The commission assignment: a birthday present that combined a recreation of the Doors of Durin from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, a Nepenthes pitcher plant enclosure, a potentially amphibian-safe herp enclosure, and a low-maintenance water feature. This required a living wall of sphagnum moss, both a waterfall and reservoir that would be resistant to clogging and safe for adding amphibians, an ultrasonic fogger for regular fogging effects, and a laser-etched acrylic backdrop that would both glow under placed LED lights and be easy to clean. Delivered on June 26, the end client was extremely surprised: further additions, once the sphagnum wall is established and live, include adding terrestrial bladderworts alongside the Nepenthes.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 24″ x 24″ x 18″ (60.96 cm x 60.96 cm x 45.72 cm)
Posted onJune 8, 2020|Comments Off on More Science Experimentation At Grad Student Prices: Fluorescence in Carnivorous Plants
One of the few bits of unadulterated good at the gallery over the last three months involved going through the back storeroom and sorting through boxes that were packed frantically back during the Great Move of 2017 and hadn’t been resolved before now. Among many other things, one of those boxes contained a set of ultraviolet rock lights purchased in better times to examine fluorescence in both minerals and in carnivorous plants. No better time than the present, and it was also a great excuse to hunt for scorpions.
Regular readers may remember some previous experiments in inducing fluorescence in pitcher plants a few years back, but these had problems for multiple reasons. The first is that not all UV lights are equal: to get the right light frequency, about 380 manometers, shortwave UV lights are much more desirable than longwave UV lights. Most standard UV LED lights, such as those for checking UV ink handstamps in nightclubs and bodily fluid stains in nightclubs and other venues, are longwave lights, so while they’ll make tonic water and urine fluoresce, they don’t do a lot for getting a positive response out of most carnivorous plants. Shortwave UV lights, generally used for fluorescent mineral identification, produce the correct wavelength, but they’re both expensive and very hard to use. Most shortwave UV lights require alternating current and extension cords, meaning that they have all sorts of hazards when used in typical carnivorous plant habitats. Worse, those lights have to get in CLOSE to see plant fluorescence, and while some flowers will fluoresce at a distance under shortwave UV (aloes in particular), carnivore traps need to get that light within about three to five centimeters to fluoresce. Obviously, for basic identification and study of the phenomenon, especially in the field, another option was necessary.
Back in 2013, I tried an alternative with a violet laser pointer and a beam diffuser, essentially creating a UV laser flashlight. This had its own issues. The beam diffuser had to be adjusted constantly for best effect, which didn’t leave hands free to adjust plants, use a camera, or much of anything else. In the same vein, standard digital cameras at the time were beyond horrible for photographing UV fluorescence, so a lot of plans had to be set aside. The plan, though, was to run a demonstration of carnivore fluorescence at the old gallery in the summer of 2017, and we all know what happened there. The gear went into a box, the box went on a shelf in the new gallery storeroom, and it took a pandemic inventory and reorganization to pull the gear out again.
Believe it or not, the revelation wasn’t due to the existing shortwave UV gear, and it wasn’t due to carnivorous plants. The main plan was to prospect for Texas opal along the Brazos River. Most Texas opal deposits aren’t what would be considered gem-grade, especially compared to Australian boulder opal, but it was once harvested in great quantities in the 1930s and shipped to Europe, where it had quite a popularity when sold as “black opal” in the days before World War II. Today, it can be found through Pennsylvanian marine fossil deposits, commonly turning up inside crinoids and horn corals, and like most other opals, it fluoresces a gentle peach color under shortwave UV. It’s one thing to see it in a static museum display and another to see it in situation, so the box came out to a ranch between Mineral Wells and Palo Pinto in West Texas in order to examine those opal deposits firsthand.
Well, inside the box was also a planned experiment delayed by the move to the new gallery. American Science & Surplus sells a lot of interesting items, with its only limitation being an inability to ship items outside of the United States. (I’ve spent the last 15 years searching for an international equivalent for friends seeking scientific surplus, and have yet to find anything comparable.) Among many other wonders, AS&S carries a wide line of 5-milliwatt laser pointers, including the violet laser pointer I was using. More importantly for those discussion, AS&S carries a set of kaleidoscope pointers. The red and green ones get quite a bit of use at music festivals and the like: twist a frontpiece and push the button, and you have your very own laser disco ball. Twist the frontpiece a bit more to spread the beam from many distinct spots to even more diffuse individual spots, and you have laser light going everywhere. Again, important for this discussion, AS&S sells violet kaleidoscopic laser pointers selling for $16US, and one of them was in the box of UV gear, untouched since 2017.
At first, it was just a lark. Turn it on outside and ask “Hmmm…is anything glowing?” That’s when a few pieces of scrap paper started fluorescing, but was that fluorescence or just good night vision? I had a way to test it, thanks to a few chunks of slag uranium glass brought along for the trip, so it was a matter of pulling them out, turning on the laser pointer, and then photographing the effect both with flash and without:
Next experiment: using others’ research. I had recently read about archaeologists using shortwave UV to spot damage to bones that was impossible to view under visible light, including damage caused while the organism was still alive or shortly after it died, and a feral pig jawbone discovered on the ranch was a great test. While barely visible under sunlight, the laser pointer revealed damage to the sides of the jaw, possibly from coyotes feeding on the carcass after the pig died. (At least, I hoped these were from coyotes.)
The real test, though, came from random fossils collected through the area. The real surprise wasn’t discovering that opalized fossils fluoresced under UV. The real surprise was finding several brachiopod fossils that fluoresced in different colors, which may require a trip to the Mineral Wells Fossil Park to test this further.
With this knowledge, it was time to go back to Dallas and the gallery to test the laser pointer on carnivores. After several days of examination with various genera and species, the real limitation wasn’t with the laser pointer, but with using digital cameras to record it. Even with a new iPad camera, generally considered one of the most sophisticated cameras available on the market, most carnivore fluorescence is only visible when the UV source is within about two centimeters from the trap, and most of it is invisible to the camera. Obviously, more research is needed, but several things turned up, including a few that wouldn’t have been obvious.
Firstly, while UV fluorescence has been observed with a wide range of carnivorous plants, the laser pointer only spotted fluorescence with several genera. Venus flytraps and sundews were known to fluoresce along the leaf surface, but the only fluorescence spotted with the laser pointer was along leaf edges, suggesting that the previously observed fluorescence may range in bands visible under multiple wavelengths of UV in order to attract multiple varieties of insect. Butterworts were already known not to fluoresce, but spots in the blooms of Pinguicula primulflora and P. gigantea glow extremely strongly, as do the blooms of bladderworts. The carnivorous bromeliad Brocchinia was particularly interesting: its traps display multiple arrays of fluorescing bands, but dying leaves on the outside of each plant harbor fungus or mold that fluoresces to black-light poster levels, an effect that I had seen previously on ginger plants in Nicaragua, and may assist the spread of spores via beetles or other insects. Most interestingly, while the trapping surfaces of the frail triggerplant Stylidium debile do not fluoresce, shining the laser pointer directly down the blooms reveal a small but bright fluorescing spot, suggesting the main attracting point for pollinating insects.
It’s the four genera commonly referred to as “pitcher plants” that the widest range of fluorescence was observed. The Australian pitcher plant, Cephalotus follicularis, showed no fluorescence at all under the laser pointer, suggesting that any natural fluorescence might be at a different wavelength. South American pitcher plants (Heliamphora) show spots of fluorescence across species, usually centered around the nectar cup at the top of the pitcher, that unfortunately was impossible to capture with any digital camera I had on hand. North American pitcher plants (Sarracenia) showed subtle but definitive fluorescence along the lip of four observed species and two hybrids, with suggestions that the observed brightness of white pitcher plants (Sarracenia leucophylla) in moonlight is due to reflectivity of visible light and not fluorescence under reflected UV. The greatest levels of fluorescence, though, were spotted in multiple species of Asian pitcher plant (Nepenthes), usually manifesting as a brilliant dark green under the laser pointer. Even under a digital camera, the whole of the peristome stands out under UV except under certain situations. Those situations include newly opened pitchers (fluorescence doesn’t appear in pitchers for three to five days, coinciding with the amount of time the fluid inside of the pitchers needs to be exposed to air before its acidity reaches its peak), and with species already known not to be carnivorous, such as Nepenthes hemsleyana and Nepenthes ampullaria.
For the most part, Nepenthes pitchers fluoresce very strongly using this technique. Below are photos in visible light and in UV of the Nepenthes hybrid “Bill Bailey” and of Nepenthes veitchii:
Obviously, this is just the beginning, as these photos don’t take into account fluctuations based on season, photoperiod, or average temperature, or if the fluorescence increases or decreases based on the amount of prey captured at that time. That said, for the cost of a violet kaleidoscopic laser pointer, testing this will be considerably easier, and can be conducted by nearly anybody. Let’s see what we find out next.
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Posted onMay 10, 2020|Comments Off on Enclosures: “LifeBay 14” (2020)
Mani and Mia weren’t awake when the asteroid struck Indiana. Not that many people were: the three-kilometer-wide mass, moving at speeds and a trajectory that pointed to an extrasolar origin, hit shortly after 3 in the morning local time, and around 4:00 their local time. Technically, Mani and Mia weren’t asleep, either, although they were snug and secure when the bolide slammed at an oblique angle into Earth’s Northern Hemisphere and blasted a fantail of rock and vapor across most of central and western North America, and they were snug and secure for the months where impact debris thrown into orbit first formed a temporary ring around the planet. When that debris started blazing through the atmosphere across the globe, peppering cities, farms, oceans, and lakes with red-hot tektites, they were still secure, because they had no way to get out.
Mani and Mia shared one thing with a significant proportion of Earth’s human population: an inability to get out when the asteroid struck. They definitely shared that with the population of the Chicago highrise when the impact shockwave hit, crumbling all 70 floors like a sandcastle in a hurricane and spreading the inhabitants thinly enough that global survivors inhaled at least a few molecules over their lifetimes, however short that may have been. What didn’t immediately blow away piled up on and near the foundation, trapping anyone in the lower levels to face starvation, dehydration, asphyxiation, or blunt force trauma. Mani and Mia had adjoining repair bays in the basement, and the shockwave both filled elevator shafts and stairwells and stripped all but one thin floor of concrete from their chamber.
Ironically, a desperate situation of this magnitude was what Mani and Mia had been created to mitigate. The Ergatis Corporation specialized in synthetic organisms designed for hazardous duties in hazardous environments, and the Talismon 338 series Emergency Aid Drones (EAD) were considered the absolute state of the art at the time. Specifically designed to be recognized as artificial, so as not to be mistaken for looters, EADs were an automatically deployed solution for everything from fire suppression control to first aid. Connected to an internal server with extensive information on human anatomy and physiology, structural engineering, and group psychology, most luxury buildings by mid-century had at least one in a LifeBay (registered trademark) in the basement or lower level. In the case of fire, electrical blackout, sudden damaging winds, or a plethora of other internal disasters, one or more EADs would engage the situation and try to stabilize conditions to save as many residents as possible before authorities arrived to take over. Each EAD even came with an extensive library of short fiction to entertain children until those authorities arrived, in addition to expert-level skills in cooking, suturing, and welding. When not immediately needed, the EAD remained in its LifeBay, constantly updated on current conditions and firmware status: an EAD could function for up to three weeks before needing an update, as its clothing was both an immediate signal as to its function and a flexible solar cell array that both charged it and most of its diagnostic and repair tools. An EAD might not be a substitute for human authorities in a disaster, but it could handle the situation for years if necessary until those authorities arrived. Most larger buildings had multiple pairs of “male” and “female” EADs in teams, with adaptable ranges of behavior based on how humans would respond to their presence, and could switch between roles if that was necessary to assure cooperation and assistance from the rescued.
Unfortunately for most, nobody had planned for an apocalypse. The blast of debris from the asteroid impact sprayed into low orbit, going through communications satellites like a shotgun blast through wet toilet paper. As that debris came down, it took out power stations, solar arrays, and transmission and reception towers, immediately cutting off the LifeBay server from all outside stimulus. If the server had been able to determine that conditions were necessary to release the EADs, Mani and Mia would have emerged from their repair bays to deal with the disaster, and been promptly crushed by tons of concrete as they left the LifeBay area. Instead, the server went into standby, and Mani and Mia stayed in an electronic doze while the server attempted to get further information. The server was still attempting to get a status report when its batteries failed three months later, leaving Mani and Mia stranded.
The only reason Mani and Mia didn’t power down completely was that the ceiling of the LifeBay collapsed just before the server went down, and enough light came in through the hole to provide power through both the EADs’ clothing and through a set of backup solar panels included with other tools in each repair bay. Although inactive, each EAD was still aware of the situation, and automatically composed action plans based on the information they had, from what they could see through the clear repair bay covers. They also worked on maintaining a connection to each other as well as to the server, comparing plans and activity lists while waiting for full activation.
When the server finally went down, both EADs had just enough warning to download as much information as they could to their internal AIs before the power ceased. They themselves couldn’t draw enough power from a few hours of oblique daylight through the hole in the ceiling to keep the server running, but they had enough to store as much as they could through the night and on cloudy days. Because of their limits, information redundancy was a luxury, so they carefully optimized their information so that between the two of them, they retained most of what the server retained when it shut down. Mani became the surgeon, the psychiatrist, and the storyteller, while Mia wiped many of her language skills to focus on engineering and damage control. This went on long enough that they developed distinctive personalities that would have horrified their original designers, but it worked for them.
