PJ thought.

          It was at this moment that PJ realized how wholly quiet his world had become. No birds. No people. No cars. No buses. He was alone. Whatever had happened brought back some clarity, and he remembered Corel’s late print order. On one hand, it seemed strange to be concerned with such a matter amidst his current predicament; however, uncertain of what else to do, he headed for the town square. When he got there, it too was desolate and in grayscale. Not a soul to be found. PJ walked to his shop, put his key in the door, and turned. It wouldn’t turn. His store was locked, and he couldn't get in. He looked inside at the prints hanging inside the shop; they, like everything else, were in black and white. He shook his head as if that might make the color come back. It did not. The bleakness of the square made PJ wonder how much time had passed.

          “Could it be in the middle of the night? That could explain why everyone is gone” he pondered.

          He checked his watch, 11:02am, and ruled out his previous theory. As desperately as he tried, he could not rationalize the world in which he found himself in. He walked to the bakery next door. Its door was also locked, and no one was inside.

          “What the hell?” PJ thought “Where is everyone?”

          Just then he heard movement across the square. He turned to look and saw three of the black figures, empty dark voids. He ducked and hid behind a large mailbox nearby, peering around to track their movements. The figures didn't walk, no appendages moved as they propelled forward down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the square.

          “What the hell are those? They look like they are on patrol. Could they be looking for something?” PJ thought to himself nervously. “Could they be looking for me?” just the thought of that reality nearly made PJ sick.

          When the figures passed behind the gazebo, PJ took advantage of the cover and darted into a nearby ally to hide behind a bigger trash can. Again, he watched. The figures reached the end of the block and turned right, leaving the town square. PJ sighed with relief. With the shop locked, PJ decided the best thing to do was just go home and try to sort things out there, or at the very least hide there. An additional benefit of that plan was it took PJ the opposite direction of the black figures he had seen. The farther away the figures were, the better he felt. He stayed low and headed for home the same way he had just come. He tried each shop door as he passed. All were locked, no lights on, and nobody inside. An overwhelming feeling of isolation filled PJ’s being. PJ was beginning to not even notice the world had lost its color; he had bigger fears at the moment. As he rounded the corner at the end of the block that would lead him home, he saw two more figures nearing his apartment.

          “Shit!” PJ thought as he scurried back to safety. “Are those the same ones? Or different ones?”. It was impossible to tell as they had no obvious unique features and PJ wasn't about to stick around and study them any closer. A puzzle was piecing together as PJ considered more and more that they likely were looking for him. The sick feeling from before returned and in greater magnitude. However, it was accompanied by a sense of determination that he could overcome whatever this was.

          He stayed crouched and went back the way he just came, passing his shop and heading for the municipal building. He was scared, but vigilant, checking over his shoulder every so often and keeping an eye out. He was nearly halfway down the block when he saw them round the corner where he spotted them earlier. They undoubtedly saw him.

          “Fuck.” PJ stood up and started sprinting towards the municipal building. He looked back as one of them raised an appendage. He knew what was coming next. A black orb propelled out of the appendage. PJ was certain he couldn't outrun it, so he stopped and looked around. He quickly ripped a lid from a nearby trash can and wielded it with no time to spare. As soon as PJ got the makeshift shield in front of him, the orb crashed into the lid and knocked PJ to the ground. The orb ricocheted in a nearby shop’s front window, shattering it. PJ scrambled to his feet and kept running. PJ decided he wasn’t going to be able to escape them or their orb out in the open like this; he had to get inside. He dashed toward the grayed-out municipal building.

          As he sped toward the municipal building’s nearest door, PJ pessimistically thought “Why would it be unlocked? Everything else isn't.” But he had nothing to lose and tried it anyways. He gripped the door handle and to his disbelief it turned fully and uninhibitedly; it was unlocked, so he cast the door open.

          As he lunged inside, a fleeting glance revealed the figures were pursuing. The building served both as a municipal building and a library, one half being dedicated to each, dividing it was a grand stone staircase supporting the building’s dome at the top. PJ had entered on the municipal side. The main hallway, which ran the distance of the building, was deserted. As he ran down the hallway, his shoes squeaked and echoed on the polished stone floor like that of a high desert canyon. As he ran by, he looked left and right into all the uninhabited municipal department offices that lined the hallway hoping to find anyone. He slid and screeched to a stop when he saw someone still working. It was an immediate relief, a comfort, to see someone else, but before he could shout, the two figures entered the building behind him, and he rocketed off once more. As he reached the center grand staircase, another figure entered from the library side of the building. Trapped.

