Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday Fiction for October 13th, 2017

The return of Friday Fiction is starting out slow so far, so I’m hosting again this week. Hopefully, we’ll get more participants soon, as a number of friends expressed an interest in it. As was the case last week, if you would like to participate, add your link to the Linkytool below.

This week brings Part 2 of the Historian Project, and how the system works. If you’re coming to this story for the first time, you’ll probably want to click over to Part 1 first. For those returning, the quick recap is that Dr. Manziel, the new President of the University, has visited Professor Kallas’ Historian Witness 101 class and challenged the attrition rate of the Historian Program. Kallas, in explaining why the program continues despite a high drop-out rate, has invited Manziel to experience the Historian Project first-hand, and as this part opens, they are now in the system.

The Historian Project, Part 2

By Rick Higginson

Manziel spun around. “This is the control center? There’s nothing here.”

            “We have everything we need for this journey.”

            “All right. I’ll play along. Where are we going on this ‘journey’?”

            “To start, that is up to you. Tell me, Dr. Manziel, is there something you have lost that you would like to know what happened to it?”

            He thought a moment. “My grandfather, shortly before he died, gave me his grandfather’s pocket watch. I lost it maybe two months later, and have always wondered where it went.”

            “Tell me when and where you last remember having it.”

            He closed his eyes and scratched his head. “Oh, man, that was, like, twenty three years ago. My grandfather died during my first year in college, and the last I remember having the watch was when I came home for Winter Break that year.”

            “So, let’s start with December twentieth, twenty-three years ago. System, calculate and lock date, with local time of twelve noon.”

            A voice sounded in the room. “Target confirmed and locked.”

            “Where was your home at that time?”

            Manziel chuckled. “Funny how I’ve forgotten more important things, but I still remember that address. 7129 West Lincoln Ave, Cantor, New York.”

            “System, calculate and lock location.”

            “Target confirmed and locked.”

            “Initiate placement.”

            The room shimmered for perhaps a second, and was replaced by a street scene. They stood on the sidewalk in front of a modest two story house. A blanket of snow covered the area, and the overcast sky threatened to add more to the winter scene.

            Manziel’s eyes went wide. “Holy – that’s my parents’ house! And, geez, it’s cold! I’ve never experienced a simulator with this much detail.”

            “Let’s go inside, shall we?”

            “So, do we prompt the system to move?”

            Kallas took a step forward. “No, we walk.” He reached the door, and waited for Manziel.

            Dr. Manziel stepped onto the porch, and tried to open the door. His hand passed through the knob as if it wasn’t there.

            “One of the aspects of the Historian System is that we cannot touch anything. The feel of the ground beneath our feet is merely illusory for the sake of natural movement, but to enter, the door is just as solid as the doorknob seemed.” He walked through the closed door to the entryway, and waited for Manziel to follow.

            “That’s – got to be the weirdest sensation I’ve experienced in a long time.” He took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Man, I’ve missed this place.”

            “Now, where in this house did you last see the watch?”

            “In my bedroom, upstairs.” He walked confidently through the living room to the stairway, and then up to the top floor. He turned right at the top of the stairs towards the room at the end of the hall.

            The bathroom door opened, and a woman walked out, wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around her wet hair.

            Kallas watched her pass. “I would say you either are not home right now, or else your family has a very relaxed attitude concerning familial nudity.”

            Manziel sputtered. “That wasn’t funny. Depicting my mother naked like that is a rather sick idea of a joke.”

            “That was your mother? Dr. Manziel, I promise you, I have no control over what we shall see, hear, and otherwise experience while we are here. For whatever reason, on this date twenty-three years ago, your mother did not bother to cover up walking from the bathroom back to what I assume is her bedroom.”

            “How could the simulator know that happened? It couldn’t have read it from my mind through the neural interface, because I didn’t see it happen back then.”

            “We are not in a simulation. This is your parents’ home, twenty-three years ago. Much like Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Past, we are visiting here like ghosts, unseen and incapable of interfacing with the world around us, but we are here.

            “You’re saying this system is a time machine? That’s not possible.”

            “We have not broken the technology yet to transfer a physical body back in time, but what we have developed is a system that is capable of capturing and decoding the, for lack of a better term, reverberations of time past. As the Ghost said to Scrooge, ‘these are but shadows of the things that have been.’ Like reviewing the video from a security camera, we can see and examine past events, with the added element of being able to move freely through the scene, seeing it from any angle we wish.”

            “No, I still cannot believe it’s possible.”