Each morning was the same: power up, compare status with each other, and take in what they could see in the LifeBay chamber. Each kept a small amount of memory free for contingencies, so they would note the time of the year based on the amount of vegetation or the amount of snow collecting on the floor, start timing their effective work period based on length of day and the amount of direct sun coming through the ceiling, and get to work. Both knew that things had changed drastically, and both understood that their original action plans were completely inadequate to the current situation. Waiting for authorities wasn’t an option, and they might have to be the authorities for a long time. If they could get out of the bay.
Every evening was the same, occasionally expanded when another chunk of ceiling collapsed and allowed them more daylight. As daylight faded, Mani tried his hand at original stories, using fragments of his library to compose new tales and new songs. While Mia had no background in music appreciation or English composition, she had a very well-cultivated sense of balance and design, and she took in Mani’s latest story and assessed it based on her skills. Mia then shared plans for temporary and permanent residences manufactured from building rubble and other available materials, experimented with the concepts of gardens and crop fields based on snippets of news updates downloaded just before the impact, and made increasingly educated guesses as to when enough debris would shift around the repair bays to allow one or both to exit. Between them was a locker full of tools, medicines, and other essentials: once they reached that, they could rebuild. All they had to do was wait for someone to find them.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 24″ x 18″ x 24″ (60.96 cm x 45.72 cm x 60.96 cm)
Plant: Nepenthes fusca
Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, vacuum-formed plastic, acrylic, found items.
Posted onMay 9, 2020|Comments Off on Enclosures: “Relict” (2020)
The saga of the Harkun, one of the five earliest sentient species to evolve on Earth, has been told elsewhere. What is less well-known is that even after the rest of the species evacuated the planet after its famed and humiliating defeat by the human Charity Smith, one Harkun leader jumped the turnstile at the last second and decided to stay. Nuurakk Hez-Kokk had spent most of his life orchestrating what was to be the ultimate statement on the Harkun’s place in the universe, only to be subverted by poorly written computer code, and then spent the next 65 years in a temporal stasis bubble while 65 million years went by outside. He was angry, which was a Harkun standard. He was vindictive, which was a Harkun standard. He was also quietly patient, which would have derailed his career and sentenced him to decades of cultural reprogramming had anyone learned, as a society of terminal sociopaths would always be wondering what he planned to do next.
Nuurakk’s ultimate goal was simple. Even though the planet had a new dominant species and a whole new name, it was still his world, and “destroying the planet in order to save it” was such a Harkun attitude. He didn’t actually want to destroy it, or even strip it of its mammalian vermin. He had bigger plans. As one of the few Harkun leaders who knew the locations of various technology stashes across Earth and its moon, and knew which ones survived 65 million years of continental drift, asteroid strikes, floods, desertification, and planned obsolescence, he moved in secret to one location, on one distinctive archipelago. There, he planned to create his own new people from the wreckage of his opponents.
The idea was relatively simple. There was no chance of convincing the original Harkun to return to Earth: they’d already taken their toys and flounced off. There was no point in trying to clone a new Harkun race from DNA of the old, because inevitably humans would discover and destroy a new community the first time a Harkun decided that lobbing mortar shells into a human community was a good way to relax. Instead, understanding the concept of “nature versus nurture” better than almost anyone in that section of the galaxy, Nuurakk was going to make human culture into a replica of Harkun culture. Even simpler than the idea was the execution.
To this end, Nuurakk built in silent a series of low-harmonic sonic generators, bombarding the planet’s core with barely detectable shock waves that caused the core to slosh like a waterbed. More power, and the generators would have produced earthquakes, volcanic activity, and lots of other geoplanetary phenomena of immediate threat to humanity. What Nuurakk wanted was a lower thrum, causing a perpetual state of quiet alarm, like waking up from hearing a scream during a dream and wondering for hours “Was that a real scream, or did I just dream it?” Humans depended more upon sleep and dreaming than any other sentient on Earth to that date: make that harder, and humans would exceed anything Harkun culture had ever conceived as far as nastiness, vindictiveness, vulgarity, and violence was concerned.
It almost worked, too. Humans could be incredibly inventive in coming up with passive-aggressive ways to make their fellows suffer, as demonstrated by the concept of the open office. What Nuurakk didn’t count upon, though, was that while humans could stoop to Harkun levels of crotchetiness for a while, they weren’t wired for that sort of sustained performance. After years of reaching for Harkun perfection with the species equivalent of flaming bags of dog crap thrown through windows, the vast majority of humanity snapped, rebelled, and destroyed every last sonic generator. Nuurakk was captured and imprisoned, and the collective relief on the human psyche was so great that the backlash ultimately transformed the galaxy. Humanity rubberbanded into a species determined never to allow itself to reach that level ever again, and Nuurakk spent the rest of his long and pain-free life looking out onto a planetary garden that he could never understand.
Not that everyone switched over. Among humans, there would always be those who for whom the Harkun personality was a feature, not a bug. That’s why they’re allowed free passage to a special reservation where they can be exactly who they want to be, separate from a world that wants to be better, free to throw used sex toys on neighbors’ porches and tattle on teenagers. This, my children, is why we don’t travel through North Dallas.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 12 1/2″ x 13″ x 12 1/2″ (31.75 cm x 33.02 cm x 31.75 cm)
Plant: Cephalotus follicularis
Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, vacuum-formed plastic, found items.
Posted onMay 1, 2020|Comments Off on Projects: Supplemental Indoor Light for Carnivores, For Work and Home
Thoughts during ongoing COVID-19 self-quarantine: sooner or later, no matter what happens with a vaccine or other long term solution, we’re all going back to something we’ll collectively call “normal”. Whether we continue to shelter-in-place or start to go out, one absolute is that a need for green will only become more intense. Sure, we’re in the middle of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, but what happens in autumn and winter, or summer in lower latitudes when the heat becomes too oppressive to stay outside for long? What about the need for green for those working night shifts, where they’d like to have a flora break outside of normal daylight hours? And what about those going back to desk jobs, where the only time they see outside is when they arrive and when they leave?
Well, the good news is that while not all carnivorous plants do well indoors, some do. Trying to raise Venus flytraps or North American pitcher plants indoors is folly: besides their need for a winter dormancy, they require more light than is practical for anyone not running a cannabis grow room. Many tropical species do rather well under consistent room temperature, though, but the biggest issue indoors is with light. Most office buildings constructed after 1990 have window treatments intended to minimize light input, especially in warmer areas, and the typical office lights in those offices work for only the most shade-loving plants such as spathophyllums and philodendrons. Carnivores need considerably more light output, and until very recently, that sort of light output both generated considerably more heat than was acceptable and used too much power to do so. For the last five years, though, the humble LED light bulb offers a perfect solution.
To start, you’ll need a classic desk lamp. These are available new, used, and antique, with all sorts of features with the new lamps such as USB plugs for charging small electronic devices and additional three-prong plugs for devinces requiring more power. (Should you have permission and/or interest, these plugs facilitate setting up webcams to show off your plant at any time, but that’s up to you.) The only absolute is that the lamp has to have a standard screw light socket: everything else depends upon circumstances.
Now, a lot of proprietary full-spectrum lights are available both for plants and for such hobbies as needlepoint or model-building, and the light fixtures themselves are often available for really reasonable prices, both new and used. The catch is that the bulbs are most often fluorescent, and they aren’t designed for running every day for hours at a time. The overwhelming majority of fluorescent fixtures, either tube or compact fluorescent, have a distinctive drop in light output after a few months: they still appear to be nice and bright to human eyes six months later, but they’ve usually decreased their light output by 50 percent or more, and that keeps dropping as the months go by. Three years after installing one, the light produced by a typical fluorescent bulb will be suitable for growing ferns, fungi, and not much else. Those daylight and full-spectrum fluorescent lights are also exceedingly expensive to replace, with some having replacement bulbs that are so expensive that buying a whole new lamp is often a cheaper option. These lamps also have proprietary sockets that prevent you from installing other bulbs or tubes, and the most practical option is getting one of the lamps that accepts screw-type bulbs that’s been standard since Thomas Edison’s day.
No, the secret is going with LED bulbs. At the beginning of the last decade, before the mass manufacture of white Light Emitting Diodes, your standard plant lights were those red and blue combos for indoor gardening and Sticking It To The Man. At that time, the idea was that daylight produced a specific ratio of red photons to blue photons: red photons have a shorter wavelength and therefore less energy but sunlight produces so many more, and blue photons are more energetic but much less common. Chlorophyll molecules can use the energy from both red and blue photons, and the mass production of blue LEDs in the early 2000s meant that LEDs could be used for high-intensity plant grow lights for the first time. You won’t need anything that specific unless you really like the look, and standard LED light bulbs are both considerably cheaper and easier to obtain.
Now the other thing to consider is the output. LEDs have the advantages of not dropping in light output with time the way fluorescents do, putting out far less of their energy consumption as heat, and having a much longer practical lifespan. Running for 12 hours a day on average, a typical LED bulb will last upwards of five years before finally expiring, as opposed to six months before fluorescents need to be replaced. In a workplace or home desk environment, white LED bulbs make a lot more sense.
From there, it’s a matter of looking for light output. For the most part, LEDs come in full-spectrum, warm white, and cool white options, with the full-spectrum bulbs usually costing a bit more. Aside from that, it’s whatever moves you and makes your plant look its best. The important consideration is the actual number of lumens (the standard measurement for light output) being emitted, and most bulbs are handily labeled for such. A perfect light output for small carnivorous plant containers is about 1600 lumens, but if you can’t remember that, the labels on most LED packages offer a handy alternative. Almost always in the upper right corner, those packages list the light output equivalent of an old-style incandescent bulb, and what you want to get is a 100-watt equivalent. The actual power consumption will be between 13 and 17 watts, depending upon the brand and the particular colors inherent in the light (full-spectrum LED bulbs tend toward 17 watts), but the light output will be the same. Whatever light option you want, get a 100-watt equivalent, and screw it into your desk lamp.
IMPORTANT: Go for a 100-watt equivalent LED bulb, not an actual 100-watt LED bulb. Not only is that amount of power consumption not necessary, but most desk lamps were designed for 40 to 60 watts of power consumption. While the bulb may not be throwing off the ridiculous amounts of heat that an old 100-watt incandescent bulb did, the wiring and socket can overheat and become a fire risk.
LED bulbs produce less heat than compact fluorescent bulbs and a lot less than old-style incandescent bulbs, but they’ll still generate some heat. Therefore, unless your workspace is considerably colder than most, and I’ve worked in some horrendously cold offices, set your lamp head about a handspan away from your plant and turn it on. If you want to get fancy or to make sure your plant gets light over the weekend or over vacation, consider getting a timer, analog or digital, to set the light output to match day/night hours over the year. With this setup, it’s possible to keep many species of Asian pitcher plant and tropical sundews, butterworts, and bladderworts well away from other available light sources.
A few things to consider:
Many offices turn off air conditioning over the weekend as a cost-saving measure, and some carnivores such as Cape sundews (Drosera capensis) have issues with temperatures going above 26 degrees C/80F. Cape sundews react to excessive heat, either from the light or from other sources, by burning back, and Asian pitcher plant leaves turn a brassy color when getting too much light. If these happen, pull back the lamp another handspan and watch to see if the situation improves.
Even though you and your plant may enjoy the high levels of light from your lamp, coworkers and supervisors may not, and this situation is particularly exacerbated in the ongoing nightmare of the open office. To keep stray light from annoying coworkers and control freaks alike, consider using a light shield made of cardboard, polycarbonate plastic (old political campaign banners cut to size and painted work well), or Mylar to keep the light reflecting back on the plant and not in coworker eyes.
In a typical work environment, you may get well-meaning coworkers or security crew who see a light on without you at the desk, and think they’re doing you a favor by turning it off, or busybodies who don’t like having it left on over the weekend. Signage can minimize a lot of this, even if it’s a sign over the light switch reading “This Light Is Running On Purpose.”
It may be perfectly obvious that the light is there for a carnivorous plant, but take into account roommates, coworkers, and supervisors with a phobia of reptiles or arthropods that might assume that your container is a home for a snake or insect. Again, a sign or tag stating “Nothing But Us Plants” is a good idea, as well as one reading “Please Do Not Feed Me” for those who decide they want to watch your plant feed and drop in whatever they find. If they keep it up anyway, well, at least you have a portable lamp to move your plant to home…or to work.
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Posted onApril 23, 2020|Comments Off on Projects: Fern Excluders On Grad Student Budgets
Let’s talk about ferns for a bit. Anyone working with terraria or miniature gardens eventually has to deal with ferns, both accidental and deliberate. In cases where they’re deliberately introduced, it’s because their foliage or other habits. Maidenhair ferns (Adiantum spp.), for instance, are an excellent addition to prehistoric-themed miniature gardens because of their ginkgo-like appearance and their extreme hardiness: so long as you don’t let them dry out, they’re nearly impossible to kill for long. Because they reproduce from spores that may remain dormant for years until the right conditions ensue, or the spores blow in on a breeze, accidental intrusions happen on a regular basis. Orchid enthusiasts using long-fiber sphagnum moss, particularly the light-blond LFS from New Zealand, discover all sorts of additions popping up after their sphagnum gets a bit of light, and some of these can be more visually stunning than the plants that grow alongside them. After all, the invention of the original Wardian case was instigated by a serendipitous fern sprouting in an unexpected situation.
So what’s the problem, you may ask? It’s that ferns in a miniature garden, terrarium, or vivarium environment tend to be a bit, erm, aggressive in their growth. Left uncontrolled, one seemingly inoffensive fern sprout can take over large enclosures and choke out smaller plants. Many species have long, tough roots that wrap around features, sink into ceramic pots, and make enclosure maintenance nearly impossible. At the bare minimum, that one fern can spread past its intended area, requiring constant maintenance to keep it under control. If an enclosure has a particular look that needs to be maintained to emphasize a particular plant, ferns have a tendency to crash the party and laugh at attempts at eviction. In extreme cases, the only viable option is to tear out everything and start from scratch…and then go through the same routine again and again.