          PJ took the only option remaining, upward. He ran up the stairs fast and faster. He recalled the creamy, marble color the stone used to have, but now it was just gray. They were getting closer. PJ watched the crystal and bronze chandelier appear lower and lower as he climbed higher and higher. He reached the dome and looked over the rails. They were coming. He was at the top and there was nowhere else to climb. He expeditiously surveyed the room and found a single door on this floor and ran to it. He opened it. It was a tiny, rundown, and empty room. He entered and slammed the door shut behind him, locking it. Panicked, he studied the room for an exit. There was no way out. An overwhelming terror ripped through his body. He broke down. He slammed backwards against a corner and slid downwards until he spilled onto the floor. He laid for a few moments and then sat up into the dark corner and put his head into hands and began to rock to and fro. “This is it. I’m really fucked now.” he whispers. There is a pounding at the door...


          A man sat at an airport behind a laptop that was covered with computer security stickers: “Defcon 22”, “Got OWASP?”, “Hacking is not a crime!”, “Electronic Frontier Foundation”, and more. His face flushed with frustration. He just finished up a design using CorelDRAW, a computer graphics editor, for a Defcon poster and was attempting to print it on a portable printer. It wasn't working.

          “Why won't this damn thing print? I swear printers are the bane of IT existence!” he exclaimed under his breath. He kept working at it. A pop-up arose from the bottom right of his screen:


          “Woah woah woah. What?!” the man thought, “No no no, this is terrible timing”. SMB, Server Message Block Protocol, was a common network protocol used for interprocess communication, file sharing, and more. Its wide use made it a common attack vector and it had just been used to exploit the man’s laptop.

          He began searching his computer for potential payloads that may have been dropped by the virus. He found one very quickly in his “%temp%” directory, a system folder used for temporary storage, a common spot for viruses to end up. He deleted it. He was worried the virus might have infected something else and he began monitoring the behavior of his system, but there was just too much noise to make any sense of it. He decided the best strategy was to boot into “safe mode”. This would put the system into a diagnostic mode where only essentially components function, while everything else is locked out. This would help him have a more controlled approach when monitoring the system. His laptop restarted and went into safe mode. He began monitoring again.[*] SEARCHING… SEARCHING… SEARCHING...

          “Ugh. Well that explains why my print job went wacko, my damn print driver got infected by the SMB virus.” the man realized.

          He clicked around and worked the problem. A commercial airplane roared in the background. While still in safe mode, he found the print driver and temporarily disabled it. This would stop any further problems until he could restore it. He detected no other anomalies and rebooted the machine back to normal. Having lost trust in the network he was on, he turned on a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that allowed his laptop to join his home network via an encrypted tunnel. That way any attackers on the airport network, which now was apparent, wouldn't be able to target him or his traffic. He then browsed the web to find an unmodified print driver from the manufacturer to restore his infected one. He found what he was looking for.

          “Oh sweet! Looks like I had an outdated driver and the new version has some new features. At least that’s something positive” the man thought. He downloaded the new print driver, installed it, and restarted his computer to enable it. Moments later, his printer was humming and his fresh design rolled out.


          The town square was bright and sunny. The center lawn was lushly green, and the garden flowers were vibrant. Townspeople buzzed around the square and the air was alive with the sound of people. A Speedy Metro Bus just left its station. PJ was inside his shop and “It's A Beautiful Morning” by the Rascals played on his little shop radio. He was bobbing side to side with rhythm as he held up Corel’s Defcon poster that he freshly printed on his brand new, featureful printing equipment. Abruptly a commotion spilled out of the Post Office. PJ looked up as a self-proclaimed and adequately dressed “Nigerian Prince” popped out and was begging for a small advance of some money. He claimed he would return the advance 10 fold once the country's energy project was completed and profitable. PJ watched, laughed, and smiled. He was just happy to be back to work.
          A fox in a box of bricks and blocks.


