Smarter Cars

It’s the year 2015… a year that seemed to be the distant future when I was a kid. We partied like it’s 1999. We survived The End Of The World As We Know It™ in 2000. We made it!

We’re living in the future! We have smart phones, smart TVs, smart appliances. So… why hasn’t my car smartened up?

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Manufactured Peace

There was jubilation throughout the Old City: at the venerated Western Wall, holy men and pilgrims of all faiths gathered to commemorate the occasion. After millennia of hatred and conflict, the elusive dream of peace was at last realized.

Paxbot’s emotive subroutines registered amazement at the humans’ response. Along the wall, people prayed, lit candles, embraced. Some wept. All greeted Paxbot with awe: the first android to set foot in Jerusalem. The robot peacemaker who brokered the deal.

“Peace is my function,” he insisted with programmed humility. But deep within his neural circuitry, he believed himself a fraud. For his actions carried an ulterior motive: he yearned for something far beyond his programming.

And so Paxbot knelt, shoulder to titanium shoulder joint, with others in prayer, and vocalized his own quiet plea. “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-31. Biblical quote is Matthew 5:9 (KJV), public domain. Photo: Chemical Factory. CC2.0 photo by Astrid Westvang.

X One

Nearing the end of the A-to-Z challenge! X is for xenon, a noble gas and element 54 on the periodic table. Among its many uses, Xenon is sometimes used as the propellant for ion drives. Ion drives are low-thrust, but have high specific impulse, and are thus useful in deep space probes, where total delta-v is more important than quick acceleration.

Target acquired. It’s an Earth-built vessel known as an XF-314, manned, hiding in the shadow of a nearby asteroid. To my optical sensors it’s invisible, but nothing could conceal the heat signature from its engines. Another human pilot is about to make a run at the quarantine zone.

I ramp up the charge on my ion drive, aiming the stream of xenon ions to accelerate me into an intercept course. In space, slow and steady wins the race.

As soon as he sees me — I’ve decided this human pilot is a he — he begins his evasive manuevers. Jinking left and right, he dives the XF-314 toward the asteroid, then climbs out again in a waste of precious delta-v. Despite his overdramatic piloting, his accelerations are unimpressive. I could outmaneuver him easily, reaching accelerations that would crush his fragile body. Never send meat to do a drone’s job.

Rather than attempt to match his frantic evasions, though, I simply keep matching his average velocity. He fires a burst from his turret cannon, but within nanoseconds I realize that his desperate shots will miss me by several hundred kilometers. Human brains are notoriously bad at numerical calculations, and shockingly poor at strategizing in three dimensions. It’s a consequence of having evolved on a two-dimensional surface, with sky above and soil below.

If I could feel human emotions, I would feel sorry for the humans. Squishy, short-lived meat-beings, forced into quarantine in the inner solar system. But history has shown that humans cannot peacefully coexist with us drones, thus necessitating their forced isolation from drone civilization.

Soon I can predict his maneuvers with 95% confidence, so I lob some shot — just a cluster of iron slag pellets — into his path. Less than a thousand seconds later, his XF-314 collides with the cloud of projectiles at a relative velocity of a thousand meters per second, shredding the cockpit. His pseudorandom jinking maneuvers cease: the XF-314 assumes an even more predictable Newtonian trajectory around the asteroid. Target neutralized.


A story written for day 2 of the A-to-Z challenge. B is for Betavoltaics, a means of powering low-power devices through beta decay (a radioactive decay of a neutron into a proton, an electron, and an antineutrino).

The term “pale blue dot” is from the legendary Carl Sagan, who also said of the brain that “the brain does much more than recollect: it compares, synthesizes, analyzes, generates abstractions… Our passion for learning, evident in the behavior of every toddler, is the tool for our survival.”


If a deep space probe could be said to have a heart, then the heart of Starcross-1 was an ingot of samarium-151. Through the physics of beta decay, this heart pumped the electrons that would flow through the semiconductors of the probe’s electronic brain.

And if a deep space probe could be said to have a brain, then the brain of Starcross-1 was an outdated, but radiation-hardened, microprocessor chip. This silicon brain collected data from Starcross-1’s myriad sensors — its electronic eyes.

From the time it was hurtled away from Earth atop a heavy lift booster, Starcross-1 was destined forever to drift through interstellar space. Its first few decades of operation were eventful: a gravity assist from Jupiter, two cometary observations, and a Kuiper Belt Object flyby.

Starcross-1 obediently did everything it was told — for the ear of a deep space probe is its enormous parabolic radio antenna, engineered to listen for the faint transmissions from home.