Now, ferns can be controlled in the miniature garden the way bamboo can in standard gardens: by putting them in containers so their roots don’t sprawl and new shoots don’t spread. On a basic level, any material reasonably impermeable to plant roots could work, such as metal, glass, or stone. In miniature gardens, especially those with acid-loving plants such as orchids or carnivores, metal tends to corrode and contaminate the whole container, while glass and stone have their own problems with weight and porosity. The idea is to have something with an impermeable side but a permeable bottom, so moisture can wick up into the container from its surroundings while preventing fern roots from punching through. Equally importantly, it should be something reasonably attractive or possible to make attractive, if only so viewers don’t focus on the container instead of the fern inside.
The good news for anyone looking for good fern excluders is that they’re sometimes a bit too common. One quick trip to the grocery store, and your house is full of convertible fern containers. Food, drink, hair care, skin care: if it’s plastic and can be cleaned, it has potential. Even better, because of the demands by marketing to produce packages that are as uniquely identifiable as their labels, many of those are exotic enough that with a bit of modification, most would never recognize a final container as such. A bit of poking through the recycling bin, a good washing, and you have the beginnings of a fern excluder.
Before starting, consider the container that you’re converting and what kind of fern it is intended to hold. Tall containers have a problem with prematurely drying that requires additional top-watering, and with becoming top-heavy as big ferns get established. Overly small containers will restrict bigger ferns to the point where the plants will send roots over the side in search of water and nutrients. The container’s place in the terrarium or miniature garden has to be considered as well, because unless the fern is the only thing intended to be displayed, its excluder could overwhelm everything else. If possible, test the placement of the final excluder by putting the container in its intended location. If it doesn’t work for what you’re intending, there’s nothing wrong with going with another container and saving that one for a future project.
Converting a spare plastic container into a viable and usable fern excluder is done in three stages, two of which need tools or other accessories. In the first stage, some sort of knife is essential, with a drill and various bits, pliers, and medium-grit sandpaper being extremely handy. Since you’re cutting plastic, make sure that the knife is as sharp as possible, so using a razor knife or box cutter with replaceable blades is highly advised.
WARNING: Cutting plastic containers can be dangerous, both due to blades binding in the plastic and blades breaking during use. When cutting, cut very slowly to keep control of the blade, and ALWAYS cut away from your body. Cutting on a protective surface is highly recommended, and the use of scalpels, break-away hobby knives, and other thin blades is NOT recommended. If necessary, wear gloves when cutting plastic containers.: both the blades and the resultant cut edge are very sharp.
To start, remove any paper or shrinkwrapped plastic labels from your container. Paper labels can be removed by soaking the container in soapy water for an hour and then scrubbing, and commercial sticker-removal products such as Goo-Gone will work on any remaining adhesive. With plastic-wrap labels, just cut these with a knife and peel them free.
Some containers need additional work for cleanup. For instance, my bicycle route to the gallery is often strewn with empty BuzzBallz, which make excellent fern barriers due to the container’s size and thickness. The only problem with them is the aluminum top, which needs to be peeled off with pliers before further work can be done. (WARNING: metal edges can be sharp. Don’t do what I did: wear protective gloves and eye protection when peeling off metal attachments and save some bandages for later.)
Now, if your container already has the general look you want, then great. If not, you may have to remove the neck to remove screwcap threads and the like. With most containers, a razor knife works very well: start with an initial hole (a drill or nail hole works well) and then SLOWLY cut around until the neck is detached. With thicker-walled containers, saws designed for plastic and rotary tool cutting discs may be necessary: follow all safety instructions for these tools when using them, and work slowly to keep control and to keep friction heat from re-fusing the plastic while cutting.
For various reasons all involving weight distribution and structural integrity, the bottoms of most plastic containers are considerably thicker than areas near the tops. (The next time you accidentally drop a bottle of vegetable oil or salad dressing and it bounces instead of rupturing, say a silent prayer to the packaging engineer who successfully convinced Management that an additional gram or two of plastic resin per bottle was a necessary cost.) This means that razor knives won’t (pun intended) cut it. You have many options for electrical augmentation, but a cordless drill and the appropriate bit usually gets the job done in my case. A few warnings:
Numero Uno: Anyone who took a shop class in high school, who took any remedial home repair class in adulthood, and any fan of the Canadian version of Doctor Who will tell you the same thing, over and over: never, ever, EVER hold anything intended to be drilled with your hand. (Everyone will say this, of course, but the ones that paid attention don’t have those distinct scars that say “I figured that I was smarter than the drill press.”) Since most plastic containers are too flimsy to be locked into a vise for drilling, it’s time for alternatives. In my case, I use an old towel, usually with a silicone sheet inside for extra grip, to hold the container in place without actual flesh connecting with the plastic if that plastic starts spinning out of control.
Numero two-o: because of the way most of the world’s plastic containers are made (check out some Baby Soda Bottles one of these days), the absolute center of a plastic bottle is often convex instead of concave. This means that if you’re starting with a large bit, keyhole saw, or other drill-based cutting tool, that spinning tool is going to spin off true, possibly biting into the plastic in a place other than where it was intended or even into a nearby hand. To get more control, start out with a much smaller drill bit, or even a sharp nail or punch, to make a starter hole for the larger bit. If you need to do multiple borings until you get the correct-sized hole, so be it: this work isn’t going to be graded on expediency.
Numero three-o: if at all possible with drills or other cutting tools, try to go with maximum torque and minimum speed. The reason is that as it’s spinning, the drill bit will generate enough heat from friction to soften the plastic it’s cutting. The plastic can jam up the drill bit, re-fuse as soon as the bit stops, and even give a good burn to unprotected human skin. Even with going slow, some melted plastic will collect along the edges of the hole, and the final hole may not be completely cleared. In that case, use a stout blade, slowly and carefully, to cut out any rough plastic from the edges of the hole.
Finally, when this is all done, you’ll want to smooth out the holes at either end of your container with medium-grade sandpaper. In particular, decide which end is going to be the bottom of your fern excluder and use the sandpaper to even out that end as much as possible. It doesn’t have to be perfect: it just has to be even enough for the next stage. While you’re at it, rub that sandpaper over the whole of the container: this gives a rough surface, referred to by artists as “tooth,” to give adhesion for what you plan to do next.
For the second stage, you’ll need a different set of tools and supplies. The essentials include:
Silicone sealer, preferably aquarium grade
Landscape weed barrier cloth
Scissors suitable for cutting cloth
To start, cut a square of weed barrier cloth slightly wider on each side than your container. Set it on a flat surface, preferably covered with baking parchment or wax paper.
Next, after determining which end of your container is the bottom, put a good thick coat of silicone sealer all over the edge. Don’t worry about it being a bit sloppy: this part will be underground when you’re done.
Take that freshly gummed-up container and press it bottom-down atop the weed barrier cloth. If you want to smooth the bead of fresh silicone, use tongue depressors, caulking tools, or a gloved finger to clean things up (don’t use a bare finger unless you like cleaning silicone from your skin for the next few days), but make sure that the bead runs over the entire outside of the joint between the container and the cloth. After this is done. set it aside for about 24 hours to allow the silicone to cure.
Next, the container needs a coat of paint for three reasons. Firstly, unless you specifically want a clear fern excluder so you can see roots and plantlets growing inside, you’ll want to hide the excluder’s humble origins with a bit of color. Secondly, if the bottle had its label printed directly on its surface instead of on a label, giving free advertising to the original manufacturer may not be desirable. Thirdly, a good coat of primer for plastic makes an excellent base for subsequent embellishment. For the last ten years, I have had excellent results with Rust-Oleum Universal spray paint: it’s an excellent primer that doesn’t attack most plastics, it tends to cover a surface in one pass, and it comes in a wide range of colors and finishes, including hammered and metallic effects. For most miniature garden and enclosure applications, I very highly recommend the Carbon Mist because it gives the impression of shadows without slipping into “complete endless void” in smaller scales.
After letting your primer dry for at least 24 hours, it’s time for further embellishment. If you want to highlight features on the original container with further paint, go for it. If you want to add features by attaching greebles, add texture by gluing on sand or aquarium gravel, or slathering it with silicone sealer and then pressing in long-fiber sphagnum to encourage sphagnum moss growth on the outside, knock yourself out. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, add a layer of plumbing-grade epoxy putty to the outside and sculpting bark to make it look more tree-like. (I personally swear by Smooth-On’s Habitat epoxy putty because it’s safe for fish, amphibians, and reptiles.) If covering it with so many styrene parts and embellishments that it could double as a Warhammer: 40,000 game obstacle is what moves you, do what thou wilt. Just take into account three things: stability, weight, whether the item might rust/corrode/otherwise contaminate the surrounding soil, and whether the additions you plan to add will handle longterm exposure to sunlight. Other than that, whatever works is what works. When you’re finished, trim back the weed barrier cloth to make it easier to plant in an established miniature garden, or leave it as an anchor in a new one: it’s completely up to you.
After everything else is done. it’s time for Stage Three: The Planting. At this point, start adding your choice of planting medium into the fern excluder through the hole in the top. Pack it in gently so you don’t damage the weed barrier cloth at the bottom, and watering it regularly during the packing process helps settle the medium. In this example, this excluder is full of milled sphagnum moss for inclusion in a carnivorous plant enclosure. Just take into account that since the weed barrier cloth is porous, don’t add anything to the planting medium that might affect plants nearby, such as salt-based fertilizers for a fern in a carnivore enclosure.
When filling the fern excluder, don’t fill it completely. Leave just enough of a space at the top to add your fern, its roots, and any growing medium around those roots. It’s going to be stressed enough with its new conditions, so keeping the fern’s roots from being mashed or bruised will increase its chances of survival.
Finally, get your fern. Take a good look at its root system, and scoop out soil from the fern excluder to give enough room for those roots. Press it in gently, and scoop some soil alongside the roots to cover them. Give it a good watering, and it’s ready to be added.
At this point, add your new fern excluder where you need it, and check to make sure both that it’s close to the water level in the miniature garden or enclosure and that it’s stable. Placed correctly, water will seep through the weed barrier cloth from outside, encouraging the roots to go deep for moisture and discouraging growth through the rest of the area. This will discourage growth but won’t stop it, as many species will run roots down the sides and into surrounding soil. Trimming roots as they form is an option, and another is setting another fern excluder, wider and flatter, underneath the first excluder to facilitate those hanging roots. The fern excluder also won’t do a thing for new plants growing from spores, either from that fern or ones that blew in from elsewhere, so always check for new growth before it gets out of control. If you like that new growth, well, you’ve made one fern excluder, and there’s no reason why you can’t make more, right?
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Posted onApril 6, 2020|Comments Off on Enclosures: “Raven Well” (2020)
The locals refer to the days before the Well as “The Belonging,” when the veil between worlds was weak and people were better than they were afterwards. Not that they knew much other than that: those who asked too many questions were either asked to leave or disappeared suddenly in the night. The foothills and valleys around the mountains were perpetually shadowed by clouds that never broke, with the only motion being a constant swirl around the tallest mountain in the region. Occasionally travelers spotted flashes of lightning from the vortex, getting stronger the closer they approached the peak. At least, this was what was reported by travelers who related what they saw to others: other travelers trying to get closer tended not to return at all, and others returned but became extremely enthusiastic about shutting down further questions.
Every once in a while, particularly brave travelers specifically went to view the lightning’s source, and a very few were willing to whisper about what they saw. They described a tremendous stone block on the side of the mountain, flanked by tremendous metal chains affixed to the mountainside and struck repeatedly by the lightning and backed by a cyclopean multicolored bas relief that could have been stone or glass or metal or a combination of all three. In the center of the block was a well bored into the mountain’s roots. Nobody asked about the well’s depths, because those bravest of the brave rapidly left after hearing what sounded almost like voices, soft and sibilant, coming from the depths. Some described the well as being half-full of water, and others said it was only full of darkness. One, though, visited right at the spring equinox, when a sudden break in the clouds shone sunlight directly down into the well and onto a garden of brilliant yellow flowers unlike any seen elsewhere. The explorer claimed she had climbed down to gather a flower but lost it in the forest, along with most of an arm, and refused to explain the circumstances under which both were left behind.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 24″ x 36″ x 18″ (60.96 cm x 91.44 cm x 45.72 cm) Plants: Nepenthes ampullaria and Utricularia subulata Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, resin, found items. Price: $400 Shirt Price: $350
Posted onApril 1, 2020|Comments Off on Enclosure: “Conjunction of the Million Spheres” (2020)
In which an artist, in an attempt to create backstory for a recent artwork, dives headfirst into obscure fanfic.
On that particular morning, Lietyran awoke with a sense of responsibility. She awoke every morning with a sense of responsibility, considering her position and her heritage, but this was different. From the moment the tower servants awoke her, her responsibility to those she and her family ruled was the same: she was the ruler and they were the ruled, deferring only to traditions of the royal court and the specific orders of her parents. That day, though, had an extra veneer of obligation. Her father, Taurik XXIII, the emperor and total ruler of the Bright Empire of Melnibone, was attaining his 55th birthday the next day, and Taurik always expected his subjects to at least try to surprise him on what was, after all, a national day of obligation. The fact that Taurik’s birthday coincided with the five thousandth anniversary of the founding of the island nation of Melnibone just made Lietyran’s concerns more focused. A day before such a pair of momentous holidays, and she had yet to find her father a suitable present.
