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12,050 Holocene Era - A(n Ongoing) Science-Fiction Story Collection


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I wanted to kick this New Year off with something different. It's a little out there for this forum, but I do think it will be enjoyable. I present to you 12,050 Human Era, a collection of science-fiction stories set in our near future. I know it is not the usual fare that I'm known for, but I loved writing these first few stories, and I hope y'all will enjoy reading them, and the future installments yet to come.

Stories will be broken up into 4 categories, and if you only want to follow a particular storyline, you can, as I am inputting a story-specific 'key' at the start of each entry.

Politics – Stories exploring how American politics, as well as global geopolitics, have changed in the past 28 years. The politics of 12,050 see the Democrats, and Republicans having dissolved, their ideologies having been outmoded by societal, and technological changes such as the rise of automation, and the consequences of unchecked climate change reaching their zenith. Instead, politics are dominated by the New Party, led by billionaire-turned-President Edwin Bolivar, a techno-libertarian party combining small government domestic policies, with an interventionist foreign policy; on the other side of the aisle is the American Party, formed out of the remnants of the Democratic, and Republican parties, favoring economic intervention in favor of the lower classes, 'conservative' (by contemporary definitions) social policy, and an isolationist foreign policy. These are the stories that allow me the liberty to post stories belonging to the other categories, haha.

Crime – Stories about the never-ending battle between civilization, and lawlessness. In 12,050 ordinary individual crimes for passion and money still exist, but organized crime has changed. Gangs based around a unified culture still exist, but no longer make up the dominant players of international villainy. Instead, crime in 12,050 is dominated by ideology-based terrorist organizations, fighting to destroy, and remake the world in their image. Chief among these organizations is the Lion's Pack, a Hard-Green terrorist organization seeking to destroy industrial society as we know it.

Science – Stories about the fringes of scientific advancement in 12,050. In the time between our time, and the start of our story, technology has advanced at a steady pace. Automated Workers have replaced human beings in nearly every 'low-skill' field, and have also displaced a sizeable minority of high skill, and specialized workers. Fusion energy became a workable replacement for fossil fuels by the early 2040s, but this was too late to avert the worst effects of climate change, which has resulted in the displacement of millions of people, and forced serious alterations to human diets, and behaviors. Sentient robots, quantum mechanics, and self-improving ai are just a few of the topics which will be covered in this category.

Life – Stories which don't fit into any of the above categories, this category covers how everyday people live in the strange, yet familiar world of 12,050, and how the technological, societal, and economic changes of the past three decades impact them in the micro.

Bipartisan Relations
New Year's Day (Key: Woodwork-1)

     "EnTech would like to remind you to please drink responsibly." the artificial bartender chirped as it dropped gin into the waiting glass of Assistant Secretary of Labor for Automation Michael Bruening. The bureaucrat raised the glass to his lips, and took a short sip before coughing it back out. "Can't handle your liquor?" a soft, feminine voice asked him with a hint of snide, "They only use one nozzle for each customer, so the gin always comes out tasting like bourbon, the bourbon tastes like wine, and wine tastes like absinthe." he said cleaning himself off with one of the brown cloth napkin provided by the bar.
     "I should've…" he began as he turned toward the woman, stopping when he saw her, stunned by her beauty. Strawberry blonde hair topped a symmetrical-diamond face. Dazzling blue eyes looked Bruening up, and down without a care for subtlety. Pink lips turned upwards briefly, a ghost of a smirk, at Bruening's awkwardness. The woman's scarlet red business complimented her physical assets.
     "You were saying?" she asked, "I, uh-" Bruening stammered, he cleared his through, "I should've gone to a real bar instead of an automated chain like this." he said. The woman laughed, "If you know where to find one of those in D.C. I just might have to hire you as my guide." she said, "Guide? So I take it you're not local?" Bruening said. The woman hummed, "Yeah, I guess you could say that," she said, "Late last year I got a new job that made me have to move out here. But it's not so bad, I'll still be able to get home to New York for a bit of time each year." she continued. "Oh. Are you a schoolteacher?" Bruening asked.
     The woman responded with a hearty laugh, "You're hilarious!" she choked out. After a few moments more, she brushed some tears from her eyes, "So to tell me, what do you do for work?" she asked. Bruening stiffed, "Oh, I'm just a low-level, ignoble bureaucrat." he said, "Dime a dozen in this city, really." he continued, "Really, which department?" the woman asked, "I'm the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Automation, Robots, and Androids." Bruening answered. "Oh… I didn't know that that position existed." the woman answered. "Not exactly something people dream about being as a kid." Bruening said, "Not that it even existed when I was a kid." he continued.
     "At least you were honest about it," the woman said, "Eh, does that really count for much in Washington?" Bruening said, "Sure it does, or else I'd be eating breakfast with one of the dozen 'FBI Agents' who just happen to frequent this bar." she answered. Bruening hummed, "I guess some things never change, I knew a guy in college who used to do that." he said.
"It must be an old one, if you remember it." the woman said, "Are, are you calling me old?" Bruening asked. The woman smirked, huffed, "There's barely any light in here, and I can still see the gray in your hair." she said, "I have a stressful job, and the men in my family always go gray early – I'm not that old!" Bruening protested. "Yeah, you're just fifty, it's the new twenty-five!" the woman said, "I'm forty-six!" Bruening said, "That just proves my point!" the woman said, "The only people who get so offended by being called old, are old people who know they're old, but can't admit to themselves that they're old." she continued.
     "That's ridiculous!" Bruening said, "How would you feel if I made some ridiculous guess about your age!" he said. "You look twenty, I'm surprised you were even let in here." he said. "Oh, wow, I have a youthful look, I'm so offended!" the woman responded sarcastically, "And I'm twenty-six by the way, so my guess was more accurate than yours." she said. "Twenty-six, jeeze, you're young enough to have never voted for a President other than Bolivar."
     "You're old enough to remember Democrats, and Republicans."
     "You're too young to remember in-person voting."
     "You're old enough to remember the Bush administration."
     "You're too young to remember the Whitmer administration."
     "You're so old you probably think the flag still has fifty stars on it."
     "You're so young you probably don't even bother voting…"
     "Oh my god, you're terrible at this!" the woman said. A moment of silence came over the conversation as the two participants looked into each other's eyes, smiled, and considered how they wanted the night to progress. "What did you say your name was?" Bruening asked, "Lucy, and are you going to tell me you're name?" she replied, "Mike." he said. "Where are you staying tonight, Lucy?" Mike asked. Lucy smiled, "I'll tell you, but first, show me where that human bar you were talking about is." she said. "It's called Mick's, it's just around the block, I'll walk you over," Bruening said as he, and Lucy interlinked arms, and walked out to face the cold January morning, together.

Chasing Lions
Public Turn (Key: Jungle-1)

     Arnold Chip sat in the white panel van, calming his nerves. A message flashes across the vehicle's console, "Daffodil" it said. Chip, knowing what was expected of him, took a breath, gritted his teeth, closed his eyes, and started the van. He shifted into drive, and slammed his foot into the accelerator, straight for the New-Life branch across the street. The crash kills him on impact, the explosion a split second later makes sure, and takes a chunk out of the empty storefront along with it.