          • #6
            Title: The Magpies and the Cuckoos: A Disinformation Fable

            Author: J. Zhanna Malekos Smith (Defense One 2019)

            Context for fictional story:

            In 2018 the New York Times explored a case study in disinformation: the Soviet Union’s 1983 effort to spread lies about the origin of AIDS. The Times noted that Operation Infektion, like successful disinformation operations earlier and since, relied on seven elements:
            * Identify social, cultural, economic, and political rifts in a society that can be used to heighten and exacerbate conflict.
            * Create propaganda, such as a false story or several contradictory false stories.
            * Anchor the propaganda in elements of truth.
            * Disguise the origin of the propaganda.
            * Find and exploit “unwitting servants of seemingly good causes for their own ends” to propagate the lies.
            * Deny everything.
            * Prioritize long-term strategic progress over short-term victories.
            It’s important to realize that this list is not a precise recipe, but more like principles that guide an iterative design process. Perhaps this can be illustrated by means of a fable.


            Winters in Ehota would otherwise have been unremarkable, if not for the villagers who praised them for being remarkable. As one might expect in the mountains, a harsh wintry mix of sleet and snow caused most plants to wither and retreat into the earth. But not, as the people of Ehota proudly reminded outsiders, the pine, bamboo, and plum — the trio affectionately called the Three Friends of Winter.

            Each plant symbolized a virtuous trait that Ehotian society prized and sought to cultivate. The pine, standing tall and green on the snowy slopes, represented endurance and vitality. The plum blossom, which bloomed in late winter, showed strength of character. And the bamboo, which bent under pressure but would not break, symbolized inner fortitude.
            Together, these three plants were symbols of hope and perseverance for the Ehotians in times of adversity. And while these plants were not unique to Ehota, the villagers took immense pride in the belief that only in their village were the Three Friends of Winter so robust and vibrant.
            Our story begins, however, not in the village, but in the surrounding woods and lake. There, in a grove of pine trees, lived a parliament of magpies — a well-ordered community of birds.
            This parliament organized itself into political and social groups based on those who could sing the sweetest, fly the fastest, build the sturdiest nests, and even whose plumage had the loveliest iridescent colors of blue, green, and gold. Despite these deep social enclaves, the magpies managed to live in relative egalitarian harmony with one another.
            Each autumnal equinox, parliament appointed a new leader: whomever found the longest earthworm by the lake. Their leader, Juko, had won victory by a few millimeters last fall. It was rumored that Juko and his advisors sought to disband this tradition to extend his time in office, but these sorts of fearful rumors were common before every equinox.
            Several days before the autumnal celebration, a pair of cuckoo birds arrived in Ehota’s woods. Marsilius and his wife Violette were readily welcomed into the magpie community. But being reclusive and of few words, the cuckoos were rather quickly forgotten. The magpies were so focused on the upcoming festivities that they had not even noticed Violette was pregnant and internally incubating her eggs.

            Nesting in a tree high above the magpie community, Marsilius and Violette studied the parliament with intense focus, noting how the society was politically and socially organized. The cuckoos watched two magpies pull at the other’s feathers wildly as they debated who, under Avian Law, was entitled to build a nest on the sunniest outer branches of a tree.
            “I sing the sweetest, therefore my voice must greet the sun each morning,” one protested.
            “Balderdash! Parliament ruled that skilled builders have the primary right,” declared the other.
            Far above, Violette remarked, “How strange these customs are, husband.”
            “How useful, my dear,” Marsilius gently reminded her.
            “Yes,” said Violette dryly. “These cracks in their society will prove useful for us to exploit.”
            The first day of the autumnal equinox brought unusually strong winds. Undeterred by the fierce breezes, the magpies gathered by the lake to begin the ceremony. As custom, however, the current leader remained behind to protect the community’s territory and watch over the eggs in their unattended nests. The elderly Juko was not pleased with having to patrol in such windy conditions, but dutifully agreed.

