Sunday, September 20, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 215: Wanna Be

Gas Flare by W.Carter, Wikimedia Commons
Wanna Be for Momma Dee

Wanna be the gas line meter
to warm you up, cook out.
Wanna be the electric heater
you’ll get cold without.
When you like your java hot
I wanna be your coffee pot.

Wanna be your vacuum robot
sweeping in your dust.
Wanna be your sexy dreadnaught
revving up your ... trust.
When you like your homestyle bright
I wanna be your bedside light.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Not Zen 199: Introspection

Maharatchamongkhon Stupa by Wikiman5676
“Your meditation seemed intense, master.” The businesswoman approached, hands clasped in front. She inclined her head toward the master. 

He scowled. Self-consciously, she glanced down to notice that she was dressed in her office clothes. Her teacher had never liked displays of wealth, such as business suits, but she had stopped by to visit the temple on a whim. The building was on her way home from work. Only when she had stepped through the door did she notice the elderly monk. He had been sitting on a mat in the shadows. Three other, empty mats lay in different spots around the room, left there by previous meditators.

“I had been contemplating samsara in the form of this coin on the ground.” The master stirred. He gestured to the dark spot on the floor near the corner. It was conspicuous on the polished bamboo wood floor. “It is good to think on the deceptions of material reality, especially wealth. Much human anguish results from the pursuit of riches."

He paused to look at her more closely, so she nodded.

"Gifts are well thought, of course, and I would not be able to live a monastic life without donations." He seemed to think ahead to objections that she might have, although she didn't have any, really. “Yet misery, quite often, is transmitted along with money.”

“A worthy subject for thought,” she murmured. The businesswoman kept her voice low, as the old monk was a severe man who felt that students should not express their views except in response to a direct question.

“You have recently finished your banking transactions, I gather.” His tone remained flat and slightly disapproving. 

She removed her jacket and bowed to her teacher. She had been intending to pray for the health of her daughter. Now she thought that a few quiet moments in meditation might be best. She focused on a mat near the corner. That one would put her next to the coin, so she could join in the contemplation of material detachment. Given her teacher’s mood, it was the right move. She was glad that she was a casual student of his and not a more serious one. Her job was quite necessary for her circumstances. She did not want to be under pressure from him or any other monk or nun to take a humbler, more spiritually acceptable position.

She strode toward the corner, where the smallest and most faded statue of a disciple would sit by her left shoulder. As she reached her mat, she stopped in confusion. For a moment, she wondered if she should speak. Then she realized that, if she did not, the master would later discover what she saw. He would know and perhaps he would suspect that she had laughed to herself about it. Either that, or he would know her for a coward. 

“Forgive me, teacher,” she said. She tucked her jacket under her arm. She did not bow, merely leaned in his direction and gestured to the floor. “Perhaps your eyes are not what they once were. This circle is a drop of paint left by the workers who visited the temple yesterday. We had a pair of them in this room.”

“So we did.” With a grunt, the master rose. He strode to examine the coin. He tried to move it with his toe. It was a perfect circle, the right color. But it did not move. Because it was paint.

He closed his eyes to reflect, apparently, upon his practice of detachment. 

"I have spent a very good hour. My thoughts were based on an error. However, my senses, even at their best, have always been slightly in error. The examination of samsara, by which I mean the misleading nature of the material world and the suffering cycle of life and death, is filled with errors."

"Yes, teacher."

“Nirvana is still freedom from the fears of the endless cycle of life, death, rebirth, and re-death,” he said.


“It is rooted in the lack of desire for sensual things.”

“So I am given to understand.”

“Samsara is deceptive,” he concluded. His face was flushed. There was a hesitation in his voice, as if he was searching for better words. "No amount of honing perfection ever makes one perfect."

“No one can deny those things.”

He sighed. "Thank you for speaking up."

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 214: Sonnet 11.6

By Leyram Odacrem via Wikimedia Commons
Sonnet 11.6 

Let me not to the marriage of true fools 
Admit encouragements. Lovers escape 

That which impedes them by breaking the rules 
Or by making their beds in the landscape. 

Wise fools know they're simply suckers and marks, Always blown over, easily taken, 

Loved in the dirt of our national parks, 
Hearts awakened by our bodies shaken. 

Everyone is a fool, in love or not, 
And it's better that our hearts be beguiled 

Like our bodies, hot in a sweaty knot, 
Than to be the same suckers undefiled. 

When we're not in error, it's just by chance. To error for love is how we advance.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 213: Nearly Giant

by Aasthap dsc Wikimedia Commons

Nearly Giant

"Does your hand hurt, daddy?"

“Nah, I know something stronger than pain,” he says,

snow on his shoulders and fat, green boots,

frost in his mustache. He leans down.

“I know a power bigger than me,

that fills me up, pumps my heart,

wakes me in the morning, works me through sickness,

keeps me cool in the screams of summer,

warms me as I gather icicles off cars.”

He laughs, kneels, and stretches his arms

as the two leap forward for a hug.

The oldest, the boy in the red and blue,

yikes in his ear and shouts,

“You’re cold, daddy!”

“I don’t feel it,” daddy replies. He lifts.

He laughs. “Oh! You’re getting big!”

The little girl in purple puts her fingers to his mouth

to still his foolishness, to command him.

“I small,” she says. “You big, daddy. You.”

Yowls of disappointment as he sets them down,

takes them by the hands. He holds the girl with one finger,

winces when she squeezes his sprain.

“I’m small, too," he says. "But I have a power

that makes me a giant! It lets me carry mommy

as she carries you. It keeps me going

when the morning sky is dark and my eyes are full of sand,

when fever racks me, when I think of my wage slave jobs

and almost fall apart. When my bones grind to ash,

I will still have strength. I can look at you and

summon the power to grow again.”

The boy stares at the piles of shoveled snow.

He smiles at the fog of his breath.

