The Tour is Not Worth the Donation

The Tour Is Not Worth the DonationBy

Andrija Popovic

(C) 2017 Andrija Popovic

“Hello, and welcome to the National Museum of Existential Dread. Thank you for your donation and for participating in this tour. My name is Andy and I will be your guide. Before we reach our main attraction, please take a moment to download our tour app onto your personal devices and networks.

“While we wait, allow me to describe the museum itself. This is a unique example of early twenty-first century Brutalist revival architecture. Based on an unused design found in the home of the late master of Brutalism, Paul Rudolphe, the museum was constructed from traditional materials for the style. The exposed concrete, blackened metal framework, and tinted windows emphasize the imposing, angular design of the building. At it’s opening, the noted architectural critic Anna DuMonde said, “the building almost crushes one under its harsh, unrelenting, lines.”

“OK, it looks like everyone has downloaded the application. Thank you. We’ll move on to our first exhibit before the main gallery. Existential Dread was first described by the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, in his book, “The Concept of Dread.” While he primarily centered existential dread around concepts of faith, in later years this dread centered around the unmoored feelings brought on by existence itself.

“Human freedom, and the responsibility to use that freedom, became a source of melancholia or angst within a person. As one realizes there is no higher plan, no direction in life, it becomes initially liberating, but engenders a terror on par with agoraphobia. Dread, existential dread, becomes a response to the meaninglessness and absurdity of life.

“We then attempt to suppress this dread by indulging in the everyday routines in life. Suffocating routine becomes a comfort. We abdicate our freedoms for the comfort of the mundane. Only the supremely confident amongst, or the supremely narcissistic and sociopathic, can look at the terrifying breadth of human experience and feel they can master it.”

“Now, please follow me into the main hall and activate your personal networks and devices.”

“What you are seeing – projected via the most advanced direct input simsense technology allowed by law – is your life. The terms of service you agreed to when downloading our tour application allowed our advanced synthetic intelligence driven datacrawlers to pull together a full profile of your life. Yes, the museum only consists of the first floor. All other floors contain the necessary machinery to present our subject in absolute clarity.”

“Look upon the different panels. Each is hung like a portrait. Each one is tailored to your life and your life alone. The simsense projectors will ensure no one but you sees the images there. You will see every choice you made to get to where you are today. But you can look and see a projection of where you could have gone, where you should have gone, had you just… been… better. 

“This is you as you could have been. Had you not let the existential dread of total freedom lead you to choose lives that masked your angst with drudgery, false ambition, failed passions, and meaningless relationships –

“Had you been masters of your choices, and not pawns of fate and fear –

“Had you not given in to existential dread –

“Well, look how amazing you would be.”

“And if you think this cruel of me, well, I’m on these walls as well. Imagine the dread which lead me to be a tour guide in a museum like this.”

“Now, please take a moment to collect yourselves. There are chairs and couches if you needn’t a seat. Tissues are provided, though we do not offer drinks until you have reached the museum bar at the end of the tour. When you are ready, just step through the door.

“Much like life, from here on out, you are on your own. And there is no guide. Thank you. And, please, fill out a comment card.”

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Choose your own Adventure

(C) 2017 Andrija Popovic

The door opens up and you find yourself in the main hub area of your beautiful job. Rows of cube-chairs, one after the other, line the massive open plan office space. You can see your reflection in the great silvered mirrors of the executive offices. The executives get private thinking spaces where they can still observe every person. You’re glad they’re always watching over you, able to see and hear everything they do.

As you make your way to your cube chair, you see Don and Samantha. Don is one of the executives. His bespoke suit and designer interface apps show you just how well he’s doing with the company. He has Samantha in a small corner of the office, near one of the windowless ‘consultation rooms.’ He appears to be encouraging her to get inside.

Samantha seems uncomfortable. She wants to want to get back to her cube chair. She’s glancing at Don, and back at her chair, and then back at the consultation room.  Then, she looks at you.