            Marsilius and Violette recognized an opportunity to implement their plan. Carefully avoiding Juko on his patrol route, they clandestinely visited each nest in turn. Marsilius and Violette worked tirelessly. He would toss an egg from the nest, destroying it; she would lay one mimetic egg that closely resembled the remaining magpie eggs. As the winds picked up strength, Marsilius grew less precise, kicking out two or more eggs from each nest. When Violette had finished laying her last egg, the couple flew back to their perch to watch events unfold.
            You can only imagine the woeful cries when the magpies returned from the celebration to find their nests in disarray and shattered eggs on the forest ground.
            “Why?! How?! How could this have happened?” they cried in mournful chorus as the wind whipped around them.
            Marsilius and Violette watched placidly from above as parliament demanded Juko come forward and explain. Still reeling from the shock of this tragedy and unable to fathom how it could possibly have happened, the leader struggled for words.
            “Members of parliament, please permit me to speak,” Juko began. “Our hearts are filled with inexplicable grief by this act of terror. My advisors and I are working to understand how these horrors could have befallen our community, but we must ask for your patience. We will move forward together, but in order to —”
            “It was murder!” cried one magpie.
            “Sabotage!” chirped another.
            Hopping down to a lower branch, Violette disguised her voice and wailed, “These winds! Surely it must have done this.”
            “Yes, yes, the wind!” chirped several magpies.
            At this, Marsilius gracefully swooped down from his perch and positioned himself in front of parliament. “Dear friends,” he began, “no heart grieves more tenderly for you than mine and that of my sickly wife Violette’s. We know firsthand your pain; not three months ago, we lost our beautiful hatchlings to a barbarous human. Could it be that a human, or someone from our community, did this?”

            A visible shudder went through all the feathers in parliament.
            “Preposterous!” cried one magpie.
            Marsilius continued unfazed, “Friends, while you were celebrating the equinox and I was tending to my wife, do we know who was here watching over our territory?”
            Angry shouts of Juko’s name filled the air.
            “Villain!” shouted one magpie.
            “I’ll peck his eyes out!” shouted another.
            Moving to a lower branch, Violette disguised her voice and screeched, “Juko’s power-mad! He created this mess to stay in power!”
            “Yes! Yes!” squawked an elderly magpie. “It would not be the first time a leader created a crisis to stay in office. Remember the crisis of 1999?”
            Parliament began to cluck in wild excitement at the mention of this.
            All the color seemed to drain from Juko’s feathers. In a burst of outrage, he bellowed, “I could never do such a thing! I have only served parliament with honor and selflessness.”
            “You stayed behind to protect the nests, right?” Marsilius questioned.
            “Yes,” said Juko.
            “And you were here when this terrible event occurred, right?”
            “But you can’t tell parliament what happened, right?”
            Juko’s mind raced feverishly, “Well, yes, but I didn’t… You were here too!” he said accusingly and pointed his wing at Marsilius. “I thought you were suspicious from the beginning!”
            “How dare you, sir! I was caring for Violette!” All eyes turned upward toward the cuckoo’s wife. She was resting on a low branch and had lifted her head wearily at the sound of her name.
            Parliament began to hum again with frantic calls for justice and violent threats against Juko and his advisors.
            Horrified by the scene, Juko’s eldest son, Raku, flew to his trembling father. The son spoke in a deep steady voice, rising above the din.
            “Friends, what happened today is a tragedy. Let us take this time to mourn the loss of life and not give in to the temptation of answering violence with violence. Juko has served this community dutifully. His history speaks to that. Let us all retire and reflect on what has transpired. We’ll reconvene in three days to vote upon what is to be done for justice.”
            “Well said,” Marsilius cooed. “And to the parents that are grieving, my wife and I open our humble nest to you to come and talk anytime about your grief.”
            The group slowly dissipated and returned to their wind-lashed nests. Marsilius’ offer was immediately taken up by the grieving families. They flocked to his nest that evening to vent their anguish and sadness. Marsilius and Violette met with the families and continued to sow conspiracy theories. The families soaked up their grief with these false accusations and then tweeted them to their friends, who in turn shared the false allegations with their friends, and so on.
            Juko and his council also paid visits to every family, to assure them that a full investigation would be conducted and that reparations would be given.
            Rumors began to circulate that Marsilius, and perhaps even Violette, had played a role in this tragedy, allegations that the cuckoos calmly denied. There were even threats on the cuckoos’ lives; magpies, after all, are known for violent tendencies. On the eve of the council meeting, the couple flew away and were never heard from again.
            When news broke that Marsilius and Violette had fled, parliament was in an uproar. Conspiracy theories gripped the community and the rattling call for blood intensified. At the meeting, parliament voted to ostracize Juko for his alleged involvement in the deaths of the younglings, as well as his entire family. Despite Raku and his supporters’ best efforts, they could not persuade the majority of Juko’s innocence. Parliament ruled that Juko and his family had until the first snowfall that winter to move to another community. Juko’s health began to rapidly decline, and Raku began to scout out new locations.
            On his reconnaissance, Raku spied a grand-looking pine tree by the edge of the lake and flew over to examine it. He immediately smelled a sweet floral fragrance and noticed white plum blossoms were beginning to bloom on several trees surrounding the pine. A wall of bamboo shoots stood clustered around this picturesque scene.

