Monthly Archives: August 2013

Proteus

In March of 1992, the following story was posted to a Usenet discussion about processors. The poster’s identity has not been verified. The JPEG that follows is the only known attachment to the article.

 

The [redacted] County school system came into an unprecedented governmental windfall, the donation of 30 new computers. While free, they were not without their drawbacks. The brand, Proteus, was not a local business presence and the tech support number was notoriously hard to locate(etched directly on the motherboard casing.) The boxes were also lacking any kind of instructions or supplemental material. This was rendered more or less moot by the computer’s being fully loaded upon arrival. Once booted up, the computers proved to be totally incompatible with the school’s DOS-based systems. However, they came loaded with their own in-house educational programs, with titles like “Circus Math” and “Doodlebug,” that passed staff muster. 27 of the computers were set up, with three withheld in case of breakdown.

In the coming weeks the staff noticed an increase in agitation among the children. Older students would get frustrated at the “baby games” installed and demand that they be allowed to re-apply for their scores, despite staff’s continued reassurance that the computational score had no effect on their grade. Younger students were prone to anxiety, often freezing up on basic math equations well below their level. One of the computers was taken out of commission when staff found a fourth-grader taking apart the tower, ostensibly to fix it. After ensuring the child did not receive any kind of medical harm, the staff member boxed the model and rotated out one of the other three.

Two staff members, Robert [redacted], graduate of MIT, and Pieter [redacted] took an interest in the computers, having observed them from afar. Utilizing one of the reserve computers, they resolved to first play through each program over the weekend, and then examine the coding for any unseen errors. They decided to alternate, one playing three games in a row and the other observing. Robert, the first test player, noticed a slight rise in anxiety despite the simple nature of the games. They played through the list of fifteen original games and, aside from an increased heart rate and slight adrenal fatigue, they noticed nothing out of the ordinary.

The two then decided to try the “broken” computer. The tower had been given a temporary repair and worked buggily, resulting in delayed response time and loss of coordination due to cursor lag. Robert noticed an almost immediate difference in program response, tips appearing on-screen to encourage the user to get the highest score possible, stressing the importance of performance. This continued on through all programs, even the document writer dubbed “Scribe.” Rather than indicate a misspelled word, the word “no” in all capital letters would flash on-screen, taking up 90% of the display. This happened so quickly that the first few instances went unnoticed by the teachers. The second oddity was the score displayed at the “end” of the document, counting misspelled words and forgotten punctuation.

The final shock came upon completion of the original fifteen games. A window automatically opened up on-screen, displaying a top-down game similar to Centipede already in mid-play. The soundtrack was a steadily building crescendo, found by the teachers to be unnerving. Robert, the odd teacher out, was tasked with handling the game while Pieter watched and made observations.

The actual gameplay consisted of a squat, “tank” figure chasing smaller, pink figures. At first the teachers assumed that the player controlled the pink running figures, but found the controls were for the tank. What were taken to be inspirational phrases flashed on-screen, almost totally unnoticed by the player but noted by Pieter. Peppered among such fare as “don’t give up!” and “save them!” were oddities as “where do you begin?” and “do you think anyone saw that?”

Even after 36 continuous hours of play, neither teacher was able to reach an end level. Rather, the game increased to almost sadistic difficulty.

Monday arrived and the two brought their findings to the school administration, who were understandably concerned. The hunt for the support number began, and the two continued their research. Several screenshots were taken during this time, which follow this account. In addition to the phrases, Robert noticed there were split-second “static” screens, one of which he captured with some difficulty. They then set upon the coding, which was hidden behind walls of encryption.  They extracted only one phrase, curiously repeated throughout lines of gibberish, “wheat from the chaff.”

This discovery coincided with the location of the tech support number, which provided only periodic beeping noises. The next day, a man in an unmarked uniform arrived at the school, claiming he was responding to their complaint. The staff found it odd that he produced details specific to their case, as the call had consisted of the school name and repeated inquiries to whether there was a human operator available. He quickly loaded up all computers located at the school, and agreed amiably to return the next day for the last three models. The school summoned Robert to the building. During that time, his house was burgled thoroughly, the three Proteus models taken and his other processors damaged beyond repair. Pieter took a sick day and never came back in for work.

Note: the following picture is the only surviving shot of a set that was taken by the teachers during their investigation.  It is ostensibly one of the “static” screens encountered during gameplay.

screen

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Ink

It was Friday night and he stood at the crest of the street, with a wad of his severance pay clutched in one sweaty fist. He had made a conscious decision to be completely irresponsible with it; it would not go toward food or anything useful. He would blow it on experience. A colorful scar. A well-worn cliché. He would get a tattoo.

