Thursday, December 31, 2015

Watching Movies Under The Influence of Nyquil (Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Avatar)

I subjected myself to a flu shot this year but I caught the flu anyway.  It didn’t really detract from my holidays since there are only two people left in my family and neither of us is exactly festive, but it made me far too stupid to deal with writing, or most other things for that matter.  Aside from obsessively playing Hearthstone. And watching some crappy movies.

I’m sort of a cinephile in recovery. I went through a period where I saw everything, and then for the last several years I’ve seen one or two movies a year, if that. If I’m going to sit through mindless cliched entertainment, I’d really prefer to have a keyboard beneath my hands and a score counter somewhere on the screen. I daydream better that way.  But when I’m running a fever, I’m able to sit and stare listlessly at a screen for hours, without even fidgeting, so that’s when I tend to watch movies. Especially colorful ones with special effects that blend well with Nyquil.

This year’s flu season film festival was especially dismal: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Avatar.

I knew Oz was a crapshoot. Positive incentive included Sam Raimi (with cameos by Ted and Bruce), excessive CGI and Oz itself. I’m an Oz fan. The reviews were bad, though, and deservedly so, because this tale of a skeevy philanderer’s redemption interlaced with what one might assume to be a kids’ movie fails hard.

First of all, what’s the whole deal with male midlife crisis movies dressed up like family entertainment?  Can anything possibly be more narcissistic than imagining an average child would be entertained by a story centered around some guy that’s possibly older than their dad, re-evaluating his life? Are these movies written by middle-aged men who spend their entire lives interacting with other middle-aged men and aren’t really aware of the existence of anyone else?  Yeah, I know what the answer to that question probably is, but I had to ask it anyway. 

The Oz movie is bracketed by some great title sequences. The part in between has to do with this unappealing fellow who is a stage magician and unrepentant womanizer. , Oscar “Oz” Baum, brother of long-suffering and abused Frank, his assistant. While fleeing from Vlad the strongman in yet another thwarted romantic triangle (this dude gets with 5 different gorgeous women in this movie, with references to more in the past), Oz is blown to Oz. Which is full of hot witches. Oz is nice to them all, in sequence, without really having to choose which ones are good or wicked; he just agrees with the most recent one and eventually he finds the blonde one, who is the true good witch (Glenda).

He also finds a Little China Girl (that’s her name, she never introduces herself) that is the entire reason I watched the whole movie. She’s a CGI porcelain doll, and I was fascinated with the lighting on her glazed hair, and her light, stiff movements. There’s also a winged monkey sidekick that’s sort of cute. And lots of callbacks to the original movie, to which this fiasco cannot hold a candle.

The plot mainly has to do with the witches bickering over who’s in charge, and who gets to score with Oz. It’s possibly a little less annoying than Wicked (didn’t like that either; read the book but haven’t seen the play) (the land of Oz is a light, crisp, airy biscuit, and smothering it with heavy handed sauce only makes it soggy and prone to collapse).  There’s lots of IMAX mania, with dueling witches flying through the air, and Oz demonstrating his wizardly supremacy with fireworks. The interrupted Munchkin musical number made me smile. Briefly.

You know what I’d really like to see next, Hollywood? A remake of Little House On The Prairie. Except instead of putting the focus on some little girl (little girls are box office poison!), you should make it be about a man, in the late afternoon of his life, wondering if he measures up, and there should be a bunch of hot women that are all focused on him and never talk about anything except him whenever he’s out of the room.  Maybe also a movie about Pippi Longstocking, except make her male, and a little older, and concerned with whether he’s made his dad proud. Maybe you could do yet another remake of Willy Wonka, except make it all about Willy Wonka, not just mostly (like the Johnny Depp remake).

Anyway, the Oz movie was pure cinematic gold compared to the one I saw before it, which I had successfully managed to avoid up until now: Avatar.

I was offended by the very concept of Avatar. I’m a gamer; I’m familiar with Night Elves and the Outlands version of Nagrand, both of which heavily influenced the design of this film. I’m also ecologically minded, and my carbon footprint is way lower than yours. And I definitely lean liberal and tend to side with indigenous people against the military industrial concept. So what’s not to like?

Basically it’s the whole idea of “let me just slip into the skin of one of these simple primitives and show them how civilized dudes kick ass and win wars, then we can kick the ass of my asshole ex-co-workers and they’ll all be my bro buddies and give me their hottest woman for a wife.” 

It’s like Dances With Wolves – if the Kevin Costner character had been a creepy mind controlling wizard who took over one of the bodies of the Native Americans and conned them into teaming up with neighboring tribes for a high-casualty-rate battle against his own former side.  It’s even more narcissistic than assuming little kids want to see movies about middle-aged men claiming their power (that’s also what Avatar is about, by the way).  Downright supremacist, if I dare say so. The alien bodies used for this mind-control experiment? Oh, they were never really alive, science figured out how to grow a bunch of viable adult bodies without giving them brains or consciousness or anything like that.  They don’t feel pain like you and I. 

Avatar is a gamer’s fantasy at heart. Both in the majestic computer-generated “natural” environment and in the idea that if you could just superimpose your will onto the leader of the Iroquois at a particular crucial point in history, colonialism would have gone a different way, because you’re extra super duper strategically smart.  And they’re NPCs.  Shells.

So yeah, call me oversensitive if you want but that’s why I didn’t want to see it. Patronizing takes on colonialism and noble savages and the like pushes my buttons. I didn’t like Billy Jack either, for similar reasons.

You want to know what movie about indigenous people I liked?  Little Big Man. It had a framing story about a white man who was raised by Sioux and drifted back and forth between the cultures depending on his circumstance. He was a humble guy played by Dustin Hoffman, not a superhero commando general leading his little red brothers to victory. There was a sequel that dealt with the boarding schools where Native American kids’ culture was erased, and with the fad in Europe for “human zoos.” I also liked Dead Man with Johnny Depp.

And, yeah, under the influence of lots of Nyquil, Avatar partially worked for me, mainly on the strength of the art. I’m a sucker for pretty pictures. It’s a pity that so many of them are cluttered up with bad writing and dorky plots and narcissism.  I must select next flu season’s film festival selection with greater care.  

Sunday, December 20, 2015

This Blog Doesn't Have Nearly Enough Cat Pictures

Uh oh, time to spring into action with some photos of the big Kahuna.

Such a lovely coat, thick and plush, softer than rabbit fur. It needs daily grooming, or he mats up. Also, he sheds enough to coat my entire apartment in a layer of cat fur that is up to 1/4" thick in some locations, keeping it warm in the winter. He's not as happy in the summer. I may have to give him a lion cut if we have another heat wave this year.

This is what the undercarriage looks like. Apologies for the state of my carpet; here we can see some of those rich deposits of shed cat fur.

He thinks cucumbers are the most boring vegetable ever.

Every weekend he encourages me to oversleep. Not that I need a lot of encouraging.

Definitely an Imperial sympathizer.

I'm sorry, but this seat is taken.

I don't approve of declawing cats. I would never get a cat declawed. However, sometimes I'm glad Kahuna was already declawed when I got him. This video illustrates why.  

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Review: The Force Awakens (No Spoilers)

I’m back on the couch, with my cat oozing all over my lap, and Tylenol is coursing through my system, removing my Imax headache obtained while watching The Force Awakens. I only go to the theater for movies that are worth getting a headache, and The Force Awakens is one of them. 

I’ve been reading through other spoiler-free reviews and they all seem to say nice, bland things like “I liked it” and “the effects were good.”  And sure, I concur with all of that.  At the same time, I want to test the very boundaries of nonspoilitude.  So!

The Force Awakens was written by a committee that was very careful to replicate all the good things from the good movies while completely avoiding the low points and mitigate some of the political incorrectness: the Empire’s new incarnation now hires people of color to do subservient things for pale-skinned jackbooted officers, plus there’s a black man in a starring role.

In fact the black guy, Finn, is a great character, and I developed a lot of affection for him, and for his new-trilogy-teammates, Rey and Poe.  I also really liked the square-jawed force-sensitive Rey, and dashing-adrenaline-geek Poe. Enough about them. 

There’s a bad guy, a Vader wannabe, and I’m treading carefully around spoilertown when I say that he’s … a really interesting villain. Complex. Charismatic. An amalgamation of past Star Wars villains, with his own unique touches. 

And yeah, the old folks are back, displaying their gray hair and experienced faces, and yeah, I got all sentimental when they appeared – enough about them too. Spoiler territory.  Nien Nunb makes an appearance, and so does Admiral Ackbar. 

So what can I talk about without spoiling?  Plenty!  First of all, the Millenium Falcon.  It’s been sitting for a while, and nobody has gotten around to refurbishing the interior, so the game table is still there, as well as that thrill-ride gun turret.  Not only that, it’s subjected to some hardcore piloting – it skips across water like a stone, narrowly avoids mountains, plays dodge ‘em with some TIE fighters. 

And what about those TIE fighters!  There’s a new variant, with straight contrasting-color foils. There are some new-model X-Wings too, much slenderer than their predecessors, with a nice diverse crew of pilots.  Possibly they have better mufflers, since the sound effects are sadly lacking in this installment.  The characteristic spaceship sounds are muted and brief, and there are no sonic charges, or distinctive creature noises, although there are a few good creatures.  The cantina band is more reggae this time, and their song isn’t stuck in my head at all.  In fact, I barely remember any of the music in this movie.

The costuming, though – let’s talk about that costuming. First of all, for the first time I really got the sense of stormtrooper armor being actual clothes, that people put on and take off, for functional reasons. Rey has these awesome little detatched sleeves that leave her shoulders bare, for no appreciable reason, and she always has exposed calves, and they make her look just a touch vulnerable (looks deceive).  The bad guy shimmers like a rockstar in his black ensemble. Leia’s mature-lady fatigues kick the ass of any of Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits, or all of them combined.  Cosplayers are going to be impressing each other in this drag for the next couple of decades, and I’m happy about that. 