            “That is why we are here, watching for your lost item, Dr. Manziel.  When you see what happened to the watch, you can then verify for yourself that what we see here is actually history. You need to know that what I am telling you is true, so that you completely understand the real value of this program.” He walked to the door at the end of the hall. “This is your room, correct? Unless, of course, you wish to follow your mother and make sure she gets dressed.”

            “You’re a bit twisted for even suggesting that, you know that?”

            “Your mother’s state of undress, and anything else she may or may not do while we are here, is merely information to me, of the same weight as the fact these walls are painted a pale green. One of the goals of the Historian Program is to train students how to remain completely objective in their observations of history. It is our aim to witness and record events, without adding a bias of approval or disapproval. Whether I agree with what someone has done does not change what they did, and we have more than enough historical accounts prejudiced by the opinions of the recorders.” He passed through the closed door into the room.

            The bed was neatly made, and while the room appeared decorated for a young adult male, the desktop was bare, and the room lacked any form of clutter that might suggest it had been recently occupied.

            Manziel entered the room and took it in. His eyes locked on the poster of a long out-of-vogue singer. “I’d forgotten all about her. I had a serious crush on her during my Senior year in High School.”

            “Judging from the state of this room, I would guess you have not arrived home yet for your break.”

            “So, what do we do now? Try a new target date?”

            “No, we remain here and watch for your arrival.”

            “That could be hours, or maybe days. I don’t remember exactly when I got home that year.”

            “System, fast-forward at thirty ex.”

            “We can do that?”

            “Of course. Since the system is essentially playing back events it has recorded from the historical reverberations, we can move forward or backward at whim. This is valuable in that it enables us to search for the exact moment we need, but we can also back up, move to a different location, and witness the same event from another perspective. We should now be passing an hour’s worth of history in two minutes. That’s fast enough that the waiting is not tedious, but still slow enough to spot the moment when you arrive.” He stood by the window, staring out at the street.

            Manziel wandered the room, remaining quiet for a while. He finally stopped in front of the poster, examining it. “Looking at her now, I can’t imagine why I was so infatuated with her.” He turned towards the window. “So, if this technology is so incredible, why haven’t I heard of it before?”

            Kallas kept his gaze directed outward. “The Historian Project isn’t strictly a secret, but we also don’t want it widely known. If the general populace knew we had this capability, it could cause problems, not the least of which would be an overwhelming increase in the requests for our service. We would have people wanting us to help them find lost pets, or trying to use as a private investigator to spy on a cheating spouse, or just wanting to use the system for a nostalgic trip down memory lane.”

            “Would that last be such a terrible thing?”

            He released a staccato laugh. “I already told you that history is brutal. It’s not just brutal in the violence that was done; it’s also brutal in its honesty. What has happened, has happened regardless of whether one approves or disapproves. Think about it, Dr. Manziel. You accused me of a sick prank because your mother walked naked from one room to another, so what would your reaction have been if we had instead found her intimately involved with someone you did not know? If we take someone to a special family gathering in the past, what if they find it different than their memory prefers it? What if, in our ability to move freely through the past and the scene, they overhear something that ruins that memory for them?”

            “What if they find that some disappointment to them had a good reason behind it, and it improves their memory?”

            “One of the first things we stress in the Historian Program curriculum is that people are human. As such, they are also unpredictable in their reactions. Even if I pose a hypothetical scenario to someone, and ask how they would react, it doesn’t mean they will actually react that way if faced with that scenario in reality. No, Dr. Manziel, most people are better left with their imperfect memories, than risking how they might react if they revisited the scene later in life.” He nodded towards the driveway. “If you drove a red compact car, then I believe you have arrived.”
to be continued...

Friday, October 6, 2017

Friday Fiction for October 6, 2017

Welcome to the restart of Friday Fiction. I have the privilege of hosting this week, so be sure to enter the link to your story in the Linkytool below, and visit the other stories posted for this week. Please feel free to comment as well. We love feedback!

This week’s submission is the first part of a short story I’ve been working on lately, and my plan is to post subsequent parts in the coming weeks. This is a concept I’ve been thinking about for a while, and finally decided on how I wanted to approach it. I hope you enjoy it.

The Historian Project

By Rick Higginson

            Professor Kallas watched the students file from the lecture hall. Not bad for the first session of the new term. Only three of the fifty students failed to show. He powered down the computer and large display screen behind the lectern, and then placed his tablet in his briefcase.

            One man remained seated at the back of the hall. Kallas regarded him for a moment. One of my missing students? “Do you have a question for me, Mr. ah?”

            The man stood. “Actually it’s Doctor Manziel.”

            “Ah, yes. The new President of this fine institution. To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit, Dr. Manziel?”