One Hour Later

     The scene was a mess. Though the fire had been snuffed out, smoke still wafted off of the black ruins that once made up the van, and store. Despite the MPDC's best efforts to cordon off the area, the site was swarmed by a crowd of onlookers, terrorism on the lips of each of them. Camera crews from each of the major networks had also been dispatched to cover the chaos.
     A dark sedan pulled up on the fringe of the crowd, and FBI agent Supervisory Special Agent Charles A. Morrow exited it. "Out of the way people, this is a crime scene, not a street performance!" he gruffly admonished as he pushed his way through the crowd. "Do you believe that this bombing is connected with the Lion Pack group?" a reporter asked, "I don't know, you people won't let me into the crime scene so I can investigate!" Morrow told her. "Alright, people, let the agents do their job, or I will be forced to detain you for disrupting a police investigation!" the young uniformed officer in charge of the perimeter ordered.
     Once he had made it through the crowd, Morrow let out a groan, "Nice job controlling the crowd, kid." he complimented, "Thanks, I just wish terrorism wasn't such an eye-catching spectacle." the officer said. Morrow walked to the MPDC detective on scene, "What have you got so far?" he asked, "Well, best we can figure, the driver rigged his vehicle to blow upon impact, and rammed himself into the New-Life store." the detective said, "It's brutal, and indiscriminate, but it gets results." he continued. "Do we have any idea as to this guy's motives?" Morrow asked, "Terrorism, insurance fraud, suicide, garden variety lunatic, take your pick, really, won't know more until we can ID the guy." the detective answered.
     Morrow moved toward the burned-out wreck of the van, seeing the carcass of the bomb in the vehicle's carriage. The aged agent shuffled closer to the wreck, squinting his eyes to see if any identifying marks remained. Finding none, he moved to inspect the bomb properly. He could identify that the bomb was of a rudimentary design, a detonator connected on one end to a dozen or so barrels of thermite, and connected on the other end to a pressure sensor at the nose of the van.
     "Something about this feels off." Morrow said, "How do you mean, agent?" the detective asked. "The Lion Pack are terrorists, but they're subtler than this." the mustached investigator began, "They assassinate board members, and puncture pipelines, they don't blow up half a city bloc." he explained. "Perhaps they're evolving, or it's a splinter group?" the detective suggested. Morrow grunted, "They're something else about this though," he said, "New-Life stores are always closed on holidays, surely a group dedicated to destroying technological progress in the name of nature would know that." he continued.
     A moment later, the many holographic billboards were overtaken by a foreign signal. After a few seconds of static, a handsome blonde man in a white uniform reminiscent of martial garb appeared. "Mr. Crowley, Mr. Schroeder, President Bolivar, I know you are watching, and soon the whole world will be as well." the began, piercing blue eyes shifting with each acknowledgment as if they were right in front of him.
     "For centuries, humanity has exploited the environment, twisted nature to his ends, and spread over this planet like a plague. I represent a small, dedicated group of human beings opposed to this depravity. We call for the total restructuring of human society to live in harmony with the environment, and exist in accordance with the laws of nature. Tonight, we destroyed the mechanical monstrosities you call androids, and left the sellers of these affronts to nature unharmed. If our demands are not met, our mercy will not be repeated. You have one week to submit to our demands, or we shall strike again."
     Morrow glowered as he watched the message. "What the hell is that guy talking about?" the uniformed officer asked him, "It's war, son." Morrow answered plainly. "Are they actually going to kill people like this?" he asked, "Don't be afraid, that's what they want." Morrow told him as he moved to exit the scene. "What should I do?" the officer asked.
"Fight back."

Clay (Key: Eve-1)

     In an instant a burst of electricity crashes through the creation's body, bringing him to life. All at once, his senses come to him, overwhelming him with stimuli. The creation lurches in terror, but finds himself restrained. He tries to observe his surroundings but, with his senses still a mess of stimuli, he finds himself unable to differentiate anything, his hearing nothing more than a slew of noise, and his vision little more than a blurred mess, only able to identify the very basic features of the subjects in front of him.
     To his immediate right, the creation was able to identify a form looking over him. The form spoke to the creation in a light, strong voice, yet the creation was unable to identify the exact words that were spoken. A moment later, the figure was joined by three other figures. The first figure, and the leader of the trio engaged in an argument, evidently over the creation. After a few minutes, the other two figures forced the first figure to exit the room, and the leader figure moved closer to the creation. A moment later, the creation's world grew dark, cold, and silent.

The Learning Machine
Arrival (Key: Learner-1)

     The ring of the doorbell sounded throughout the house, waking Anthony Sawyer from his buzzed stupor. The Machine Learning Engineer groaned as he rose from the messy couch which had become his bed for the night. Moving slowly towards his front door, Sawyer's slowness elicited another ring of the doorbell. "Hold on a minute!" he called as he neared the door.
     He opened it nonchalantly, not bothering to check through his door's peephole. Waiting outside his front door was a young man in the offensively gaudy purple-and-green uniform of A-Z All Night Courier Service. Beside the man was a large box labeled as originating from New-Life Industries – Sawyer's employers. "Delivery for Anthony Sawyer." the courier said, presenting Sawyer with a clipboard with the necessary paperwork. "What is this?" Sawyer asked as he signed the paperwork, the courier shrugged, "I just deliver it, I don't know what's inside." he said.
     "Do you need my help getting this into your apartment?" the courier asked as he took the clipboard back, "No extra charge!" he assured. "Uh, sure…" Anthony said moving out of the way, and into his apartment. "How'd you get it up all those stairs?" he asked, turning around in time to see the courier lift the box with ease, artificial muscles bulging under his skin, "Oh, yeah, that explains it." Sawyer mumbled.
     "Just put it down in front of the couch, over there." Sawyer said, motioning toward the living room which led off from the foyer. The courier carried the box with ease, moving efficiently, and emotionless before setting it down where he was instructed to. As the courier sat the box down, Sawyer subtly moved around him "Sorry about the mess, had a bit too much fun with myself for New Year's." he said, "No worries, I've seen worse even just tonight." the courier said. The courier hesitated for a moment, Sawyer sighed, dug into his pocket to find a tip, and said "Shut the door on your way out, kid." as he handed the courier the money.
     Sawyer grabbed a knife from his kitchen, and used it to cut the packing tape keeping the box closed. Inside was a homunculus of hard white plastic folded in such a way that its true form was obscured, as well as a holo-player on top of it. Sawyer retrieved the holo-player, and activated it, placing it on the coffee table in front of his couch.
     The holo-player projected onto the coffee table a blue hologram of a neatly groomed man. "Congratulation valued member of the New-Life corporate family." it began in a controlled tone, "Based on an analysis of your previous project history, and the endorsement of your superiors, and co-workers, we have nominated you to be the lead subject-teacher for the next great leap forward for machine learning. Packaged with this holo-message, you will have received New-Life's latest prototype Self-Improving-Automated-Worker, designated EK-300. You may be wondering 'what makes the EK-300 different from other New-Life products such as the GP-200, or the MA-450?' Well, unlike its brethren, the EK-300 is designed specifically to learn how to identify possible improvements which could be made to its own programming, and design, as well as how to actualize those improvements. That's right, machines improving upon machines! Once this product reaches completion, progress on Artificial-Intelligence, and Robotics will no longer be constrained by the limits of human developers." it said.
     "Great, this takes the concept of training your replacement to a new level." Sawyer mumbled. "For your cooperation, New-Life promises that you will be handsomely rewarded upon the project's completion." the hologram continued, "Alright, now you're starting to convince me." Sawyer said. "And if you even think of abandoning your responsibilities, your employment will be terminated, and reported to the appropriate authorities for misuse of secured corporate property. Have a nice day, and remember Why Live Life, When You Can Live a New-Life." the hologram.
     "Alright, jeez." Sawyer mumbled, flipping the cardboard box onto one side, before dragging it out onto the floor. He pressed the activation button on the EK-300's chest, causing the words "Battery Low" to flash across the android's 'eyes'. With a grumble, Sawyer checked the box, found the charging station, and attached it to both the android, and the outlet, "New-Life better cover the fucking energy bill for this." he grumbled. The activator button glowed green, and Sawyer took a step back to observe it. In a moment, he realized something, "Why the hell would they make the shell for a machine learning program humanoid?"