How about those sets?  First of all, wherever that last scene was shot, I want to go there. Now. Yeah, yeah, it’s a lot of stairs, so’s my house, I can handle it.  The desert-ish planet that isn’t Tattooine but looks like it has a nice reddish gold tinge to distinguish it, and the snowy planet looks like Westeros in the wintertime after the white walkers have redecorated.  Oh, and those starship interiors? Whoa. It almost makes me want to start playing SWTOR again just to run around in the reconstructions, although I can’t stand SWTOR due to the companions (NPCs that follow you around emitting unwanted chatter). 

Aliens! We’ve got big old sloth people, and a pointy-faced lady who just has to have a backstory, and a wise nearsighted lady who is all CGI but in a good way.  In fact there are female people all over the place, which made me feel warm inside.

J.J. Abrams is a teenage thug at heart, who appropriates old stuff and shoves it into his adrenaline-infused movie factory until something kinda cool comes out. And I think he’s taking the right approach with Star Wars, which was probably the movie that taught him to do that, because George Lucas figured out how to do it from pillaging old dogfight scenes.  It’s all a big circle.  

He also displays absolutely no nostalgia for the prequel trilogy. It never existed. Callbacks to the real trilogy happen every couple of minutes, but don’t go looking for any gungans.  Maybe somebody really did crash a spaceship full of giant piranha fish into their underwater city – or perhaps a spaceship full of those other creatures we briefly encounter (sorry, it’s a spoiler, can’t talk about it).  No pod racing, no battledroids, stormtroopers are now enslaved child soldiers rather than all being Temuera Morrison – it’s like the First Order deliberately erased the entire prequel trilogy from the history books. I think Coruscant is in it, briefly, but ... nah, don't want to spoil it. It's as if every character in the prequel trilogy and the extended universe cried out, and everyone was too busy enjoying The Force Awakens to pay any attention.  

Rejoice! This is a movie real Star Wars fans can enjoy.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

If You Give a Cat a Cucumber

He'll be annoyed for a day.
But if you teach him to farm cucumbers ...
Nope. I doubt anyone could teach this particular cat how to farm cucumbers.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Review - Glean: Patcher vol. 1 by Martin Kee

I wish I could remember where I got this recommendation – GoodReads? File 770? I met him at Sasquan? I want more recommendations from that source, whatever it is, because this is some excellent science fiction, and it’s doing a great job of helping me avoid Star Wars spoilers by burying my nose in a book. 

It’s a strange-planet adventure, and it has to do with this guy Kendal, who works in IT aboard a large spaceship that meets with a gruesome fate; fortunately he bails into the escape pod in time, because IT people are smart like that.

Meanwhile, on a vinegar scented planet live some amazing aliens who look like axolotls and can graft body parts and do other advanced bioengineering. Our point of contact is Bex, a resourceful young woman who specializes in the nurturing of bizarre new life forms – business is slow lately because she lives in a rough neighborhood. Bex’s planet is kind of a fantasy environment, with mounted travelers taking long journeys through perilous woods. It also has political intrigue, as scavengers note the sudden influx of valuable alien artifacts from the sky (including graftable body parts). 

The point of view chapters alternate between Kendal’s survival on a strange planet adventures, and Bex’s ecological zeal in trying to protect this bizarre new life form from all the bloodthirsty beings inhabiting her world. And I became hooked. 

So let me see, explain why I’m hooked, use my words, blah blah, et cetera, hmm.  Fast paced, with a freight train of a narrative (or actually a few of them), heading logically and sensibly forward. Characters who are smart and resourceful. The kind of worldbuilding where I had to stop and lower the book a few times so I could try to visualize everything. Biologist nerdery! Scary monsters! Chills and thrills! Hooray!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

My Ten Favorite Peripheral Star Wars Characters

I'm so excited about Star Wars that I made a listicle!  Don't get used to this.

1.  Lobot

I mentioned, in my hallucinatory reliving of my many watchings of Star Wars (just one more advantage to getting old), that Lobot (the cyborg jedi) was my very favorite peripheral character of all time.

And frankly, I’m not extremely familiar with the now-defunct extended universe, and I’ll just stop referring to it. I have no knowledge regarding his criminal background or other backstory. He could be a sensitive poet for all I know. What I do know is that when he makes jedi-like gestures, machinery moves. To me, this is every bit as amazing as using the Force to throw something across a room -- possibly more.

2. Bossk

All the bounty hunters are lined up. There’s Boba in his iconic armor of many colors. And what’s that standing next to him? A giant lizard?

It’s a Trandoshan. Again, there is more intriguing lore, which is all gone now, bye. The gist is that they are carnivorous lizards that work as bounty hunters because they’re good at lying in wait. Just imagine that. You come home, hey, is that a lizard sitting all camouflaged on that rock over there – aaagh, it’s a bounty hunter!  Talk about your ultimate stake-out machine. And props for making it in a human-centric industry, Bossk. You must be good at what you do.

3. Figrin Dan

Leader of the Mos Eisley cantina swing band. Somebody seriously needs to fire their manager for getting them this terrible gig, and since Dan is the bandleader, he probably finalized the deal. Dan and the guys make the best of it, playing a song that’s still stuck in my head after all these years.

4. Malakili the Rancor Trainer

Luke has just won a fight with a rancor, and the room is rejoicing, except for Jabba, who is sweating, and this one sad fellow, Malakili, mourning the loss of his pet. But he wasn't that broken up when it ate a Gamorrean guard with one crunch. Talk about your passive-aggressive co-workers.

5. Jawas

What do they look like, beneath those mini-burkas and glowing amber eyes? We may never know.

6. The Disturbing Sandcrawler Droid

The dude on the right -- most of the action shots of him were too dark to see anything. What a rough-looking character.

7.  Bib Fortuna

Twi’leks are a race noted for their grace, and elegance, and beauty, and dancing skills. So who’s the first one we see? A drugged-out bodyguard with red eyes.

Elvis Presley, after he got famous, got a bunch of guys that were basically his friends from high school and called them the Memphis Mafia and paid them to hang around keeping him amused. Jabba apparently didn’t have any friends in high school, since all he’s got is Bib.  Does Bib display any kind of affection toward his fellow Twi’leks? He does not. His sympathies are clearly with his boss, who no doubt supplies him with plentiful amounts of whatever is making his eyes red. Bib is an utter disgrace to any species. And that’s why he’s kind of cool. He subverts the Twi’lek trope before we’re even introduced to it.

8. The Deathstick Dealer

I wonder if he ever went home to think about his life. I think it's more likely he met someone in that nightclub -- look at those adorable antennae, who could resist?  

9. Kaminoans

"So, um, how do you guys stay so slender?" 

10. Hammerhead

A fine strapping young Ithorian, stopping into the Mos Eisley cantina for a beer before getting on with a swashbuckling adventure in which humans play no part whatsoever. 

Just Look At All These Posts

I’m not sure how long I’m going to sustain this “frequent blogging” thing. I’m waiting patiently for my cover art, I’m pecking away at the beginning of the sequel, and I’m ready to launch. Also, I’m just a little bit distracted by Star Wars, given all the horrible traumatic associations that go along with Phantom Menace combined with my unabashed love of the real trilogy.

First: here are some awesome Star Wars book cover designs, if they were pulp fiction. If I weren’t already committed to sci fi heavy metal comic book with tentacles, I might be tempted to go for old school pulp.

Next, here’s some selfpubspiration. Never tell me the odds? Actually, I’d like to hear about those odds, please. For instance, never charge $1.99 for a book.  And give the readers the first taste for free, and blather on all the usual internet places like I’m doing right now, yup, yup. 

Finally, here’s a story from Kim Stanley Robinson that is probably a little bit of a polemic, but I thought it was cool. During the daytime, I do law stuff. I don’t talk about it though. If you found this blog whilst looking for the law stuff (or vice versa), hi. This is what I do when I’m not doing law stuff -- write science fiction and blog about it. You’re not going to find anything within this hereinaround blog which is actionable vis-a-vis fraud, libel, juicy scandalous stories, et cetera, et al., and these are not the droids you were looking for. And the law talking guy in KSR’s story seems very familiar with law stuff; notwithstanding, it made me laugh. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Hand Me That Thing -- I Forget What It's Called

I just looked this up in relation to something else, and thought I’d pass it along.

Anomic aphasia is when your brain deletes certain words from your internal spellcheck, so that when you try to tell others you just saw a bunch of destimmed doshes, you can’t find the words. It can be a sign of brain injury or dementia. But you can treat it – with videogames, and by reading books.

So the next time somebody asks you to pass them the whatchamacallit or the thingamabob or da kine or whatever, hand them a book. That's what they really want. 

Disclosure: this important public service announcement has been brought to you by someone who will be trying to sell you a book soon.

Uh Oh, Looks Like Some Kind of Political Rant

There was some political discussion on File 770 tonight. There was talk about an issue that troubles me – using empathy as a litmus test for good/evil (and/or conservative/liberal). Probably because I just wrote a story about weaponized empathy. 
I have this brain implant that sends me to the kitchen for a nice cup of tea whenever I formulate a decision to get into political discussions on the internet, but I think I can sneak around it for a couple of paragraphs. I would vote for the Jozebo Act right now. I believe we should do what we can to ensure all the biologically divergent forms of humanity survive and flourish. A hundred years ago, society didn’t have much use for the kind of people who are currently celebrated for their computer skills. Musical talent wouldn’t do you much good before the invention of musical instruments, or notation, or recording. Nobody ever had to hit a thrown ball with a stick for any kind of rational reason until a couple hundred years ago, and nobody knows how many excellent batters have been born and died, unrecognized.
So we should probably keep everyone alive and healthy to the extent possible. Because it’s the right thing to do, but if we need something more formal and scientific, how about: Just in case we need their skills and immunities in the future. Or their HeLa cells. Or their bright smile and sense of humor. Or their talent at something you haven’t heard of yet. Or the value they can add to society and culture as an alternative to procreating. I guess that translates to “liberal.” 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

What I'm Listening to Instead of the Yubnub Song

During my recent mental re-watch of Star Wars, I found myself celebrating the fact I wasn’t listening to the yubnub song, so I thought I would go look for some science fiction songs I like better. I found these:

1.  Flash!  Aaaah-aaaaah! He saved every one of us!
A majestic number by Queen.

2.       Science fiction, double feature.
From the Rocky Horror Picture Show -- ever pause during the credits to listen to the reprise?