            “Welcome, Raku,” said the pine tree.
            Raku nearly fell off a branch; it was rare that trees spoke to birds.
            “How do you know my name? Who are you?” he stammered.
            “Oh, we know much more than that,” said the bamboo as it swayed in the breeze.
            “Yes,” exhaled the plum happily, “we’ve been expecting you. We know you tried to defend your father using logic and reason.”
            “Yes,” rumbled the pine, “logic and reason are in short supply these days. They dissipate like rain droplets into parched ground.”
            The bamboo clacked its shoots in agreement. “Getting to the point,” it snapped peevishly, “We are the Three Friends of Winter. Listen closely. Your community has been the target of cuckoo disinformation. While you were all at the autumnal celebration, the cuckoo birds destroyed your eggs and replaced them with trick eggs of their own.”
            Raku was stunned.
            “In time,” cautioned the plum, “the cuckoo chicks will hatch and try to push the remaining magpie eggs from the nest. Even the magpie chicks that hatch will compete with the larger cuckoo hatchling for resources, the mother magpie is blind to the truth of brood parasitism.”
            Horrified by this news, Raku asked what was to be done.
            “Raku,” warned the bamboo, “if you return to parliament with this news it will set off pandemonium, fear, and confusion. It could even lead to the loss of more innocent lives – including your own. On the other hand, if you do nothing with this knowledge you could still lead a peaceful life, but your former community will in time be dominated by cuckoo birds.”
            “But the truth needs to be heard! It must be heard,” the magpie replied.
            The pine gently patted Raku’s back with its needles. “Just as the cuckoos were strategic in their egg deception methods, you too, must be strategic as a truth bearer in how you share this news with the magpies. When you return to parliament, encourage them to learn about brood parasitism techniques and be mindful of trick eggs. We have heard that other magpie communities have been successful in being able to spot and reject false eggs from the nest.”
            “Perhaps we could mark our eggs to distinguish them from false ones?” asked Raku.
            “It has been done and may help in some circumstances,” answered the bamboo. “Remember that the cuckoo is ever-inventive and will mimic the markings. Some cuckoos even lay dark-colored eggs deep within a nest’s darkest crevices. This way, the host bird does not discover them until they hatch and are deceived into raising it.”
            “I see this is a perpetual struggle. Clearly, the cuckoo birds are concerned about playing the long game,” sighed Raku.
            “Precisely. And there will always be a struggle between what is true and false,” sang the plum. “That is life, Raku.”
            The pine shook excitedly. “The task before your community is how to manage that challenge. Applying reason and healthy skepticism to guide you in distinguishing between the trick and non-trick eggs. You are not the first generation of birds to deal with this issue. History can be a guidebook for those curious enough to turn the pages and learn from it.”

            Raku thanked the Three Friends of Winter for their kindness and sage counsel. As he flew back to his community, Raku thought about how to best share this news with the other magpies.
            Many years from now, when our grandchildren visit Ehota, what birdsong will they hear filling the woods?
            A fox in a box of bricks and blocks.


            • #7
              \\\ Title : Emergency || Difficult is set to : Insane == (the Blackout), Location == (worldwide) ///
              I will tell you a story. Maybe you will be surprised about my opinion. Of course not about the thing that I'm gonna tell you a story, I think you expect that.
              But "in the end".yes... "it doesnt't even matters".. let me explain what exactly I mean.

              Our digital world has reached a state where we can not go back in the "running" state we are currently in. But if the world is going down, for which reason ever, things look different.
              And it's extremely important that we know the reason, to answer this question correctly.

              So.. I will expect and write about the >worst< thing that can happen, yes .. sadly but true, I think more worse than the COVID Virus can ever be, and in combination.. I don't want to lead you to insomnia..