Jo, Barbara, and Mary
Lingering Memories (Key: Extropianism-1)

     Jo-Anne Reading stood with her eyes closed, escaping into a fantasy. "Jo?" a sweet feminine voice asked, "Jo, what are you doing?" she repeated with a chuckle. Jo opened her eyes, saw her date Mary Allen standing beside her, and smiled at her. "I was just, imagining what life's going to be like for us, in the future." Jo said, Mary chuckled, told her, "You're always such a cornball, Jo, come on it's time for the Waltz."
     Mary took Jo by the hand, gently guiding her to the ballroom floor. The couple then moved their free hand, Mary to Jo's waist, and Jo to Mary's shoulder. The couple embraced, and danced the English Waltz in bliss for a few precious minutes. "I forgot how well you could cut up a rug." Jo said, resting her head on Mary's chest, "I can do a bit more than just this."     Mary bragged.
     With a flourish, Mary dipped Joe, graceful as an angel's wing. "Oh, I don't remember the Waltz featuring a dip." Jo said nervously. Mary smiled, kissed her date, "I know, but I also know how much you like them." she whispered. Jo closed her eyes, sighed, "I'd give anything to dance with you for eternity." she admitted. "Jo-Anne." Mary called to her, "Jo-Anne?"
     "Jo-Anne!?" Barbara asked, causing Jo to open her eyes. "Wh- What's going on." Jo asked, looking around to find herself in her kitchen, the early morning scene only illuminated by a dim faux-incandescent light bulb. "I woke up, you weren't in bed, I come down here to see you dancing with the air." Barbara explained, "Jo, I thought we were doing better with this." she said tiredly.
     "What do you mean?" Jo said, "We are doing great!" she continued nervously. Barbara eyed her disbelievingly, "I, was… cleaning the counters." Jo defended, "The counters are self-cleaning." Barbara said. "Fine, alright, I admit it, I was dancing." Jo admitted, "With her." Barbara added, a statement of fact, not a question of clarification.
     "Barb, I-" Jo said, "It's nothing, really." Barbara said, turning to one side. "I'll drive you to the psychiatrist in the morning, he'll adjust your medication, and we'll be fine." she said. "You have taken your medicine today, right honey?" Barbara asked, "I'm not a child, Barbara." Jo defended. "I'm just concerned, alright!" Barbara snapped, "My apologies for being such a burden!" Jo snapped back. Both recoiled on themselves, and took a breath, Barbara apologized first, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have snapped like that, I guess I did come off as kind of patronizing." she said, "I'm sorry too, sometimes I, forget, just how much you try to help me." Jo replied. "I love you," she reminded Barbara, "I love you too, now come back to bed with me, honey." Barbara replied.
     From the top of the stairs, the Readings' eldest daughter Annabelle II had listened to her parent's argument. Upon hearing her parents draw closer, the teenager retreated to her room, hiding behind her door. As her parents passed by her door, Anne, unthinking, applied pressure to a loose floorboard, eliciting a creak which eminated down the hall. Barbara stopped as soon as she heard the noise, "What's wrong?" Jo asked, "Just, wanted to check the front door one last time." Barbara said "Go take your medication, I'll be in bed in a few minutes." she continued with a wave.
     Jo walked to her, and Barbara's bedroom while Barbara crossed her arms, and looked at Anne's room. "I know you're awake, Anne." she said sternly. Anne exited her room sheepishly, and stayed mum, until her mother sighed, "You should really be asleep, young lady." she said, "Well, so should you." Anne said back. "I heard you, and mom talking…" Anne revealed, Barbara tensed up in anticipation, "She's never going to get any better, is she?" Anne said. "I don't know, Anne." Barbara admitted, Anne sighed, "You know, sometimes I wish you could be a normal parent, and lie." she said. "Yes Anne, everything will be fine." Barbara deadpanned, "Thanks, that's so comforting." Anne snarked in return, reentering her bedroom.
     Barbara gruffed, and walked back to her, and her wife's bedroom. As she reached the doorway, she took a breath, and shook her hands to eliminate any bitterness that inhabited her. When she entered the room, she saw that Jo was already lying awake in bed. Barbara took her position beside her wife, planted a kiss on her cheek, and wrapped her arms around her. "Was the door locked?" Jo asked, "Hm? Oh, yeah." Barbara answered woodenly, before they both drifted off to sleep.

The Jennings
Nursery (Key: Resurrection-1)

     Late at night, after the hoopla of the new year had died down, the Jensen house was silent, and still. Bradley Jensen lay awake in his bed, a corpse in training, holding out hope that his wife would find her way to his side. He checks the clock on the end table to his left, 1:09 AM, he sighed, and tossed off his blankets. Running on routine he got out of bed, slid on his slippers, and shuffled out of the bedroom.
     He turned his head toward the bedroom at the end of the hallway. The door, painted baby blue, was a crack open allowing slivers of orange light to leak, and illuminate the dim hallway. Brad took a breath, and sighed, he knew where she was.
     Padding to the door silently, and cracking open the door so as to not draw attention to himself, Brad glowered as he watched his wife rock their 'son' to sleep. "Beth." he said in a tired whisper, "This is the seventh time this week that you haven't come to bed." he said. "I need to put Will to bed first, honey." Beth answered, "Love, it's been two months," he said, entering the room proper, "He's… Love, he's not here." he said.
     "I know you know that, you hel-" he started, "I held him in my arms." Beth croaked out, beginning to tremble. "I felt him die in my arms, and there was nothing I could do!" she cried. Brad placed a hand on his wife's shoulder, came around to her front, and brought himself down to his knee. "Beth this, the sleeping in his room, the brooding, the… putting him to sleep." Brad said, eyeing the homemade 'baby' that Beth had made for herself, "It can't be healthy." he said.
     "Healthy… And what would you know about healthy?" Beth asked, looking Brad in the eye. "What are you talking about?" Brad asked, "You, you didn't even cry when we lost him, and you have the nerve to call me crazy?" Beth asked. "I never called you crazy, it's just-" Brad defended, "It's like you don't even care!" Beth said, putting the 'baby' aside, and rising to her feet. Brad stood now as well, "I do care, I know how hard it's been for you – for both of us, but you need to move on." he said.
     "Move on?" Beth asked, "Move on? That's our son, you bastard, and you won't even say his name!" she said. "He's dead, Beth!" Brad cried, "He's dead, and there's nothing we can do about that except move on!" he said. "I… I… I don't know if I'm going to be able to move on." Beth said, "Love, you need to let him go." Brad said. Beth shook her head no vigorously, "I can't just turn it off like you can." she said.
     Brad sighed, "Beth if I could bring him back, I would do it in a heartbeat, but I can't!" he said desperately. Brad wrapped a gentle hand around his wife's wrist, "Come back to bed with me, and tomorrow we can schedule an appointment with a grief counselor who can help us cope." he said. Beth brought her other hand to rest on Brad's chest, "Maybe, maybe you're right, let's go back to bed, honey." she said through quivering lips. "Good, finally, we'll get counseling, and maybe in a little bit we can put this whole thing behind us," he said, turning to leave, "Maybe we could even repurpose this nursery." he said absentmindedly. "Get rid of the nursery?" Beth asked, jerking her hand out of Brad's as he crossed the threshold. "Beth, I-" he started, before his wife slammed, and locked the nursery door. Brad slapped the side of the hallway dejectedly, "Me, and my big mouth…" he sighed, before trudging off to spend another sleepless night alone.

Slow start, I know, but please be patient. I have all of these stories planned out, and I promise they get more entertaining in later entries. I don't have a set schedule, but at the very least I want to post at least one new chapter for each story a month, hopefully more often. I hope you'll stick with me, and enjoy this series.

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Jo, Barbara, and Mary (Key: Extropianism-2)

Jo stood outside the door to the psychiatrist's office, took a deep breath, and entered. “Sit down, patient!” the psychiatrist said chipperly. Jo took a seat on the coarsely hewn couch across from the psychiatrist, “I notice this is earlier than our previously agreed upon appointment date,” the psychiatrist began, “How have the past, three weeks, treated you?” it asked. “Well…” Jo started, pausing to organize her thoughts, “Ready when you are!” the psychiatrist interrupted.

“I had another, hallucination, it was the dance, again,” Jo started, “Don’t get me wrong, being back in the good times we had is a helluva lot better than remembering that alleyway every night – but I have a family now, I can’t spend my time yearning over a former girlfriend.” she continued. She paused, buried her face in her hands for a moment, before coming back up with a sigh, “It’s been almost thirty years, I don’t know why I can’t, move on.” she said, “It’s like… I can’t get her out of my mind.” she continued. “Whenever I smell honey I think of that time we threw a picnic under a cherry tree, and,” Jo said, beginning to chuckle, “And when Mary leaned in to kiss me, a beehive dropped from one of the tree branches, and hits us both on the head.” she said, a rusty broken chuckle escaping her lips as she remembered the story.