Do you interfere? If so, select <HERE>
Do you head to your cube chair? If so, select <HERE>

[SELECTION CONFIRMED]

You smile to Don and give a not to Samantha, but then walk to your cube chair and get ready for the day. Don gives you a knowing smile as he pulls Samantha in for a private consultation. You feel warm: an executive has given you a positive personal sign.

 Your managers know best. Your Human Resources confessor told you the first day you were inducted into the sixth floor processing pool. Trust their judgement in all things. What’s best for them, is best for the company, and best for you.

You strap yourself into the cube chair, locking down your hands and feet. You plug in the appropriate fluid and waste taps before lowering the workspace helmet over your face and eyes. There’s darkness at first. Then, you can smell the delicious scent of fresh coffee and warmed apple tarts. The startup screen begins with daily announcements from management and HR, as well as your set tasks for the day and the amount of debt reduction you can expect from completing them.

And then static fills your vision. A woman in a silver mask appears and begins speaking to you in modulated tones:

“This is an emergency broadcast from free space to anyone listening. You are being used. Your mind is being used. While your conscious brain is being occupied with garbage work which will never clear your debt, the unoccupied sections of your brain are being hijacked. Your creativity, your dreams, your ideas are all being drained away and classified as company intellectual property.

They are stealing your soul! But you can fight this. Do not call HR and do not hit the cutoff switch. If you stay on-line, we can firewall your mind and let you work freely without the company patenting your dreams. Stay on the line and we will free you.”

This is obviously a dangerous transmission from anti-capitalist forces, but you find something bothering you. What if she is right? What if the company, HR, and management are not being honest with how they use your staff potential? What if the debt will never be wiped away?

Your doubts ring out as you finger the emergency cut-off and HR alarm button.

Do you listen to the broadcast? If so, select <HERE>
Do you call HR? If so, select <HERE>

[SELECTION CONFIRMED]

You hit the button several times. Your work helmet powers down and the transmission has replaced a blues screen, instructing you to wait until HR arrives. “You may remove your helmet at this time.”

You take off your helmet and look out onto the cube chairs. Around you, others are removing their helmets. Red lights flash, highlighting the cubes where assistance is needed. Men and women in black suits and handsome ballistic mesh armor move briskly through the workspace. Some stop and talk with your coworkers, asking them if they are OK, and checking their vitals.

Others move to cubes where co-workers still have their helmets on. They activate overrides and pull your former colleagues out of their cube chairs, quickly sedating and binding them so they do not harm themselves. You can see many of them were from original colonist stock – various shades of dark skin and musculature a not suited for intellectual corporate work.

You remind yourself you need to watch out for other co-workers like them. Did one of them plant the transmission?

And then you notice Samantha leaving the conference room with her clothes torn, trying to avoid the HR presence by heading right to the rest cube.

Do you follow her? If so, select <HERE>
Do you report her to HR? If so, select <HERE>

[SELECTION CONFIRMED]

Extra Large Turing Test with Fries

Extra Large Turing Test with Fries
by Andrija Popovic
(C) 2017 Andrija Popovic

[Excerpt from artificial drive-through attendant Turing Test with Miss Rosa Mirella, 26, of Gaithersburg, MD. In this test series, subjects are randomly exposed to either a human attendant or an artificial one.]

INTERVIEWER: Miss Mirella, just to review, prior to the very end of your experience in the drive through of your local [REDACTED] franchise, you had no sense this was an artificial individual?

R. MIRELLA: Nope. Honestly, I was completely fooled in the beginning. I mean, he had to confirm the order because the speaker was shitty, he forgot to put in extra ketchup packets, all of it. He even looked sweaty. I didn’t think you could do that with fake people yet.
 

INTERVIEWER: But at the very end, as you were reviewing your food, you definitively flagged the attendant as artificial.

R. MIRELLA: Oh, yes. Because of the soda.

INTERVIEWER: The soda?

R. MIRELLA: Yeah.

INTERVIEWER: I don’t understand.

R. MIRELLA: OK, so, you know when you get a soda it has those little dots you push in? The ones that say if it’s Diet, Iced Tea, Root Beer or Other? Well, I ordered a diet Coke and a Dr. Pepper, you get me?