3.       Reach out and ta-ta-ta-take it!
Heavy Metal was kind of a forgettable animated movie, but it did have a respectable soundtrack featuring Blue Oyster Cult, Journey, Sammy Hagar, Devo, et al. My favorite cut on it was Reach Out by Cheap Trick.

4.       John Carpenter’s theme for Escape From New York.
From the early days of synthesizers. I especially love that extra high-pitched one sneaking in toward the end of the first track.

5.  Everything in Guardians of the Galaxy is great. Which representative track to select? I think I’ll go with the Raspberries.

6.       Some of you may be thinking “Charon, by heading to Guardians of the Galaxy, you’re starting to get into songs that aren’t actually science fiction yet happened to be in science fiction moves.”  And in reply, I nod my head, reminding you it’s still better than the yubnub song. Here’s Portishead’s Roads from the Tank Girl soundtrack.

7. This list is looking kind of elderly. Let’s young it up with some Daft Punk from the Tron remake.

Mentally Rewatching the Star Wars Movies: Episodes 4-6

In the spirit of troubleshooting the DVD’s I finally consented to Windows 10. They still won’t play.

So I am going to mentally re-watch the Star Wars movies, while commenting on them. This will be interesting because it will only include the parts I remember, and it’s been at least a decade since my last sit-down-and-watch-them-all-the-way-through. 

Episode Four – From Memory:

I got to see everything up to the garbage compactor scene before the discs crapped out, so let’s see, what comes next. They fight the tentacle beast and nearly get compacted; Leia displays some body outline while Han looks sweaty and distressed, and a hint of that brilliant editing happens as Threepio uses social engineering on some Imperials, as befits a protocol droid.

I can’t even remember the sequence here – but I remember some more killer editing.  Obi Wan shuts down the tractor beam, which was a little cartoon of an actual tractor in the parody film Hardware Wars.  Luke and Leia split away from Han and Chewie for some reason I don’t recall, exchange a kiss, and swing across a pit together. Obi Wan and Vader fight, Luke yells “noooooo” and they run away while exchanging fire.

Then we get to actually see the Millenium Falcon’s gun turret with its targeting squares and exciting swivel action.  Yeehaw!  Being in a space gunfight is exactly like a carnival ride!  And here comes hyperspace again, whoa!

They all head to a Mayan pyramid and group around display screens while talking heads speechify, and then it’s time for the best editing sequence of them all. Stay on target! STAY ON TARGET!!

Okay, all done, we win, tremendous flood of joyous brain chemicals as medals are handed out and fanfare plays.  Woohoo! Time to get in a vehicle and exceed speed limits! I’ll bet a lot of people exceeded speed limits on the way home from Star Wars. 

What a great movie, and during my mental rewatch, I noticed that the intense editing stuff crops up whenever we’re on the Death Star, then builds up to the Millenium Falcon’s space fight, then peaks/overloads during the Death Star fight. It’s hard to notice that when you’re actually watching the movie, engrossed in it. 

Vaguely Recollecting Episode Five: The Empire Strikes Back

We had an all-desert planet, now it’s time for an all-snow planet. I remember really liking the Tauntauns initially. They kind of won my heart and dragged me into the movie, with their ridiculous kangaroo gait. I felt sorry for the dead one.

A space yeti comes along to mess up Luke’s face and provide a canon explanation for the plastic surgery between Episodes 4-5, when Hamill crashed his Vette and required extensive reconstruction.  In the future, they insert you directly into the IV bottle. 

Next we have some bickering with Han and Leia, along with the introduction of the Third Star Wars Female.  First was Aunt Beru, second was Leia herself, and now we have an anonymous girl with loopy braids operating something that looks like an old telephone operator’s console.  The enhanced editions added all kinds of people to the background scenes, but until the introduction of SWF3 I was starting to wonder about the extent of cloning in this world, given the absence of female presence.

OMG! Snow fight! Walkers! Vader!  Millenium Falcon! We’re back home in the Star Wars galaxy. 

Han and Leia split off, to bicker, mostly. This is kind of interesting because the first movie seemed to show a little spark between Luke and Leia, and we don’t know they’re siblings yet, but here’s Luke leaving her with the untrustworthy Han on his quest for Jedihood, like he’s taking vows. Leia doesn’t seem pleased with this, and sure enough, she’s flirting with the next man she meets, Lando Calrissian.

In Lando’s city is my absolute all-time favorite Star Wars character: Lobot. A bald-headed guy with a computer thing that wraps around the back of his head, making sharp gestures. I’ve read various backstory explanations for Lobot being a criminal forced to wear the brain gear as punishment, and that it gives him magical telepathic powers. He’s basically a cyborg jedi. He gestures and stuff happens (because robots do it). He’s at one with the mainframe. Although we never see him in a crunch, contemplate that Lobot doesn’t even have to fight. Lights go out, door slams shut, hallway depressurizes, thousands of droids converge on you.

Lobot is one with the powers of digital information. He has thousands of Reddit accounts and Facebook pages. He comments everywhere. He has no ego that would lead him to want to control the galaxy. If he wants to control things, he could probably just mentally login to the network, say, and send an internet request, to some other cyborg (or perhaps directly to droids and spaceships), in machine language, to accidentally crash a spaceshipload of giant piranha fish into Gungan City. Lobot could do that. Instead, he works as mech liaison in a space mine because he’s humble, and lacks ambition. Maybe he studies philosophy, or art history, or whatever you’d call anthropology in a non-anthropomorphic setting. 

After lots of high drama and colorful yet moody lighting in the Lobot-related scenes, we move to the grungy swamp of Dagobah, where Luke hangs with a muppet named Yoda. Yoda was a serious muppet. He didn’t move with the little hop that characterizes Kermit and Miss Piggy, he waddled on his own legs, except when he was riding around on Luke’s back.

Gurus were popular in California at that time, in the late seventies. It was quite an industry, with all kinds of unqualified nutbags vying for peoples’ attention as they sold their unique ways of obtaining spiritual/magical powers. These days there’s just a little whiff of exploitativeness about the idea that a student can only receive a true education when in an intimate one-on-one relationship with an older man. That’s because a lot of those ‘80s gurus turned out to be exploiters. Yoda doesn’t even mention the paternity secret, coming at Luke with some Jedi relativism instead.

I didn’t really like Yoda, even though I was gobstopped at the technical wizardry that made him seem real and alien and non-muppety.  Probably it’s because I don’t trust gurus. I don’t think the movie trusts them either, since Luke finally has enough swamp platitudes and announces that dad is picking on his sister again, even though Yoda has failed to mention she’s his sister.

Luke gets back in his spaceship and heads to a stunningly atmospheric room of blues and yellows and pluming steam, where Vader turns Han into a coffee table, and the amazing Boba Fett speaks his line. And stands next to the bounty hunter Bossq, a Trandoshan lizardman and my second favorite incidental character in this movie. Right after Lobot.

Then the paternity disclosure. And Luke’s arm is off. And he’s nearly dead. He’s losing, big time, even though he’s still alive. The story ends with him and Leia standing on a big nurturing-looking spaceship, gazing out into the stars and looking perplexed. 

What kind of science fiction ending is that, I ask you? The hero lost the swashbuckling fight! There was no triumphant explosion! One of the best characters just got turned into a coffee table! Where is the requisite affirmation that the hero is an awesome guy who always wins????

That’s why I fell in love with this movie. Epic science fiction where the heroic engineer of sorts doesn’t get the babe (because she’s his sister) and loses the big fight? Inconceivable! That would never happen to Kirk, nor would it happen to any of those other square-jawed white guys with serious government jobs that seemed to rule science fiction back then. I didn’t like those guys. They were The Man, man.

I consider myself as being in the generation just after the baby boomers, and I grew up watching their exuberant revolution. Creativity, peace, love, understanding, just as soon as we overthrow The Man.  Then they ran into the concept that The Man was their father, and was part of them, and wasn’t so easily eliminated. Science fiction is still arguing about that, with some fans wanting to bring back more of The Man’s traditions, and others wanting him to retreat even further into the shadows. Empire was about slamming that realization into everyone’s face: the problem’s within you, no guru is going to help you, there’s nothing to be gained by railing against daddy.

What’s left to do is roll up your sleeves and try to fix it. Luke does in fact roll up his sleeve, showing his new cyborg arm. Ready to get to work and fix it.

That sentiment can still move me. I tend to get impatient with people who are stuck in Episode 4, exploding with rage, fighting against moving along to Episode 5, acknowledging the enemy is internal and requires more nuanced strategy, and a strong dose of self-awareness, and getting to work.    

Although it’s Saturday, and I’m not even going to think about work. Say, this vaguely recollecting is nearly as much fun as actually watching movies. I’m going to refill my coffee cup and move on to Episode 6.

Reminiscing Nostalgically about Episode 6: Return of the Jedi.

I stood in a long line for Episode 6, and got brutally sunburned, and I didn’t even notice it until after the movie ended. At that time, I felt more relief than exuberance.

Everything on the checklist had been provided. Another Death Star battle. More hyperspace. More Tattooine. Less dismemberment. More persons of color and women – meet Mon Mothma, rebel official. We also establish that rebels (unlike the empire) are not racist toward aliens, with General “It’s a trap!” Ackbar. 

In the big long opening scene at Jabba’s Palace, we are introduced to the Twi’leks, my favorite type of Star Wars alien. They are one of the few kinds of aliens shown in multiple genders/bodytypes, and even different races within their species (there are pink and blue Twi’leks).  Twi’leks are seen in crowd scenes in the prequel trilogy, but this was their first official appearance. First there’s a red-eyed majordomo, then two exotic dancers, one skinny, one chubby.