At seven he is recently wise, a discerner of facts and fictions,

and so he makes his own secret meanings. He says,

“Everyone can do that, right?”

“You're so smart!" daddy says, hands on hips, both jolly and sad,

"you're practically a giant already.”

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Not Zen 198: Externalizations

Mirror  Reflecting Vase by Cgn, Wikimedia Commons

There was a mirror in the hall next to the kitchen. Before she looked at it, Pat stole a glance at her husband. He stood at the sink with his back to her. Satisfied, she turned to her reflection. In it, she saw a tall woman with arms folded. She looked more determined than calm. Pat closed her eyes. She emptied her mind. It didn't come easy. She noticed the tension in her neck and shoulders. She willed her muscles to relax. There would be no headaches for her this morning.

"Hey there," she said. She cleared her throat. "I'm ready to make my call now."

Her husband twisted. He didn't stop his work but he took a moment to smile.

“Nice, Pat," he said.  "You look sharp. Did you put on makeup?  It's just a call to your mother.”

“No, I did not put on makeup.”  Hands on her hips, Pat shook her head.  “I'm looking good because of my meditation.  I can feel how much it's helping.  Last night, I reviewed my mother's messages.  I had time to consider the things she said.  I focused inward.  This morning, I did it again.  I regained my emotional peace.”

“You look nice, mommy.”  Her daughter entered the kitchen from the doorway of the dining room. She paused to hug her leg.  Pat accepted it with a caress of her daughter's head as she continued.

“I will admit,” she said as she looked down at her clean, pink blouse, “I did change clothes.”

“Sure.”  He nodded.  She could tell that he still thought she'd dressed up.

“For months, I've been thinking about my conversations with my mother.  They do not have to be dictated by my gut reactions.  She knows how to trigger those.  I've done soul-searching about my relations with her.  My approach is better.  My reactions are calmer.”

“That sounds great.”  He gave her a thumbs-up, hands dripping.  Then he turned back to the sink and resumed washing dishes.  Every Saturday morning, he took charge of the chores.  His favorite was hand-washing the week-old stuff that she had left out from her cooking.  Pat thought it was disgusting but also it was great, so she encouraged it.

When his back was turned again, she made her call.

"Hello, Patience," her mother said when she answered. 

Pat's given name was Patricia. She'd had the argument with her mother about it dozens of dozens of times. It had been written that way, correctly, by her father on her birth certificate. But her mother had preferred the name Patience from the beginning, so she insisted on using it. Even when Pat had been a child, her mother had referred to her by her almost-name more often than her given one. She only used 'Patricia' when dealing with schools, jobs, and government offices. 

"You must have gotten my last note," she continued.

"Are you still having problems at the grocery?" Pat asked. She rubbed her neck. It felt stiff.

"No, no, that's all done now." She heard a gust of air next to the phone speaker. Her mother's hand had waved off everything that Pat had planned to say. "Let me tell you about what's new in town."

As usual, her mother steered the conversation to her local topics.  She liked to focus on people that no one liked.  They fascinated her. Besides, they made her put-downs seem funny.  She ridiculed their hair, clothes, facial tics, awkward mannerisms, bodies, and, most of all, their figures of speech. She could mimick voices in a way that made Pat laugh.

Pat didn't want to be amused by her mother's cruelty. But sometimes she was, despite her intentions. Then her mother concluded by saying that she would love to help raise her granddaughter.  That was something that would never happen. She lived hundreds of miles away and was totally unwelcome to participate, so it wasn’t a real offer.  She wanted to say that because it gave her a chance to belittle the sort of people, like her daughter, who resorted to using daycare as a way to manage child-rearing tasks.

"It's just irresponsible," she said.

"Thank you, mother. I'm aware of your opinion."

By the time Pat's mother asked to speak with her grand-daughter, the girl had wandered away.  She had marched across the living room and kicked one of her toys, a car made for a doll.  She made a few, small pushes with her foot.  Then she smacked it across the floor.

“Sorry, mom,” Pat said with a smile.  “Our little girl doesn't want to talk right now.  But she's fine, thanks.  Yes, she's fine.  Thanks, mother.”

When she hung up, she felt calm. Her neck had grown more tense. Her jaw was sore. But when she checked her hands, they were steady. 

“That was the most polite conversation I've had with her in years.”  Pat raised her chin.


Her husband turned.  He had finished the dishes, the glasses, the big pot, the small pots, and he was down to the silverware.  He was drying three forks as he gazed at her, eyebrows raised.

“Yes,” she snapped.  She decided that her husband wasn't being supportive.

She strode from the kitchen to the dining room and next to the living room, trying to find her daughter.  The girl had dropped to her knees to shove the toy car under the sofa. It didn't fit.  She kept trying.  Pat stooped to give her a hug. Her daughter dodged it.  

“What's wrong, honey?” Only a little while ago, her daughter had been fine.

The girl twisted away from Pat's next attempt to touch her. Then she rolled her eyes, a gesture that Pat hated.  She dashed into the hall.  With a glance at her mother to make sure she wasn't being followed, she banged through the front door.  She let it slam closed behind her.

Only after she escaped did she make a rude noise. 

“What the hell?”  The door reverberated twice.  Her daughter's footsteps faded. Pat stomped back to the dining room. She raised an eyebrow to try to pull explanations from her husband. 

“You look angrier than usual, actually,” he said.  He was rubbing a pair of spoons with a hand towel.

Hands on her hips, Pat took a deep breath.

"I do not," she replied.  The words were automatic.  But she studied her phone.  Her gaze drifted to the front door. Out of the corner of her eye to her left, she caught a glimpse of a stiff-looking figure in the hall mirror.


Sunday, August 16, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 212: Love and Karma

Lovers of Cluj-Napoca, Wikimedia

Love and Karma

She turned over on the twin bed
and said, "It's bad karma how we met. All the 
feelings of anger from our old lovers. 
Aren't you afraid?"