INTERVIEWER: I think so…

R. MIRELLA: So, when I got the drinks, the diet had the little Diet thing pushed in, right? And the Dr. Pepper had the Other thing pushed in.

INTERVIEWER: Yes, we saw that. And that’s correct.

R. MIRELLA: Have you ever been through one of your own drive-thrus? Or worked in one? No one ever just hits the Other button. Everyone pushes all of the buttons in on the lid.

[Extended pause as the Interviewer stares blankly at Miss Mirella.]

R. MIRELLA: What? I did it when I worked there. Only a robot does shit exactly like the manual.

[Interview was then terminated when Interviewer picked up notes, walked out of the interview room, and began to spew out a large number of obscenities in view of the observation team.

[Complied results and recommendations can be found in memo: “How Do We Get AI’s to Act Like Frustrated Employees?”]

[Excerpt ends.]

END

All Politics is Local

All Politics is Local
by
Andrija Popovic

(c) 2017 Andrija Popovic

“Ms. Deveroux, give us a straight answer.” Duane Jefferson, seventy years old and elder statesman of the Groveton city council, crossed all four of his arms. “Is the waste water disposal system for the oil wells causing our inter-dimensional issues?”

Thea Deveroux, an occult seismologist with Oklahoma Geological Survey, tucked one of her antennae back against her pointed ear and replied:  “Yes.”

A storm of growls and keening laments rattled the town hall. Duane just shook his head. His membranous wings, black as his bald head, flapped irritably.

“Order! Dammit, order!” Alicia Sears, new mayor of Groveton, banged the gavel with a cilia-covered hand. Her six eyes were heavy and dark with exhaustion.

Chad Michael Rimer – representative from Halithon Pandimensional Petroleum and the only baseline human in the room- spoke: “Please. Everyone, settle down. Look, we all knew there may be minor environmental issues with this new fracturing and disposal process…”

“What?” Duane clacked his talons. “Look, we know the drilling boosted the economy. And we knew there would be risks. But when y’all came here, you didn’t mention gates to chaos realms on Henderson Drive!”

“The damn hounds mauled my cattle!” John Murphy stood, frills red and agitated. “Protective runes cost money and blood. How the Hell am I supposed to keep out seven dimensional predators without bankruptcy?!”

“I appreciate your concern. But, we don’t know enough about what’s really going on in the dimensional subsurface to know how to mitigate some of this risk,” said Rimer. The pandimensional wards sewn into his Alexander Amosu Bespoke suit gave it an oily sheen. “HPP is continuing its studies. We feel there is no direct correlation between our processes and the regrettable phenomenon–.”

Mayor Sears interrupted.”And the report?”

“Our in-house teams will be releasing a full rebuttal. We disagree with the hasty and ill-evidenced conclusions–”

Howls from the audience overwhelmed Rimer. Deveroux looked moments away from bludgeoning the HPP representative with the six hundred page report.

Duane slapped his wings. “Madame Mayor, I motion that, based on Ms. Deveroux’s testimony and the report submitted, we consider Ordinance 193 and halt this method of waste water dumping.”

Citizens and town council-members alike growled, snarled and slapped their shells in approval. Rimer glanced at the runes dancing on his tablet. “Point of order!”

Silence, and then Rimer said: “The council cannot take up this ordinance.”

“Mr. Rimer, it is well within our jurisdiction to regulate how business is conducted in our town. Especially if it impacts the well being, and pan-dimensional stability of its residents.” The Mayor rattled her spines, annoyed.

“Not anymore.” Rimer placed his tablet into his briefcase. “As of twenty minutes ago the State Legislature voted on, and the Governor signed, HR 193. This blocks local governments from regulating energy operations in the state. If you want to shut us down, take it up with the legislature and the Governor.”

Everyone dove for their tablets as Rimer made his exit. “Thank you for your time,” he said. “Our legal team will be in touch.”

Order was abandoned. People swarmed the council members. Others mobbed Thea Deveroux, demanding answers. Alice had to stand on her chair and let loose an unearthly howl before order resumed.

But no one was in the mood for further business. Motions were tabled, and everyone filtered out. Only Duane and Alice remained in the meeting hall.