Elements that don’t time travel well include Sy Snootles and her band, and Salacious Crumb, who are more like Muppet Show muppets than the non-muppety Yoda. Jabba does time travel well, and looks much better on his throne than his awkward digital appearance inserted after-the-fact into episode 4.

Leia wears her famous slave bikini in this scene. Did it feel like pandering at the time? Yes, it did, and it was kind of embarrassing to have T&A surface in the first female-friendly science fiction most people had encountered, especially given the way Star Wars initially went out of its way to be non-sexy. But there was a point to it, in that Leia did not dress this way willingly, and in fact, she strangled the disgusting slimy slug that made her wear it with her own shackles. That’s a uniquely feminine manifestation of badassery right there. 

Sarlaac pit! Boba the Fett meets with doom, Luke has grown up to be a dashing badboy with a green lightsaber, and soon our heroes are on their way to the next space fight. There is a giant memory hole here; I know they chill with Admiral Ackbar and possibly Mon Mothma, and Luke heads back to the swamp for Yoda’s death scene while Han/Leia … what do they do again?

Oh right. I’m blocking it out. The Ewoks. 

Originally Lucas wanted the story to end up with the wookiees of Kashyyk overthrowing the Empire in a very organic, low-tech, indigenous, Whole Foods sort of way. The wookiees of Kashyyk were deemed too expensive, so we got the cuddly teddybear Ewoks.

I think the Ewoks are at least fifty times as sexist as Leia’s bikini.  “Oh, in case you girls didn’t like the gratuitous cheesecake we threw in for the guys/lesbians, here’s some cute fluffy animals because we know that’s what girls like!  Because this movie aims to please everybody! Also, wanna buy a teddybear? Because we sold all kinds of action figures to the boys, and it’s your turn now.”

So even though the Ewoks look like huggable Shih Tzus, I don’t want to hug them, even though I would hug an actual Shih Tzu in a red hot minute, assuming it was friendly.  They’re violent little marketing bots that eat people, easily manipulated via superstition, and I don’t like them. In fact, I’m kind of glad I’m not actually watching this movie again, because then I’d have to see them and experience my conflicted emotions about them. 

I like the redwood forest where they live, though. It’s near where I live.  It’s a good thing to include in a science fiction movie.  Meanwhile, these trees here have seen it all. 

Luke, meanwhile, is doing climactic battle with dad. And (spiritual) grand dad – although when I typed that, I started wondering whether Senator Palpatine and Senator Amidala were related given that she seemed to regard him as a wise old uncle while being the sort of person who kept most of the world far beyond her entourage.

Luke wins by convincing Anakin to help him slay the evil from prior generations that tainted them both, and after enjoying his thirty seconds of moral redemption, Anakin finally expires, concluding the operatic saga of his life.  I’m not sure whether my DVD is the version that shows the final ghost as the dying Anakin or the Episode 3 Anakin, so it’s probably a good thing that I’m not watching it.

And finally, there is much rejoicing throughout the galaxy, as enhanced considerably in the expanded edition. Before it was just the Ewoks and their little yubnub song. OMG, since I’m not actually watching the movie I don’t have to listen to it.  Seriously, I’d rather listen to a few rounds of “It’s a Small World” than hear the yubnub song again. 

If I had run out to buy an HDTV and hooked it up and watched these movies in HD, I would be listening to the yubnub song right now, while gritting my teeth and quivering with buyer’s remorse.  Simplicity lifestyle and miserly cheapskate attitude for the win once again, woohoo!  I really do not need to see hairy Ewok faces in HD.

The (real) trilogy all end on separate notes. The first one ends with an exhilirating fight, the second in reflection following loss, and the third aims for a relieved sense of happily ever after. They touch lots of emotions along the way.

Reflecting on them gives me enough emotional distance to like them, while appreciating them distantly. Without having to actually see them again. Although I’m glad I’ve already seen them, multiple times, and have devoted a sufficient number of the precious total minutes of my lifetime to this activity to be happy with never watching them again, unless there’s a good reason, or I’m re-watching them while doing something else.

On to the new! I just read that Abrams is looking for more women to write/direct future Star Wars movies, and Disneyland is putting in a whole new Star Wars land, at which Darth Vader cupcakes will be sold. I consider these to be positive developments. Just a couple more weeks until The Force Awakens!

Thursday, December 3, 2015


Introduction: So I sat down to write something uplifting and slightly funny, but it ended up turning dark and growing teeth – the tale of a prisoner doing hard time. Warning: contains a few scary and/or depressing moments.
This story establishes the moral center of my series of books; a bunch of disparate cultures united under the foundational principle that since biodiversity benefits us all, we should keep everyone alive and healthy.

Okay, that’s enough moralizing, let's get to the story.  Here comes a whopping 9,537 words.


©2015 by Charon Dunn

After a long uncomfortable ride with his hands and ankles restrained, and a transfer to a second Ambit boat after the first one developed engine trouble, Joke finally caught sight of Justice. Towering out of the water and filling the sky, after hours and hours of nothing but gray waves. It moved like a living thing, constantly rebalancing its weight around the sturdy pyramidal base anchored deep into the ocean floor. Was it still the Carribbean, Joke wondered, or had they reached the Atlantic? The eastern cluster was smoking somewhere far to the northeast of him, leaving a sour black tinge in that corner of the sky to provide a properly gloomy backdrop.

Docking at the platform around the pyramid was unnerving. The constant structural swaying of the city itself woke a sense of something heavy overhead that was about to fall, and he supposed it was true, the sky really was falling. At least in his case.

He was hustled off the boat and through a corridor. He hadn’t spoken to the agents following his arrest. He was both grateful to them for saving his life and angry at them for making sure he’d be spending the rest of it in prison. Here in Justice.

He craned his neck for a last glimpse of the sky, before the firm insistent hands on his shoulders steered him through a door labeled with the long formal name of the facility. The only word he noticed was “Justice.” The Ambit officers handed him off to other Ambit officers, and they removed the restraints, but not before calling over a restraint bot. Joke settled into its cushioned embrace as it ferried him to an elevator, up some floors, to another elevator, down a hall and finally, into his very own private room.

It was very small, and lined with dull gray tile, and furnished with a small bench. Barely big enough to take three steps. Joke suddenly felt intense claustrophobia. The restraint bot spat him out and trundled back out of the room, locking the door behind it.

He stood there, rubbing his arms. Two and a half steps long. Two steps wide. The floor had several drains, and so did the walls.

“May I have your attention,” said a polite voice of indeterminate gender. “Please remove all of your clothing and place it on the bench, together with your other external items. You will have five minutes to comply before we use force.”

Joke wasn’t in the mood to be forced, so he removed all of his external items: a pair of pants, a shirt, some soft-soled shoes that smelled of sweat and ocean. Then he sat down on his bench and sighed. At one time, he had onboard brain mods that helped him commit his crimes, feeding him data and keeping him updated on his messages. The Ambit officers had burned them all out upon his capture, leaving the inside of his head tuned to an offline channel, with nothing onboard except his own thoughts. Those were scattered and disorganized, and tinged with depression. He hated being alone with them.

A door he hadn’t noticed before hissed open, retracting into the ceiling. Ahead of him was an empty space, decorated with soothing colored lights. The hair on the back of Joke’s neck stood up.

“Please advance into the chamber,” purred the voice. “You have five minutes to comply before we use force.”

Joke stood there with his knees wobbling for a long time, until he estimated his five minutes were nearly up. It was hard to tell in here, with no references. Then he took a deep breath and stepped forward. The door hissed behind him, sealing him in. A moan escaped from his throat as a surface behind him met with his back. A body harness slid over his torso, locking him in place.

The voice returned and directed him to stretch his arms up, and out, and forward. He moved his legs back and forth as commanded, and he got the sense that some wall was closing in, ending just outside the span of his reach, giving him just as much space as he needed. Right down to the centimeter.

He noticed his feet were wet. A moment after that, the voice reappeared, smugly informing him it had registered a surge in blood pressure, and would play some soothing music as the containment process continued.

Moisture crept up over his toes, up to his ankles, up to his knees. It wasn’t warm, or cold. It had no particular smell. When it got to chest height, a helmet descended from the ceiling, forming a perfect seal around the edges of his face, cupping his ears in protective shells. Enclosing his hair, as trimming appendages descended to shave it all away.

The back part of the helmet floated away as the fluid rose over the top of his bald head, leaving him tethered to a center support and completely submerged. The music continued to play, finishing up the song. The video monitors lining his facemask flickered to life and suddenly he was in a comfortable room, decorated in warm browns and yellows. He had an animated body, floating below him and slightly beneath him. He couldn’t quite see all of it, but it responded when he moved.

He experimented with his avatar body, walking it around the room, hopping, sitting, lying down. If he sat on a chair for any length of time, a barrier rose beneath his butt to support his weight. When he reclined, his weight shifted from his butt to his back. When he jumped, the surface beneath his feet dropped away for a moment.

His avatar body was wearing plain gray pajamas. Underneath them was plain smooth skin, without hair or muscle definition or scars. He still had a penis, but it was small and indistinct and resembled the one he’d had at age five. He ran his hand over his flesh and blood penis just long enough to satisfy himself that everything was still intact. He was certain a bunch of people were observing him, even though he couldn’t see them, and he wasn’t inclined to give them a show.

He turned his attention to his digital hands. They were smooth and fresh, with fingers that almost seemed jointless. When he plucked at certain items in the room, like the couch cushions, or the hassock next to the easy chair, there was a brief delay and then a muffled contact with some invisible floating simulated texture. The textures applied only to his fingertips; the surface beneath his butt felt the same whether he sat on the furniture or the floor. 

Joke settled into the easy chair and relaxed. Prison wasn’t too terrible, so far. Neither was being submerged in a vat, until he thought about being locked inside it for the rest of his life. Where it was too dark to see his hair turning gray. Assuming they ever let him grow hair again.