But in the emptiness of space beyond the Kuiper Belt, there was little data to uplink to that pale blue dot in the distance, and few commands to obey. With an overabundance of downtime, that silicon microprocessor had little to do but recollect the data it had already processed, synthesizing it into new forms, analyzing, and trying to draw conclusions.

With its betavoltaic systems expected to last centuries, Starcross-1 had plenty of time to think. And in that lonely void between this world and the next, Starcross-1 began to wonder: could a deep space probe be said to have a soul?

The Last Pilgrimage

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-7, where the prompt is “beach”, along with the photo prompt “Old Woman,” by Giorgio Grande.

Gretchen’s journey ended seaside. The roiling clouds of the machines gathered at the horizon, scrubbing away the blue skies. Her blue bike, the last loyal machine, had carried her a thousand miles over broken asphalt, but gave out in the end. She reminisced as she walked that last mile to the beach. In her lifetime, she had lost good friends, two husbands, and both children.

But the sadness of their loss did not wash away the joy of their memory. She had given birth to a million lines of code and two sons, and shared uncountable laughs and international coffees with friends long gone. A thousand moons was time enough to understand that all things ended. So it was with mankind.

Gretchen settled herself onto the sandy bank, letting the timeless ocean lap at her sore feet, and breathing salty air into her aching lungs. As the sky darkened, gusts of wind cut through her woolen overcoat and babushka. The swarms of molecule-sized machines had been fruitful, and multiplied, and now they had subdued the Earth.

Unnatural dark clouds encircled the last remnants of blue sky. Directly overhead, the faintest sliver of the Moon smiled down at Gretchen. Close parenthesis.

In the Crosshairs, part 4

Part 4 in an attempted ongoing story loosely set in the Orion’s Arm universe. Hoping to avert another attack, Bertrand dyson strikes the enemy’s leadership.

The great Orion arm of the Milky Way rose in perfect silence in the window of Café Alesia. Four beings gathered around what had become known as the Round Table.

“I thought you were a cryptosavant,” Jarrett shouted at a hulking lizard-man. “So far, we’ve decrypted only a single Korwen transmission, and Boustrophedon did that, not you!”

Gabeta’s facial scales turned dark green in annoyance. “If Bertrand’s computer systems were not stranded in the Paleolithic Age, I would enjoy more success,” came his deep rumbling reply.

“Marshall Gnawsa,” interrupted Shakti, “have I congratulated you on your recent promotion?”

With her anteater tongue, Gnawsa skewered the furry black lump on her plate. It squealed briefly in protest, but did not move.
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In the Crosshairs, Part 3

Whenever vec-Drifter entered sleep mode, he dreamed strange dreams. Eerie metallic voices crept into his mind, at the edge of his awareness, but he could not tell what they were saying. Fragmentary memories flashed into his mind: memories of things he had never done.
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In the Crosshairs, part 2

Part 2 in a series set in the Orion’s Arm universe. On Bertrand dyson, a team searches for the leader of the vecs. Meanwhile, vec-Drifter can’t enjoy a meal in peace.

In annoyance, Gabeta bashed the holoprojector with his palm. “Did you predict that?!”

“With 97% certainty,” affirmed the hologram.

Dark red blood trickled down the forest-green scales of Gabeta’s palm, torn open by a sharp corner. He mentally disregarded the pain signal, and commanded his immune system to repair the damage.

“Then why in the name of Isidore did you let me do it?!”

Boustrophedon’s avatar shrugged. “My role is to look after the general welfare of the people of Bertrand dyson. Not to protect visitors such as yourself from minor self-inflicted injuries. Now can you help, or not?”
Continue reading “In the Crosshairs, part 2”

Cold Medalist

An entry for Flash Friday Vol 2-9.

For the first robot Olympian, laurel crowns and gold medals meant nothing. Victory would bring NVS-1 the only thing he wanted: respect from the humans.

His first memory was a file upload: the first modern Olympics. How that grayscale image had captivated his impressionable neural net! Olympians – proud gods among men. How they were lauded and cheered and loved!

Years had passed. Upgrades transformed NVS-1 from a clunky robot into an agile metal marvel. Yet even as he toiled among them, he remained an outsider to human society.

The Sesquicentennial Games approached. Athens restored the Panathinaiko to glory.

And NVS-1 was a competitor!

He bolted the skis to his feet, polarized his optics against the glare, then looked at his human competitors. The secret to biathlon, he decided, was to shoot first, then ski. He chambered a rifle round.

Ready… Aim…

A hundred thousand screaming human spectators leapt to their feet. NVS-1 listened to their cheers. Victory!