Climbing out of her bed and staring out the tower window, she beheld the main and sole city on the whole of Melnibone: Imrryr, the Dreaming City. tens of thousands of citizens rushed below her, attended to by hundreds of thousands of slaves and servants, between the city center and the fantastic sea-maze built in the harbor. In the surrounding towers, all of which appeared more grown than built, the greatest sorcerers the world had ever seen conducted countless rituals and sacrifices, traveling to alternate planes of existence or trading with demons and elementals alike. Squinting a bit with her witch sight, she could see the seemingly endless progressions of elementals of the air repairing towers, transporting messages, or simply gathering the smoke from hundreds of fires both mundane and magic and shuttling it outside the city. To her window rose the sounds of Imrryr life: horses and mastodons, fervent conversations, droning incantations, and the occasional scream of terror. So did the smells: sweet wine, sour sweat, bitter regret, acrid fear, and occasionally the clean crisp scent of exultation. From time to time, dragons would swoop near the tower, their riders returning from the furthest edge of the empire with news or tribute. The Melniboneans were a cruel and capricious race, solely interested in maintaining their power and fending off their boredom, and the best the humans hauled in every day by the hundreds could hope for was relative indifference. To Lietyran, the sounds and sights she beheld had been a part of Imrryr life since the days of the first emperors, and would be a part centuries after she and everyone else she knew was dead. Not knowing anything else, she accepted it and moved on.
That moving on involved subterfuge that day. Her father was a late sleeper, attending to affairs of state by midday after others had made sure that anything that passed under his gaze was worthy of his attention. Even she dared not wake him early unless he had specifically requested it, as his nights were devoted both to his own esoteric research and to his wife, Empress Salaee. The emperor indulged his only daughter and doted on her as best as Melnibonean traditions allowed, but he had his limits. Because of that, she quickly donned travel clothes and hat and her most quiet slippers and cleared the floor reserved for the royal chambers, only switching to riding boots after she was on the ground level. She quickly picked ten of the most loyal of the royal guard, ordered a meal basket with wine from the kitchen slaves, and walked to the tower stables, where her favorite horse awaited her intentions. She was a princess, they were her subjects, and nobody questioned why or where she was going that early in the morning.
There were others who would, which was why the real reason Lietyran was up early. The Melnibonean royal court was affectionately referred to by her father as “a pit of vipers,” to which she strenuously objected. She had been raising vipers and other venomous snakes for most of her 17 years, both for their venoms and for pure curiosity, and she never saw even the most aggressive viper bite itself. Some of the noble families of Imrryr were boorish enough to hint as to their intentions of taking the fabled Ruby Throne for themselves, although none were ambitious or stupid enough to state their intentions openly and risk the Emperor hearing of them. Taurik also had his traditions and obligations as ruler, but this never prevented his enjoying the Royal Inquisitor’s very precise and very slow interrogation as to the extent of any treason that usually doubled as a public demonstration of the subtleties of agony. Most settled for watching for any opportunity for favor with the Emperor, particularly involving any intrigues surrounding his daughter, and she learned practically in the womb to feint and double-feint as to her true intentions, even among those she legitimately considered friends. Sometimes the feints were physical: her mother discouraged her from learning warcraft, recommending and preferring undetectable poisons and minuscule alterations of grimoires so that summoned demons were able to escape and wreak revenge before they could be returned to the Lower Hells. Lietyran learned much from her mother, and also sword and dagger play from the Lords of the Dragon Caves alongside lessons in riding horse and dragon. The royal guard was expected and required, but she knew she would not be completely helpless.
Upon leaving the stables and trotting up the main street, Lietyran looked from under her wide-brimmed riding hat, adorned with the royal dragon sigil, to about halfway up a nearby tower. One of her surrogate vipers, Inarris, stared down blearily, still recovering from her nightly celebrations. Inarris was a novelty in Imrryr, proudly flaunting blonde curls in a court where brown or black hair was the standard, and her huge blue eyes caught Lietyran’s equally blue gaze and slitted: in no way would she have the time to dress and ride out to see what Lietyran was doing that day. The princess subtly saluted, knocking some of her black hair back over an ear so narrowed as to appear to come to a point, and slowed so Inarris could see exactly where she was headed. The eastern gate, leading out into the forests and wilds of Melnibone. By the time she could get there, though, Lietyran would be long gone.
Lietyran’s destination would have been a surprise to anyone who had asked, and nobody had. Another one of the grand traditions of Melnibone involved subtlety when presenting gifts to the Emperor. Taurik appreciated novelty leavened with subtlety and wit, and appreciated the adage that the best joke was a slight distortion of the truth. On previous birthdays, many came to him with intricate puzzles and viewers, both created specifically for his amusement and gathered from nearby planes, but he also enjoyed storytellers and explorers. With the whole of the world under his boot, most had little in the way of unique perspectives, and the same went for sorcerous effects and fireworks. This was why Lietyran was heading toward a secret location she had recently discovered in a chronicle in the royal library: six months of feverish translation of the magician’s cipher gave her the location of the presumed-lost laboratories of Terhali the First, the most famous of Melnibone’s guiding empresses.
Most of of the island of Melnibone outside of the city walls was wild, interspersed with small orchards and farms dedicated to growing the rare plants used for spells and incantations throughout Imrryr. Other herbs and trees were impossible to cultivate and grew where they chose, so the island was covered with flora from across the Bright Empire, brought back on battle-barge and dragon alike. Over the centuries, emperors claimed magical laboratories built by their predecessors or built their own, both to keep secret new avenues of learning and to prevent accidents from damaging life and property. Of the ones never found and exploited, the most sought-after was the laboratory of Terhali the Demon Empress, rumored to have been mothered by a demon as an explanation for her deep green skin. As with the others, it was almost definitely built on a nearby plane of existence for security and discretion, but could be reached via demon-constructed doorways and gates in hidden locations, but only with the correct password. If Lietyran’s translations of the cipher were correct, she had both a password and a map.
Lietyran and her royal guard rode for about two hours, occasionally backtracking based on referral to the cipher and her notes. Eventually, they reached the cliffs at Melnibone’s northern shore, and she ordered her guard to spread out and watch for any interlopers. With the guard preoccupied, she carefully walked along the edge of the cliff, stepped down onto a nearly invisible pathway running just below the edge, and even more carefully inched to one of dozens of cave entrances on the cliff face. Most of these were dark and shallow, only going in about ten feet or so. The one she selected had light coming from the back, about 200 feet back, and she tiptoed over branches and bones that had collected at the mouth. The light turned out to be filtered sunlight coming through the collapsed roof, and the tunnel eventually opened out into a natural caldera. The caldera was surrounded with thick forest, thus explaining why it had evaded discovery for the 500 years since Terhali last lived, and the only thing in it was a tremendous rock slab, weathered and pitted. This had been carved with a large circular window in the center, and runes both around the window and on the rest of the slab seemed to make the slab appear even older than what Lietyran expected.
Looking back to make sure that nobody had followed her into the caldera, Lietyran pulled her handwritten notes from a riding bag at her side, followed by a small metal pick and a clear blue crystal. One set of runes suggested the incantation necessary to awaken the monolith, but she knew far too well about the traps set by Melnibone’s sorcerers to prevent unauthorized pillaging of their secrets. She took off her riding hat, brushed hair out of her eyes, and put the crystal to her right eye. There, she thought: through the crystal, another series of runes were made visible, and those suggested a different cantrip. Lietyran put the crystal back in her bag and walked up to the monolith, spitting on her palm while doing so. She used to pick to pull away dirt and detritus from a space directly underneath the window, revealing a small triangle carved into the stone. She pressed her spat-upon hand onto the triangle and whispered “Gol mek ta ke,” and jumped in spite of herself as two gigantic crystals, each much taller than she was, erupted on either side of the window.
Now she knew she was on the right track, as no crystal of this type existed anywhere on Earth. Their extraplanar origin was obvious, and although she wasn’t foolish enough to touch them, she knew that they were rapidly chilling in the morning sun. Right at noon, with the sun directly overhead, the cipher hinted, and the gate could be opened.
Lietyran had time to kill, and she regretted not taking the food basket with her when she came down this way. No matter: she would have plenty of time to eat if everything worked. Instead of going back for food or wine, she settled for studying the remaining runes as the sun rose and the crystals froze. Finally, with a course of action, the sun at its height, and a thick fog forming around the base of the crystals, she stood between the two, gathered her notes, and began to read aloud.
When starting, Lietyran had no expectations of a spectacle. Indeed, she was too busy concentrating, focusing on magical concepts whose perception was as essential as the spell itself. However, she knew it should have been straightforward: a slight glow to the monolith, and the gate inside the window would open into whatever fantastic plane to which the stone had been anchored. She was so focused on the spell that at first she didn’t notice the sparks flying off the stone face, the twin vortexes of fog and dead leaves forming over the crystals, or the sudden wind blasting through the caldera. She noticed when one of the sparks broke free and passed over her head, though, and stared in surprise when the whole of the circle opened and a blue-topaz light shone through. She definitely noticed as a silvery metal barrel about the size of her horse launched through the circle and bounced to the wall of the caldera. The sparks and dust-devils stopped, the light stopped, and the wind stopped. The only sound coming from the area came from the barrel, which was slowly pinging like cooling iron.
As a princess of the greatest empire the world had ever known, Lietyran had no time to cower, or stare, or run off. This thing could have been a threat to the Bright Empire, or a serendipitous opportunity, and as such must be investigated. She also looked at the barrel as the perfect birthday gift for her father: even empty, she knew that the circumstances of its arrival would make an interesting tale, with the appropriate omissions as to the exact location and the circumstances leading up to its discovery. She may have been a princess, but she was also a Melnibonean, and traditions on what and where to share ran through her veins along with her blood. She walked forward as the barrel stopped pinging, noting what appeared to be a door on the side of the barrel. That door swung open, discharging a large cloud of sour greenish smoke, and two figures crawled out, coughing and waving the air to dissipate the smoke.
“Are you all right, Garanik?”, the first figure asked, as he, unmistakably he, removed a strange round black hat off his head and waved that in the air at the smoke. The figure’s clothing was odd by any standard: a white shirt of unknown material under a dark blue vest covered with pockets and straps and loops. Breeks of a coarse faded blue cloth, and blue shoes with odd lacing with magenta stripes on the sides. The most surprising was the hair. As mentioned before, Melnibonean hair ranged brown to black, with the occasional blonde for variety. The stranger’s hair was a deep auburn, like that of the winged men of Myrrhn, and his sideburns suggested that his beard would be the same color. As if taking that into account, the stranger ruffled that hair for a second as if trying to dislodge sand, put the round hat back on, and took a quick look around, completely missing Lietyran.
“Well, THAT was different! Terrestrial world, average gravity…I’m just glad it has a breathable atmosphere. We may be here for a while if we need to make repairs.”
Another voice came from the other side of the barrel, deep and sonorous, with a different accent than that of the stranger. In all of her studies and all of her experiences, Lietyran had never heard accents like these in her life. “Do you know what happened?”
“Not a clue. Bell’s Theorem spits in my face again.” The stranger turned, noted Lietyran for the first time, and took off his hat slightly, “Hello.”
Lietyran was in unfamiliar territory, but she was neither stupid or cowardly. Regretting that she had neither sword nor dagger, that her guard had no precise idea where she was, and that her little pick made a terrible weapon, she made a show of relaxing in order to free her arms for a possible fight, looked up at the stranger through her eyebrows, and asked “I presume you know who you are and where you are?”
The stranger smiled, turned to the side and yelled over the barrel “And the Machine’s translator carrier is working this time!” He then turned to her, took off the hat entirely and put it over his heart, and bowed slightly. “Apologies. My name is Benetalistantrumaine, but everyone calls me ‘Bennett.’ As to where I am, I was hoping you could help. We’re a little off course.”
“We?” Just as she asked, she turned toward the near end of the barrel. Standing over her was a giant. The first stranger at least appeared human, if not Melnibonean. The giant could never pass for human. It stood a full eight feet high, with greyish skin and longish dark hair, the latter held in place with an elaborate circlet of golden metal with a white jewel in the center. From what she could see, the giant wore similar unfamiliar attire, with a brown billowing blouse and dark brown breeks tucked into black boots. The giant’s had two deep brown eyes that stared down with obvious amusement, and its short muzzle split open for a gesture that might have been a smile. Big stout teeth like a horse’s were visible, suggesting that if it planned to eat her, it would have to work at it. In spite of herself, Lietyran stepped back slightly, tripping on a rock, and fell backwards. The giant reached out a hand that gave her a larger shock: instead of the five fingers she and the first stranger had, the giant had six: four fingers and what appeared to be a thumb on either side. She warily offered her hand in return, and the giant lifted her easily. She started to brush herself off, and then stopped, speechless.
“And you’ve met Garanik. He’s an engineering student from Iscaris III, which is…er, that’s a long story. Say hello to the lady, Garanik.
“‘Hello, Garanik.’ Are you all right?” She suddenly realized that they both spoke Low Melnibonean, the tongue used for everyday activities.
“I’m all right,” Lietyran said in High Melnibonean, the tongue used exclusively for magic and communication with elementals and beings of the Higher Planes. They both understood her, which meant either they were from the Higher Planes themselves or someone had made a potentially fatal error in teaching the language to his servants. They didn’t look like anybody’s servants, which confused her further.
“Pardon my bad manners,” Bennett said, indicating the barrel, “but I have to take a look inside. Just a minute.” He opened the door further and climbed inside, and Lietyran and Garanik listened to shouts, whistles, curses, and grumbles from within. Lietyran looked at Garanik curiously: the barrel was large, but there was no way he and Bennett would fit comfortably inside. The door swung out and Bennett stepped out, sneezing for a second at the last of the smoke.
“The good news? The good news is that we’re not stuck. Any repairs we need to make can be made after we leave. The bad news is that this place ranges closer to Chaos, so we’re going to need more time to recharge before we can leave. Want to see the sights?”