A door opened and a cartoon woman entered. She was his size, and she had a scribble of magenta hair on her head, pointy breasts that stuck out at angles, and extra long legs. She wore a formal looking navy blue skirt, with a bib-fronted blazer. She had a glowing golden aura surrounding her. Joke realized that his avatar had one too.  It was difficult to notice the aura when you were inside one.

She stared at him for a while, then she spoke, her animated lips not quite matching her words. “Joaquin Jibbly.”

“That’s my name. You can call me Joke.”

“I’m not your attorney. My name is Candra, and I’ll be doing your general orientation. And I’m familiar with the name, and I know there are several ways to pronounce it, and that it refers to the patron saint of cabinetmakers.”

“Cabinetmakers.” He wasn’t sure if she was being serious. Her animated face betrayed no emotion, until suddenly it did, and she collapsed into a fit of giggles.

“Lesson one. Emotion.” She smacked the wall with the side of her hand, turning it into a full length mirror showing their two avatars sitting comfortably in the room. Joke hadn’t seen his from a third person perspective yet and he stood in front of it, curious, while Candra droned on.

It looked like him, but a cleaned-up, healthier version.

“Your expression won’t change by itself. All your interactions will be poker-faced until you set up a series of emotions. You may select your favorite animations from a palette, and you can hotkey them for quick access.”

She rose and stood beside him, performing a wizardlike gesture. He copied her and a glowing keypad materialized in the air, hovering near his hands. Surface rose to met his fingers in the tank. He navigated his way through submenus for anger, and sorrow, and humor, and joy. “Use them for emphasis. You may find that many people won’t register your verbal expressiveness without an accompanying visual cue.”

“How do I get a fashionable outfit like yours?” He tried registering verbal expressiveness as he stared at her, reminding himself there was a person beneath her dead animated eyes. He wondered if it looked anything like the drawing.

“You won’t be fashionable for a long time. The only customization prisoners may request is a one-time gender correction. Interested?”


“Hair, clothes, artistic style, improved emotion animations, experiences, entertainment – you have to earn those things. If you were one of our non-prisoner residents, you would also have access to your own fully customizable home, but since you are a prisoner, you have a cell. You may retreat into it at any time.”

She made a big waving motion, and suddenly she vanished from view, reappearing a moment later to help him fumble his way through the gesture. When he succeeded, everything went black around him, as though he were standing in an underwater cave at midnight. He waved again and the room reappeared, and Candra was performing an elaborate celebration animation, complete with fist thrusting and a little dance step.

“So that’s where I go to sleep and shit?”

“I’m glad you asked about elimination.” She showed him a little video, describing how nanobots circled his nether regions waiting for elimination to happen, then containing it and whisking it out of the gel in which he was suspended, and porting it to a lab for routine analysis and destruction. There was a toilet rig that he could trigger to rise beneath him, in case his body demanded that he assume the posture. “After they’ve been here for a few years, most people don’t even bother,” Candra cheerfully informed him. “Just go ahead and eliminate wherever you’re standing. It’s not like anyone you’re talking to will know, unless you tell them.”

In order to eliminate, he had to eat. Food came in five textures: creamy, crunchy, chewy, doughy and quickmelt. As a prisoner, he had his choice of three flavors: sweet, plain, or savory, and his only beverage option was water. Food arrived at regular intervals whether he requested it or not, as dictated by the computers that kept everyone adequately nourished. “You get a five minute warning, in case you want to sit somewhere special while you eat, or assemble your friends, which won’t apply to you.”

“Where would I go?”

“An excellent question. The answer is that you will be limited to the plaza.”

She opened an animated door on the wall and led him through. Moving his legs to propel his avatar forward, he stepped out into bright daylight. Blue sky above, tufted with white clouds. Fancy brickwork beneath his cartoon feet, spreading into a massive disc of plaza, ringed with ornate buildings decorated with lights and posters and flowers.  It looked like some place he should recognize from films, an important place.

“Take a good look,” Candra said.

She made another one of her wizard’s gestures and the buildings dissolved, losing their decorations. Blank slabs of concrete appeared in their place, windowless and stark. The blue sky above transformed into a cloudy overcast gray.

“The prison version,” he guessed.

“Exactly. They make us give you a glimpse of the real thing, just to give you a promise to dangle over your head, except not even that is the city most of us see. There are civilians living here too, not just prisoners. People who are old, or who have been in terrible accidents, or whose bodies just don’t work properly. Some of us just enjoy the idea of living in a vat.  This is the city we see.”

She held up a square frame in her two hands and showed him a video of the plaza he’d just left, crowded with people. People drawn in all kinds of artistic styles, twodees mixing with threedees, exchanging greetings. A quartet singing a capella harmony. A small group doing synchronized exercise. A couple doing the tango. A little girl, riding on the shoulder of a giant cartoon monkey. The buildings around them bristled with lighted signs advertising experiences, and scenarios, and environments, and they displayed pictures of every kind of beautiful location imaginable, and everything delicious that one could eat, and all of the sexy animated people who couldn’t wait to meet you. 

Candra clapped her hands and the frame collapsed. “We citizens can block people we don’t need to see, and they don’t even appear in our version of the plaza. There are thousands of people, standing here right now, all of them ignoring you. On top of that, I want you to know that a substantial number of us not only are ignoring you, we actively disapprove of your crimes and are petitioning for even harsher penalties. You’re a disgusting man, and I hope we never meet again. Goodbye.”

She made her wave gesture and blinked out, leaving him all alone in the gray plaza.

He waited there for three days. He slept during that time, and eliminated, both within the privacy of his darkened cell. He ate, trying all the flavors and textures and finding them all bland. He walked in circles around the plaza for hours, desperately looking for motion. The simulated sun rose and set, always in the same gray sky.

He tried the doors of all the indistinguishable gray buildings. None of them opened except one. It led to a plain little room with a wallscreen that displayed all of his legal files, in case he wanted to review them. He didn’t. He backed away and closed the door, but only after thoroughly checking to see whether he could contact other people on the wallscreen. He couldn’t.

He used to be good with machines. Quick at learning how they functioned, reducing them to parts, recombining them. That’s what had led him to trouble, if you extended the definition of machine to include flesh and bone. Joke did, or at least he had at one time. Back when he was smart, and had a reference database built into his head, feeding him scrolling information that only he could see. 

Ever since they had burned away his mods he had felt hollow and ghostlike, insubstantial. Not quite empty. There was just enough of him to register that he was still alive, even though he didn’t deserve it, and that everybody he’d known for the past decade was dead. Everybody he’d known before that had cut him off.

It had started with the butterflies. His first viable creation, and in fact they lived twice as long as regular butterflies, which had been carefully reintroduced to various natural habitats throughout the world. The butterflies were white, with heart-shaped red spots on each wing, and they were created to commerate the marriage of Emilia de Finestra and Jally Crawp-Hoteq, a pair of horrible rich snobs. Joke hated them both. But he aspired to be a horrible rich snob himself someday, and he had delivered on their request for a unique biofabbed addition to their ceremony, and they had paid him, and he had weathered the storm of public disapproval afterwards.

There had been approval, too. Specifically, from the Red Flower Consortium, where there was always need for biofabbers with slippery ethics. They didn’t care that Joke’s degree was a freebie, or that he had already become a Joke, thanks to Emilia’s mangling of his name in her open public apology.

“It’s an ancestral name, on my mother’s side,” he muttered, kicking at nonexistent debris. His mother loved to sit for hours scrolling through her greatgreatgreat grands’ social media posts, trying to locate an ancestor with a more exciting life than hers. So far she hadn’t. They had always been the people in Apartment 4307. They weren’t going to rise any higher. At one time Joke had thought he would be the one to raise them higher, but after mom died, and his brother and sister cut him off after the butterflies … after he began working for organized crime, he basically stockpiled money.  Occasionally he spent a week partying in Japan or Australia or the Mericas, not very long. There was always work.

Sometimes it was a one-shot, like a unique pet. There was plenty of dog and cat data on file to form a base model for most housepets, and customization was just a matter of adding whatever trunks or tentacles or skin texture or additional heads the customer wanted. Elephants and stegosaurs were popular, lapsized and cuddly, with hypoallergenic dander and glands that made their poop scentless.

Then there was a whole agricultural gray area that made up most of their work. People in the big cities fed themselves from vats of cultured nutrition generations divorced from harvested plants or animal flesh. People in rural areas preferred to get their nutrients the old fashioned way, even though the plants and animals they were eating had been reintroduced via labs. Via biofabbers just like himself.

Some biofabbers were celebrated as heroes. They made fish that recirculated oxygen, and anemones that gradually adjusted acidity levels. They had made the meaty bovine creature that was on Bonterra’s national seal, and the tasty sheeplike beast that was preferred in Samerica. They brought back long-extinct species and made pious documentaries about restoring life to a dead planet.

Then there were biofabbers who worked for outfits like the Red Flower Consortium. Mostly reverse-engineering livestock. Horses, all kinds of bovines, sheep, chickens, salmon – if an animal won a prize somewhere, eventually someone would steal a little of its blood or fur or feathers and give them to someone like Joke to run through the analyzers and figure out what made it better than the rest. Usually the assignment included fabbing a creature with the distinctive sequence, capable of breeding true.

That was the extremely illegal part. Transgenerational mods were illegal everywhere. Creating asexual butterflies with short lifespans was trivial in comparison. Joke had assisted in the creation of enough illegal livestock to populate a decent-sized ranch. Lots of racehorses, although he only saw them as gangly foals. He understood there was a plant lab that did similar work, but botany had never been his thing.