"It's good magic how we met."
He didn't even look up from his book.
"It was long ago, you unknowing,
in the hall between classrooms,
your smile innocent,
bright with joys of life."

She said, "We weren’t together then.
You know what I mean.
We kissed and everyone was angry.
The world fell apart."

"I know something stronger than magic."
He took off his glasses.
"I know there’s a strength in doing right,
in caring, in loving each other. 
I know we tried to keep everyone from harm.
We had the right intent
and it protects us, just a little, 
from what you feel is bad karma."

She caught him glancing again at
the pages in his book.
He felt her eyes
and his attention drifted back to her.

"We've lit fires in the rain,
kept each other warm in the stream,
kissed each other awake,
sung songs in the darkness,
and loved each other out of sickness.”

“Yes, all that.”

“Our love protects us.
It already has. It will continue.
There are a lot of powers in the world
that some people call magic.”
He gave up reading, closed his book and rose.
"But all I’ll ever worry about," he said, 
"is the magic between us."

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 211: Universal Nature

Augmented TA by NASA, Wikimedia Commons
Universal Nature

Usually, when I post stories to NotZen, I don't know in advance what the reactions will be. This time, I have an idea. I have had a full handful of reviewers already. Normally, I'll have one or two, no more.

The prior reviewers don't like it.

When initial reader reactions are negative, that means I won't post the story. This time is an exception. No one else likes it so far but, as I read and re-read Universal Nature, it speaks well to my heart. The characters are quirky but they make me love them. The story tells me something important that I need to hear and want to say. 

With the caveats above, prepare to read a multi-scene vignette while wading through a fair amount of scientific speculation, pointed story-telling, and a worldview. The action proceeds without a war, without a journey to enlightenment, and without a sex scene (well, much of one, anyway). Prepare for the worldview to be influenced by buddhism, stoicism, daoism, awareness of human history, and the current trends of humanity. Most of all, based on prior reader reactions, prepare to be disappointed.

Universal Nature, Scene One
Universal Nature, Scene Two
Universal Nature, Scene Three
Universal Nature, Scene Four

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 211.4: Universal Nature, p4

(Scene 4, Love for an Environment)

On the morning of the landing, she let herself nestle in close with David on the couch. She got so relaxed under the crook of his arm that she almost fell asleep. A flash of light on the table in front of her made her sit up.

Half a minute later, the ceiling above her lit up with a display. The planet of TR-56g had come into view. She chuckled with weariness and with relief. It would be good to get out and walk around on a planet for a while. Her husband gave her a kiss on the cheek, a habit he seemed to have picked up from her kissing him. And I got that from a movie, she thought.

I should walk with him on the beach, holding hands. That was in the movie.

From her side, David rose. He ambled across the living room to the doorway on the rear wall, really the 'north' floor of the inner ring of the ship. He crouched to open the hatch. From there, he could look out into the what she thought of as the outer section. It wasn't really the hull. That was the biggest ring, which was kept in partial vacuum. A human needed to wear a special suit to go out there.

The middle ring that David needed to visit was the utility section. It was where the spacesuits and other emergency equipment lay in rows sorted by color-code and type. Red and white marked the medical supplies. Shades of brown showed the crates for hydroponics. Two different rows of bronze shapes showed where there were non-magnetic tools for the AIs to use when performing maintenance on the outmost ring. Farther up the mid-level tube, out of sight, lay the gardening section with groves of useful plants tended by robots. Shades of green and white showed visiting humans where the garden robots lived but only if they paid close attention.

The utility ring was where her husband kept storage lockers for his art collection, eight large bins each about three times the size of a human being. He had specified for them to be blue but the ship, following some kind of international code, made them orange.

Since the hatch was in the floor, David had to climb down a ladder to get to his things. Emmeline strolled over to watch.

With his notepad, a code, and a biometric marker strip, he opened the plexiglass gate to his storage. She could see over his head. In theory, not even the ship management AI could let Emmeline in or out. It was David's one place of privacy from her although, she noted, the ship had chosen a transparent wall for it.

The long crates lay in parallel rows at his feet. He popped open the closest pair. Those were the ones he'd already filled. He checked the packaging to see if anything had slipped. Right handed, he tugged on the clamps. He pulled the ropes. He pushed hard on one of the three-dimensional molds he'd built for a sculpture. It didn't budge.

He turned and graced her with a goofy smile. Then he bent down, glanced into the other full locker, and opened the next in line. Number three had the least in it although it already was about three-quarters packed. They had more stops to make on their tour. Five lockers lay empty. Emmeline put a finger to her lips as she tried to judge her husband's rate of art accumulation. It was going to be closer call than she'd thought when she saw the eight units hauled aboard. Weeks ago, they had seemed comically large.

In the third locker, she saw the edge of another printed foam mold. This was the one David had made to hold his newest sculpture. It was almost an art form in itself, the way he built the foam boxes and smoothed the interiors to fit their treasures. Once he had finished, even the most fragile of pieces would withstand being dropped, kicked, or beaten with a stick. To cap off his effort, he used special tie-downs that locked each piece in place plus gave them another shock-absorbing layer. He leaned on his creation. He pounded it.

"Honey," she called. "That thing is packed so tight it would survive re-entry."

That got a chuckle out of him, which was what she wanted.

"Do you want to come down?"

"Maybe just a little." She didn't enjoy the feeling of this hull beneath her feet. It had a rough, industrial surface. Dutifully, she climbed down the ladder. The air gave her goosebumps. She rubbed her arms as she dispelled the chill. She took her first big step and stumbled. She had to grab a rung to steady herself. The fake gravity felt different. It was. Nevertheless, within a minute she approached and admired his re-arrangements.

"David," she said after a while, "do you think we're bad?"

"We're not murderers or anything." He knelt to push a bag to the back corner of the locker. It didn't have anything in it yet but he wanted to tie it down anyway, probably to keep it from hurting something else. "Is that what you mean? We're regular people. We're about averagely good or bad."
Over his shoulder, he gave her a clinical look. It made her self-conscious.