Old town was festooned with them. He had his pick of franchises, scary back-alley deals, and family mom-and-pop style places where children ran the till. On a whim, he went to one of those first. A tiny Chinese girl waited the counter, smiled at his money, and called back to someone behind a beaded curtain. An old man hobbled out, possibly her grandfather.

Studiously ignoring the money, the old man made an upward sweeping motion with his hand.

“Take off your shirt.”

He complied.

The old man examined him for a moment before making a tut-tut noise and turning away.

“No good,” he called back, “can’t do.”

He shrugged it off, thanked the girl to blushing, and set out into the night.

The next place was called the “Odditorium” and doubled as a kitschy artifact shop. A  Fiji Mermaid hung over the sign, a two-headed goat under glass shared the counter with the register and a bowl marked “humbugs.” He smiled at the clerk of ambiguous gender and neon hair and slid his money across the counter. The clerk stopped him with a hand.

“Wait.”

The smile froze on his face. There was a minute’s muffled conversation in the next room, and a tall man with a flaming red Mohawk joined the clerk at the counter. He cocked his head and scrutinized the customer. Apparently nothing to his liking. Bolster returned to his cliffs.

“Give him his money back,” the giant called back over his shoulder.

Iration gave him back his tongue. “Wait,” he snapped pettishly, “why?”

He found himself nearly eye-to-navel with the giant.

“I need a reason?” the man grunted.

He collected his dignity and left.

What had been hope faded to disappointment as the story repeated itself in every parlor, every storefront he stopped into. He had not been entirely married to the idea in the first place, had even entertained the notion of backing out once the first pinprick fell, but the rejection now strengthened his resolve. It wasn’t the tattoo anymore.

The women down by the co-op who did theirs traditional soot-and-thread style rejected him. The Laotians locked the door behind him. A young man, neck to nuts Maori blue swirls, cracked his knuckles defensively as his sister, the artist, ushered the would-be customer out.

It was nearly the end of the night, the second night that starts not at sundown, but when day-shoppers retire to bed and those that live beyond daylight awaken, and he was dead on his feet.

There was one last sign. Jiro Tattoo.

He had just stopped to ponder whether it was grammatically incorrect, or whether “Jiro” was in fact the style of tattoo, when he saw an aged man shuffling to the open sign that was handwritten in block caps. He dashed to the door and crammed an elbow in before the old man could react.

“Jiro?”

The old man nodded slowly, seemingly resigned to one last customer.

“I would like a tattoo.”

The tense fear in his stomach abated somewhat when the old man waved him in.

“Come in,” he said finally, “I’ll make tea.”

While the old man moved about in carpet slippers, he examined the parlor. It looked as if it doubled as the old man’s living quarters in the daylight, and no effort had been made to disguise that. A visitor’s couch had a folded blanket and a pillow perched on one arm, as if waiting for him to leave. He realized the old man was looking at him.

“Your color…it isn’t right.”

Suppressing the obvious smartass answers, he replied, “I don’t see what my color has to do with anything.”

The old man studied him detachedly, as if considering a stretch of blank cement. A calico cat rubbed at his ankles, forcing one sock to inch downwards. He bent and stroked the cat, pulling his sock in the same motion.

“Take off your shirt, please,” Jiro said.

He shrugged, a hot irritation beginning to prickle at his eyelids, and complied. He slid off his shirt, revealing the off-white milk of his torso. His stomach shone like a globular moon, his nipples perched dark pink on skin just beginning to dip downward in soft conical mounds. Jiro tapped his teeth with a fingernail, sweeping his gaze left-to-right, right-to-left. Finally he sighed.

“No.”

He let out an angry breath. “But for god’s sake, why?”

Jiro spoke while measuring scalding water into a cup with no handle. “Your skin is…wrong. Can’t think of the word for it. You would degrade my inks.”

He felt the anger settle sick into his stomach, and tossed his balled-up shirt at the older man.

“Come on, you must poke thousands of idiots a year,” he said, hating how it came out like a whine, “what’s different about me?”

The old man didn’t flinch at the polyester ball that hit his shoulder, didn’t look up from his tea. His cat sniffed the shirt.

“I am an artist. Like you say, I tattoo many people. Sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not. But I can do nothing with your skin. It lacks character.”

“Character?” He barked laughter. “Character? If this is a money thing—”

The old man cut him off. “It’s not. It is…hard to describe. I have seen a few like you, coming to walk the street at night. But none of them have ever come into my parlor.”