Then there were the meat targets. There existed, in the countries which still had rich people, individuals who fancied themselves hunters. They lacked only prey, since it was all extinct, and they were far too important to settle for shooting at drone targets like regular people. Joke made live prey for them, in whatever dimensions they ordered, with sweet tasty flesh and attractively patterned hides. Meat targets were born fully mature, and they could live up to a year if the hunt went unsuccessful, presuming they found a food source, such as each other. They were fabbed in batches, and customers would release them in remote locations and invite their friends for the occasion. Joke had been to a few hunts, but he had mostly hung back at the base, alphabetically working his way through the bar menu. Making meat targets was also very illegal, although the law was not likely to intrude upon the lives of people who enjoyed shooting them.

He wasn’t much of a killer. He fancied himself a creator, possibly even an artist. It had been easy with his mods. Research the project, locate the samples, run a bunch of database compares. Most of the actual calculations had been done by his onboard computer. Joke fancied himself as bright, but memorizing datasignature information with its billions of subfields was not a job for a naked brain.

In fact, it had been so long since his brain had been naked that he wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. Most of his memories were unpleasant. He’d been too intoxicated to remember the good ones. So he paced in circles, trying to think of things to think about, wondering if he’d spend the rest of his days this way.

On the third day, a person appeared in the plaza. She had prismatic hair and a gray suit, and was rendered in extra sharp resolution. She introduced herself as Linden Morward, and informed him that she was his attorney. And apologized for making him wait several days. “I was out of town for the holiday. Jozebo.  Nobody else is really allowed to talk to you at this stage.”

“What’s Jozebo?” He lifted his physical eyebrow sarcastically until he realized he hadn’t preset an emotional animation to make his avatar do that.

“You’re not familiar with Jozebo?”

“One of those holidays that people who like to celebrate celebrate.”  He activated his animation for “shrug.” “Holidays are for regular people. Family types. We both know what I am.”

Her avatar performed a polite nod. “You’re looking at a life sentence no matter what I do.”

“So sitting in this plaza until my heart finally gives out?”  He paced back and forth as if trying to will it to happen faster.

“Your access increases as you move through your sentence. Eventually you’ll be allowed to interact with the other prisoners, and the scenery gradually appears given good behavior. And successful completion of quests, of course.”

“Quests.” He desperately needed that sarcastic eyebrow raise.

“For an example, I have a substance abuse quest that would award you sixty points toward the next visibility level upon completion.”

“I’ve never had a problem with substance abuse,” he said curtly, and when he realized he’d never abuse another substance again he nearly had a panic attack. He had experienced a couple of those earlier. Both times, there had been a sudden onset of neutral calm, as though the tubes and monitors keeping him alive had slipped him some chemicals. Nothing remotely like a buzz, just an absence of anxiety.

“I’ll drink to that.” She sat down, the curves of her back not quite matching the bench. Joke sat down beside her. “You’ll officially be charged tomorrow morning, and then I suppose I’ll be frantically preparing for trial. Compiling all those witness who’ll swear you’re a stand-up guy that performs life-saving surgery when you’re not saving kittens, lovable photos of you acting goofy on vacation and playing with kids and raising money for charity, all that documented evidence of you being safe and solid and reliable, all your school transcripts qualifying you to do advanced bioengineering, your loving family who will stick with you no matter what. You’ve got all that, right?”

There was a long pause. Joke reflected that Linden didn’t need a sarcastic raised eyebrow animation. She got it all across in the intonation. He finally said, “No, I don’t,” just as she said “I thought as much. It’s probably just as well. There’s not much you can say when you’re charged with creating a new species of deadly animal and releasing it into the wild. It will be difficult to find a jury that wouldn’t immediately sentence you to some gruesome medieval punishment, so you’ll be tried by a panel of judges with strong stomachs instead. I’ll see you tomorrow, at nine.”

“I haven’t got a clock,” Joke admitted. “Or a calendar.”

Linden pulled a tablet out of thin air and consulted it. “Wow, you’re stuck at entry level. Zero points. Probably because you got processed right before Jozebo and everybody wanted to start their holiday. I’ll give you some points for cooperating with counsel and having a noncombative demeanor.”

She tapped with fingernails decorated with scrolling animated scenes and something moved in the plaza. Joke’s eyes were drawn to it. A leaf, tumbling along the sidewalk. Not only that, but now one of the buildings had a lighted time-date sign. No temperature. No wind, either, despite the tumbling leaf.

Joke was mesmerized by the leaf, and he went over to watch it tumble while Linden took a quick call from her secretary about some woman who was charged with strangling her sister. It was an old-fashioned looking leaf, reddish gold, and he clumsily tried to catch it in his hand, but it moved right through him. He followed it all the way around the plaza. Linden had finished her call when he returned, and after getting his assurance he would be ready and available at the appointed time, she vanished.

It took the leaf seven and a half minutes to travel all the way around the plaza. Its path was somewhat randomized, according to Joke’s experiments where he stood in one place and waited for it to travel around, estimating its distance as it passed him. Sometimes it passed to the left, sometimes to the right.

It wasn’t the most interesting thing to do, but it was something to do, and he did it for a long time. The buildings had lights, now. Not all of them, only a few, but at least it broke up the grayness.

It occurred to him that he should try the doors again. Just to see if any had opened up as a result of his upgrade. He moved clockwise from the office containing his case file, and was rewarded when the seventy-fifth door opened. It had a windowed pane – Joke was certain all the doors had been gray and windowless the previous times he’d checked – and opened up on a lighted hallway. At the end was a door with a plate that said “Quests.”

So this was it. No medieval punishment, no hard labor breaking rocks. Endless video games. He opened the door.

Inside he found a wizard, carved in wood. Or, more accurately, digitally rendered as though it were a woodcarving. In his clasped and outthrust hands was a glowing purple orb. Joke reached out hesitantly and touched the orb, and a screen flashed to life, displaying a hand shape. He laid his hand on the plate for his scan, and that got him into a quest interface. He chose “list all quests” and got a message scolding him for being too low in level to accept any quests. There was a tantalizing display of quests he couldn’t have yet, such as Defeating the Dragons of Anger and Anxiety. In fact, he was only capable of accepting one: Jozebo Holiday Quest (expires in six hours).

He tapped the quest and it flashed briefly, acknowledging him. Then the display went blank. He poked and prodded at it. No result for a long time, and then a flashing “no quests available.”

Fine. The wizard lied. Joke headed back out into the plaza to check the other hundred and twenty-three doors. He noticed motion as he closed the door behind him, and it first he thought it was the leaf, but it was actually a boy. With shaggy hair and a yellow-and-black football shirt, and cheap scuffed shoes of the type Joke recognized from his own childhood. He waved. The boy beckoned.

“Are you my quest?” Joke asked when he reached the boy. A flesh and blood boy would have looked him up and down, but this one just gave a presentation smile, his animated eyes sparkling. 

“It’s very nice to meet you. My name is Joseph Esposito, but most of my friends call me Joe.”

“Joe Esposito, Jozebo.”

“Exactly. I’m not the real Jozebo. He died, long ago. I’m a simulation, authorized by the historians’ union and animated by an artificial intelligence. You can see that I have no aura, and therefore am not an OI.”

That was true. Joe lacked the gold cloud that had surrounded Linden and Candra, signifying the presence of an organic intelligence. “I think they covered history in school,” Joke said. “During one of the parts where I wasn’t paying attention. I was more of a math guy.”

“And now you find yourself with a wealth of attention.” Joe cracked a smile animation. Since he was a preprogrammed AI, his emotional expressiveness flowed, unlike those of OIs who had to consciously invoke and perform.

“And nothing to do but walk in circles and worry,” Joke agreed.

“Come over this way.” The boy took off running. Joke followed, clumsily performing his first Justice sprint. They headed to a doorway which opened under Joe’s hand, leading into a swank lobby and then a theater. A fist-sized projection of the planet Earth rotated in the center of a room lined with screens, including the ceiling and floor. When Joke reached for the globe his hand passed right through it, but Joe’s hand lit it up, making it swell to beachball size. He grasped it with his fingertips, pausing its rotation, then spun it in the opposite direction.

Joke watched, fascinated, as the volcanoes cleared away, and a huge landbridge appeared, connecting Samerica and Namerica. The coast advanced and the polar frost retreated until the southernmost tip of Samerica was free and surrounded by blue, and the Carribbean was a friendly smile sandwiched by land instead of the middle third of the map.

“Twenty-one seventy-two,” Joe said. “Before the meteor. Before the domes.”

He punched his finger into the top swell of Samerica and the surrounding screens lit up, and Joke found himself standing in a cramped, dingy room crowded with dead people. They had dark lesions on their faces, and blood on their lips, and their bodies were emaciated, covered in stained ragged clothing. Joke startled, then began counting them. Eight, nine, no, one was alive. A child.

People in white biohazard suits pushed into the room behind him, walking right through him without acknowledging his presence. They headed directly to the crying child and plucked him from its dead mother’s arms.  “That’s me,” Joe said.

The child was bigger than a toddler. Something was wrong with his lower body, which hung at an odd angle from his rescuer’s arms, and his thin arms jerked in spasm. The white-suited people carried him outside and Joke followed, watching as they dressed the child in clean clothes and scanned it, and finally fed it something that made it sigh in ecstasy.

The street outside was poor, and cramped, and dirty, and it was full of death. Corpses lay on sidewalks, all of them with the same lesions and darkened lips. Joke lost count. He watched the white-suited rescuers bundle the child into – an actual helicopter!  It landed right next to them, and Joke was lost in contemplation of its beating rotors.

Sometimes he dreamed of living in the days when flight was possible. He had spend a sizable chunk of his childhood sleeping in a room decorated with aircraft, playing flight sims, watching movies about dogfights and test pilots. Atmospheric flight had been possible on a planet with a consistent atmosphere, and Earth wasn’t like that anymore. Assuming one were foolish enough to launch a plane, there was a more than likely chance turbulence would shake it to death once it reached altitude. Plus you would have to build it out of something guaranteed not to fall apart under the elements. Metal no longer fit in that category, and composite was a poor substitute, although it was good enough for thick-hulled ships creeping cautiously across the sea. And once you got your motion-sickness-immune pilot and your indestructable airship into the air, you’d have difficulty navigating given the large chunk of meteor embedded in this section of the planet, which had turned radio waves and compasses into nostalgic memories unless you were within physical sight of the transmitter. Jozebo seemed as though he’d had a terrible life, but at least he had gotten to ride on a helicopter, and of that, Joke was jealous. 