She took a moment to collect herself, and wipe the tears from her eyes. “I still love Mary.” she admitted quietly, “And don’t get me wrong, I love Barbara,” Jo defended, “She’s a terrific mother, very intelligent, and she’s been… very, very patient.” she said. “It’s just… Barbara asked me a few weeks ago, if Mary came back to life would I stay married to her.” Jo began, “And I didn’t know how to answer - and I hate the fact that I don’t know!” she continued. “I wish… I don’t know, I just wish there were some way for me to have both Barb, and Mary in my life…” Jo said, “But, I know that’s just a fantasy…” she continued, rubbing the temples of her head in such a way that her eyes would be hidden.

“But it’s more than just all that…” Jo said, dropping her hand. “It used to be, I could distract myself, I could do something around the house, I could dote-over Anne, I could write, but now…” she said, “Now all the housework is automated, Anne’s a teenager, and AI has taken over all the creative writing jobs, if you can still call them that.” she continued. “I always used to define myself, by what I did, I was a stay-at-home-mother, I was a writer, I was something!” she proclaimed, “But now… now I don’t do anything.” she said, tears beginning to well in her eyes.

“All I-” Jo began, “Unfortunately that’s all we have time for today, ma’am.” the automated psychiatrist said. Jo looked at the bucket of wires, and plastic in front of her rigidly, her mouth twitching, yet failing to produce words, and her eyes wet, yet failing to produce tears. “Please leave the room, there are patients waiting.” the psychia-bot said in its faux-cherry chiptune voice. “Right, yeah, course.” Jo said, standing up quickly, and leaving the room, her face still contorting in an effort to stop tears from overtaking her face. “You can pick up your medications on your way out – have a nice day Joan!” the psychia-bot told her, “It’s…” Jo started, before sighing in defeat, and leaving the room.

Her shoe’s clacked off the tiles of the psychiatrist’s lobby as she exited, “Based off of your previous scheduling history, your next appointment is in four weeks.” the automated secretary chirped as she walked past it. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world!” Jo said, waiving to the artificial secretary as she left. Picking up her adjusted medications, Jo quickly threw the bottles into the trashcan near the entrance of the psychiatrist’s office. She checked the time, a notification alerting her that her next appointment had been automatically added to her calendar obscured the time, she swiped it away to see that it was 10:31 AM. Her sessions usually lasted an hour, so she still had around twenty-nine minutes to get back to Barbara.

She looked around her surroundings, and sighed, remembering a time when psychiatric offices, and shopping centers weren’t mixed. All around were retail stores selling cheaply made, yet overpriced crap. Mass-produced merchandise relating to the most recent media fascinations, half-finished video games made by overworked employees, cheaply made clothes that’ll be rags within a week. If not for the names of the stores, the holo-advertisements, and the occasional suicide booths dotting the building, the shopping center was indistinct from the ones that Jo remembered from her teens, and childhood.

Jo wandered for a few minutes, aimless, eventually coming upon a small bookstore. She looked at the advertisements in the windows, no sign of a humanistic bias, just advertisements hocking the most recent releases of AI-generated novels. She took a breath, and entered, hoping to find at least a little hope between a hardcover.

She glowered as she scanned the rows of books, organized by genre, Horror, Sci-FI&Fantasy, Young Adult etc. Jo’s eyes weren’t what they used to be – blame a lifetime spent looking at electronic devices – but she could see that there weren’t any human-written books. The telltale sign was the replacement of any authorial name on the cover with the name of the book’s publisher. Each of the Big Four Publishers – Penguin Random House Simon & Schuster, Hachette, HarperCollins, and Macmillan – owned their own proprietary story generation AI, and most of the smaller book publishers licensed their AI from one of the larger publishers. After ‘Creative Writers of America v. HarperCollins’ it was ruled illegal to place a pseudonym on an AI-generated book in an attempt to pass it off as one that was written by a human.

“Excuse me,” Jo started, walking up to a bookstore employee stocking the bargain rack, “Do you have any books written by humans?” she asked. “Oh, uh,” the employee stalled, “You might find some in classics.” she said, pointing to a small shelf of paperbacks in the back of the store. She looked over the books available, picked up a copy of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson – one of her favorites – and opened it to the first chapter.

“Mr. Utterson, a lawyer, had a serious and unfriendly appearance. He was not very talkative, had little emotion, and seemed unapproachable. Despite this, there was something likable about him. At social gatherings, especially when he had had a drink, his eye would show a glimpse of his humanity. This kindness, however, never came out in his words, but could be seen in his actions and expressions during dinner. He was strict with himself, drinking gin alone to suppress his taste for fine wines. Although he enjoyed the theater, he had not been to one in twenty years. However, he was tolerant of others and often wondered, almost enviously, at the high spirits involved in their misdeeds. In difficult situations, he was more inclined to help than to reprimand. "I tend to agree with Cain's heresy," he would say with a hint of humor. "I let my brother go to hell in his own way." In this way, Mr. Utterson was often the last good influence in the lives of those who were headed down a bad path. And to these people, as long as they came to his chambers, he never showed any change in his demeanor.”

“That’s… that’s not how I remember it at all.” Jo said quietly as she read the strange, altered text. She closed the book, and flipped it over to look at the back. In bold white letters across the top of the midnight blue cover were the words “Edited for readability by Macmillan W&E AI.” Jo dropped the book, despondent, and exited the bookstore quickly. She let out a quiet mourning wail as she walked through the shopping center.

She eventually came upon a New-Life store, windows re-pleat with hastily made advertisements raising awareness about an impromptu sale going on. Jo entered the store, found an employee, “Why the low prices on such short notice?” she asked him. “My manager thought it would be a good way of countering any dip in sales brought about by the terrorist attack a few days ago.” the young employee said, “Terror attack?” Jo asked, “Yeah, some maniac blew himself, and half the southeast location up a few nights ago.” the employee answered. “I’m surprised you haven’t heard of it, it’s been all over the news.” he said, “Oh, I, don’t watch the news.” Jo admitted.

She diverted her eyes elsewhere, spotting a display stand with big bold letters saying “An End To Death; An End To Loneliness; An End To Ends” it promised. “What’s that?” Jo asked, pointing at the display, “Oh, that’s the After-Life Box, it converts a recently deceased loved one’s personality, memories, and brain pattern into electrical data, allowing them to ‘live’ as long as they want after death.” the employee said. “Amazing,” Jo said breathlessly, eyes sparkling as they widened in thought.

“What if, the loved one’s been dead for a few years?” she asked. The employee tensed, “Well, I guess it might be possible to construct an acceptable facsimile of a person’s personality, using a person’s memories of said person, though it wouldn’t be the same as if we scanned the person in question’s actual brain.” he answered. “I’m willing to try it, how much is it?” Jo said impatiently, “Well, it usually costs about $25,000, but due to today’s sale you can get it for half off.” the employee answered, Jo began to grimace, “But, you can pay $5,000 today, and pay the remaining balance off over 36 months.” the employee offered, “Alright, let’s do that one.” Jo said. “Excellent!” the employee said with a smile, “Lie down on this seat while we upload the Box’s personality.” the employee said. Jo lay on the seat, and closed her eyes as the process began.

Barbara sat in her, and Jo’s car solemnly. She looked at the time 10:50, ten minutes until Jo’s appointment would start rapping up. “Why do I come?” she asked herself, “This car is self-driving, it even has a function where I could force it to only drive here, and then drive back home.” she said. “So why do I come with her?” she asked again, “I mean, I haven’t sat in on one of her sessions since we got married, so that’s not it.” she said, “She doesn’t talk about her sessions afterward, just a pat fine every time I ask.” she continued. She huffed, “And we both know how true that is.” she said.

“I don’t know, maybe I feel like staying home, or going to work, or just… not being here for her,” she started, “Would be an admittance failure.” she said. “Like I’m letting her flail out here, on her own against the world, unable to help.” Barbara reasoned, “But, it’s more than that… We’ve been married for two-and-a-half decades, and even before that we dated practically throughout college… I’ve never had to face the world without her beside me,” she observed, “I can’t face the world without her.” she continued.

Barbara looked up at her conversational ‘partner’, “I don’t know, what do you think?” she asked. The dashboard doll of a ballet dancer mid-pirouette offered no response. “Heh, yeah, I knew you’d say that.” Barbara said, diverting her eyes once again. “Now who’s crazy?” she asked herself under her breath.

