The Roads Not Taken

Reading Time: < 1 minute
Many paths diverged in a wood
Entangled, I could travel as each goeth
But collapse at the end of only the best,
Set forth and traveled each as far as I could
To where each lead, past the undergrowth

Hiked them all, starting just as fair
But finding one had the better claim
Of the greenest grass and wanting wear
After passing far enough from there,
None was at all the same

And all that morning only one trail lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
I had no care for another day
Knowing how way interferes with way,
I never have to look back

I chose my path with a Psi(gh),
Somewhere ages and ages hence
Many trails diverged in a wood and I,
Regretted the method I chose by,
Evading destructive interference

Authors Note: This is the lead into Noa Powers, a story about free will and qu-peeps (quantum people).

Noa Powers

Reading Time: 17 minutes

Article from The Full Court Press:

The Quantum Spin: Noa Powers Entangled with Will Power and Psi Co.

Closing arguments finished in the divorce case of Will Powers v Noa Powers yesterday. Noa Powers claims that her estranged husband used Psi Co. technology to trick her into agreeing to his terms of the divorce. Psi is the symbol in quantum mechanics for the wave function. Psi Co. is a legal firm that employs quantum computers. A Psi Co. spokesman claims the quantum technology finds an optimal financial solution and nothing more. “The technology is not on trial. This divorce case is about two people that genuinely hate each other, just like any other divorce case.”

When asked why she agreed to the terms, she says “The building is evil, the room is evil, Psi Co. people are evil. I was coerced and they did it with that computer.” Of course, you are thinking by now, that Ms. Powers is a complete wack job. But she also happens to have a master’s degree in software engineering and this is where it gets really wack. She claims that Psi Co. has perfected the technology to quantum entangle people for short periods of time, but a long enough time to find the one solution where she agrees with her husband, at least long enough for her to sign the papers.

While the odds of her winning her case are one in a trillion, (unless she has her own quantum computer entangling that courtroom), she has created a media frenzy. Everyone has joined in the fray. Conspiracy Theorists have reanalyzed every major decision of the last decade with the idea that such a computer exists.

Heavyweight physicists such as Hawking and Deutsch have weighed in. Hawking says, “The idea is theoretically possible, but the practical applications are still a couple of millennia in the future.” Hawking certainly has his tongue in his cheek as he has already predicted the end of humanity within the next hundred years. Deutsch recommends that we stay focused on qubits; the technology of “qu-peeps” is still a long way off.

Philosophers say, in the multiverse, every possible permutation of the universe exists. So there are no real choices, just a lot of universes. Would good and evil have any meaning in all possible universes? Or is morality just the happenstance of which universe you happen to be looking at?

Even the pope has joined the proceedings. Physicists have long speculated that the universe is a giant quantum computer. “If the universe is an entanglement of multiple universes each proceeding in parallel, what is it that God is computing?” asks the pope. Douglas Adams might have said “42”. The pope claims “It is God’s will” answering his own question. “I have no problem with being an instrument of God’s computation.”

On a more down to Earth scale, say that of two people engaged in a divorce, if one surreptitiously entangles them both in the quantum computer to find an outcome that suits one best, is it coercion? After all, the victim has consented in at least one version of their free will. Neurobiologists and cognitive scientists who study decision making say that extremely small differences in the mind are amplified to make a decision. Dr. Phi, a cognitive scientist at Stanford says, “one small difference, one idea sensed slightly differently, a smell in the room, a sound, the slightest nuance of an idea, the flap of the wing of a butterfly, can completely reverse a decision, at least until enough new sensory information is provided to challenge it.” A quantum computer is ideal for searching through all those possible brain states and amplifying the difference to find one that resonates with the outcome desired by the perpetrator.

Perhaps the real victims in this trial are the jurors, ordinary people with ordinary backgrounds, that will have to make an informed judgment based on whatever understanding they have of quantum physics, neurobiology, technology, and all the attempts by the Psi Co. defense team to obfuscate the issue. It’s almost like the defense team is running its own entangled program by throwing all possible scenarios at the jurors: he didn’t do it; but if he did, she assented anyway; the technology doesn’t exist; the technology doesn’t work; the technology is no different than advertising; free will is an illusion; and so on.