“I was the only one with a natural immunity,” Joe said beside him in a dreamy voice. “Once they got me into the labs they were able to synthesize it and save all the people who hadn’t died yet.  I only lived a few more years. I had some developmental problems, and I had suffered some broken bones and head injuries, most likely inflicted by my father. I never learned to read, and I didn’t speak very well.  This version of me that is talking to you is based on what I would have looked like if I had grown up rich and strong and healthy.”

The dismal street scene melted and they watched young Jozebo take halting steps in a light exoskeleton, and babble curiously at an animated book. He was in a medical environment, filled with cleanliness and light, and helpful people. One of those helpful people was a thoughtful-looking man who presented Jozebo with a fat teddy bear, making him squeal with delight. The camera zoomed in on this man, then cut to him working alone at a wall filled with portals crowded with text and imagery.

“Doctor Egaryen took an interest in finding out exactly why I, alone, was immune. He analyzed my family tree.” This appeared as a massive spreadsheet of names, filling the wall. Joke studied them. He noticed several variant spellings which he thought indicated different cultures, and he supposed that meant Jozebo’s roots went back all over the world. He noticed an ancestor named Joacim, and he reached out to touch the name. It expanded, showing an old-timey photograph of a Swedish sailor and a couple of paragraphs relating he had spent a couple of weeks in Haiti in 1931, enjoying the company of a dancing girl named Isabel, which had resulted in another addition to the tree.

“We were humble people who weren’t very good at keeping written records.” Joe expanded one of the earliest entries marked “[Name Unknown]” and revealed a dense block of text. “It means,” he started, but Joke spoke over him.

“I can read it.” This particular [Name Unknown] bore an extinct blood grouping originating in the Amazon River area, which the reconstructionists compared to archeological evidence from several dig sites in the region, concluding that [Name Unknown]’s tribe died after contact with a neighboring tribe about seven hundred years prior to contact with Europeans, leaving only this one branch of descendants. This was the earliest they could trace the particular sequence that led to immunity.

More names were known after the Europeans arrived to write them down, connecting their own tidy geneology with Joe’s ancestors through clandestine fragile threads. Joke’s eye found a Joakum Wallace, descendant of Abyssinia Wallace, purchased at auction, aged seven months, the genetic descendant of a British duke and a [Name Unknown] from Senegal. Joakum went on to sire twelve children, most of them with Miranda Wallace, granddaughter of [Name Unknown] from Malaysia and Hong Li Chen, whose immaculate geneological records went back for centuries.

Joe gestured and Doctor Egaryen’s head appeared in a portal, explaining in technical terms how the genes from Ireland had teamed with the genes from Brazil to defeat the invaders from Tasmania via Louisiana. At the same time, a simplistic animation appeared to illustrate this, and Joke longed for his missing implants, since he found his focus drifting to the dumbed-down version. 

Photos began appearing, of survivors, all over the world, holding up signs that said, “Thank you, Joe Esposito” and “Merci, Joe Esposito,” and “Gracias, Joe Esposito,” and similar, in many other languages. Alongside them were graphs showing the number of dead. A hollow-eyed girl posed beside a headstone bearing seven names, holding a baby who seemed to be her sister in one hand and a sign thanking Joe Esposito in the other.  After several creative spellings, his name morphed into the nickname Jozebo, usually surrounded by a red heart.

“They gave me everything,” Joe said, enlarging a portal showing Jozebo watching a Broadway musical from a wheelchair in a private box, flanked by sharply dressed attendants and waving his hands in excitement. Another one displayed a physical therapy session in a pool surrounded by flowers, and a third one showed him smearing an elaborate dessert across his face while trying to eat it.

Another talking head popped up to say that according to Egaryen’s research, Jozebo was related by two degrees to ninety percent of the world’s population. A passionate talking head appeared to shout about duties, and obligations, and a calm talking head pronounced that “simply stated, Jozebo saved us all.”

“And then one day I died,” Joe said, in a sad whispery voice, accompanied by video of frantic doctors bustling around his frail little body.  “That made me even more popular.”

The images turned surreal. People with Jozebo tattoos on their bodies. The word “Jozebo” spraypainted everywhere. News headlines about the Jozebo Bill passing here, and the Jozebo Act passing there, as meanwhile Joseph Esposito Day becomes an official federal holiday. A prim woman appeared in a portal to explain that Joseph Esposito had provided hard proof to the world that biodiversity was vital to the continued survival of the species. 

Below her appeared a portal showing a more hysterical face, male and surrounded by wild curly beard, ranting that “letting the most competitive decide who survives is a failed, suicidal strategy! If the liver goes to war with the kidneys, the body dies!” And then the news gave way to discussion of meteors, and domes, and how people would be living in them until the Earth became habitable once again.

“Over a thousand years ago,” Joke said.

“And that’s why everyone gets a holiday on the anniversary of my death. Nobody really knows my birthdate.”

“Not everyone. Criminals don’t really celebrate holidays. Another working day for us.”

“Sorry.” The boy shrugged. “Can’t go off the script. Which brings us to the quest.”

He waved his hand at the screens and they vanished. A deep green forest appeared around them. Joke caught himself forgetting to breathe. This was forest of a type which no longer existed, except in carefully curated arboretums and plant DNA databases hoping for a friendlier climate to arise someday. There were probably a thousand different species within his field of vision, surrounded by thick mist.

For the first time since entering his vat, Joke felt temperature. Specifically, warm. He was warm, and the air was humid. Muggy. A lot like the air sometimes got outside the lab. It was a mobile lab which was towed to various extremely anonymous locations in the South Pacific. The prior lab was a little more seaworthy and had actually made it to Australia several times, but it had gone down somewhere near Lurie, with accompanying rumors of stupidity and of sabotage and of deliberate attack. One never quite knew.

“This is the initial one. I’m allowed to accompany you, and average completion time is two and a half hours, which you could accomplish before your hearing, assuming you are not exceptionally slow. If a questor is cognitively incapable of completion, the test is suspended. When you’re actually on the quest, interruption won’t be possible. Breaks the immersion. Do I have your agreement to start?”

Joe’s abrupt change in speech seemed a little sinister, but Joke warily agreed. Once he did, the two of them turned faint opaque yellow. Ghosts. The boy beckoned and Joke followed, passing invisibly through trees and shrubs. They came to a cluster of houses, although it took Joke a few moments to recognize them as houses. A village, populated by about fifty lean brown-skinned people. They bore the marks of hard living, with occasional missing limbs and teeth. Some of that might be due to the racks of weapons.

“Pick one,” Joe said, beside him. “Pick the one you think will survive long enough to be my ancestor.  This part is an extrapolation, you understand. We pick up a few details from the historical record, not not all of it.”

“The one who will survive.” Joke studied the people before settling on a young man in the prime of life, his belly patterned with muscle. His teeth were intact but his nose had been broken at least once. He had a few scars, but otherwise he seemed well fed and fit.

“You can’t do anything to affect them,” Joe said as they approached the young man. Joke’s yellowish ghost extended a thin tentacle which attached to the young man’s belly like an umbilical cord. “You’re invisible.”

In their ghostly state, they stood to the side and watched the people enjoy their afternoon. Naked toddlers stumbled past. An old woman administered a good scolding to a younger woman. Their conversation was not translated, and Joke’s ears settled into the rhythm of it. Lots of throat sounds and flat vowels. There was a buzzing on the ambient and it took Joke a few moments to realize he was hearing insects. Lots of them.

And then suddenly the fit young man caught a spear in the middle of his chest, and died. He had enough time to see the assailants come whooping out of the trees, and in fact the murderer seemed to be one of the people in the village. Another young man, not quite as central to everyone’s attention. He was joined by a pack of men who came boiling out of the forest, their faces streaked in black and white and red, weapons clutched in their hands.

When the young man died, Joe and Joke were teleported back to the area where they’d initially entered. They walked the short distance to the village, and this time Joke selected one of the naked toddlers. That also proved to be an unsuccessful choice. The scenario lasted about fifteen minutes longer, during which the striped-face men killed with abandon. Even the babies.

“I don’t want to pick the traitor,” Joke objected when they reappeared at the starting zone. “I don’t like this quest. Can we do another one?”

“Average completion time is two and a half hours,” the boy reminded him. He did a slight stutter as he shifted from small demonic lawyer back into appealing child. “You can’t quit.”

Instead of picking the traitor, Joke selected a young woman sitting near him. He studied the woman as the scenario unfolded. She had drooping breasts that seemed to indicate lots of babies despite her comparative youth, but none of the children in the area responded to her. She appeared to be part of the traitor’s household. The traitor himself was a not-quite-as-charismatic young man with facial scars and missing teeth. Sitting beside him, Joke watched him give a signal by throwing a handful of herbs onto a smoldering fire, resulting in a puff of smoke that else nobody seemed to notice. Then he picked up his spear, which had been resting in a rack outside the door of his cabin. He tossed it playfully from hand to hand as he moved closer to the man Joke was starting to think of as the chieftan.

This time Joke watched the entire attack, with tears running down his flesh cheeks and a heaviness creeping into his chest cavity. Again, he picked the wrong survivor. After murdering most of the people, the striped-faced men calmed down and had a heated discussion with the traitor. There was much gesturing and some bold derisive laughter on both sides. Then the striped-faced men killed the traitor too, smashing his face over and over with a club until he lay still. They turned to the woman then, and as they slit her throat Joke noticed a boy in the background. About eight, or nine.

On his next life he connected to the boy, and this time he vomited in his mask. The vats were prepared for such contingencies and the puke was whisked away within seconds as his face was sponged clean and a blast of cherry flavored mouth-freshener appeared to mask the taste. The nausea remained, twisting his stomach in knots as he watched the massacre unfold.