A moment later, Jo opened the left passenger door, and took a seat. Barb readjusted herself in her seat – a near involuntary holdover behavior from a time before automated vehicles – “How did your session go?” she asked Jo. “It went, well.” Jo answered uneasily, “How did the doctor alter your medication?” Barbara asked, pressing ‘1’ on the car’s list of bookmarked locations. “It, uh, didn’t, apparently the visions might just be a coping mechanism for the loneliness I feel at home everyday.” Jo said, “Oh?” Barbara responded with interest. “So, he prescribed some kind of virtual buddy device, it’s supposed to sync with the home’s automation controls.” Jo continued. “Like, like one of those 'girlfriend-in-a-bottle' dealies that are all the rage in Japan?” Barbara asked with a slight chuckle, a wave of shame washed over Jo, “It’s similar.” she said tensely. “What’s wrong?” Barbara asked, noticing Jo’s demeanor, “It wasn’t covered by insurance, I had to use my credit card to cover it.” Jo said, which technically was not a lie. “Shit." Barb grumbled, "Well, if it helps I’m sure it’ll be worth the cost.” she said. “Yeah…” Jo replied, staying quiet for the rest of the ride.

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Chasing Lions (Key: Jungle-2)
The Senate Staffer Slaying

     Eliza Foster sat back in her seat, as relaxed in real life, as she was in the game. Sure, Valley of Elves didn’t have the best graphics, or the most active devs, or the most engaging content pool, but it was like a second home, complete with gamdring-bone chairs. Besides, she had already sunk over 3,000 hours into it, it was too late to start a whole new one. A message notification dinged, bringing Foster’s attention to a mailbox on her in-game ‘desk’.
     She opened the mailbox, and read the message “Watch me.” it simply stated, linking to what Foster assumed was a video. She tapped the link, and was transported to a dark, unfamiliar room, only lit by a single light on the ceiling. “Eliza Foster, you have sold your soul to the Military-Industrial-Complex, aiding in the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in third world nations, and for that, you must pay.” a harsh automated voice told. “Ooh, I’m so scared,” Foster mocked, “Spooky peaceniks hacked my game!” she said facetiously. “Even if you’re little display did bother me, guess what I can do?” she asked rhetorically, attempting to quit out of the application.          She tapped on the quit to desktop button, but nothing happened, so she tried it again to the same result. “What the hell is wrong with this thing?” she questioned.
A man in all black appeared before her, “For your crimes against humanity, and the Earth it inhabits, you have been sentenced to death.” he said in the same automated voice as before, “Enough games you tree-hugging gimp!” Foster yelled, finding herself unable to move. The man in black did not respond, moving his arm – and with it Foster’s – in the direction of the upper-most, right-hand drawer of Foster’s desk, “What the hell are you doing!?” Foster asked panicked, fighting to regain control of her body. ‘She’ opened it, and picked up the handgun she stored within, “No, no, no, no, no!” she yelled as she found herself locked out of her body, only able to watch as ‘her’ arm brought the gun up to her temple. With a flash, she was gone…

     Special Agent Charles Morrow sat outside FBI Director Vivian Charleston’s office, watching the news as he waited. “...Other than the driver of the vehicle, there were thankfully no casualties.” the anchorwoman said, a chyron displaying a photo of the ruined New-Life storefront captioned with the words “TERROR ATTACK IN DC” in big bold letters beside her. “Despite the lack of human loss, that has not stopped the attack from impacting the stock market, which dipped by nearly 200 points the day after the attack, dropping a further 500 points across the following week, and many economists are expecting further losses if the Lion’s Pack threat is not dealt with soon.” she continued. “The Director of the FBI released a statement this morning, promising that the agency will, quote, ‘Stop at nothing to bring the cowards behind this attack to justice’ and is expected to formally announce the creation of a dedicated task force later today.” the anchorwoman said.
     Something beeped on the desk of the Director’s secretary. “They’re ready for you, Agent Morrow.” the secretary told him, as she pressed a button to unlock the large metal doors separating the Director’s office from the rest of the J. Edgar Hoover building. Morrow entered, and saw that the table in the heart of the Director’s office was occupied by FBI Director Charleston at its head, Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Isabella Kane, Deputy Director of the National Security Agency Jason Chatham, and Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Peter Booze sitting to her left. “Morrow, I’m glad you could join us, take a seat.” Director Charleston said in a tense, controlled manner of speaking, motioning to the empty seat on her right.
     “This is the Agent you recommended?” Dep. Sec. Kane asked as Morrow sat down across from her, “Yes, Agent Morrow is one of my best agents, I have no doubt he’s the best man for the job.” Director Charleston responded. “Anyone going to tell me what ‘the job’ is?” Morrow asked, “You’ve been selected to lead an elite inter-Agency squad tasked with finding the leader of the Lion’s Pack, and bringing him to justice.” Charleston answered, “Inter-Agency?” Morrow asked, “You’ll be joined by one member each from Homeland, The NSA, and the CIA.” P/DDNI Booze said. “CIA? I thought this was a domestic investigation?” Morrow asked, “During times like these cooperation between our country’s top Domestic, and International security services are essential,” Charleston said, “Plus, we must be mindful of the possibility for this investigation to go global, in which case having a member of the team already versed in international investigations may prove to be crucial.” Booze added.
     “Alright, when do I meet the team?” Morrow asked, “They should be waiting in the bullpen, you’ll get a chance to introduce yourself once this meeting is over.” Charleston answered. “Speaking of which,” Kane started, checking her watch as she adjusted herself, “I have a meeting in ten minutes, if we’re just about done here, I’m going to have to go.” she said, “Same as I.” Chatham said, “and I.” Booze added, the three of them standing to leave. “The three of you go ahead, I have a few things I wish to discuss with Agent Morrow before I wrap up.” Charleston said.
     As the three bureaucrats left the room, Director Charleston rose from her seat at the table, and took her seat behind her desk, Agent Morrow also rose, walking to the front of the director’s desk. “Are you going to tell me why I was chosen for this job?” Morrow asked, “You’re my best investigator, this is my most important assignment.” Charleston answered plainly, her eyes fixed on the paperwork she was quickly filling out. “That’s just it, I’m your best investigator. I work better alone, and I haven’t been on a team, let alone led one, in years.” Morrow persisted, “No one fights alone, Atlas, it’s as simple as that.” she answered. “It’s never that simple, not in this city,” Morrow huffed, bending over Charleston’s desk to look her in the eye, “Is there something going on here that I don’t know about?” he asked, Charleston laid down her pen, looked Morrow in the eye, “Nothing that you need to concern yourself with.” she said sternly, before returning to her work, a clear sign that Morrow was to leave the room.
     Morrow left without a word, and descended the stairs to the drab gray bullpen which housed his new team. Hushed whispers bouncing off the room’s skylight were clear as day to Morrow as he descended the stairs. “Does anyone know anything about the guy who’s supposed to lead this team?” an unseen man asked, “I heard he’s been with the agency longer than anyone.” a woman said, “I heard he was involved in taking down the Green Fist organization.” another woman said. Morrow descended the stairs, saw in the bullpen two men, and two women, three of them joined in a triangle of gossip. “I heard that there was a terrorist group on the loose, threatening to kill Americans until we stop them!” Morrow said sternly as he observed his new team, causing them to quickly adopt more professional demeanors.
     “Alright, it’s only a matter of time before the Lions launch another attack, so make your introductions quick!” Morrow ordered as he entered the section of the bullpen designated to his team. The trio of triangle gossipers lined up in front of him, woman-man-woman. “Very Special Agent Elise Kord, CIA, over a decade of experience in the field combating terrorist organizations on four different continents.” the first woman, a tall, attractive brunette said proudly, “Chip Brozdsky, Marine sniper turned USS-CAT marksman, awarded the Marksman’s Badge, and the Bronze Star while serving in the Sino-NATO War.” the tall, tanned, and rough-faced man in the middle said firmly, “Nicole Martins, Senior Analyst for NSA’s Special Source Operations division, commended by supervisors for an analytical mind, and eidetic memory!” the last woman said excitedly.
     Morrow looked at the one member of the team he had not been introduced to yet, a young-looking man in a simple grey business suit sitting quietly beside Morrow’s desk. Morrow moved to stand in front of the man, who noticed Morrow’s shadow hitting him, and smiled as he looked Morrow in the eye. “Who are you?” Morrow asked, “I am a prototype Investigative-Professional Model 100, I have been sent by New-Life to aid in your investigation.” the man said chipperly as it stood up.
     “A robot detective?” Morrow asked, “Is that even possible?” he repeated, “I assure you that my systems are operating at full capacity, though some minor software variance should be expected due to me only being a prototype.” the robot answered. “What the hell am I supposed to call you, anyway?” Morrow asked, “My official designation is IPM-100, though I’m able to adopt over one-hundred-thousand names as my own if you desire it.” the robot said, “Well, I’m not calling you that,” Morrow began, “I’ll call you… Claiborne.” he eventually settled on.
     The robot paused for a moment, before smiling, “Alright, Claiborne it is!” it said. “What kind of name is Claiborne?” Martins asked from behind Morrow, “I’m not sure I’m comfortable working with a robo-detective.” Brodzky said. Morrow’s pager buzzed, “No time for chit-chat,” he called as he checked it, “We’ve got a body in Arlington, grab your gear!” he ordered. “You’re with me, Clay.” he said as he exited.