He shook his head slowly. “I don’t…I don’t understand.”

The old man looked up, meeting his eyes for the first time. “You don’t? Permit me to help. You see that glass over there?”

Jiro pointed to what he had assumed to be an empty doorway. Now he noticed the ornate red frame, with characters outlined in gold. He’d assumed they were for good fortune.

“What does a glass door have to do with anything?”

The old man nodded toward the doorway again. “You’ll see. Go ahead.”

He approached it slowly, suppressing the urge to glance back at the old man every other step. If he was having fun, let him have fun. The money was still safe in his front pocket.

He came forward until he was almost nose to nose with the glass. It looked out on a room nearly identical to this one, for all its clutter.  Its surface was dusty, streaked in places where people had probably grazed it with their fingertips. He did so now.

“I don’t see it,” he called back without taking his eyes from the surface.

The old man was rummaging in a utensil drawer, metal things clanked.  “Keep looking. “

He made a fist around his money and gazed into the room. Was this a funhouse deal, something to jump out and scare him into shitting his pants and running away?

“It’s just an empty glass,” he called back again.

The old man appeared before him, so suddenly that he did jump. He had a long knife or a small sword in his hands.

“Not a glass,” Jiro told him, “mirror.”

The stab was icy-hot at first, then burning, burning his whole body until he felt made of flames, writhing on the floor with a thousand foul names for the old man swilling uselessly behind his tongue as he screamed and screamed and screamed and…

Jiro sat at the counter to finish his tea. He paged through the June Issue of Bon Appétit while he did so. Mii-chan bumped his elbow and meowed, he let go of the magazine to scratch her beneath the chin. As dawn touched grey to the far corner of the sky, he got up, stretched, and hooked his hands under the young man’s armpits. There was a back alley he used to store old junk that he wanted gone the next day. He laid the young man there now, confident that he would disappear with the daylight as well.

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The Ruins of Abigail

Dedicated to Bogleech

~`~`~

The Basket Star is considered an offshoot of the order Euryalina, Brittle stars who broke away from the common “Starfish” roughly 500 million years ago.  While they share the long, flexible arms of their fellow stars, Basket star limbs have a tendency to bifurcate repeatedly, leading to an almost fractal-like appearance.

In June of 1953, the town of Abigail, New South Wales was the hub of a minor archeological uproar after the discovery of a heretofore unseen ruin lying just off the coast. Abigail is a minor geographical anomaly in that the continental  shelf does not exceed a depth of 20 meters for a radius of 2.7 kilometers(1.68 mi.) from shore.  The ruins, dubbed “the coral castle” by locals, were described as a sunken city composed entirely of a “rosy rock…[with] spiraling motifs and architecture.” The city was estimated to extend well past the continental shelf, but no concrete measurement was ever taken.

The Basket star, like its Asteroidea relatives, is an opportunistic carnivore, waiting for slow prey to cross its territory rather than pursuing it. However, the Basket star is unique in that it uses its own body as a trap, disguising itself as a coral polyp or other harmless Echinoderm. When prey brush up against its arms, which are covered in thousands of jawlike barbs, the animal is ensnared and quickly passed to the central disk, where it is masticated by the star’s five jawed-mouth. Inedible material is expelled once digestion is complete.

The underwater site was quickly taken over by an enthusiastic township once its discoverer, a librarian and amateur SCUBA enthusiast, announced its discovery. This was met with some trepidation by local trawlers, who had been fishing in the area for decades and noticed nothing.  They were overwhelmed by an enthusiastic local press, who announced the find of the century as families piled into rowboats and skiffs, armed with snorkels and swim gear, to investigate their sunken city.

There are over 2,000 varieties of Brittle star known to exist, with many living beyond the Pelagic zone. As such, there remain many undiscovered species, of unknown territory and  feeding habits.

The town of Abigail has an official population of 7 as of the 2001 census. Five of that number are the lighthouse keeper of Abigail’s Skirt Lighthouse and his family. In 1953, the population stood at around 290, all of which were at sea on June 7th. Even the trepidatious fishermen turned out to watch the townsfolk explore the city, on hand in case of emergencies. At approximately 3pm, the entire population, save the fishermen, disappeared beneath the waves. The fishermen reported no disturbance, not even a slight tremor as “a vast… dark shape untwined itself from the rock and slipped off beneath [the] boats.” This was followed by a tide of what was described as “bone slurry” by the onlookers. The ruins have yet to re-appear.

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