“I’m not really a violent criminal,” he babbled to Joe as the animated people died again. “I can’t stand violence. An occasional movie with lots of fighting and chasing, that’s one thing. This is … just horrible.”

Joe turned to face him. The dead eyes were back. “This is raw, unfiltered history. Teams of people put these scenarios together. Brilliant minds from hundreds of disciplines, with all the research they need. What do you think AIs do in our spare time? With regard to the extrapolations, sometimes they’ll put together hundreds of scenarios before one passes approval. Fortunately we have time on our hands. As do you.”

The striped-face men treated the young boy to some verbal abuse while he stood in stoic shock, splattered with his peoples’ blood. Then one of them pointed off to the distance and barked out a word and the boy took off runnning, leaping over roots and vines in his haste.

The people and the village and the muggy heat sensation faded out, and once again they stood in the theater, before a gold bar hovering in the air announcing successful completion of the scenario, and noting there were only seventeen hundred and fifteen more in this quest.

“I have to do that seventeen hundred times?” Joke’s voice broke. He could still taste the vomit, underneath the cherry flavor.

“That’s just for this quest. It’s a gentle one.” The boy grinned, sending chills up Joke’s spine. “Let’s try another.”

He gestured, and the room became farmland, green and lush. Scrawny, sweating people were tending it under the watchful eyes of mounted men with billowing shirts and leather boots. “The first part is easy,” Jozebo said with a smile. “This man here. Count how many stalks of sugarcane he can cut in an hour.”

Joke spent one full hour, during which a nearby worker was beaten to death by a leather-booted man, following the worker as he furiously cut sugar cane. When the timer was up, Joke entered his guess. A red light buzzed at him. He looked imploringly at the boy. “We have to live through it again?”

“At least you’re not getting any calluses on your eyeballs,” he said. After the second fail, he said “it’s all right, your hearing is in six hours. You have time for a few more attempts.

Joke tried again, and again. After the fifth attempt he was exhausted. Although not nearly exhausted as the slave was going to be after several more hours of hard work, he reflected through bleary eyes, and at the end of it, he entered a guess.  “I’m done,” he said to Jozebo after the guess proved wrong.

“No you’re not.” Jozebo restarted the scenario, and this time he vanished from the room. Joke wearily marched over behind his slave. He was sure there were one hundred and thirty-four stalks before the first screams of the doomed man could be heard, but he couldn’t watch the scenario unfold while he was counting.

Something bright flashed in the leaves. A snake, an extremely large one, pouring out of the sugarcane like a stream of oil. The slave didn’t appear to notice it. Joke was very aware of its presence, and the scientist in him admired the scaly curves as the human in him involuntarily urinated – but that didn’t matter, not when you were in a vat, he reminded himself. Nothing could hurt him. They could show him scary movies all day. He had never particularly liked scary movies, but he could handle this, and that first time, where he threw up, that was only from motion sickness. From getting accustomed to the simulation.

“Could you do this all day? I don’t think so. You can’t even count it,” mocked the snake. “Could you do it while you’re feverish and hallucinating from working all day in the sun? I don’t think so.”

“I’ll hit the number eventually,” Joke told it, through gritted teeth. He had already failed this scenario, thanks to the snake, and a gigantic spider sprang out of the next set of bushes to join it, making his failure a certainty.

He tried closing his eyes and leaning back, but when his muscles started to relax the body harness began shaking him, gently, keeping him awake. The screaming was keeping him awake too, and he wandered over to watch. This death wasn’t as bad as the village had been, although it was bad enough. And after it commenced he had another hallucination, of a jaguar that sprang at his face, accelerating his heartbeat.

“When you fail five times, you’re ours,” explained a rotting zombie that charged toward him on the next run, as he watched the slave’s swiftly flicking wrists. The field was in full hallucination mode, blooming with evil vines, bursting with hideous things that sprang out at a moment’s notice. He entered his count at the end of his hour, only four over his blind guess, and a green light flashed.

He was back in the theater with Jozebo, and he would have been teetering with fatigue if the harness hadn’t been stabilizing him, and at the same time he had no real right to feel fatigue, and at the same time, his heart was still pounding from the last forty-seven scares.

Jozebo turned toward him, solemnly. “You realize this is nothing at all, compared to what convicted murderers experience.”

“I’m being convicted of a science crime. Not murder.”

“On behalf of the greater community of AIs, I also wanted to register an opinion that what you did was far worse than murder. And you’ll be hearing from us, but only after your fifth fail.” The boy broke character entirely, his eyes dead black and his lips curved in a snarl. Joke was afraid, briefly, until his brain reminded him that he was safe in his vat, being menaced by a boy AI showing him scary pictures. The scariness was shortlived, and the avatar melted back into a friendly huggable boy again, with his messy hair and earnest smile and soft, whispery voice. “You may visit the theater any time to advance further in this quest. Thank you for celebrating Jozebo with us.”

Joke backed out of the theater and stood in the plaza, his heart pounding. The lighted sign announced he had three more hours before his hearing, and a brief notice flashed across his visual field to inform him food was being delayed an extra two hours due to gastric upset. He stood in the middle of the plaza and peed. Then he squatted down and let his bowels explode, his avatar standing there politely with his hands folded as his body attended to its chores.

He began walking, in circles, again.

Actually, he was being charged with murder. Several of them.

When he yelled and raged in his vat, a little blue sign appeared in front of him stating that his mic was off due to abusive speech, and that it would only be restored once he demonstrated enough emotional restraint to please the AI in charge of detecting vocal tremors. He already knew the AIs hated him.

Seventeen people had died in the lab wreck. Not only that, the latest batch of meat targets had potentially escaped into a relatively desolate part of southern Samerica. And unlike all the other meat targets, these were fertile. With a chassis based on an animal known for fertility: the rabbit. Upsized to guard dog dimensions, equipped with an omnivorous digestive system and carnivorous teeth, ears scaled down just a tad. There were sixty-five separate criminal charges resulting from the biofabbed bunnies alone.

“Fortunately citizen response has been tremendous,” Linden said in her most reassuring voice as they sat together in the plaza afterwards. “The creatures are gone."

“I could whine, and cry, and say it wasn’t all my fault,” Joke said. “I feel numb. I did a quest just recently, where all of these villagers were killed. Actually they got killed over and over, and I couldn’t do anything about it.”

“The Jozebo quest? Yes, I had to do that in law school. An edited version. A lot of people spend the holiday every year doing a few Jozebo scenarios. You can get five units of history credit if you finish the whole thing. I’m not sure you’ll have time to finish it, though. You’re looking at seventeen life sentences.”

“For seventeen people.” His co-workers. The other biofabbers. And visiting management. And the clients who had ordered the stupid things in the first place, a bunch of gun-happy yeehaws from some podunk town in Vanram.

“The judge will probably sentence you to all recorded generations, for all seventeen of them, so that’s a lot of scenarios. The ones they give to prisoners are much longer than the ones in Jozebo, and usually there are several steps before you can finish them. I’ve been through a couple of those as well.  They take days, sometimes months.”

She made an “mmm” sound that conveyed she was shuddering in her vat.

Oh sure, counselor, no problem, you didn’t have any issues with all the AIs in the world hating your guts, and you didn’t have to go through – “How many is all recorded?”

“Through recorded history. There’s a lot of extrapolation for the earlier scenarios, and you’re typically looking at something like five generations a century. Maybe a couple hundred scenarios for each victim.  It’s all voluntary, you understand. You can just sit here in the plaza and stare at your feet if you’d rather.”

“Until I die of old age.”

“You’re not coming out of that vat alive,” Linden admitted. “Most of us aren’t. These are the things you must do before you’re permitted to interact with society again. You can thank Jozebo for the idea that every life is worthy of protecting, and you can thank the meteor for eliminating everyone who disagreed. We’re not going to torment you as punishment for your crimes. No matter how many people feel you deserve it. We are going to keep you alive and comfortable, while forcing you to appreciate all the work that goes into making a human if you want the privilege of dealing with them.”

“The AIs,” he suddenly blurted. “They all hate me. They’re …”

He trailed off, staring at her smiling animated face.  “Some of the scenarios do involve interaction with AIs,” she finally said. In a voice as sweet and even as the curves of her smile. “Hours are billable, Joaquin. I’ve got another client meeting scheduled, and I’ll be in touch with you before the trial. Your victim restitution scenarios will light up right over there. They may even start to populate in advance of the trial, in case you want to roll up your sleeves and get started.”

She pointed dramatically and a shopfront lit up with tasteful blue neon. As she blinked out, Joke savored the echo of her voice, pronouncing his name correctly.

He headed over to the little blue shop and opened the door.

Names coated the walls. In a small font, rendering each the width of a fingerprint, usually accompanied by a date, and a place. A tiny silver plaque on the front door read, “Completed: 0; Pending: 3,517.”

Something moved, deep inside the shop, and Joke’s heart flinched, reminding him again of the physical effects this world could have on his body without even touching it. It was a cat. A big, sassy-looking black cat with a ruff of fur around its neck. Kind of similar to the one he had biofabbed for a lady in Austin, a clone of her prior pet lacking the kidney disease that had killed it. Of course, it had only been a kitten when he sent it out for delivery, but it was projected to get big. This cat looked like it had always been big.

Not only that, it could speak. “You could’ve chosen a straightforward crime,” it said, in a guttural purr. “Arson, perhaps. Embezzling. Smuggling. Instead, you chose to create a new species.”

“Of animals,” he said. “Not sentient ones.”

“Sentient.” The cat licked delicately at a front paw. It seemed to be growing larger. “If I were to create more AIs, I’d be deleted, and so would they. You got off lucky. Enjoy your nightmares. I’ll be seeing you after your fifth failure.”

The cat was definitely growing larger. It coiled and pounced, sailing over his shoulder and tearing off into the plaza, where it vanished. Joke stepped outside the shop and stared in its direction for over an hour, but the only thing that moved was the endlessly circling leaf.