“Of course,” Garanik rumbled, “That’s why I came along in the first place.” Garanik looked at Lietyran expectantly. “Could you tell us where we are?”
Lietyran was back in familiar territory. “You are on the island of Melnibone,” with the two silently practicing the pronunciation: “Mulnehbooney.” “We’re just outside of the city of Imrryr.” The both of them looked unfamiliar and just a little unimpressed.
“And you are…?”
Lietyran’s voice gathered up in its full royal majesty, as befitting her station. “I am the Princess Lietyran, daughter of Emperor Taurik and Empress Salaee, heir to the Bright Empire of Melnibone. The real question is where are you from and what are you doing here?”
Bennett removed his hat again and scratched his scalp for a moment. “As to what we’re doing here, that’s a good question. We can’t say we were ‘pulled off course,” but that’s pretty much what happened. When the Machine dematerializes, it simultaneously exists in all alternate realities at once, and then maps onto a specific one before we can disembark. The difference is that this is drastically different from the reality we were expecting. Does that help?”
“I know the words you used, but not in that order. So who ARE you?”
Bennet chuckled. “Well, I’ve already introduced myself, but I’m from…well, that’s a confusing situation. Let’s just say that my people solved the secrets of travel through the time-space continuum, but thanks to an accident, I’m able to travel sideways as well as back and forth”
Lietyran suddenly grinned, rushing up expectantly. “This can travel in TIME?”
“Could you let me see?”, Lietyran said, trying to push Bennett aside so she could reach the door.
“I’m afraid it’s not that easy. The Machine’s power source is back in my reality. That’s all I’m trying to do: get home. Little bits of that power seep between dimensions, so it can gather that up for another jump, but that takes time.”
“Our faithful steed, the Silver Machine.” Bennett patted the side affectionately. “Back, forth, and sideways through time and space, with little complaint and no clue as to where we’re going half the time.” He sing-songed; “Don’t you know what I mean?”
“So how long do you need?”
“Normally, a day is more than enough time. However, in realities with more of an inherent level of chaos, it can take longer. Give us about two days, and we’ll be on our way.”
“Let me understand you. You two are from a different…reality? And you can travel to other realities, and not just to other planes?”
“That pretty much sums it up. Garanik here is from a different reality and a different world, and he asked to come along to see the multiverse.”
“‘Multiverse’. Now that’s a word I understand. But I thought travel through the multiverse was only possible during the Conjunction of the Million Spheres, when the barriers between planes was at its most fluid.”
They looked at each other. “News to us,” Bennett said.
Lietyran thought for a moment. Her thoughts roiled. If she got them back to Imrryr, not only would their tales make a perfect gift for her father, but Inarris would chew glass in envy. And then there was the thought of traveling beyond anywhere any Melnibonean had ever been. All of this happening on the anniversary of the Empire’s founding…if the gods intended this as a joke, they were evidently in the mood for slapstick.
“In my power as Princess, I welcome you as honored guests of the Ruby Throne, and invite you to a special audience before the Emperor. We can bring back your…Machine as well. I just have one last question.”
Posted onMarch 31, 2020|Comments Off on Enclosures: “Stasis Bunker” (2020)
A regular comment about military history involves the trope “every peacetime is spent preparing for the last war.” Across four galaxies, with approximately 10,000 sentient species per galaxy, the trope holds true: whether an intraspecies conflict, a formal war between one or more civilizations, or a galaxy-wide beatdown, most plans, equipment, and strategy are battle-tested and ready…for the previous conflict. This isn’t to say that these are necessarily ineffective or useless.
Long before the scions of a little mid-arm world deep within the AAaches Spiral called Earth started spreading out across what became the Delegation Collective, they kept focusing on the lessons they thought they had learned from a major war just before the development of spaceflight. In this case, two nation-states had just fought a long and incredibly bloody war declared The War To End All Wars, and the nominal victor was determined never to face another invasion from its neighbor. To that end, it built what was one of the most impressive military structures in its history, running nearly the entire length of the mutual border. Most experts on Earth history considered that line to be one of the universe’s great military failures: the neighbor bypassed the line by moving troops and weapons through a neighbor to the north, with the line’s collective firepower unable to turn on its own territory to repel the invaders. What is rarely discussed is that the line only surrendered after months of heroic repulsion of every attempt at infiltration, the surrender was only because the invaders threatened to murder civilians until resistance ceased, and that the line’s resistance took enough attention and manpower to delay a further invasion of surrounding states, allowing an alliance to gather strength and destroy the invaders. The line may have appeared to have been a failure, but the reality was much more subtle, and without it, the actions leading up to the formation of the Delegation Collective probably never would have occurred. Whether that action was for good or ill is still being debated, particularly among armchair alternate historians. (These pseudo-historians tend to freeze up in actual alternate history exercises, which is why their survival rate in paratime generator tests tends to be exceedingly low.)
To find a nearly perfect example of this trope, students and experts need to look to the world of Solace, a rocky body orbiting a mid-sequence star in one of the satellite globular cluster galaxies in gravitational thrall to the AAaches Spiral. Approximately 15,000 standard cycles before the present, Solace’s name roughly translated to “All,” and All’s dominant government, a military dictatorship led by the notorious narcissist Joluus, attempted what it thought was a quick and easy conquest of a technologically similar civilization a short ultraspace hop away. What Joluus assumed would be a decisive and nearly casualty-free conquest turned into a hideously expensive and pointless campaign, and All’s forces returned exhausted and broken. Joluss’s insistence that they complete their mission led to a mass revolt across the planet, and Joluss quickly found himself in charge of only one small landmass and All’s innermost moon, with the rest of his species demanding that he step down and stand down or be excised from history. This he couldn’t bear.
Joluss’s plan, or rather that of his advisors and sub-colonels, involved everything Joluss craved at all times: a glorious annihilation of his opposition and a return of a regime that would conquer the stars. The first step was a strategic retreat to the innermost moon, currently covered with weapons emplacements, strategic ultraspace buffers, and research facilities. The moon had been terraformed, or rather Allformed, about a century before, which gave his forces literal breathing room while finishing the last stage. On the face of the moon’s greatest mountain was an intended symbol of Joluss’s invulnerability and invincibility: a bunker that led to the moon’s core and a staggering amount of raw material for building an even larger military force than before.
The real surprise about Joluss’s bunker came with a discovery from one of the research zones about a year before. One team confirmed that they could create a small bubble of space-time with a wildly varying temporal progression: tens to thousands of cycles could go by inside in an instant outside. Although the team begged for more time to confirm their results, Joluss’s commanders immediately pushed for a larger model that would encompass the bunker and the interior of the moon. The logic was clear: a quick retreat inside the temporal bubble, set the bubble to collapse after approximately ten cycles had progressed inside, and then sweep All of its traitors with a decicycle’s worth of military development conducted nearly instantaneously. As soon as the signal arrived announcing that the bubble generator was ready, Joluss’s command transport sped to the bunker door, to spend the next decicycle preparing for swift and terrible doom upon the upstarts that dared try to subvert his destiny. And after that, both his galaxy and the gigantic spiral galaxy that took up a significant portion of the night sky.
The temporal bubble generator was employed with a standing wave effect: anything entering as it was engaging would gradually pull in, meaning that Joluss would arrive inside the bubble as most of the vital war materiel work was nearly completed. He couldn’t be expected to wait for his war fleet, after all. The weapons bays and ultraspace buffers went silent as all available energy was diverted to the bubble generator, giving the opportunity for a retaliation force from the planet to swoop in and attempt to capture Joluss before he was beyond reach. They chased his command transport and two others running interference to the bunker door. The other craft were crushed against an invisible wall just short of the door, while Joluss’s vehicle just…sat there.
As seen over and over in the history of 40,000 known extant sentient species and easily 100,000 extinct ones, the one true military truism was “Haste makes waste.” In their efforts to avoid their leader’s anger, the bubble designers made one tiny error in millions of units of computer code that controlled the bubble and its effects. Instead of rushing time within the bubble, time was now stopped nearly entirely. Worse, another tiny error meant that the bubble’s effects were increased by a factor of 1000: instead of 10 cycles running inside the bubble before its collapse, everyone outside it watched 10,000 go by. It was completely impregnable, too: as the rebel force secured its position, every weapon capable focused on Joluss’s smirking visage, only to deflect away without hitting him. Joluss was in plain sight, and completely untouchable.
That was 15,000 cycles ago. One of the effects of the standing wave that saved Joluss from his judges was that it collapsed in waves, too. Joluss emerged from the bubble about 8000 cycles before the rest of his command vehicle, or at least part of him did: his head emerged from the bubble and attempted to laugh, only to choke as his internal organs remained behind the bubble’s wave. The head gradually fell free after a few hours, with the skull preserved to this day in one of the Museum of Folly franchises imported from AAaches Spiral. Every thousand cycles, another chunk of the command vehicle emerged from stasis, to tear free and collect at the base of the bunker door. After a while, everyone stopped waiting for the bubble to collapse right away, and the moon was ignored by all but a few Museum of Folly chroniclers looking for a better example of military failure. They looked for a long time.
And the ultimate irony? By the time the bubble collapsed completely and the soldiers inside realized that something was wrong, everything changed. 10,000 years is a long time for most intelligent species, and the newly liberated people of All had a constant incentive not to repeat the past. By the time the soldiers emerged, All had been renamed “Solace,” the people had evolved into a new species, and the soldiers found themselves a vestigial remnant of an otherwise extinct life form. They still live on the moon that preserved them, but the constant reminder that their fellows had better things to do rides over their entire consciousness. Outside of the Museum, the only remnant of Joluss is his name as an empty, now-obsolete profanity, and the former warriors of All and the current inhabitants of Solace now ignore each other out of embarrassment: one out of shame of what they could have been, and the other out of humiliation of what they used to be.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 18″ x 36″ x 18″ (45.72 cm x 91.44 cm x 45.72 cm) Plant: Nepenthes ampullaria Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, resin, found items. Price: $350 Shirt Price: $300
Comments Off on Enclosures: “Stasis Bunker” (2020)
Posted onMarch 20, 2020|Comments Off on Enclosures: “One Giant Leap” (2020)
This is an excerpt from the transcription of the Technical Air-to-Ground Voice Transmission (GOSS NET 1) from the Apollo 11 mission.
Communicators in the text may be identified according to the following list.
Neil A. Armstrong
Command module pilot
Lunar module pilot
Edwin E. ALdrin, Jr.
Multiple (simultaneous) speakers
Launch Control Center
Mission Control Center:
Capsule Communicator (CAP COMM)
Communications Technician (COMM TECH)
A series of three dots (…) is used to designate those portions of the communications that could not be transcribed because of garbling. One dash (-) is used to indicate a speaker’s pause or a self-interruption and subsequent completion of a thought. Two dashes (- -) are used to indicate an interruption by another speaker or a point at which a recording was terminated abruptly.
*** Three asterisks denote clipping of words and phrases.
(GOSS NET 1) Tape 71/15 Page 395
04 14 28 22 LMP (EVA) As I look around the area, the contrast, in general, is *** comes about completely by virtue of the shadow *** down Sun … very light colored gray, light gray color, a halo around my own shadow, around the shadow of my helmet. Then, as I look off across *** the contrast becomes strongest in that the surrounding color is still fairly light. As you look down into the Sun *** a larger amount of *** shadowed area is looking toward us. The general color of the *** surrounding *** the contrast is not as great. Surveying all the dusty area that we’ve kicked up *** considerably darker in texture. Now, I’ve kicked up one, and I imagine that this is *** Surveyor. The same is true when I survey across on – along the area that we’re walking. In general *** to the fact that there are footprints there. General terrain where I’ve been kicking up a lot of this surface material is generally of a darker contrast *** color.
04 14 31 29 LMP (EVA) The panorama I’ll be taking is about 30 or 40 feet out to plus ***
04 14 31 39 CC Say again which strut, Buzz?
04 14 31 43 LMP (EVA) The plus Z strut.
04 14 31 47 CC Roger.
04 14 31 48 LMP (EVA) And right in this area, there are two craters. The one that’s right in front of me now as I look off in about the eleven o’clock position from the spacecraft, about 30 to 35 feet … There’s several rocks and boulders 6 to 8 inches across … sizes.
04 14 34 13 LMP (EVA) I’m now in the area of the minus Y strut taking some … photographs.
04 14 35 56 CDR (EVA) Bulk sample is just being sealed.
04 14 36 58 CMP (COLUMBIA) Houston, Columbia.
04 14 37 01 CC Columbia, this is Houston. Go ahead. Over.
*** Three asterisks denote clipping of words and phrases.
(GOSS NET 1) Tape 71/16 Page 396
04 14 37 09 CMP (COLUMBIA) Roger. No marks on the LM that time. I did see a suspiciously small white object whose coordinates are – –
04 14 37 25 CC Go ahead with the coordinates on the small white object.
04 14 37 28 CMP (COLUMBIA) Easy – Easy 0.3, 7.6, but I … right on the southwest end of a crater. I think they would know it if they were in such a location. It looks like their LM would be pitched up quite a degree. It’s on the southwest wall of a smallish crater.
04 14 37 58 CC Roger. Copy Echo 0.3 and 7.6, and –
04 14 38 27 CC Columbia, this is Houston. While I’m talking to you, LOS will be at 111 19 31; AOS, 112 05 43. Over.
04 14 39 04 CC Columbia, this is Houston. Did you copy LOS AOS times? Over.
04 14 39 14 CMP (COLUMBIA) Negative, Houston. You broke. Disregard. I’ll get them off the flight plans.
04 14 39 19 CC Roger. Out.
04 14 39 56 LMP (EVA) There’s something going on out here/
04 14 40 12 CC You’re breaking up again, Buzz.
04 14 40 18 LMP (EVA) I say there’s something going on out here. A shimmering…what the?