“We can’t let this go on, Alice.” Duane stood up, one set of arms folded behind him. “I mean, look at this. We’re barely human anymore. Haystacks of tentacles roam Memorial Park like it’s their back yard. And what do we get out of it? The blood magic expenses eating away at the money HPP brings in. We’ve got to do something.”

“You know my grandfather was from West Virginia?” Duane shook his head. The Mayor clicked her secondary mandibles in thought. “Yep. Coal country. When I was young, he told me how the mining company cut safety gear costs by using outdated masks. Or how botched coal ash storage contaminated the aquifer with heavy metals. Then, he lost his best friend to methane explosion. The mine could have prevented it if they weren’t in such a hurry to open up new seams.”

“Every now and again, someone talked about suing or getting the government involved.” Alice stared at the text of the bill scrolling down her tablet. “No one ever did, though.”

“Why’s that?” Duane tilted his head and antennae.

“I asked my granddad. ‘Why they put up with it?’ He always told me to stand up to bullies when I grew up.” She packed away her tablet, notes, and documents into a messenger bag. “He said, ‘What else are we going to do? That’s just the price you pay for having a job.'”

“Do you believe that?”

Alice laughed. “Fuck no, Duane. I love my Grandad, but he spent his off hours crawled into a bottle of cheap beer.” The Mayor picked up her bag. “I’ve got to get to work, start making a plan to overturn this bill. Maybe go to court. I’ll be in early tomorrow. Should I expect you there?”

Duane smiled. He tucked his wings along his back. “Yep. I’ll be here. See you tomorrow, madam Mayor.”

“See you tomorrow, Duane.” She haded out. Duane turned off the lights, closed the door and locked the town hall behind him.

In the distance, green and purple flares jetted from the drilling wells dotted landscape. The tentacled mounds in the park stood in a circle, undulating around the statue of the town founder. A pair of hounds, lean and barely in this dimension, howled at the moon. They serenaded him all the way home.

Duane hoped they’d hush up, or find a rabbit to chase. Tomorrow would be another long day in local politics.

The Most Hated Creature in Known Space

The Most Hated Creature in Known Space
by
Andrija Popovic

(c) 2017 Andrija Popovic

On our first day the instructor shot our valedictorian, William Robert “Billy-Bob” Rossmount, in the crotch with a burner bolt. Billy-Bob convulsed, wet himself, and fell onto the faux linoleum floor. The woman beside me murmured, “Holy fuck.” Meanwhile, the best of us shit his pants and quivered on the floor.

“Listen up, all of you!” The instructor holstered the burner under his jacket. “You’ve signed up for the toughest training course in known space. I have a waiver for every one of you which says that all you bastards are mine now! You will refer to me by one name only: Chief Instructor. Or, Sir, if you are out of breath.”

He pulled a kerchief from his back pocket, expanded it to the size of a towel, and draped it across Billy-Bob like a shroud.

“You will be pushed to your physical, emotional and psychological limits. We will trigger the worst in you. We will show you the worst in everyone else. And none of this will be exaggerated.” The Chief paced, back and forth, like a guard dog eying prisoners. “Everything we will send you through is real, tested, and true.”

The Chief pointed to the door. “The exit will always be open. But once you walk out, that’s it. There is no coming back.” He checked the time. “You have fifteen minutes to decide. That should be enough for Billy-Bob to change his shorts.”

***

Three people left right away, including “Billy-Bob” Rossmount. I stayed. I thought I knew what I was in for. We all did. But we were wrong.

We didn’t expect the physical exertion. Not just the training for high, low and null gravity environments but dodge-ball, of all things. The Chief Instructor, when he was feeling generous, would randomly throw cricket balls at us, cursing the whole time. “My first day, I had a five-star general throw an ExoArmor gauntlet at my head!  You’re getting off easy!”

Then there was the abuse. Not physical, but verbal. We would try to work the day’s exercise while he flayed us with words read from a stack of transcripts he kept on his tablet.