            Dr. Manziel stepped into the aisle and strode down the stairs. “I don’t know that pleasure is quite the word I’d use for this visit. I’ve been reviewing the records on your history department, and it seems your program here has, by far, the largest dropout rate of any program at this university.”

            He chuckled. “I am well aware of the attrition rate in my department, Dr. Manziel. Believe it or not, this is, by a wide margin, the most difficult program in this, or any other, university.”

            Manziel scowled. “It’s history, for pity’s sake. We teach medicine here. We teach quantum physics here. We teach law here. You cannot tell me that history is more academically challenging than those curricula.”

            Kallas leaned against the lectern. “I did not say this program is the most academically challenging. I said it was the most difficult. There are many other factors of difficulty than just academics.” He gestured with one hand to indicate the hall. “You saw the forty-seven first-year students that were just here. This was the first session of Histwit 101, and before the start of their second year here, half of them will have changed their major, if not changed schools entirely. I expect this. It’s part of the program. Half of those remaining will not return for the third year, and by the end of the fourth year, of the original fifty signed up, I may have five left.”

            “It’s part of your program to lose half your students in your first year? Professor Kallas, that is simply unacceptable. I don’t know how you’ve managed to avoid scrutiny through the term of my  predecessor, but I take my responsibilities to the Board of Regents quite seriously. Any program where only ten percent of the starting class completes the standard four year program either needs to be completely overhauled, or scrapped from the catalog. How that hasn’t already happened to your history program is beyond my comprehension.”

            “I assume, then, you have not reviewed the financial records yet. One of the biggest reasons my program is still active, is my work brings in better than eighty percent of the donations to this university.”

            “That’s ridiculous. How would a history program motivate that level of donation income?”

            Kallas laughed, bending over and placing his hands on his knees.”Dr. Manziel, really! You have not done your homework at all, have you? It is not the Historian Program that generates income for this university. It is the Historian Project that is this institution’s goose that lays the golden eggs, and it is also the very reason the program has such a high withdrawal rate.”

            “I don’t understand on either count.”

            “How early in this class session did you arrive?”

            “Towards the end.”

            “Ah, then you missed the important points. Candidates for the Historian Program are carefully selected, but even then, few people are actually suited for the program. The reason I am able to run both the program and the project is that I suffered a head injury when I was fourteen years old. The lasting effect of this injury was a nearly complete loss of empathy in my mind. I am incapable of feeling any sort of sympathetic pain for other living creatures, human or otherwise. Because the injury occurred in my teens, I had already developed sufficient morality that I did not turn into a criminal sociopath. I can recognize an act of violence as wrong, but I cannot feel the same discomfort that a normal person feels.”

            “So you don’t feel any regrets over the students that do not make it in your program, either?”

            “I consider them fortunate, because they are still capable of being moved by their empathy. History, Dr. Manziel, has traditionally been written by the winners, as the saying goes. What we have learned through most of human civilization has been a sanitized, biased view of events. The defeated enemy was evil and had to be subdued, and the methods used were those necessary and reasonable. The reality, however, is that history is brutal, and when we see events as they actually happened, history is revealed as often horrific. If a student cannot handle that, they are better off seeking a different program more suitable to their temperament.”

            “It’s still just history. It’s over and done.”

            “That’s the problem. You see, students studying medicine, for example, do so with the hope that what they learn can be used to help the patients they will eventually treat. The same is true with law. An attorney works to see that their clients’ rights are not violated, and that they are afforded every protection of the law, rather than being oppressed by the system. The historian cannot help their subjects. What has happened is already done, and cannot be undone. The suffering is real, and those who cannot put their empathy aside will be overwhelmed by it.”

            “So you study ancient texts or archaeological sites. I can’t believe that many people are that sensitive as to be overwhelmed by such things.”

            “I think, perhaps, it is time I introduced you to the Historian Project. If you will follow me, Dr. Manziel.”

            Manziel huffed. “Is this going to take much time? You do know that my schedule is very demanding.”

            “You question my program; you need to know the answers, because, I promise you, if you go to the Board of Regents and try to cut this department, they will either override your decision or replace you.” He did not wait for any reply before heading to a door at the back of the hall. He scanned his ID, typed in a number, and then pressed his left ring finger against a pad.

            “That’s an odd finger to use for a print check.” Manziel stepped through the door as Kallas held it open.

            “It’s randomized. The system may request any of the ten fingers, or it may request a retinal scan, or a combination of both. It’s designed to make it more difficult to defeat the security system.”

            “Geez, are you going to tell me that you work for the CIA?”