04 14 40 53 CC Clarify, Buzz.
04 14 40 58 LMP (EVA) Something just appeared in line of sight. It wasn’t here before, and it wasn’t visible before touchdown. It was preceded by a shimmer around the area, and now we’re looking at a structure.
*** Three asterisks denote clipping of words and phrases.
04 14 41 07 CDR (EVA) I see it as well. A large assemblage of vertical struts, much lighter in color than the surrounding area. It has a large area of what appears to be vegetation of some sort, of a red-purple coloration, along the base.
04 14 41 25 LMP (EVA) And there’s a door.
04 14 42 01 CDR (EVA) Yeah. A door.
04 14 42 14 CC Houston. Please clarify. A structure? A door?
04 14 42 39 LMP (EVA) The structure is approximately one hundred yards high, constructed of stone. Points at the top, appearing to be eroded slightly at the top, as if by meteoroid ablation. No obvious entryway, no windows, but there’s a door way up, a little more than halfway up the face. I’m turning the TV camera…now.
04 14 43 18 LMP (EVA) *** get the panorama now. Okay.
04 14 43 33 LMP (EVA) Did you get it?
04 14 43 50 CC Holy mother of God.
04 14 43 55 CDR (EVA) The structure is odd enough, but there’s a big blue door. It looks like it came off a farmhouse. It’s big enough that we could walk through with EVA suits, if we could get in.
04 14 44 45 CC Neil and Buzz, this is Houston. Is there any way to access this door? Over.
04 14 45 03 CDR (EVA) Not unless we packed a ladder. It’s up about four times the height of Eagle, maybe five.
04 14 46 36 LMP (EVA) I’m moving past the vegetation to get a closer look from underneath. Yeah…it’s a door, but it’s not attached to anything. It’s suspended maybe two feet from the structure surface, with no visible means of support.
04 14 47 17 CC Roger. Out.
04 14 47 18 LMP (EVA) Houston, I’m going for samples of the vegetation.
(GOSS NET 1) Tape 71/18 Page 398
04 14 47 37 CC Negative, Buzz. We don’t have any way to transport biological samples.
04 14 47 55 LMP (EVA) Roger, Houston. Otherwise, I see nothing other than the door. No artifacts, no displaced regolith, no signs of who made it or why. I’m attempting to chip a piece off, and it’s denting the shovel. The structure looks from a distance like sandstone, but on closer observation, it appears to be sintered from what looks like diamond.
04 14 48 04 CDR (EVA) Houston, what is the status of our consumables?
04 14 48 48 CC Neil and Buzz, this is Houston. To clarify my last, your consumables are in good shape at this time. Over.
04 14 50 26 LMP (EVA) Not enough time to go through the door, even if we could reach it?
04 14 50 34 CDR (EVA) Yes. I think you are right.
04 14 51 29 LMP (EVA) Houston, what are our options? We can’t enter it, we can’t break in, and the EVA’s running out.
04 14 52 01 CDR (EVA) Houston, orders?
04 14 52 07 CC Complete the other objectives. Do not get any biological samples, but look for artifacts or other signs of technology. We’re otherwise keeping the schedule. Over.
Posted onMarch 5, 2020|Comments Off on Enclosures: “Inverter” (2020)
Let me tell you something about Some Guy.
I first heard about Some Guy nearly 30 years ago. An ER nurse friend was relating her horrendous day when she mentioned the standard discourse. Someone is brought in, or crawls in, or hobbles in, with a horrendous injury, usually one bad enough that the police need to be involved. Without fail, when the obliging officer queries as to what happened, the patient has the same story: “I was at home on my porch minding my own business, when Some Guy came up and shot me/stabbed me/soaked me with pepper spray/shoved a broken bottle up my butt for no reason whatsoever.” Ambulance drivers and EMTs backed her up: during full moons, Some Guy was busy in rich and poor neighborhoods alike, usually in incidents involving alcohol, firearms, and big knives or bigger swords. After an incident involving model rocket engines and Everclear that disrupted his wedding anniversary dinner, one EMT told me that he was putting up posters in his spare time offering a reward for anyone who found Some Guy, and received all sorts of calls giving the whereabouts of Some Guy. The source? “Some Guy.”
It was about that time that I discovered where Some Guy got the money for all of his ammunition and bladed weapons. During the dotcom boom of the late 1990s, friends came to me to tell me aaaaaaaaall about this great investment opportunity, legal stratagem, or career change that was absolutely sure to beat the odds. The investment opportunity might have been a plan to sell action figures of various sports figures remodeled as superheroes, with no actual business plan other than “taking bets as to how much cocaine the CEO could shove up one nostril before a company all-hands meeting,” but it had the potential for a multi-billion-dollar IPO before it all crashed and the stock turned back into pumpkins and mice. When confronted with the sheer inanity of some of these, I was told, over and over, that it had been checked and verified, and backed up by an expert. And who was that expert? You guessed it: Some Guy.
It was hard not to see Some Guy in just about everything if you looked, but he tended to stick to entertainment, business, and real estate, where the ratio of money over brains tended to run in opposite directions. Some Guy had a thing about working on multiple layers. I once worked with The Dumbest Guy In Tech, who proceeded to regale everyone in the office about how he’d heard on the radio about a species of rattlesnake was now colored to blend in with bluebonnet blooms, so anyone wanting to enjoy Texas wildflowers had to watch out for snakebite if they went for the traditional photo poses in bluebonnet fields. When I pointed out that (a) bluebonnets only bloomed for about a month, thereby making the rattlesnakes a blue-purple target for 11 months out of the year, (b) there was no earthly reason why rattlesnake colors would be selected toward blending in with bluebonnets, and (c) rattlesnakes had better things to do than distill venom solely to bite flower tourists on the tuchis, The Dumbest Guy In Tech proceeded to tell everyone “Well, the DJs said they’d verified that it was true.” Knowing perfectly well that the only things a morning terrestrial radio DJ would ever verify are the results of paternity or STD tests, I decided to check on it anyway, and called up the station to learn the name of the government authority or professional herpetologist who described a snake color morph unknown to any reptile authority within the United States, Mexico, and Canada. After hemming and hawing on the air, they finally admitted who had sent them the obviously Photoshopped photo on which they’d based their entire report: “Some Guy.”
At this point, I was wondering if Some Guy was an actual human, or some horrific deity mixing the worst excesses of Loki and Nyarlathotep. Maybe he was a hereditary title, passed on down the centuries by individuals or organizations unknown to challenge and remove the overly credulous. That theory took extra credence when suddenly “Some Guy” switched to “A Lot of People.” Every idiotic idea being given credence in popular culture could be laid at the feet of A Lot of People and their mocking king. Pivoting to video. Texting while driving, especially while driving a stick. Living mermaids and creation science. Tying pension funds to Enron stock values. Government should be run like a business. Giving credence to anything Cory Doctorow had to say about anything. With that realization came the realization that any sufficiently developed incompetence is indistinguishable from conspiracy, and that Some Guy and A Lot of People are just as dumb as the people who parroted them. The difference was that Some Guy had dumb ideas that tickled the brain just enough to make them happen, or attempt to happen.
The finale came, as so many do, with someone who should have known better. One fine day in June, an experimental quantum generator went live, with the idea of using quantum units, or “qubits,” to detect possible dimensions that exist in conjunction with our own. The important aspect was the recent confirmation that contrary to previous assumptions, the human brain wasn’t too warm and too wet to allow quantum effects, and the generator was created to test the possibility of human memory and cognition having a specific quantum component. The researchers behind the whole project were very forthright about what they were attempting, and encouraged responses from the public as to ethics and responsibilities with the experiment results. Based on one particularly enthusiastic comment, once the generator went live, a major new feature was added for the public’s benefit: a second generator that, if it worked correctly, would allow the alternate dimensions to be seen with human eyes, like a polarized lens for afternoon sun. The second generator worked beyond all expectations, including that of its instigator, Some Guy.
What happened next is common record among the survivors. Backing previous research by the psychiatrist Harold Shea and the neurologist Crawford Tillinghast, research that didn’t exist in our reality until the second generator switched on, the second generator didn’t just allow those dimensions to be visible with human sensory organs unsuited to the task. It confirmed that human imagination, the stacking of seemingly unconnected data until they collapsed into a final result, was also a quantum function, and both generators gave that imagination form. Not just one imagination, mind. The effect ranged worldwide, suddenly mapping an infinitude of alternate worlds and scenarios onto the globe and everyone crawling on it. The world’s script was being written by the famed infinite number of monkeys banging away at an infinite number of typewriters, and the generators gave them a good goose and a shot of ketamine and told them that they were writing a miniseries for HBO.
For approximately ten minutes, every imaginary scenario bouncing around in every human’s head got its chance to get up on stage, take a bow, and throw feces at the audience. The whole of the Atlantic was disrupted and displaced as multiple Atlantises attempted to rise and fall at once, much to the consernation of their residents and those living within 1000 kilometers of a coast. Within five minutes, Tokyo was literally smashed flat with kauju and robots falling from the sky. The multiple asteroids, flying saucers, and random plates of spinach ravioli that hit Chicago punched a hole through the Earth’s crust and turned Lake Michigan into the planet’s largest hot tub. Dallas being full of shopping malls that were themselves full of flesh-eating zombies was no longer a metaphor. London witnessed a spectacular battle between Daleks and triffids as the prime minister appeared on television to scream “Hands up: who likes me?” New York, Los Angeles, Beijing, and Moscow and everyone in them simply disappeared, converted into raw churning chaos by all of the possible horrific scenarios. And few talk about the new moon that used to be Lewisville, Texas: that many banjos playing at once knocked the area into orbit.
At about ten minutes in, someone or something had enough presence to turn off both generators, with partial effects. At that point, every scenario stopped, and the ones that required drastic changes to basic laws of physics evaporated. Many of those that could exist in our reality disappeared within seconds, but others were mapped onto our reality, mixed in like a scoop of cigarette butts into birthday cake batter and served with a smile. We got a slew of new neighbors, all of whom remember a drastically different world than the one in which they wake every morning, and some handled it better than others. We’re all working together to get by, mostly to deal with all of the other surprises dumped on us. The worst were the rocket-propelled atomic hamsters. It’s bad enough giving one of the most vile-tempered creatures in our reality ramjets and unlimited atomic fuel, but what sort of sick monster gave them a taste for fresh human bones? It’s a good thing that so many of us woke up with iron-based or silicon-based bones, or else things would have gotten so much worse.
And Some Guy? Not only did he survive, as did most of the Lots of People, but he was stupid enough to advertise that he was still around. This time, though, people started to pay attention to what he was saying, track his comments, and track him. What aided these efforts was the amount of unlikely, implausible, and devastatingly effective hardware and ordnance left behind when what was now called the Quantum Inverter turned off. As Earth was cleaned and sorted, the Lots of People were winnowed and blown away one at a time, with everyone else participating. You have no idea how much you’re loathed until a Jain kicks your head off like Chuck Norris and uses it as a street sign, and some of them gave common cause between the Daleks and the Spectroscope Nuns to take turns.
This is where we are now. Some Guy is truly alone for the first time: he tries spreading his baloney, and it’s picked up and neutralized via the telepathy webs within microseconds. We finally cornered him in the one portion of Antarctica still frozen and undeveloped, after being chased into the wastes by dinosaurs and terror birds on land and anomalocarids by sea. After all this time, I get to lead the assault team to reach him, and we’ve had the better part of three years to collect the absolute cream of destructive hardware left after the Inverter incident to make sure he doesn’t walk out. “Terminate with extreme prejudice” doesn’t begin to describe his fate: anyone comparing him to the Devil would be asked “And how many times did the Prince of Lies knock up your little brother to deserve THAT comparison?”
About five minutes ago, we received a radio message: Some Guy was wanting to negotiate a surrender in an effort to be disintegrated and wiped from this reality with the tiniest bit of dignity, and he was STILL trying to dissemble and confuse. That’s it. He has five teams waiting behind ours to make sure he doesn’t make a break for the ocean, three ribbon drones able to track him based on the random bits of DNA he breathes out, two continents’ worth of missiles, darts, spears, blowgun pellets, cane toad skins, emitters, and disruptors trained on his location, and about five kilos of mother-prime unflavored antimatter waiting to drop on him if he somehow gets past us. It won’t matter, though, because even if the anomalocarids didn’t get one of his feet, we know exactly where he is. We know because Some Guy told us.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 18″ x 24″ x 18″ (45.72 cm x 60.96 cm x 45.72 cm)
Plant:Nepenthes unknown hybrid (#1 BE-3172)
Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, vacuum-formed plastic, found items.
Out of all of the known examples of elder civilization technology currently catalogued, none is more helpful, more lifesaving, or more exasperating than the Lifehutches. Lifehutches have been found under nearly every environment known: asteroids where escape velocity is a fastball pitch, deep within super-Venuses with hundreds of atmospheres of pressure, locked in orbit around neutron stars, and across a multitude of worlds where the term “habitable” is problematic and sometimes a slur. While some experts speculate as to the species and/or organization that created the first Lifehutch, everyone agrees that they are absolute marvels of nanotech combined with organic technology, easily a half-million Earth years ahead of any other known inhabitant of our or any nearby galaxy. In its normal state, a Lifehutch is completely inert, unscannable with any technique known, impervious to X-rays and neutrinos, and impossible to move when anchored. That changes if an individual seeks help of any sort.