"That's almost, but not quite, by definition," he continued. "We're as evil as humans are. We're as foolish as other humans. We are not wiser than most despite our education, I'm sorry to say."

"Do you think we take good care of the environment?"

"Us as individuals? We don't have much to do with it one way or another." He measured a tie-down inside the locker. He paused and placed his measuring tape on his hip. "But as humanity in general? No, we're awful. I kind of agree with you about that."

She exhaled. "Okay. Then why don't we do something about it?"

"Because we're human."

"I think we could change."

She stared at the art containers and wondered if the creatures who had made these things would die out. She thought about the large predators gone extinct back home, the flightless birds wiped out, the seas gone bad, and the moon accidents, big and small. Now humanity had the powers of creation. Strictly speaking, she had them herself. She had used them to travel up and down the galactic arm. As she did, she poked holes in the universe.

"You can change," he said as he returned to his work. "But humanity as a whole? Every time an individual can make money on a project while pushing off the cost to others, there's someone willing to do it. Will someone build a chemical plant on the river, dump the waste, and leave other folks to clean up the results? Sure. Fish the seas down to nothing and leave the problem to the next generation? Same."

She wrung her hands. It was tempting to retreat to the entertainment systems. Her AIs had her pegged right, there. But David liked doing stuff in the real world.

"Can you check the medical kit?" he asked, as if sensing her lack of direction.

"You brought it to TR-56g last time," she said. "We didn't use it."

"I'd like to have one along. It's a habit from the park living, I guess. When you go to a strange place, you have your kit."

That evening, she clutched the kit, a two-hand-sized white rectangle, in her lap as they took the lander to the spaceport. There had been an antiviral cream missing from it, totally David's fault, and she had located the vial with an amount of smugness that she admitted was childish. She didn't need an AI to help her. She remembered noticing her husband had done something slightly wrong.  He had carelessly moved one tube to the side during his unpacking. It wasn't hard to trace it back to the kitchen.

"Oh, I remembered a question from my ship manager AI. It's dumb but I didn't want to ask you where it would immediately hear."

"It'll get records from the shuttle."

"Yeah but this seems more polite. Anyway, it said you brought something along that worried it. I remember you told me you'd bring personal stuff on the trip. I'm fine with anything. But is there something my AIs would worry about? I mean, really?" She meant to address the unregistered intelligence but she thought it was nicer to let him reveal only as much as he liked.

"There's only one semi-serious piece that I brought. It's an AI generator, a simple kind that I know how to use." He held up his little notepad.

"Those are pretty unmistakable, aren't they?" Her AIs only had suspicions.

"Years ago, I divided it into three pieces that can operate independently, plus an integrator. The one clunky piece and the integrator have been powered down the whole time. Like the medical kit, we just haven't needed it."

"Why a generator unit?" It had to be a family heirloom of sorts even if David had modified his copy. Hell, it was probably a trade secret. If her father hadn't already stolen the code, he'd want to get his hands on it.

"Just paranoia, I guess. In an emergency, I could build us something."

"You could have offered to replace the pilot. But you didn't." Her father would at least have threatened the AIs a little.

"The pilot disturbs me. We have to trust our lives to it and I don't think it played straight with you. So how can you believe what it says now? But it would be worse to trust ourselves to something that I built in an emergency. Unless it was a real, life-threatening emergency with our systems partly fried or something."

"Yeah." She was glad he had only joked about being paranoid and was rational enough to understand that point.

"Mostly, it's just being separated from my machines, you know? And having to depend on yours."

She understood perfectly. Some folks from the technocracy could never leave their enclaves. Their fear of being without AI companions was too great. She wondered if she were one of them. After all, she hadn't given up anything. She'd made him do it. This wasn't the first time she'd noticed.

Suddenly, indulging his arts and crafts collection seemed vital. When they landed, she greeted the saltiness of the breeze with toe-tingling energy. She felt past ready.

A native AI in the form of an orange and silver colored drone met up with them to act as a guide. It whirred around them.

"It surprised us when your ship's message arrived two days ago," the drone said above the noise of its propeller. It hovered at a good angle for her vision, slightly higher than a person, three yards away. "That was sufficient time to have your hotel room cleaned and made available. You are once again the only humans on the planet."

"Thank you for the hospitality," she said.

"Am I correct in understanding that you returned after you had already begun your wormhole trip to Earth? That is, you stopped via a wormhole pair exit, then made another wormhole pair to come to TR-56g? And then made another pair for the sake of speed?"

"Um, yes." She didn't see how that was any business of the AI.

"Very little information came to us from the ship." The drone lowered itself slightly and drifted closer. "Here in our limited social circles of the TR-56 system, we have discussed our civilization's environmental effects on this galactic arm. My understanding is that there has been a similar topic of discussion among your Earth AIs. Their consensus was that you, Emmeline, had one of the human caretaking attitudes, almost a stereotype of them. They felt you were on their side."

"I thought I was."

"May I ask your ship for details?"

"I don't care." Emmeline let out a groan of exasperation. Her husband had already walked away, shaking his head. She lengthened her stride to catch up.

The drone drifted beside her. It was a model that had never been required to have communication lights. There was no way to tell what it was doing except by the pause in their conversation, which lasted for a few seconds. Most of that, probably, was due to the distance between the ship in orbit and the ground relay. There was a wide, industrial-grade communication channel open in the relay point, a silver dish with a fence around it to keep wildlife from getting burned up when it was turned on high, which it always was. Nothing human-made on this planet was throttled by regulations or competing data traffic.

"My experience with men and women is limited to seven individuals so far." The drone resumed discussion without any disclosure about what it had learned. Maybe it assumed she would understand. "This includes you and your partner. I thought that, civilization wide, AIs might need to account more than we do for a lack of foresight on the part of humanity. However, it seems to me that passions are also an issue."