            “We have, on occasion, done work for different intelligence agencies. Information is the most valuable commodity in the world, and information is what the Historian Project collects. You want to know where someone hid a valuable artifact? We can find out. Need to find where a ship sank? We can tell you. If something has happened in history, whether it is recent or ancient, we can find out exactly what happened. We can solve a murder that happened a thousand years ago.” He performed the security steps on another door and opened it. The lights came on to reveal a large console with six recliners arrayed on one side. Kallas went to one recliner and gestured. “Have a seat, Dr. Manziel, and I will get you hooked up.”

            Manziel gave the recliner the once-over, but did not sit down. “Hooked up?”

            “The Historian System utilizes a neural interface for its users. It’s completely safe, I assure you.”

            He settled into the chair. “Neural interface? Like some kind of virtual reality?”

            “Sort of. The interface technology is based on that developed for the virtual reality market.”

            Kallas slipped a soft hood over Manziels head, covering his eyes and ears. “It will first calibrate to your particular neural signature, and once it has, you will see me in the system in the control center.” He took a seat in his own chair and donned his hood.

            For Kallas, the effect was immediate. He stood in a bare room, illuminated with pale blue light. I’m usually waiting for five people to arrive, not just one. A minute later, Manziel appeared. “Welcome to the Historian Project, Dr. Manziel.”

…to be continued.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Sunday Excerpt for 1 October, 2017

Eight years ago today, I posted the final part of one of the strangest stories I’d ever written, “Hogs of the Heavens.” The background of that story became the basis for my 2010 NaNoWriMo story, “The Ericson Exigency.” Two years ago, I decided to write a sequel to that novel, expanding on the short story that started it all. Since Friday Fiction wasn’t happening at that time, I never posted any excerpts from “The Foray Legacy,” and while the story remains as strange as the original short story it was derived from, I enjoyed writing it and found the concepts interesting to play with. In this first chapter, one of the main characters, Cranston Berryman, has arrived at Iota Leonis B, where the fourth planet is a binary, hence the dubbing of the planet as “Foray” by the original colonists.

Friday Fiction resumes this week, hosted right here on Pod Tales and Ponderings. I hope you’ll join us in enjoying some short stories and excerpts, posted for your weekend reading pleasure.

“Hogs of the Heavens” can be found beginning with this post:

The Foray Legacy

By Rick Higginson

Chapter 1


            The trail was faint, barely more than a thinning of the unkempt alfalfa growing between the hard-packed clearing and the settlement in the distance. Pelleted scat dotted a rocky area with few plants, near a dried mud cloven hoof print. Looks like the Erikson released some of their domestic livestock.

            A covey of quail broke from one side of the path, making a short flight into the cover of thicker alfalfa. Cranston continued on with little concern. A vessel like Erikson would not have been carrying any wild apex predators, and while some of the beasts could be dangerous once feral, Voidrunner would have detected anything large enough to pose a danger to him.

            The first structure he reached did little to suggest the settlement was still inhabited. It appeared to have been built as a church of sorts, set into the side of a hill and constructed from a mix of local rock and salvaged drop-module parts. The level of deterioration and dust indicated it had not been used in a very long time. Cranston stepped to one side of the doorway to allow more of the daylight to enter, and gave it more scrutiny. Several planks that seemed to have once served as benches were stacked to one side, with a much thinner layer of dust atop them. Well, someone has been in here more recently looking for something. This isn’t the work of some animal rooting for bugs under the junk or trying to make a nest. Maybe someone survived after all. Are they nearby, or did they come back here for something they needed?

            He left the dilapidated structure and continued towards the main part of the settlement. Drop modules were loosely spaced on either side of what would have been considered a street in a conventional settlement. All were dark inside and quiet, and save for additional evidence of someone having investigated them possibly within the last few years, seemed to have been abandoned long ago.

            Standing outside of one, Cranston examined the remnants of the door. The material appeared to have once been badly damaged and then crudely repaired. Other modules showed similar evidence of damage and patching, though the module at the far end of the settlement had burned with no indication any attempt had been made to restore it to functionality.

            What happened here? All these modules would have needed to be in serviceable condition to make the descent from the Voidship. Anything this damaged would have been torn apart and incinerated by the passage through the upper atmosphere. This looks more like riot damage.

            They had to have known this colony was not ideal for a permanent settlement, so this world could only serve as a lifeboat for the survivors. Did conditions get so bad that some of the colonists turned on the others? He shook his head. Where did they go from here?

            He went to the middle of the street and stood with his fists planted on his hips, trying to take it all in. Deep-space distress messages were rare to begin with, and most of the experts predicted that any survivors would be found in SusAn, not living on a poorly terraformed colony world. I’m not trained for this. I’m supposed to come to systems like this and evaluate them for development and colonization, not try to figure out if a bunch of stranded colonists went all ‘Lord of the Flies’ while waiting for rescue.