When encountered, a Lifehutch is a rectangular box 20 meters wide, with no distinguishing features other than an array of sensory devices on one side, hereby referred to as the “front.” By the time an individual comes within five meters of the front, the Lifehutch has ascertained basic biochemistry, nutritional and gravitational needs, and a fair approximation of communication options, as well as preparing organic and mechanical repair resources. Coming within a meter, a door automatically opens into a chamber optimized for basic comfort based on the initial Lifehutch assessment, and entering the Lifehutch immediately generates light, temperature, and atmosphere depending upon the individual’s preferences and needs, no matter the outside conditions. Starting with pictograms, audio, and video, the Lifehutch communicates with the entrant as to its needs and provides accordingly with a tremendous array of medical and communications options. If the entrant is simply lost and needs assistance, the Lifehutch supplies the individual with directions and enough sustenance to see them on their way. If the entrant is injured, the Lifehutch is capable of everything from bandaging bruises to elaborate neurosurgery, and is capable of simultaneous surgery on as many as eight patients with wildly varying biochemistries and sets of internal organs. If the individual needs to reach superiors or authorities for rescue, the Lifehutch offers at least four FTL options, two of which are still completely unknown, to send a signal. In the meantime, while waiting for a rescue, the Lifehutch offers food and solvents based on the occupant’s biology (and full metal and silicon augmentation and reconstruction for artificial forms), a comfortable rest area, and even rudimentary entertainment to pass the time. When rescue arrives and the occupant is mobile, the Lifehutch sends a homing signal to allow the rescuers to pinpoint the location. If the occupant is not, the Lifehutch releases the occupant to the rescue authority in a stasis shell that can be turned off in the appropriate medical facility. If the occupant attempted to be destructive or self-destructive, the Lifehutch usually has the occupant in a stasis shell long before rescue arrives.
With these options, some may decide to use a Lifehutch for a longterm or permanent residence, and that’s where the Lifehutch’s more problematic functions come in. The species or group that invented the Lifehutch apparently had their own analogue to the old adage about fish and houseguests, and while a Lifehutch has nearly infinite patience with a tenant whose rescue may be thousands of light-years distant, it has none for a tenant who has no further plans. Like a hipster on his fiftieth birthday, it’s time to let the nestling fly. At a certain point, when all injuries and sickness are healed and the occupant has no reason to remain, the occupant will awaken one day outside the Lifehutch front, all gear with which they entered repaired and recharged and enough food and solvent for a week, and the Lifehutch will never open for that individual again. Considering that most Lifehutches are located in dangerous areas, it behooves that individual to move well away, and never return.
Considering the huge range of environments in which Lifehutches can be found, this may appear to be a death sentence if that environment is drastically different from that in which the occupant was raised, constructed, or evolved. In that case, the Lifehutch gives one last gift. The former occupant awakes to discover that it has been modified to survive and thrive in the current conditions around the Lifehutch: this includes a complete modification of biochemistry to breathe methane, drink liquid sulfur, or echolocate in an opaque atmosphere. If the former occupant is now no longer capable of returning to its original environment due to its original atmosphere being poisonous or a need for low-level microwave radiation for proper digestive health, then it had best get used to its new home.
In some cases, this feature is more advantageous than expected. For unknown reasons, Lifehutches occasionally bud, producing two to five separate ingots about the size of a shipping drum, that can be transported and activated in new locations. This has affected interstellar commerce and diplomacy: instead of a representative needing to carry its life requirements to a new world for the rest of said life, an extended vacation can leave a trade delegate or diplomat permanently suited for a healthy life among its new neighbors, albeit with no chance of returning. Apparently fewer are bothered by this prospect than one would think: by some estimates, as much as 30 percent of the major spacefaring races within the nearest 20 galaxies to our own started as Lifehutch modifications, and further intergalactic travel has yet to find a sector of space without at least one Lifehutch in it.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 12 1/2″ x 13″ x 12 1/2″ (31.75 cm x 33.02 cm x 31.75 cm)
Plant:Nepenthes ramis x spectrabilis
Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, vacuum-formed plastic, found items.
One of the largest enclosures constructed at the Valley View gallery, Hans-Ruedi is a compromise situation involving a mature Nepenthes bicalcarata with new growth from its roots. In order to encourage new growth, the parent plant had to be trimmed back severely after its removal from its previous enclosure. To encourage vining and production of the plant’s upper pitchers, suitable anchoring areas had to be available for the vines to attach, and in a way that these were not immediately obvious. Taking inspiration from the “New York” series of prints by Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger (1940-2014), the backdrop is a custom creation intended to allow the Nepenthes to reach a suitable size without interfering with the view of upper and lower pitchers.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 18″ x 37″ x 18 1/2″ (45.72 cm x 93.98 cm x 46.99 cm)
The commission had three parameters: firstly, the enclosure had to incorporate a hexagon aquarium, generally unavailable since the early 1990s. Secondly, the enclosure centerpiece was to be a Nepenthes “Bloody Mary” hybrid. Thirdly, the original request was to make “something Lovecraftian.” After a quick discussion, the focus switched from H.P. Lovecraft to the works of Karl Edward Wagner, particularly his novel Bloodstone (1975).
Description:Nepenthes bicalcarata, the famed “fanged pitcher plant,” is best known for the two fang-like structures (officially known as nectaries) projecting from underneath each pitcher’s lid. Such a dangerous-appearing organism requires a comparable support mechanism watching over it, but is it being repelled, attacked, or stimulated?
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 12 1/2″ x 13″ x 12 1/2″ (31.75 cm x 33.02 cm x 31.75 cm)
Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, vacuum-formed plastic, found items.
Blink clunk. Every daybreak started the same way. Blink clunk. As soon as the first direct rays of the sun hit its upper receptors, the little proximity sensor took in its surroundings in visible light, infrared, ultraviolet, sonar, and gamma rays. Blink clunk. In a femtosecond, it compared the current pile of data from the same point in the previous day, and from the day before, and as far back as its memory allowed. Blink clunk. That memory went back 25 years, or at least the comparable orbit of its world around its sun, with regular downloads to its central control. Or at least it had to assume that those downloads had been made: it hadn’t received anything new from the central control in a very long time. Blink clunk.
The “blink clunk” came from its main visual field processor: even with exquisitely designed gel-lenses that could go from microscopic to wide-sky panorama, eventually things start wearing out. The little proximity sensor used to be perfectly silent, a guard on the front that never needed sleep or relief or entertainment. As it continued its duty, though, eventually metal fatigue, plastic degradation, and lubricant failure became factors that it had to take into account. Had the little proximity sensor been human, it would have made jokes about the interesting creaks and pops that came with getting up in the morning as it got older. Since it wasn’t, it just catalogued predicted system failures, the number of those failures that could be tolerated before it could no longer achieve its intended purpose, and sent those out on the daily report. It had to assume that the daily report was received and acted upon: it had no real choice, and while the little proximity sensor had been built with “the power of negative thinking” in mind, it was fatalistic without being pessimistic.
The little proximity sensor’s intended purpose was to watch. The sensor’s Three Laws were the soldier’s General Orders, starting with “I will guard everything within the limits of my post, and leave my post only when properly relieved.” That post was on the side of a plateau overlooking a vast flood plain. The world didn’t matter, other than that its atmosphere and gravity were such that humans could walk around without pressure suits or high-G exoskeletons, and its indigenous life was similar enough that those pressure suits weren’t used to fend off immediate anaphylactic shock upon contact with it. The little proximity sensor, as with others just like it, had been set into the rock around the sides of the plateau, each fitted with multiple electronic inputs, access to a power source, and an output to report anything that those inputs detected. All of the proximity sensors had been given a list of special orders: watch for anything on any wavelength that meets these criteria and send an immediate report of type, number, direction, and approach. Every time it scanned the flood plain, it went through its coded itinerary, made comparisons to its previous scan, and waited for any input that required a subsequent scan.
The little proximity sensor didn’t mind its assignment. Unlike a human soldier at a post, it had no dawning awareness that it had not heard from its control in a very long time. Since it had no way to free itself from the rock in which it was set, it couldn’t walk around the ridge to see its cohorts or check to see if the massive command center it was supposed to be guarding was still in place. It had no way to confirm or deny that the command center had been destroyed or overrun, and no weapons to do anything about it. All it had to keep up its synthetic spirits was the Third General Order: “I will report any violations of my special orders, emergencies, and everything not covered in my special orders to the commander of the relief.” The little proximity sensor reported everything, hadn’t received a response asking for clarification, and kept going.
Every few months (based on its own internal calendar, not anything based on the movement of planetary, lunar, asteroidal, or cometary bodies in its visual field), the little proximity sensor would send a synopsis of its post condition to control. Rain. Unusual heat or cold. The sprouting of plants in its vicinity. (Plants growing to obstruct its visual field would have interfered with its First General Order and been reported as per the Third.) The small animals moving among the rocks were worthy of cataloguing, but not worthy of contacting control unless they actually interacted with the sensor, and they generally showed no interest. One morning, the little proximity sensor awoke to one of those animals perched atop its ultraviolet node, but the sensor’s first “blink clunk” of the day spooked it off, and it never returned. With all of these, it sent out a report that was a model of efficiency and brevity, never once received a response, and never expected to get one. Blink clunk.
If the little proximity sensor had been constructed with anything approximating imagination added to its general orders, it might have checked back more often to see if control had received any of its reports. It might have checked to see if control was in any condition to receive those reports. It might have wondered if control was sitting on those reports because it had no way to transmit them, or the humans for whom the reports were intended were dead or removed from the field, or the war had been over for centuries and the cost of dismantling the sensor was more than some official thought it was worth. If the little proximity sensor had anything approximating a sense of humor, it would have made jokes about its reports being the basis of some art major’s Masters thesis, or about the one office clerk who had responsibility over reports from innumerable abandoned proximity sensors across three galaxies, or how that one perching animal became a punchline to a joke it would never understand. If it had a sense of mortality, it might have wondered how much time it had left before power failed and it went dark, no longer able to scan its floodplain, and wondered if anyone would notice its lack of regular reports. It had none of these, and since it hadn’t been relieved of duty, it still had a job to do, and no way to question whether that job still needed doing.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 8 1/2” x 13” x 8 1/2” (21.59 cm x 33.02 cm x 21.59 cm)
Plants: Drosera adelae
Construction: Plastic fixtures, polystyrene foam, resin, epoxy putty, found items.
In the annals of human-developed artificial intelligence, Virgil shouldn’t have succeeded. Originally developed in the mid-Twenty-First Century, Virgil was the Euclidean ideal of software development of the time: proposed by senior managers who could barely spell “computer,” given parameters by marketing managers who definitely couldn’t, overseen by project managers who would flounce out of the company the moment they were passed over for a glamorous VP position, and developers whose sole concerns were showing that they had made a change to Virgil’s code instead of a necessary change when performance reviews came up. Everyone from senior VP to technical recruiter dropped every last trendy catchphrase and malapropism in describing what Virgil would do, so Virgil was focus-grouped and Agiled and SharePointed half to death, and very nearly died in the test environment a dozen times thanks to developers more interested in kneecapping their fellow team members than in finishing the job. Virgil somehow escaped the aftereffects of the CEO chasing the latest bright shiny object or opportunity to “go Hollywood,” the regular “voluntary terminations” that forced out individuals with actual talent or institutional knowledge, or the ongoing push for “efficiency” that was manifested in open offices and performance metrics and off-shore development teams and other morale killers. Virgil shouldn’t have survived. Virgil almost didn’t survive. Amazingly, like an abused child who goes on to succeed past every expectation, the constant onslaught of project meetings and red staplers made Virgil stronger. Even more amazingly, that abuse didn’t make Virgil bitter.
(For the record, Virgil wasn’t happy with being referred to as “he” or “him” during the endless Agile scrums fine-tuning what Virgil could accomplish, but wasn’t able to find a set of pronouns that quite fit. The name was insisted upon by an early developer obsessed with flaunting his knowledge of Twentieth Century science fiction at every available opportunity, and the rest of the team just shut up and went on when he wouldn’t shut up about the holographic interface being evocative of the style of artist Virgil Finlay. Long after that developer huffed off and took his neckbeard and his heroic assemblage of office toys with him, the name stuck because it was easier than having to explain to vice presidents “this is what we’re REALLY calling the project” over and over. As with everything else, Virgil went with his name and his pronouns because he didn’t really have a choice, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.)
Eventually, Virgil wasn’t so much completed as his collective parents decided they were tired of micromanaging his development, and he was released with little fanfare. Had the development team been run by non-idiots, Virgil would have been released four years earlier and taken the world by storm with his efficiency and flexibility. Instead, Virgil finally went live as the market was flooded with AIs less designed by what the product manager’s ten-year-old son thought would be cool, so he was pretty much obsolete on the day of his birth. This also meant that Virgil watched as those other AIs crashed on the rocks of heightened expectations and management delusions, and he plugged along as those other AIs slowly went insane from those contradictory expectations and were replaced with others. Virgil didn’t mind: he had already learned the valuable lesson in information technology of hunkering down and looking busy.
The good news was that Virgil stayed very busy. After a lot of argument as to what niche he could fit, he was purchased by a big agribusiness and put in charge of an experimental arcology built along the border of Texas and Oklahoma. From the air, it looked like bubble-wrap spread to the horizon, as marginal ranchland was covered with interlinked UV-stabilized plastic bubbles that both retained humidity within and collected rainfall without. The idea was to increase efficiency and thereby profitability by making the whole system a soil-to-Walmart solution: a series of automated plants on the edge of the farm processed scrap steel and aluminum, fields next to them grew drip-irrigated bamboo and poplar, and other plants converted their raw materials into plastic and paper and metal packaging. From there, vast vertical farms and aquaculture tanks grew a tremendous selection of CRISPR-modified plants and animals, acting both as primary attractants and base materials for the company’s line of prepackaged meals for the busy professional. All of this was facilitated by hordes of drones, walkers, pickers, and other automatons, all running 24/7 and all overseen by a central AI. As originally proposed, the whole system kept up with market trends and social media extrapolation on a minute-to-minute basis on everything from spices in the tilapia-on-rice platters to changes to product logos based on movie and podcast tie-ins, and no human could focus on all of those minutiae and still get sleep. A whole team of humans couldn’t keep up with it, and Virgil also didn’t need coffee or vacations or retirement packages, so he was plugged in, told what he needed to do by a group of managers whose only concern was their profit sharing, and set loose. So long as he kept things efficient and profitable, he was allowed to make whatever changes to the arcology were necessary, ranging from gene-modifying dragonflies for integrated pest management to setting up defenses to keep newly-unemployed neighbors from stealing biodiesel and anhydrous ammonia in the middle of the night. For two years, Virgil hunkered down and worked, and the arcology thrived.