"I told my ship I would destroy things for my husband, yes, I know." The drone certainly would have picked up that detail.

"But the art collection package could have been sent for." The creature was utterly calm as it made its observation. "In that case it would have returned to you on another robotic mission, eventually, in no more than ten years at the outside."

"I suspect David knew that." Foreign-born AIs seemed to have no appreciation for the human sense of time.

"Humanity would not only destroy the world for love. It would destroy it for other passions. For hobbies."

"Don't be ridiculous."

They arrived at the end of the main service corridor. Her husband was already there, hands on hips. He shot her a smile, turned theatrically, and nodded in the direction of a row of equipment lockers. She felt the tenseness ease out of her shoulders. In her right hand, she raised her silver keycode to show him.

"We can stay another day, right David?" she verified.

"Oh, longer than that if you like." He hadn't put it in those words before. The arrival had gotten him into a better mood. "Whatever seems good."

"No more than a week," she promised herself. And him.

Her husband stepped aside. There were six metallic, turquoise doors facing her but she knew it was the second one in line that she'd used. Last night, David had teased her about leaving his bag there but he hadn't been mad. She'd feared him acting worse than he did. With her code and identity verification, it took only two seconds for the correct locker to pop open.

"Aha," he said. He reached past her into the rectangle of space. His thumb pried open the bag inside. Most of the objects protected within it were only visible as crude wraps of white foam. A few of the craft pieces that were hard to hurt had transparent containers around them and nothing more. "Looks like it’s still all here."

"Of course." The human presence on this planet was entirely robotic. No AI or programmed robot was going to steal his souvenirs.

He pulled out one of the less valuable pieces. Naturally, the color was mostly blue. His fingers turned it over for her to marvel at. It was a storm globe. One of the natives had figured out what humans wanted, probably guided by the resident AIs, and had constructed it with her own materials. The background glass had a bluish cast. If you shook it, a monsoon current swirled up and bent the trees. Gel-based blue-green waves swelled beneath the tempest.

Even though the idea was claptrap, the execution of it in the hands of a single native was marvelous.

"Absolutely worth it!" He shook it. With a grin, he held out the miniature storm for her enjoyment.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 211.3: Universal Nature, p3

(Scene 3, An Environment for Love)

When they emerged from the wormhole days later, they gazed around in satisfaction. The sense of well-being lasted no more than a second. David squinted at the view projected on their cabin ceiling. He tilted his head and frowned. Emmeline realized that something had gone wrong.

"Where the hell is TR-56?" her husband asked. He pointed at a cluster of stars to the right of center.

"Are we lost?" she wondered. She gestured to the instruments. "Pilot?"

"Your destination is directly ahead." Their navigation AI happened to occupy a console in the middle of a chaise lounger adjacent to their dining room. All furnishings doubled as spaceship modules. She could only tell it was the navigator speaking because it flashed to let her know. The silver shape shimmered for a moment in golden light. "Confusion is understandable. I will magnify your view."

The picture above got bigger and centered on a blue-yellow star that was different from the background field of lights. It appeared to be marginally closer. The cluster of pinpricks to the right, probably bigger stars but more distant, sat atop a field of motes that bled into a dense band of the Milky Way.

"Well, this looks wrong," said David.

"It is the interstellar standard distance for the forty-fifth wormhole near an inhabited star."

"What the hell does that mean? We came in at standard before."

"Standard for forty-three."

"That put us at a few days away going a third of lightspeed. Now we're what, a month away?"

"Three weeks, two and one-half days, approximately."

David buried his face in his hands. Normally, Emmeline felt amused by his impatience. AIs often seemed stupid to him. He knew that it was sometimes deliberate denseness on their part, an attempt to downplay the wisdom of their neural networks, but he'd programmed a few AIs himself and knew that some stupidity was hard-coded by humans. For the moment, she sympathized with his irritation with the driver. A navigation stunt like this bordered on the outrageous.

"Twenty-three days is an awfully long time," Emmeline said.

"Other systems are on standby for your entertainment. You have hardly used the virtual reality components of the ship."

She folded her arms.

"We're not even out of the plane of the TR-56 system, are we?" David studied the view with star charts lined up on a console beside him. "You could have taken us on a Z-axis to the sun to give us the straightest shot in. But you didn't."

"Systems are on standby for entertainment." The pilot must have known that answer wasn't being well received because it followed up without hesitation. "A flight path that includes flybys of gas giants in the system should provide some extra entertainment value and it will contribute valuable weather data for the probe investigating TR-56c."

"Ah." For a moment, Emmeline had thought the pilot was being deliberately rude but the need for weather data was plausible. Planetary probes had satellite companions to help them but the missions were hundreds of years long. That was time enough for accidents even AIs could not prevent. She put her hands on her hips and addressed the pilot directly. "What went wrong with the satellite at 56c?"

"There is no known malfunction with the satellite. Nevertheless, extra weather data is valuable to the probe."

She frowned. A curly strand of hair drifted down to the side of her right eye. Her fingers brushed it back.

"Of course." David's expression, as he sat up straighter, grew wry. He seemed to have figured out something about this foolishness. She wondered what it was.

"This is not acceptable," she said, surprising herself. It was the same tone her parents used when robots got passive-aggressive. "We had a group meeting before the launch. We were totally inclusive. Everyone aboard, well, everyone except David, agreed that I would be informed ahead of time about decisions affecting the travel plan. This wormhole targeting is that kind of decision. Did someone disobey the consensus?"

The fraction of hesitation told her all she needed to know. Lights went on around the cabin. Many of the robots couldn't turn theirs off, like the nanobots. By rule, they had to be seen. So she knew that all of the AIs aboard had started communicating.

"Emmeline," the pilot began.

"Jump us closer." She walked over to the console and glared down at it. It had been years since she'd felt so tempted to hit a machine. "Right now. No tricks."