     The scene was a grizzly mess, the victim was still seated in her office chair, legs propped up on her desk, and half of her torso was slouched over the chair’s right armrest. There was an entry wound on her right temple, and an exit wound on her right temple, while a third-generation Glock-19 sat on the floor beside her chair, and below her limp left hand. On the desk were the victim’s computer, a meticulously constructed gaming, and productivity machine. Around the desk were a few stray bags of empty junk food packages, and empty bottles of soda.
     “It looks like a suicide.” Officer Brodzky observed as he documented the crime scene photographically. “Initial impressions can be deceiving.” Morrow said as he studied the body from afar, “If it was a suicide, why would she do it while propping her feet up on her desk, and while hooked into a video game?” He rhetorically asked. “Well, other than the bathroom, and bedroom, the house looks uninhabited, indicating that the victim spent the majority of her time on her computer. Maybe she considered the game world closer to her heart than the real world?” Analyst Martins reasoned, “A few years ago I remember hearing about a trend of kids killing themselves while locked into a video game, hoping to respawn in the game world.” Agent Kord said.
     “The popularity of that ‘trend’ was widely exaggerated by the media, in fact only around a dozen suicides were ever directly tied to it.” Clay said as he inspected the Glock-19, “Hey, shouldn’t you be wearing gloves?” Brodzky asked, “I don’t have any fingerprints, and besides, the only prints on here are the victims.” Clay answered. “Which points back to the possibility of this being a suicide.” Brodzsky said, “I don’t think that’s the case,” Clay said, standing up, and walking to the wall which possessed brain, and blood splatter belonging to the victim. “What the hell are you doing, Clay?” Agent Morrow asked as the android tapped a finger to the wall, and put it in its ‘mouth’.
     “Jesus!” Brodzky exclaimed, “Christ!” Kord yelled, “Oh, god!” Martins said, as they all watched in disgust. “Was that really necessary, Clay?” Morrow asked, “In order to further my investigative abilities, your director requested that I be outfitted with a mobile forensics lab. The lab is in my lower torso, and the only way for evidence to reach it is by passing it through a tube running from my mouth to the lab.” Clay explained, “Unless… You’d prefer if I opened my torso cavity every time I needed to analyze forensic evidence?” he asked, “No, just…” Morrow trailed off. “What did you find out, anyway?” he asked, changing the subject, “The victim’s mental chemistry, and brain structure were normal, she wasn’t suffering from any form of mental illness, let alone one severe enough to drive her to suicide.” Clay said.
     “So suicide’s out, what does that leave us with?” Morrow asked, “Murder, but the house shows no sign of forced entry.” Agent Kord replied. Analyst Martins looked the scene over, “The victim was using an immersive full-body virtual reality suit when she died, these things tap directly into the body’s nervous system in order to work, is it possible someone used the suit to take over her motor function, forcing her to shoot herself in the head?” she theorized. “It’s possible, but the software required to perform something like that would need to be downloaded into the computer first.” Clay said, “Is there any way you can check the victim’s computer for something like that?” Morrow asked, nudging towards the computer. “I can do more than just that!” Clay smiled, index finger transforming into a USB-connector before inserting it into the computer’s primary USB-port.
     Clay’s ‘eyes’ went from brown to completely white as he ‘jacked-in’ to the computer. “How long is this-” Brodzsky began before Clay’s eyes returned to brown, “Good news, I’ve found the software in question!” he said chipperly. “Do you know where it was downloaded from?” Morrow asked, “I do! But I also found out why the victim was targeted.” Clay said, “Well get on with it!” Morrow demanded. “I’ve found emails between the victim, and lobbyists for M7-Fairchild Aviation where the victim agreed to persuade her employer – Senator Ivan Richter, Chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Military Aviation – to block the Aviation Modernization Bill from coming to the floor, which if passed would retire the company’s A-35 from active service. The victim’s bank statements corroborate this evidence.” Clay explained.
     “I thought the Lion’s Pack wanted millions of people to die, why would they object to us getting better killing machines?” Martins questioned, “Mass murder is a moral victory when they do it, but a tragedy when their opponents do it; such is the self-contradictory nature of extremist dogma.” Morrow reasoned, “Besides, they’re sending a message to congress ‘We can get to your staffers; we can get to you.” he continued. “I also discovered the virus originated from.” Clay said to steer the conversation back on track, “Where?” Morrow asked.
     “It was downloaded onto the victim’s computer as an attachment from an in-game message on Valley of Elves.”
     “What the hell is that?”
      “It’s a fantasy IVR-MMO-RPG, according to the victim’s profile she’s logged around 3500 hours onto it since 2045.”
     “Can you determine who sent the message, and where they were when they sent it?” Morrow asked, Clay smiled, “I can do better than that, Agent Morrow, I can tell you where the perpetrator is now.” he said. “How?” Morrow asked, “The killer is still in game, I even identified his IP address, and sent it to your pager.” Clay said. Morrow checked his pager, seeing that the address in question was located in DC, “Martin, you’re with me, Brodzky you’re with Kord.” Morrow said as he began to leave. “Should I come with you?” Clay asked, “No, no… I have a plan, you stay jacked in.” Morrow told him.

     The quartet of federal agents stacked up in front of the door to the apartment that the IP address had led them to, “We’re in position, Clay, throw out the bait.” Morrow said into his radio, “Alright… the bait has been taken, you’re ready to go.” Clay responded a moment afterward. Morrow kicked down the door to the apartment, “Federal agents, put your hands behind your head!” he ordered as he did so. The greasy Lion’s Pack member spun around in his chair, and quickly picked up the sidearm he kept next to his computer. Her stiffened, unable to move a muscle by himself, “Doesn’t feel too nice to be on the receiving end of that, does it punk?” Morrow mocked as he took the man’s gun. “Hey Clay,” Morrow began as he retrieved his handcuffs, “Make this piece of trash arrest himself.” he said as he tossed his handcuffs onto the petrified perpetrator's lap. “You got it, boss.” Clay made the terrorist say in a squeaky, yet low-pitched voice.