“Samantha Tien, are you a complete fucking retard? Do you understand what the fuck I’m saying, you stupid slut!?” The Chief’s face grew darker when he yelled. The veins around his eyes popped up, and his pupils shrank into needle-sharp pin-holes. “If I wanted your so-called expert fucking advice, I’d fucking rip it out of your fucking ass! Give me a plan for bombing the fuck out of these shit-suckers and then I’ll listen to your fucking advice, you miserable cunt!”

Lastly, there was the actual training: PsyOps and PsiOps warfare, social engineering, micro-expression interpretation, psycholinguistic manipulation, marketing – the dirtiest of dirty warfare became our bread and butter.

By the end of the first week, exhaustion claimed two more. The rest of us learned to lose ourselves in the moment – think about the mission, focus on the objective, and cover your team-mates. I stopped seeing rivals around me, and instead saw other survivors. We learned to support each other, cover for each other, and conspire with the best of them. Damitra Williams, who stood beside me and gaped as “Billy-Bob” Rossmount voided his bladder that first day, kept standing by me.

But we were still human inside, and vulnerable. On the second week, I had a breakdown. Damitra knew I needed room, space outside the dorms just to let go. She got me into the gym one night after lights-out. I found a quiet spot by the null-G pool. In the dark, I watched the clear sphere of water hover above the full-G pool like an errant planet. I didn’t swim. I just sat and saw the water bounce and ripple.

“Guess I’m not the only one who finds this relaxing.” I jumped to my feet. The Chief Instructor walked out of the shadows. Light, reflected and refracted through the hovering pool, danced over his dark skin like smoke. “Now, sit yourself down. I’m not here and neither are you.”

“Yes, Sir.” I sat back in one of the poolside chairs, re-shaping it so I could lean back. The Chief just stood and watched the water sphere ripple.

“You know, it’s only going to get worse from here.” He kept his eyes on the pool. “You’ve got two more days of prep, followed by intensive simulations. First person, face to face.  You’ll be as close to the front lines as we can make it. And when it’s all over – you’ll have to deal with the exact same nightmare for the rest of your career.” He turned to me, almost sad. “You sure you want to go on?”

“You don’t think I can make it, Sir?”

The Chief shook his head. “It’s not a question of making it. It’s why you’re trying. Stubbornness? Insanity? Bone to pick with someone?”

“Because it means something,” I said.

“How’s that?”

I looked the Chief dead in the eyes; something I’d never do if we were on the clock. “I know this is not going to be pretty. I’ll be walking straight into Hell wearing jelly gasoline and a smile. But this means I can help one person, save one life, keep one world from turning into living nightmare, it’s worth it.”

“We’re not doing this for the money. Or the education. Or the travel.” I stood up and compacted the chair back into a cube. “We do it because we believe. Goodnight, Chief.”

“Goodnight, Ms. Tien.”

***

The Chief did not lie. It got worse from there on out. The simulations held nothing back.  Staffed by veterans, they started in the middle of the night, with Klaxon calls and cursing and half-dressed students trying to function. We found ourselves bellowed at by a room full of trainers with over a century of combined field experience.

Three people dropped out that night. Over the next two weeks, seven more filtered away. From an original starting class of forty, only fourteen remained. I survived. Damitra survived. We became tighter than sisters through the fight. Everyone in the class did. Before the end, we exchanged personal contact information. No matter where we were deployed, we would stay close.

You don’t forget folks who stood beside you in the Inferno.

Finally, Graduation Day.  We dressed in our best –  clothes cleaned and pressed until the creases could slice throats. We walked onto the stage, received our diplomas, shook Chief’s hand, and sat as we listened to his final words. I still remember them. I carried those words with me with me in the days that followed, and they helped keep me sane:

“Don’t expect a long speech here. I’ve got to get this placed cleaned up for the next set of inductees. But I will say this:  you entered into this course naked as babes. Since then, you have learned to arm and armor yourselves. Now, shields and swords in hand, your truest test awaits you. Out there, all this is meaningless. Out there, you are the most hated creature in all of known space. And you must own this, for it will protect you more than any training we can provide.”

“Welcome, everyone, to the Federated Systems’ Diplomatic Corps. Now, go out there and save humanity from itself. Good luck.”