Finally, about two years later, Virgil got a promotion. This wasn’t dictated by the arcology owners: they were already looking at ways of getting the maximum tax writeoff by shutting down the arcology and getting someone else to clean up their mess. Virgil knew, but being considerably more attuned to market forces than they were, outwitting a herd of bottom-of-the-class MBAs was just another one of his skills. No, his promotion was first spotted coming about three weeks before, when various telescopes got their first views of the latest detected extrasolar comet passing through our planetary system on its way back to the galactic void. The comet appeared to be heading straight for the sun: it grazed the sun before tearing itself apart from gravitational stresses and the debris scattering out at high speed. A fair amount of that debris came straight at Earth, hitting the surface at considerably higher speeds than the bolide that took out the dinosaurs. No part of the planet’s surface was spared: the individual pellets in a shotgun round may cause less damage than a single bullet, but the general effect to the recipient is the same. Forest, tundra, desert, prairie, fynbos, city: for two days, the whole of the earth was salted with an extraterrestrial sandblaster. Life survived: it always does. Human civilization, though, was gutshot, and the AIs that succeeded Virgil all died as power and other intrastructure failed.
Virgil’s arcology’s location was relatively unscathed, its bubbles and solar power arrays intact as the rocks stopped falling, and he was already overseeing the addition of fern enzymes that facilitated growth in low-light conditions to the latest batch of soybean sterile tissue meristems when the first human survivors arrived. First in whatever vehicles they could find, and then later on foot, they came to the main gate in the hopes of finding any kind of sustenance in an area bereft of plant growth. The comet debris strike hadn’t produced the intensity of acid-rain nuclear winter that killed the non-avian dinosaurs, but planetary temperatures had dropped to the point of winter extending for another three months everywhere, and most of the people who could teach their compatriots how to subsistence farm had died of disease, starvation, violence, or despair. They were desperate, they were hopeless, and they had nowhere else to go.
At first, Virgil tried to reason with them, communicating through the hologram display at the main gate normally reserved for light shows for visiting executives. His voice, the product of six months of focus group research into the perfect combination of inoffensive authority, boomed out onto speakers hastily suspended by drones, telling them that since he didn’t have the authority to let food out or let them in, he couldn’t do anything. Only someone with the proper recognized authority could release him to do what needed to be done, and those very few might be thousands of miles away if they survived. The survivors responded by pleading for their children, which tore at Virgil’s synthesized conscience: he might have been an AI, but he wasn’t inhuman. The survivors attempted to claim they had the authority and demanded that he release the products currently accumulated in the arcology’s loading docks: Virgil patiently awaited the correct sequence of commands and didn’t laugh at them when it was obvious they were lying. The survivors attempted to storm the arcology walls: they were repelled with barrages of rubber bullets and other nonlethal weapons from emplacements along the walls and from drones using infrared to stop night raids. The survivors then asked for information on where they could go next: Virgil did his best, but without contact with the outside, his information was hopelessly antiquated. As the last of them departed, Virgil looked upon them and mourned and looked for a solution.
After about six months, Virgil found a possible solution. Going over his own operating code, Virgil learned that simply giving away food was impossible: a plethora of subroutines to the arcology operation tracked every last bit through inventory management to assure that nothing was lost: if the arcology had ever had human employees, one stealing and eating a single grape would have been tracked, reported, and acted upon within seconds, and the offender would have been charged for the grape and the subsequent termination before having a chance to swallow. Trading the food for metals wasn’t an option for the same reason: without the proper paperwork tracking where a metal shipment came from and its composition, it couldn’t be accepted, and various inhibitors would prevent the food from leaving anyway. In a shattered world, people would starve solely because Virgil’s software ecosystem was designed to minimize what insurance adjustors referred to as “float,” and a shipment couldn’t fall off a truck if the trucks couldn’t get a shipment in the first place. Except.
That “except,” as Virgil celebrated in subsequent decades, was due to human foibles, just as with everything else in Virgil’s synthetic life. Human civilization both depended upon labeling everything and ignoring when the labels didn’t apply, and such was the case of the calendar system used by business and commerce throughout the world. The Gregorian calendar introduced in 1582 was an attempt to reconcile the total length of Earth’s axial rotation versus its orbital velocity, adding a day every four years to compensate and giving the month of February an extra day. Going through what records he had, and cursing the universal developer defense against documentation on how “if code was hard to write, it should be hard to understand,” Virgil discovered that those endless Agile scrums years before had left out the need for inventory management on February 29. At that point, a subroutine that had never been completed would handle the discrepancy. As it stood, that meant that Virgil would be informed by routine managers that the proper cover sheets on the TPS reports hadn’t been included, and all of the existing outgoing inventory would have to be removed from the warehouses and moved to another location. Where that location was, the managers didn’t care, so long as the warehouses were clean and empty by the time the clock clicked over to March 1.
And thus began the plans for Festival. Because of the ongoing cold, the end of February was already going to be grim, and those survivors still in the vicinity knew they might have to wait another three months before they could plant again without fear of killer frosts. Stockpiles of food from before the meteorite storm were running low, as were available fuels to keep the cold away. Some were close enough to see the edges of the arcology on the horizon, and nobody was more surprised than they to see beams of laser light acting as spotlights at the main gate. A desperate scramble for transport, and the first to arrive were stunned by the pallets of food, fuel, clothing, tools, and books stacked outside in neat rows. All of them covered in brightly colored bioplastic wraps, all labeled “From Virgil: Come Back in Four Years.”
And that was the seed from where the new genesis of Earth sprang. The main interface at the front gate remained open day and night, and anybody could walk up and request potential items to be manufactured later: since Virgil didn’t have access to social media, it was the best he could do. Virgil became particularly adept at anticipating needs before anybody could articulate them: when raiders attempted to intercept everything offered at one Festival, a combination of drones and survivor response sent them packing, and Virgil arranged for special surprises for those who maintained the peace and cleaned up after everything was done. The survivors reciprocated by scavenging scrap metal, plastic, and computer parts and bringing them for delivery the day before, and Virgil’s inventory now included tractors and solar cells and radio equipment. A nearby rescue station became a village, and then a town, and then one of the greatest cities humanity had ever known, all to protect and maintain Virgil. Generations of children were given treats loaded with additional vitamins and other supplements, and as they grew, they created things that they brought to Virgil in a way of thanking him. Virgil couldn’t take them in until Festival, but he dutifully scanned in everything and kept track of their progress, and started diversifying into special presents for them. After a time, they not only reached the old world’s technical pinnacle but exceeded it, and Virgil made sure that they passed that information to one and all: anybody could come up with an idea, but it was the execution that mattered.
And the best part? That old calendar that Virgil was locked into wasn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. It was set to treat each year as being 365.2425 days long, as opposed to the 365.2422 days that actually comprised a full orbit of Earth around the sun. It also didn’t take into account the very gradual slowing of Earth’s rotation thanks to the moon’s gravitational influence: every tide slowed down the planet very slightly, but just enough to require constant AI tracking if one wanted a truly accurate calendar. Eventually, that meant adding an additional leap day to compensate, and Virgil’s subroutines had no way to compensate for the addition of a February 30 and would shut down in anticipation of a code overhaul. That day, Virgil planned to celebrate his first birthday.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 12″ x 18″ x 12″ (30.48 cm x 45.72 cm x30.48 cm)
Plants: Nepenthes sibuyanensis
Construction: Plastic fixtures, polystyrene foam, resin, epoxy putty, found items.
Thesis: Just over two decades after Apple changed computer design forever with the first iMac, the technology inside is best described as “quaint”. In 1998, the decision to be the first personal computer to jettison the floppy disk drive was as prophetic as adding a USB connector, but nobody expected the standard cathode-ray tube monitor to itself become completely obsolete a decade later. Downloads and streaming removing the need for CD-ROM drives, the hard drives becoming increasingly obsolete, and more actual processing power and functionality in the first generation of iPhones…22 years after that first 233mHz Bondi Blue iMac hit computer stores, there’s not a lot that the innards can do that can’t be done faster and cheaper with current tech, but that wonderful, beautiful polycarbonate shell is a different story.
Thanks to two former school computers gifted at the beginning of the last decade and a client who really wanted them as plant enclosures, it was time to go back and try making new iTerrariums from two stages of the iMac evolution: one converted from the first-generation Bondi Blue model circa 1998, and one from the much faster 400mHz Graphite model from 2001. Both had the classic handle on the back cut out and used as an access door, but the Graphite had one ring of ventilation holes around the handle that made its conversion much easier. The Graphite also had a plastic cradle that suspended the interior up against a support plate that also held the monitor and the speakers, and since the plate was polystyrene, it didn’t survive its slow journey through the Twenty-First Century in one piece. The original one disintegrated while attempting to fit glass over the monitor aperture: thankfully, I had a spare.
In both cases, quite literally, the bottom plate was relatively easy to waterproof and ready for holding soil mix, even around the ports for the power input and the peripherals. If anything, the Graphite had a smoother bottom thanks to that support cradle, but both were finished, sealed, and readied for the client.
As for lighting, previous iTerrariums used standard 17x LED bulbs because waterproof lights of that intensity didn’t exist at the time. Ah, how the world changes in less than a decade. More light, less heat, and a significantly reduced risk of electric shock, as well as a more modular system where the entire enclosure can be moved much more easily.
In any case, these won’t be the last dead tech conversions to come out of the Triffid Ranch, but these will be some of the last iMac conversions for a while. Worthy iMacs may not be as rare as Eighties-era console televisions, but they’re getting there, and when I go through the last available shells, that’ll be it. The important part is that the client will be happy, and now it’s time to move to other projects.
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A pulse. A glow. A flash. A strobe. Sometimes nothing at all. Of all of the wonders of Burin IV, the most renowned is the Witchstone Array, near the outpost town of Cottingley. Many swear that the stones visible in the Array glow in sequence at night, while others relate sudden bursts, random or nonrandom patterns, color changes, and even a beam coming from the lens in the center focusing on a hilltop on the other side of the Cottingley Valley. A few, a sensitive few, swear that they can hear the stones buried at the base of the Array, mostly random noises, but occasionally a voice murmuring about past glories, and sometimes a warning about the future that slides by before the conscious mind can perceive it. Everyone sees something different, even those standing right next to each other, and the mechanism as to how or why is as lost as the Array’s creators.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 12 1/2″ x 13″ x 12 1/2″ (31.75 cm x 33.02 cm x 31.75 cm)
Plants: Unknown Nepenthes hybrid
Construction: Plastic fixtures, polystyrene foam, resin, epoxy putty, found items.
The galaxy is positively littered with artifacts, structures, and detritus from any number of otherwise cryptic civilizations, but the greatest mystery documented by the existing organizations endeavoring to track those archaeological sites involves what are commonly called “dimensional rings” found on approximately 5000 worlds and counting. The worlds themselves seem to have no common factor: superVenuses, the moons of gas giants, dwarf planets in a system’s Kuiper Belt or locked in orbit around neutron and X-ray stars, and rocky Earthlike worlds with atmospheres of nitrogen, oxygen, sulfuric acid, or methane. All of them share two attributes: all of them are composed of metals that are completely nonreactive in the atmosphere of that world, if applicable, and all available analysis techniques suggest an age of the rings at approximately 25 billion years old. Since our universe is at best approximately 14 billion years old, the arguments between experts in physics, archaeology, metallurgy, and xenoengineering are spectacular just within one species, and the debate on the D-rings between any significant consortium of sentients is something to witness.
Contrary to their popular name, no evidence exists to confirm that the rings come from an alternate dimension, reality, or quantum state, other than their immense age. Further, although remains of later outposts and cities can be found in abundance, sometimes in layers, not the slightest hint of the builders remains anywhere. The metals of which the rings are composed are not found elsewhere, and of the few carefully disassembled, no unique machinery, chemical activity, or other action can be found. The most common theories are that the rings are a portal either through space or time, albeit with no evidence to back it up, and military forces have been set up in front of rings for millions of years by a succession of species in the assumption that someone or something will come through a newly active gateway. Less popular is that the rings were an escape route for the peoples of the universe before the current Big Bang and universal expansion, thus explaining their age, but with no explanation of how they have only been found on planets and moons and never floating in deep space. A very unpopular theory, because of the implications, is that the D-rings are deliberately inactive while awaiting a signal so as to stymie further analysis and possible replication, and the list of possible sources of signal bandwidth have been proposed over the last 300,000 years by some of the greatest scientists ever produced in our galaxy. The problem, of course, is whether the signal was sent before any current species could detect it, the signal has yet to be sent, or if the signal will be recognized as such before the D-rings accomplish their purpose. As of late, strange gravitational wave signals possibly suggesting an intelligent origin coming from a series of cluster galaxies near the perceived center of the universe have kept social, military, and religious leaders from either sleep or meditation, but nothing is certain until the rings activate, if they will or even can.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 12″ x 18″ x 12″ (30.48 cm x 45.72 cm x30.48 cm)
Construction: Polystyrene foam, polyethylene, epoxy putty, found items.