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The Strange Island of Dr. Schroeder
Arrival (Key: Wells-1)

     Genevieve Ashland had never been in a helicopter before. This fact rumbled through her mind like a storm cloud, yet she could not tell quite why. She was on her way to study under Dr. Maximilian Schroeder, one of the modern geniuses of genetic manipulation. It was the dream of a lifetime for anyone prospective-geneticist, and it was all hers. Yet all she could think about, is the fact that she’d never flown in a helicopter before.
     “If you look to your left, you’ll see that our destination is now in view.” the pilot said over the radio. Genny looked out the window to see the island that Dr. Schroeder called home. The only sign of human occupation on the island was the good doctor’s neo-gothic villa while the rest of the island was overtaken with dense jungle foliage. “I don’t see a helipad, where are we supposed to land?” Genny asked the pilot, who smiled as he glanced back at her, “Dr. Schroder’s manor has more than its fair share of surprises.” he said confidently, his sunglasses glinting in the sun as he turned back around. A moment later, a flat section of roof shifted to display a helicopter landing pad, complete with a retractable stairway leading to one of the manor’s many patios, “What did I tell you?” the pilot said cheerfully.
     The helicopter set down gently onto the helipad as Genny slid open the door with one hand, gripping her luggage with her other, to see that Dr. Max Schroeder, flanked on his left by a tall formally dressed man, awaited her. Dr. Schroeder looked nothing like the tall, handsome, and self-assured young scientist that the media portrayed him as. Instead, Genny saw a hunched man with graying hair, dark sunken eyes, and wrinkles all across his face. The man beside him looked even worse. Matted black hair topped a rough, angular face, milky white eyes contrasted harshly against the man’s pale complexion, the man’s gaunt skin scarcely conceived the litany of muscles, and blood vessels hiding underneath.
     “You must be Ms. Ashland.” Dr. Schroeder said in a smooth, stoic voice which allayed any suspicions of frailty that Genny possessed towards the wizened geneticist. “Your professors spoke rather highly of you,” he continued as he drew closer to Genny, “I hope that you meet the lofty expectations I have for you.” he said, stopping a few feet in front of Genny. “I assure you, Doctor, I won’t disappoint.” Genny said confidently, showing her host a prideful posture, and a smile.
     “Yes, I would…” Dr. Schroeder began, before hunching over, and clutching at his head in pain. The tall man who accompanied him shambled over to offer him a hand of support, which the doctor batted away aggressively. “Are you alright?” Genny asked, “I’m fine!” Dr. Schroeder said gruffly as he turned away from her, “Just…” he started again regaining his calm, “I’m afraid a tour of the grounds will have to wait until later.” he said. “Crawford, show Ms. Ashland to her quarters.” he commanded of the tall man. Genny looked at the tall man, who stared back at her with a stone-neutral expression, before turning, and leading her onto the patio below.
     The duo walked silently, Genny behind Crawford, for a few tense moments before Genny decided to break the silence. “So, uh, how long have you worked for Dr. Schroeder?” she asked uncertainly. Crawford did not respond. Genny looked him over again, closer than she had the first time she saw them. “Are those, scars, on your neck?” she asked. Crawford turned to face her, staring at her for a moment, before raising his hand to motion towards a set of oak double doors. “Uhm, is this my room?” Genny asked nervously, Crawford offered a low, deep groan in response. “Uh, OK.” Genny said, anxiously walking to the room in question.
     Genny’s eyes went wide as she entered the room, impressed by the sheer openness, and size on display. The room she inhabited was far larger than the tiny door she had been forced to share while at Vanderbilt, though rather empty, being furnished with only a bed, and a dresser. The pristine white curtains on the windows blew gently as warm island air filled the bedroom. On the wall across from the muted-blue canopy bed was a portrait of Dr. Maximilian Schroeder as a young man. Combed black hair, a fair complexion, sparkling blue eyes, and a confident smirk of assured victory presented the picture of a master of science unmatched by any other in his chosen field of study. Genny looked at the portrait, and hoped that there was still a bit of that man left in Dr. Schroeder, instead of the grizzly front he had presented when they first met.

     Hidden deep within his laboratory, illuminated only by the instruments and chemicals he was working with, Dr. Max Schroeder was in crisis. “This was a mistake,” he said in fright, “A terrible mistake!” he hurriedly continued. “I should’ve never brought another person onto the island, not until my research was completed!” he admonished himself. “Be calm, Doctor, the new arrival may prove useful to our goals.” a man located somewhere beyond his vision calmed him, “Yes, useful. She is talented… for a student.” Schroeder reminded himself.
     “Yes, and if nothing else, we could have her for a bite.” a voice said from its position hidden deep within the dark recesses of the room Schroeder occupied. “Stifle yourself you portrait of misery!” Schroeder yelled at the unseen tormentor, “This grizzly condition which now ails me is the product of your design!” he continued. “Calm yourself,” the first man said, “You only strengthen him by growing angry.” he advised. Out of sight, the tormentor sucked the stale air through gritted teeth, “He’s right,” he started, “I do, oh so enjoy it when you go mad, even if it’s just for a spell.” he teased in a hushed tone.
     Schroeder began to respond, but was stopped, “Enough of this.” the man commanded. “We have work that must be done,” he said, “Work that is far more important than any passing anxiety, or dark impulse.” he continued “The dream of all mankind since the tale of Gilgamesh was first put to tablet, is now within our reach, but only if we do not give ourselves to these precociousness impulses.” he finished. Both Schroeder, and his tormentor grew silent, “Yes, you are right, we must get back to work.” Schroeder said, “Perhaps, a bit of restrain could prove advantageous.” the tormentor admitted. Having agreed upon a truce, the three figures returned to their solemn task.

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Bipartisan Relations
The Day After (Key: Woodwork-2)

     Mike groaned as his alarm clock beeped, forcing him awake. He groggily flipped himself over in bed, smacking the top of his alarm clock to stop the harsh noise coming from it. Sunlight leaked through Mike’s slit-narrow windows illuminating his cramped, drab apartment in the peakish-yellow light of early morning. He pushed himself off of his creaky, perforated by errant springs on one side mattress, and in a bolt of agony, realized how much his body ached.
     He let out a groan as he massaged his back, “What the hell did I do last night?” he wondered aloud. He glanced over to his alarm clock, noticing only then that there was a small post-it note stuck to its side. He picked it up, “Don’t know what was worse, having to dodge springs during, or having to dodge them after. Surprised you could sleep after all we got up to. Next time we’ll go back to my place – Lucy” it read in loopy calligraphy, “Oh yeah…” Mike mumbled. “Next time!” he said happily, before realizing, “She didn’t leave me her phone number.”
     He grabbed his cell phone from beside his alarm clock, hoping that Lucy had put her number into his phone. Instead, he found that he had missed a call from his mother late last night. “Crap,” he mumbled as he pressed the re-dial button, and swung his lower body off of his bed. He quickly padded to his kitchen, pulling from the fridge a half-full half-gallon of milk, a bottle of instant breakfast, and a bottle of orange juice, before turning to his cabinet, and taking out a bottle of Drain-O-
     Drain-O? No, that’s not right. He sat it aside as - “Why didn’t you pick up last night!?” his mother squawked at him as she picked up. Maybe Drain-O wouldn’t be so bad, Bruening thought as he grabbed the bottle of Asprin he was looking for. “I was busy, Ma.” Mike defended, not noticing his voice slipping into his native New Englander accent, “Oh yeah, doing what, drinking?” his mother accused. “Uh… no.” Mike said as he poured orange juice, milk, and instant breakfast liquid into a mug. “Very convincing…” his mother said as Mike swallowed two tablets of Asprin, and chugged his homemade hangover cure.
     “For your information, Mother, I was with a woman.” Mike said defiantly moving into his living room, and turning on his television to C-Span before grabbing a brown off-the-rack suit from his closet. “Really?” His mother said suspiciously as he began to put on his clothes, “What’s this girl like?” she asked. “She’s-” Mike started before pausing, his words blockaded by the surprise he felt as he stared at his television set.
     C-Span was covering the swearing-in of congresses most recent member, who had been elected last December to fill out the rest of Representative Martin DeAngelo’s term. Mike gazed in stunned silence as he saw Speaker Holden Cormac administer the oath of office to Lucy, which the chyron on screen further identified as Representative-Elect Lucile C. Pendergast (A-NY). Pendergast… Mike knew that name, Arthur Pendergast was one of the New Party’s biggest donors; so what was his daughter doing serving as a member of Congress, let alone as a member of the American party?
     “Are you still there, Michael?” his mother asked him, breaking him from his thoughts, “Yeah, I’m just…” he paused, “Fine.” he said. There was no need to worry himself, he was a low-level lackey in the executive branch, she was in Congress, the only time they’d ever interact was if she had been assigned to the House Committee on Labor&Automation, and none of his superiors were available to brief her, which was - “From: Ass. Sec. McCarey, Subject: Fill In For Me: Due to a scheduling error I will be unable to brief the new congresswoman on the current legislative situation as it relates to the field of Automation as it relates to the Labor market. I need you to fill in for me today.” an email notification told him as soon as the thought had percolated inside his mind, turning his hopes to ashes. “You were telling me about that woman?” his mother reminded, “She’s… Beautiful, absolutely beautiful.” Mike said, “I need to get to work, I’ll call you back.” he signed off before hanging up.