              It's called "the blackout". No power anymore, no technologies running anymore, or maybe only as long as our batteries last, or your generators or whatever we have.
              Pure darkness. Pure silence. No communication anymore, in the way we are used to, for a long time. We have generations of humans who are not knowing any another way to communicate. At least in a secure, encrypted way. Will this be important anymore at a point like this? Short term, I think no. For a longer time period I hope maybe, but it will be important sadly.

              Without power, electricity there is a big, big number of problems we will be facing, a short list of them:
              No (of course not encrypted) communication after a few days.
              No fuel for our cars.
              No electric light, when it's dark, it's dark outside and inside. Now our mother earth is in control again.
              No (most people surprise this) water out of the tap anymore.
              Violence will break out, sadly.
              Medication will be unavailable.
              Money will, if you look at the long term effects, become worthless as money really is. Just worth.. nothing, a piece of paper, you can not eat it, or drink it.
              When it gets cold, in winter (!) or fall, there will be only one way to keep you warm, wood and fire (maybe petroleum or bottled gas, but for how long?).

              After a period of time, most experts in this field are estimate a maximum of 48 hours anarchism will break out. I think it will be much shorter after seeing that the people are already going crazy about the virus. I personally, and some experts too, estimate around maximum 24 hours, more likely 12 or less.

              The surprising thing I meant before is: I personally think it doesn't matter which type of technology we have or how a "super hyper next gen whatever" it is or not. Because we need none of them to survive and live a life. You won't eat a smartphone or a GPS Tracker, a laptop or a super next gen anti virus software. But we need something to eat and still more important: something to drink (no, not whiskey sorry, but ouf course we can). And the will to survive, which is indepentend from our "higher" today's technology most of people believe they need. The most important technology, if we will call it this way is electricity. It's the layer 0 if we trasform this into the OSI Model (yes yes, layer 1 is processing electricity too).

              Technology isn't so important. Important things are water, food, keeping up yourself or/and your loved ones, or the people you team up with to survive. That is a thing, where the technology can help. But only if we don't have a total blackout.

              It can help, it can harm you, BUT it is NOT necessary at all for surviving a crisis. And in case of a blackout nothing of this will be available. So .. now I draw a horrible scenario in your brain. Okay. But I hope, and I am conviced I can draw some more colorful thing too (side note, I can't draw at all).

              We have that much technology, that you can chat with someone on the other side of the world within seconds. We have so much things that makes our all lifes more comfortable.
              Imagine a world without the internet in a case we are right now - COVID-19. There is spreading a lot of disinformation, but I think you can count the deaths or at least the infected persons x10 without the internet. Researchers can communicate very fast together, they can calculate so much about the virus with supercomputers, and in future with quantum computing, and data scientists in general, or specific bio/genetic/immunology data scientists.

              Maybe you noticed a thing. I always write about "us", or at least I try it. "Us" is more important than any technology on the planet can ever be. Especially in case of a blackout. We need to help each other, we need to communicate, building communities (you are a doctor, I am a guy building houses, the I "protect all of you" guy or woman, I am good with computers.. you get it).. without this concept, technology or not, we have no chance to survive a crisis and it doesn't matter which type of crisis.

              What we need more than ever before, crisis or not, is to build a team, worldwide. We life on the same round thing called earth. If we focus on good things of humanity, we have power. Electricty power? Not important anymore, human power beats it easily.

              As some good guy says, some of you maybe know who I mean, but it's not that important who says this: "Together we are power, and power can save somebody's life".
              He, and all the others in the league are of course doing important work.

              And never forget, the golden rule of ethic. "QVOD TIBI HOC ALTERI"

              Thats all. Thank you for taking your time to read this.
              Author : Bernhard Weber
              Mail : bernhard.weber9@þ
              A fox in a box of bricks and blocks.


              • #8
                WOW, there are some great stories in there. Best of luck everyone!

                It’s also interesting to see some stories refer to COVID-19 in the past tense, in a timeline ahead of our present. Till we get there, stay safe everybody.


                • #9
                  I know that the names accompanying the stories have been chosen by the authors, potentially to maintain anonymity, but I’d absolutely love to connect with the author of “4 1/2 acres of freedom” (by D).

                  @D, I think you and I have a decent amount in common - I am a huge aviation buff too, and our writing styles are also somewhat similar. Please send me a private message if you’d like to chat about planes, tech etc.