Even the building is against Ms. Noa Powers. Psi Co. has a home-court advantage in the “Evil building” as Ms. Powers puts it. Its parent firm constructed the beehive building, so-called for its glowing amber hexagon patterned roof that cuts at a forty-five-degree angle, each hexagon capping off a sleek hexagonal tower clustered in the beehive. The expansive tower houses both government offices such as the court system and other subsidiaries of Psi Co.

“Somebody has to take a stand,” she says. “If you tolerate it, you insist on it” quoting a core tenet from her software discipline. “I knew as soon as I walked out of that room that I did not feel right about that decision. I was violated. I wasn’t sure how until my husband bragged to me about the computer. He even claimed he used the machine to get me to marry him. My whole adult life is a lie and it’s eating me up inside. I have no choice but to fight this. It would kill me if I didn’t.”

And therein lies the complexity of the case. Her free will gives her no choice. And her lack of free will gives her no choice. And I can’t help but watch this one to the end, to what most likely will be, a bitter defeat for Ms. Powers.

Deliberations

We enter the deliberation room. It’s a strange room, the cast iron door looks more like it belongs in a submarine than a jury room. The room has an ozoney smell to it. There are no windows. Just a long table with five chairs on either long side and one each at the ends. The table and chairs are not wood, not metal, maybe ceramic? In any case, not very comfortable, like the room was designed to force a decision as quickly as possible.

I follow Sarah in. Sarah has platinum blonde hair, big brown eyes, smooth alabaster skin, amazing cleavage in her low-cut maroon cotton shirt showing off a rack that has every man in the room drooling out the side of their mouths, and maybe even a few of the women. Not surprisingly she is a fitness instructor. I tried to talk to her on the breaks but she was perpetually lost in her cell phone. I want to sit next to her at the table in the deliberation room. I figured I had an inside track because I sat next to her in the jury box. That klutzy, nerdy guy Lewis trips in front of me, and f**king Ramon takes the open seat next to Sarah. It pisses me off that I probably lost what little opportunity I had with Sarah. And all because Lewis tripped over his own dropped books and papers. F**king idiot. I take a seat looking diagonal from her, on the other side of the table. Damn.

The judge told us, gave us very explicit instructions to discuss the evidence of the case before voting. Sure enough, the first thing that happens when we walk and sit down is that everyone wants to take a vote. I protest, “The judge just told us not to do this. I’m not going to vote. Doesn’t this bother anyone else? Aren’t we supposed to elect a foreman first?”

Only Pam volunteers. “I think I should be the foreperson, after all, it’s what I do for a living.” Pam elects herself as the foreman. She is a project manager at some high tech firm. She has the personality of a project manager, probably the only personality type that I really detest. They always have to be in charge. Qualified or otherwise. Pushy. Self-important. Always political savvy. Quick to judge and blame never looking in the mirror when they do.

“Let’s take a vote. We’ll make it secret for now”. Pam hands out the pens and paper for ballots. I refuse to take it. Pam tallies the vote, 6 say not guilty, 5 are undecided, one not voting. Five people teetering on the edge?

“So you wanted to talk, talk” Pam starts.

“Sure,” I say. “Let’s talk about the evidence.”

Helen jumps in, “I don’t like either of them. He’s about as sleazy as they come, just looking at him makes me feel dirty. And she’s a wacko, believing in all this quantum mumbo jumbo.”  Helen is a nurse. Talked a lot about her trip to Sedona. Never been married. 

Everyone on the jury is either single or married. All except for me. I’m the only divorced person on the jury. I’m sure I would have been thrown off the jury if I had been selected early. The two criteria for jury selection, as far as I could tell, were age and marital status. At fifty, I’m pretty sure I’m the oldest juror too. But with more divorced people than not and more old people than not, the attorneys quickly exhausted their dismissals. I saw the defense lawyer looking over at the prospective jurors. He only had one dismissal left. The next guy in line was at least seventy. So he was stuck.

“Quantum mechanics isn’t mumbo jumbo,” pipes up Lewis. “It’s the most accurate description of the world ever produced.” Lewis is the science guy.

“Quantum mechanics isn’t on trial here,” I say.