            Another path led off towards where he had seen the old lander. With an exasperated huff, he started down it. Partway there, he came upon a large collection of ramshackle shelters. He gave them only a brief examination. Livestock barns, most likely – not really suited for human habitation. Leaving the barns behind, he continued to the now overgrown plateau where the derelict lander rested.

            The ramp was still extended, and Cranston cautiously proceeded up until he stood at the closed hatch. After wiping away some of the accumulated dirt on the window, he shone his light inside and tried to determine the condition of the interior. Like the modules, he could see what appeared to be malicious damage. Someone ripped into those panels with no intention of removing something useful. This wasn’t cannibalizing needed parts. This was just wanton destruction.

            He did a quick walk around the lander, shaking his head at the extent of the damage and deterioration. When he’d completed the circuit, he turned away and rubbed his eyes. “Com-link, Voidrunner.”

            The response sounded from the wrist-mounted device. “Awaiting instructions, Cranston.”

            “Dispatch a micro-drone to SRV Eusebio Kino. Message: Crew of CV Erikson established colony settlement on Iota Leonis B-4A. Evidence of surviving generation of colonists, though original settlement indicates some form of violent conflict. Planet not considered suitable for sustained long-term development. Recommend additional personnel for further evaluation and probable rescue effort. End message.”

            “Confirmed. Programming micro-drone and dispatching.”

            A minute later, a high-pitched whistling sound reached the clearing as the micro-drone accelerated away from Voidrunner and climbed on an escape vector. It would take the drone a long while to reach the Kino, and longer still for the Kino to arrive at Iota Leonis B, but if his estimation of the system were correct, they would be up against a deadline for removing any surviving colonists.

            “Voidrunner, any indications of larger lifeforms nearby, and more specifically, any sign of possible human presence in the vicinity?”

            “Sensors indicate no large lifeforms within range, though visual scan shows a column of smoke rising approximately ten kilometers from your current location, on a polar reference heading of two-hundred, twenty-one degrees. Analysis of smoke suggests small, controlled fire maintained at a consistent burn rate.”

            “A campfire or cooking fire?”

            “Affirmative. Analysis matches parameters of such fires.”

            “Confirmed. I’m going to investigate. If I get too tired on the hike, I’ll contact for extraction.”

            “Protocol dictates that you should be armed on such excursions, Cranston. The weapons are currently stowed in their locker.”

            “Understood. I do not anticipate any trouble.” He checked his com-link for the indicated heading, and followed a trail that led approximately that direction. The old trail eventually climbed a nearby hill, switching back several times on the ascent, before reaching an old monitoring station at the summit. From there, Cranston looked around until he spotted the wispy smoke rising perhaps another four kilometers away.

Well, at least Deitrich won’t be able to complain that I’m not getting the weight-bearing exercise required for all Voidship crews.

            Sitting in the shade of the monitoring station, he took a wafer from his pouch and ate it, washing it down with several swallows of water. Iota Leonis A was just rising above the horizon, and the much brighter component of the binary system soon diminished the available shade.

            There was no apparent trail heading from the summit in the direction of the distant fire, but the slope appeared gradual enough that Cranston felt confident without a previously traversed path. Before long, he was walking amongst trees alongside a small stream, From time to time, the trees would thin enough that he could see the smoke, and was thus able to keep on course towards the suspected camp.

            He finally drew close enough that he thought he could smell something being cooked over the fire, though by then the stream had grown enough in size that its sound kept him from hearing anything else.

            Approaching the camp cautiously, he started to make his way across the stream, stepping on rocks jutting up from the rushing water. Midway across, he placed his foot on one stone, and when he brought his other foot forward, the stone rolled from under him. With a yelp of surprise, he splashed into the stream and was tossed about by the current. Every time he tried to get his feet back under him, or to grab ahold of a rock, the force of the water knocked him down again.

            Suddenly, he was being dragged from the water by the back of his jumpsuit. Coughing and gasping, he tried to catch his breath as he was dropped on his back on the streambank.

            “What do you suppose this is?” a voice above him asked.

            “Who knows?” A second voice behind him responded. “But you know our orders. Anything unusual from the wastelands is to be taken to the Wilbur immediately.”

            He wiped the water from his eyes and looked. A crude spear was aimed at his chest. Moving slowly enough that he hoped it would not seem threatening, he felt for his com-link, but found that it had been lost in the stream.

            Pulling his eyes away from the spear-tip to the person – correction – the pig holding it, he clamped his mouth shut. Oh, scat. Just what the hell happened here?