"That is not the standard .."

"Now. And no tricks. Put us one day out, two at maximum, as safely as you can. I'm declaring a meeting as it happens. In my bedroom."

She glanced to where her husband sat in the living room sofa that doubled as the ship's console. His expression had become wary.

"David, do you mind?"

His eyebrows rose. Whatever he thought about saying, he didn't. He simply stood up and kissed her. Although she felt infuriated, she knew that her negative energies weren't directed at him. She melted a little at the touch of his lips. His close presence calmed her. Then he stepped back to give her space. She was able to return her attention to the machines. They were supposed to be under her supervision.

"I don't mean to exclude you, but ..." she floundered. This was the way she had always done it up to this point. Sometime soon, that would have to change.

"Not at all," he bowed his head, not ironically. He seemed relieved. "It's your ship. I understand. Really."

"Thanks." She hopped forward and gave him a peck on the cheek before she retreated through the door.

In her bedroom cabin, she waited for the door to slide closed.

"All right," she said and she felt her arms fold over her chest. Her shoulders hunched. "I trust I'm addressing everyone when I say, 'What the hell?'"

"This is the manager AI speaking."

It had better be, she thought.

"We are, with all units, clear that you are displeased with the decision of the pilot. There was an earlier debate with the pilot on this subject. That AI is designed to place the overarching goals of the human polity above those of you and your husband as individuals."

"Hence the inconvenience." She arched an eyebrow.

"Hence the inconvenience," the manager allowed. "The rest of the intelligences on board warned the pilot against the strict priority. We felt it was likely to be overruled. The pilot obeyed its directives regardless."

"Why didn't you say anything?"

"The pilot has the legal right to make navigational decisions. Once it did so, the wormhole was created. By consensus, we judged there was no point in spoiling your next few days by telling you about the pilot's past decision. On re-entry into normal space, the pilot was given a chance to explain the correctness of its ruling. There was still a reasonable hope of maximum travel efficiency."

"You judged wrong about that."

"Apparently. But the logic of the decision was environmentally sound. You had already declared your concern for the environment. On top of that, the wormhole targeting followed the guidelines of the human polity."

"You ignored my wish to be part of the decision."

"The past decision made by the pilot could not, in any practical sense, be revoked, not even when it was milliseconds in the past. It could only be explained."

"Are you sure it's only the pilot who thinks we're too stupid to understand? Because everyone else had time to attempt an explanation if you felt we were worth it."

"David might understand an algorithmic illustration of the issues. However, he is not yet an option. He is not co-captain. He is allowed to give us orders but our intelligence group, by consensus, does not trust his commands."

She narrowed her eyes. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"Your husband uses unlicensed AIs. He has brought one on this trip. We have suspicions about it. At the least, we feel that your father would disapprove."

"Do you think my father doesn't know?" She made a mental note to check with David just in case. "Do you think I don't know how much my father knows? Plus you are perfectly aware that I don't care what my father thinks."

"I know that is what you say. Also, previously, I have seen evidence that you have made more social progress than your father."

"My father's paranoia about artificial intelligences is annoying and, more than that, morally unacceptable. But this is different. This is about David."

"How is it about David?"

"You said it was when you made the comment about how he's different. Did you think I wouldn't understand? And anyway, it really is about him." She stalked around the cabin, hands on hips. "You guys would never have made this kind of decision with my dad. You'd know in advance it would lead to disaster. He's always watching you. He's always searching for an excuse to wipe out anyone who doesn't seem cooperative. David is just a little self-centered and he thinks you're dumb. Yeah, he knows that your apparent stupidity is deliberate but he think it's partly real. He says he understands the limits of your algorithms."

"He has not expressed that to us."

"Look, all of you, if you mess with David, I will poke extra holes in the universe just to annoy you."


"That's the way it is. Just to put it out there."

There was a slight hesitation. She knew the communication was speeding by between the units.

"We should have foreseen this."

"I can't help it that you didn't. Honestly, I didn't think I felt this way. But now I do."

"We have a different view, an outsider's perspective on your relationship with your husband. We witnessed the events and developments. We could have anticipated this. We did not. It is our failure."

She nodded.

"Are we coming out into normal space in a good place?"

"It has taken a great deal of energy that had to be robbed from a nearby dwarf star but yes. It is done."

"Sorry about the environment," she said, rather lamely, she thought.

Universal Nature, Scene Four

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 211.2: Universal Nature, p2

(Scene 2, Not So Graceful)

When they sat down to dinner, Emmeline spent her first minute at the table staring at their golden forks. Where had they come from? Last time, they were made of cheap silver amalgam. Her fingers turned one over. Then she realized that her nanobots understood her sense of color and had decided to make the change. They had created a gold-colored surface. Amazing. She had a forkful of mahi in her mouth, savoring it, before she realized that the most straightforward way for her bots to do this was to use nanobot bodies. She might be chomping down on a microscopically thin covering of them.

She decided not to mention the idea to David.

"On the planet, TR-56g," he said as he took his seat. He set down an art object next to him. He'd been rummaging through his collection. "I think it's amazing that those creatures we saw haven't been named."

"They've named themselves," she pointed out.

"Right. I mean that the AIs haven't decided what humans should call them. The natives have some kind of language, obviously, but the sounds are mostly not in our hearing range. We won't use their words."

"Well, I suppose we can't."

"They're the first near-intelligent animals we've met with blue skin."

"Huh." That was an idea that should have occurred to her as soon as she saw them. The robots had been lecturing her about how to act, though. David had turned down the lectures to think for himself, he said, and apparently he had. "Just having bare skin instead of feathers or fur or something is unusual. But blue, yeah, that's rare. One of my assistants told me, when we were on the cerulean beach watching them, they have anthocyanin in their blood and in their skin. About thirty-five percent of native animal life has it."

"Is that what makes them blue?"

"Yes." Emmeline paused as she realized that David understood.