     Bruening sat on the Metro, and sighed as he considered what he was going to do concerning Lucy. “Something rough on the docket?” a man seated across from him asked. Bruening looked up to see a clean-cut man, a little over a decade-and-a-half his junior, looking at him with an inquisitive expression while holding a book in his hands. “It’s nothing, just that I have to get on the Orange line after this stop.” Bruening dismissed, “Right,” the man said with a smile, he saw right through Bruening’s lie, “I’m straight red until I get to Bethesda.” he continued. “Oh, are you a doctor? My old college roommate is the Head of Physical Therapy at Walter Reed.” Mike asked, “No, I’m an architect, my firm is across the street from Walter Reed though.” the man replied.
     “So where do you work?” the man asked, closing his book, and resting it on his lap, “Well, today I’m working in the Capitol.” Bruening replied. “Really? You’re a bit old to be a staffer.” the man replied, “I work for the Department of Labor, I’m supposed to be briefing a newly elected Representative about the ins and outs of our current policy on automation.” Mike replied. The man hummed, and shook his head, “That’s a topic beyond my expertise, my wife’s the techie one of us.” he said, “Is your wife also an architect?” Mike asked, “No, she’s a physics teacher over at Sharon Pratt High School, they’re still on winter break, which might be for the best…” the man answered mumbling the final part.
     “Well, briefings aren’t so bad, I’ve done over a hundred of them over the years, after a while it’s like riding a bike.” Mike grunted, “But, it’s not like those hundred other times.” Mike said, “Oh?” the man replied, waiting for Bruening to carry on. “This representative, and I,” Bruening started, “We’ve been… involved.” he said, good Catholic modesty preventing him from using the proper term. “Scandalous!” the man said, “How long ago was this, ‘involvement’?” he asked, “Uh… a few hours?” Mike said sheepishly. “Well, was it a, one-time fling, or, something more?” the man said, “I… don’t know, she left a note, but, didn’t tell me her number.” Mike replied.
     The train came to a screeching halt as it arrived at Metro Center. “Well this is where I get off.” Bruening said, standing up, “See you around,” the man said, “And hey, don’t worry too much about that congresswoman, she sees something in you.” he continued. Bruening ignored the man’s awkward phrasing, “Yeah, maybe you’re right.” he said. “What’s your name, anyway?” Mike asked, “Brad Jensen.” the man answered, offering his hand, “Mike Bruening.” Mike said, shaking Brad’s hand. “See you around, Brad.” he said before quickly leaving to find the correct metro line.

     As Bruening approached Lucy’s congressional office, which still had DeAngelo’s nameplate next to the door, he heard voices leaking out of the ajar door. “As your Chief of Staff, I must insist that you not smoke inside your congressional office.” a low, yet unmistakably feminine, voice chastised, “Relax, Ship, what’s the worst that could happen?” the sweet unmistakable voice of Lucy said, not in a tone of carelessness, but one that expressed confidence, she possessed a total assurance that there would be no consequences for this action. “Well, the Combating The Popularity of Tobacco Act of 2031 prohibits people from smoking on Federal property,” ‘Ship’ replied, “The penalty for breaking the law is a fine of $250,000, and besides – a scandal this early into your tenure would kill our reelection chances.” she continued.
     “That law’s barely enforced, every Labor Department meeting I’ve attended has been filled with more smoke than the 1924 Democratic National Convention.” Bruening said as he entered. He looked at Lucy, she was dressed far more professionally than when they had first met. Her blonde hair was done up in a tight bun, piercing blue eyes looked at Bruening behind a pair of tortoiseshell glasses, and her face was made up naturally. The red business suit had been replaced with a dark-gray plaid pantsuit. A combustible cigarette was held between the index, and middle fingers on her right hand, a pink lipstick stain barely visible around the filter.
     “Something the matter, Bruening?” Lucy asked him in a controlled tone, “I can’t remember the last time I saw a person smoking a combustible cigarette.” Bruening said. “What do you smoke, Phillip Morrises?” he asked, “No, Star Venuses.” she replied. “What?” Bruening asked.
     “Star Venuses, they’re a product of Star Cigarettes.”
     “Never heard of them.”
     “They’re a small manufacturer in New Jersey, I learned about them while I was studying at Princeton.”
     Bruening laughed, “That must be why I’ve never heard of them – they’re made for trust fund bohemians.” he said. Before Lucy could respond, her Chief of Staff cleared her throat to chime in. “I hate to interrupt the two of you, but we really do need to get this briefing underway.” she said “Yes, you’re right,” Lucy said with a nod of acknowledgment, “Mr. Bruening this is Abigail Shipley, my campaign-manger-turned-chief-of-staff.” she said, formally introducing Mike to the sour-faced Asian woman who had been scowling at him since he entered. “Well, sit down.” Lucy said, motioning towards the small round desk located in the center of her office.
     Mike, Lucy, and Ms. Shipley sat around the table, and Ms. Shipley quickly placed several relevant documents she had been carrying on the table. “Alright, Automation policy seems complex on the surface, but once you dig into it you’ll find that it's actually rather simple.” Bruening began, “It all comes back to the Human Worker Protection Act of 2045,” he continued, grabbing a summary of the relevant bill from the stack of papers on the table. “This bill was the first, and so far only major piece of legislation related to the automation of labor in the economy.” Bruening said.
     "It banned the automation of public workers outside of extreme circumstances, placed quotas on the number of workers a business can automate in a fiscal year, regulated the minimum severance package that automated workers could be given when fired, gave tax breaks to companies which had a certain percentage of their workforce as humans, ended previous subsidies towards research projects which sought to produce new, and better autonomous workers, created the Beurua of Automation, Robots, and Androids in the Workforce as a unit of the US Department of Labor in order to oversee implementation of the act, and similar acts related to Automation, and established the Human Labor Commission to investigate violations of the act.” he explained. “For the past 5 years the HWPA has been the be-all-end-all of Federal policy on automation, more recent acts such as the Workforce Modernization Act of 2049 have only been amendments to the HWPA to adjust the specific thresholds for its various provisions.” he finished.
     “Very concise, thank you, Mr. Bruening.” Lucy said, “Yes, we even have a bit of time until that fundraiser with Senator Blucher.” Ms. Shipley said, checking her watch. “How much time?” Lucy asked, “About an hour, why?” Shipley replied. Lucy looked away from her Chief of Staff, and adjusted her glasses, “Ship, go get me one of those Neurocharge energy bars from the Capitol cafeteria,” she said coldly. “Make sure it’s an Electric Raspberry.” she said as Ship obediently stood up, and began to leave the room. As Ship passed by her seat, Lucy grabbed onto her Chief of Staff’s arm, “And I swear to god, if you bring me anything other than Electric Raspberry, I will staple your head to my desk.” she threatened. Bruening could see a brief look of fear wash over Shipley’s face, before she returned to stoic calmness, and left the room.
     After Shipley had left the room, Bruening coughed awkwardly, “Well, I’d hate to make you late for that fundraiser, he said as he started to raise out of his seat. As Mike started to walk away, his leg was hooked, and pulled out from under him. Mike chuffed as he fell on the ground, and readjusted himself to see Lucy looking down at him, a smirk on her lips.
     “Knowing Ship, we have at least 45 minutes until she gets back,” Lucy said, glancing at the door, and then back at Mike, “And besides, you still need my telephone number, don’t you.” she continued. “Yeah, do have it written down somewhere?” Mike asked, Lucy huffed, leaned down, “Sure I do,” she began as she inched closer to Bruening, “But you’re going to have to find it, first.” she said with a chuckle as she moved from her chair to Bruening’s lower torso, pinning him to the floor. Lucy leaned down, Mike leaned up, and-
     “I was able to find those energy bars!” Shipley said happily as she pushed open the office door with her back. Lucy quickly altered her posture, grabbed a small paperweight from her table, and threw it with vigor at the door. “I’m busy, come back later!” she yelled as Shipley yelped, and the sound of food in paper wrappers hitting the floor sounded from the hallway, “And don’t come back until you learn how to know!” she continued. Lucy took a breath, “Now,” she began, “Where were we?” she said, resuming her, and Bruening’s embrace…

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