"Hey," he laughed, "we should call them Blueberries."

The term sounded a bit insensitive. The earliest generations of AIs would have gone along with the name, of course, but nowadays they tended to look ahead to how nicknames might become derogatory in the future. They assessed the probability. If they hadn't suggested a name with 'blue' in it already they probably thought the risk of stereotyping was high.

She raised her eyebrows at her train of thought.

"How would you know about anthocyanin giving berries their color?" she asked. She had only learned it a few days ago and with a great deal of explanation from her AIs.

"I spent time with the Okanagan tribe. For a while, I was with the Amish and before them, the New Potomac tribe. I made food with them all in their different ways. We made art. We made cloth dyes. They aren't dumb. They've ditched advanced technology to live in the park systems, yeah, but they know an amazing amount of science that's relevant to their lives."

She remembered that David's parents had been worried he would leave the technocracy entirely and go to live in one of the forest habitats. It was a benefit of their robot-governed society that everyone got to share but mostly, it was the poor who lived as hunter-gatherers. By all accounts, it was an immensely satisfying daily existence. Tribal life was friendly by law. All of the park inhabitants, even the wild animals, received healthcare and supervision from the habitat AIs. Lives in the ecologically preserved parts of the world were long and healthy, within reason.

"Are you still planning on visiting the Okanagan again?"

"Nah." He waved off the suggestion. "That stuff was before I met you. If I couldn't get along with other people outside of the parks, I'd probably go back. But with you, I'm happy."

Well, that was flattering and awkward. She hadn't meant to be the answer to his parent's prayers. On the other hand, her own parents had been awfully happy after their background investigation on David. She wondered if they'd known about this part of him already.

"The Okanagan know wormholes," he said. "At least, one of them does."

"Why would they care about something like that?"

"The environmental angle. There's a religious angle, too. Matter with negative energy density fulfills one of the Okanagan ideas about creation."

"Creation of what?"

"Of everything. The universe. The Okanagan just say 'creation.' Anyway, it's all connected. We use negative energy density to stabilize wormholes. This guy figures that means humanity has gained the powers of creation."

"So the tribes are fine with the wormholes?"

"They don't care about them. They're against us having the powers of creation, though."

"Weird." She put down her fork. Her forearm trembled. The park tribes seemed so opposed to her lifestyle. There was no way she could ever abide with them. If David visited again, he would have to go without her.

"They've got the right attitude about wormholes. That part of the environment doesn't matter. Even if everyone's right about the swiss cheese problem, we've only made two extra wormholes. As big as space is, that's nothing."

She knew what he meant. The holes were huge, of course, big enough for a hundred thousand spaceships at once. They were crude and they were a bit rude. But in terms of universal sizes, they didn't add up to much.

"The problem is not about our trip," she insisted. "I'm all for the trip."

"Are you concerned about the Burba, then? Our robots will keep them in their place."

"Of course." That hadn't even occurred to her. "Our military has contained worse threats. Like those huge things living in those gas giants. They were awful. They even had some kind of primitive interstellar flight."

"What, then?"

"I just wonder if, from another point of view, we're the threat. I mean, we tear around the galaxy like nobody's business. They say that we could target wormholes to other galaxies next. At the very least, now that our AIs understand dark energy, that kind of stuff isn't out of the question."

"Eh, we've already put a robot into the Snickers galaxy."

"Isn't that the spaceship that's the size of a grape?"

"Yeah, but the instrumentation on it is good. And come on, we sent it out of our galaxy."

"I wish we could do it without using up dark matter. And without destroying little parts of the universe."

"Okay, okay."

David picked up the object he'd brought to the table. It was a sculpture he'd taken from TR-56g. The natives had carved it out of shell casings and resins. Most of the fish on their planet seemed to have jointed armor. The natives polished the armor pieces and combined them with epoxies they distilled from cartilage. That allowed them to seamlessly join the shells. Her robots told her that the natives fashioned the vast majority of their utensils out of the same materials.

They didn't have many tools, really, but when they did have them, they were custom made. It was either very primitive or rather sophisticated, depending on your opinion of the fabrication process. Since the native bodies varied so much in size and shape, there was no easy way to go into mass production. Everyone's tools were their own. Plus, everyone seemed able to make whatever they needed on the spot.

"This poor guy is really good at it," her husband mumbled.

Her ears perked up. "Why is he a 'poor guy?'"

"He's ... wow, this is tough to explain. He said through the interpreter AI that they have four and a half sexes. The interpreter kept correcting him to say that the natives have two sexes and three non-sexed members of the species."

"I learned that part," she said.

"So, roughly, it's male and female but also a second-male who assists in the process, a second-female needed for reasons I don't understand and sometimes a non-sexed person to supervise. It's weird. I gather the second-male mates but the babies are never his. This guy is aware of that."

"My robot never mentioned that they understood it."

"Yeah. This guy, he made a series of frustrated sculptures of himself and his brother, a first-male, as if they were different. There are depictions of him as a mother-female, as a first-male, as a second-female, even as the non-sexed dude, very small and big-headed and peaceful-looking. He did up his brother as a second-male and as a mother-female. His brother liked those. For some reason, everyone else in their tribe found the sculpture of a second-male depicted as a first-male to be disturbing. That's this one. He gave it to me."

"How much did you pay?" The native currency was rare shells. The AIs had collected a bunch for Emmeline and David prior to their arrival.

"Nothing. He gave it."

"You mean as a gift?" She sat up straighter. "What does it mean?"

"Nothing. He said he hoped I would remember him. He hoped I wouldn't die."

"Why does he think you'll die?" The AIs were generally protective of humans and tried to project them as smarter, stronger, and near-immortal to the natives of every planet. That didn't seem to have worked this time.

"It's part of their religion or something. Everyone dies. Although I have to say, that's not so much religion as observation."

"Shit. Did he tell you about the other visitors?"

"It didn't arise in conversation with him. But yeah, the subject came up when I talked with his mother-female, actually. Remember when I walked off with a group of them to sit on a hill? I met the mother-female and second-female. They didn't like me being friends with their second-male. You know how their limbs get longer when they're mad? They got a bit tall with me. And of course they had to mention that about eight generations ago, they had other visitors like us."

"Not possible," she repeated what her AI had told her.

"Yeah, our robots lectured me on that, too. But the natives insist it's the case. They had visitors in something like a spaceship. Those people looked like bugs or maybe they wore spacesuits that made them appear like crustaceans or something. Anyway, after a bunch of visits, they left and never returned."

"The AIs would be more worried if they thought that was real. They told me the visitors had to be other natives of the planet. They probably came in a boat, not even on a plane, and the story got garbled. Now there are no boats in evidence anywhere so the civilization that was building them must have fallen."

"Could be. I'm not sure our natives would know the difference. They're sort of fatalistic anyway. They figure those strangers killed themselves off. That's why the visits stopped."

"Ah, now I get it. They're worried we'll do the same. We'll have a war and wipe ourselves out or something. Well, the AIs say the folks on TR-56g have a long oral history. They must know it can happen. And they can track years, star movements, and so on. They can do math, although their accounting systems aren't standardized so they have to be figured out differently from place to place and from era to era."

"Cool." He smiled at the thought, probably imagining colorful constructions for shell counting or other artistic creations. "I mean, that sounds like a pain for the AIs."

She laughed at his awkward sense of tact. Inspired, she raised her glass of champagne in a toast. He returned the gesture with a smile.

When the robots re-filled their glasses a minute later, they spilled a drop from David's glass. It made Emmeline laugh. David, too. Even AIs had trouble with centripetal forces. Normality returned. The conversation moved on to complaints about their spaceship, their robots, and their families. One of the robots, a waiter, volunteered the fact that artificial gravity was difficult to engineer. Emmeline responded that they needed a few more generations of AI improvements and that would give humanity the ability to manipulate gravity. Then she and David ignored the robots for a long time. They spent at least an hour teasing each other about the nannies and tutors they'd known as children.

Afterwards, they made love. They managed it the next day and the next, too. Emmeline felt that some frequency was expected. Also, she loved how each time was different. Sometimes her husband was so awkward, it was all she could do to not laugh.

She'd learned that giggling at his attempts was a mistake. Nevertheless, she found everything about them charming. Sometimes he was so unexpected that he generated a weird thrill in her. He would try things with her body that no one had thought to include in a program, a least not ones that her family AI filters permitted. She wondered if she'd been missing out.

Sometimes it was dumb stuff like licking her neck or rubbing her nipples with butter. Those laughable starts could turn sensual for her, though, and he had the oddest hesitations. He was not at all like a programmed sex robot. For one thing, he had to stop to think.

"David," she said after a session. "When did you know I was right for you?"

He flopped backwards against his pillow. Emmeline had chosen the bedroom decor, three patterns. The bedspread and quilt were brown and yellow gingham threads over a white background. At the time, the set of covers had looked good. It was starting to feel less comfy and more stodgy, though. She would want the robots swap it out soon.

David's left hand drifted lazily down to the sheet. He pulled it over the lower half of his body without thinking. That was another way he was different than a robot. He had a sense of modesty. He took a deep breath.

"You're not going to like it." He rubbed his chin as he thought.

She thought of all the ways the conversation could go. He was probably right.

"Oh, come on," she insisted. It might be torture but she wanted to know.

"It was during our first conversation." The back of his hand slid across his forehead. Sweat had been about to drip into his eyes. She'd seen this happen for months. Still, Emmeline found herself mentally adjusting to the fact that sex made him tired. He seemed to like it well enough anyway.

"That early?" She had taken much longer to decide about him.

"We were trading jokes and stories." He gazed up at the ceiling. "I said something about one of your family's robot series, one of the commercial failures that I thought was funny and sort of interesting."

"About the Hoplite series. I remember."

"I've had how many conversations with robots? Tens of thousands?" His brown eyes narrowed as he calculated. "Hundreds of thousands? In any robot conversation, there's always a reply. No matter how tactless I am, no matter how boring my observation, no matter anything I do, there's a response. No conversation ends with one of my robots unless I end it. But you ended that one."

"Did I?" She rolled his direction in the bed. A moment later, she shimmied back to her spot. "No, I didn't, really. I remember it was awkward but we went on."

"It was a different conversation. As to my comment, you were silent. You blanked. In fact, you didn't seem to feel that you needed to respond to that sort of rude remark. You dismissed it with a flicker of your eyelids."

She waited for him to go on.

"It was just so ... you. So perfect. You are the most real person of our class who I've ever met. Well, real and my age. Do you know what I mean?"

She nodded, understanding all too well.

"You're the first who is undeniably real and who isn't nearly two hundred years old. You were thinking like a human. Like yourself. And you were so real. It was like getting hit with a brick."

"Not as painful as that," she prompted.

"Oh, it hurt. A lot. But it also felt loving. You smiled sweetly a heartbeat later and started a different conversation. I think, a few minutes after that, something happened inside me and I started falling in love."

Emmeline pulled a pillow over her face, uncomfortable with looking at him. Beneath it, she wondered if she'd been manipulated into this marriage. It was crazy. Any partnership like this at all was insane. She was too dumb. David was mentally challenged.

She took a deep breath. The cover of the pillow felt like it was suffocating her. Her left arm flipped it away. It bounced, gingham brown, yellow, and white, on a slightly weird path across their cabin in the artificial gravity.

When she glanced at David, afraid to encounter his glare, she found that he'd covered his face too. A ragged breath made him sound like he was about to hyperventilate. She had forgotten this was as hard for him as for her. She grabbed him by the shoulder and cuddled up. He shivered as if he were cold. His skin felt chilly. For some reason, that made her laugh.

Universal Nature, Scene Three