“But the practical application of it on the scale of humans is,” says Rudy. Rudy is himself a trial lawyer. He’s never been on a jury before. Usually, lawyers are the first to go. It’s not that I trust Rudy, but he seems like the only person in the room capable of making a rational argument. I can tell that a number of people have already gravitated to him. 

I asked him later why he didn’t speak up about the initial vote. He said he wanted to observe the process to see what actually happens in a jury room without interfering. Very un-quantum mechanical of you, I told him.

I point out, “As for Mr. Powers, I think your description of him is spot on. He never once answered a question with a straight answer. Did you see how white his attorney turned when he asked him point-blank if he used some kind of device to influence the decision of his wife?”

“He said, ‘I don’t need no machine to get that bitch to do whatever I want’,” Pam says.

Rudy asks, “So what evidence presented is sufficient for reasonable doubt?”

“All her testimony,” says Helen. “I still think she’s a certifiable wack job.”

I counter, “She’s not a wack job if the technology is real. She seems pretty smart too. And pretty tech-savvy. She’s a software engineer with a background in physics.”

“Software people are pretty weird. I should know; I’ve dated half a dozen,” says Helen.

I say, “It’s not like Ms. Powers is some new age freak meditating at energy vortexes in the mountains.” A split second after I say that, Helen’s necklace comes into focus as she leans into the table. Her pendant suggests that she is a Libra. She stretches, her hands clasped, arms straightened, reaching back over her head. I see the ink on her arms and abdomen under her blouse. Sedona. Power spot. That’s why she went to Sedona. I just walked right into my own trap and sprung it. I’m usually pretty observant. I can’t figure out how I missed that. Helen is new age through and through. And I just inadvertently called her a wack job. Sh*t.

The arguments go round and round. The general consensus is that Will Powers is an asshole and Noa Powers is a wack job. I don’t get it. The man is sleazy, conniving, and unpleasant. She is well-spoken, rational, open. And yet it’s 50-50 at best in the room.

“Let’s take a poll, see if we are getting anywhere.” Pam tallies the votes, 7 not guilty, 4 undecideds, 1 guilty. Did I just swing Helen’s vote the other way? Damn.

At the last secret ballot, only one of us voted against Powers and Psi Co. I can’t keep a secret from myself. It was me. They’ll figure it out soon enough. I’m sure they will all gang up on me like sharks at a feeding frenzy. I’m trying to keep an open mind, but I can’t see how this will be anything but coercion. I tell myself I’m ready for the blood bath. It pisses me off that I’m going to be assaulted. Still four undecided votes to turn the tables and get some backup.

Maybe I’ll catch a break from Sarah. Having a nice rack doesn’t make Sarah dumb. She’s asked a lot of good questions so someone is minding the store. During jury selection, I was surprised she didn’t get dismissed right off the bat but now it is starting to make sense. A self-involved, man magnet. She probably doesn’t have a single girlfriend. Not a real one anyway. Of course she would identify with the man more than the woman. She knows enough about technology, having a purse full of commercial gadgets including headsets, two phones, and an iPad. 

I ask her, “What do you think, Sarah? Could the machine have coerced Mrs. Powers?”

“I have three computers, an iPad and an iPhone. The only thing that coerces men is me.” She giggles. So much for Sarah. I think the prosecuting lawyer lost her when she found out she couldn’t buy a quantum computer at Costmo.

She pulls out an iPhone. “Shoot. Doesn’t seem to be working.”

Ramon pulls out his phone. “Neither is mine. No power. Suppose they could be blocking it?”

“Blocking the power?” Lewis rolls his eyes. “Ship of fools,” he says under his breath.

As far as I can tell, Ramon is more vacuous than even the prototypical dumb blonde. He certainly isn’t a match for Sarah. He is giving blondes a good name. He’s done nothing but agree with everything Sarah has said. I understand the attraction but dude, show some backbone. She might actually respect you for an honest opinion or an argument based on some reasoned position. F**k, who am I kidding? I keep thinking that way and it never works out for me, but always for that other Ramon.

Pam says, “You aren’t supposed to have those in here anyway.”

And then there is Todd. I asked him about the book he was reading during a break in the trial. It was some medieval book on lyric poetry. I tried to ask some questions. The closest thing I could think of was Greensleeves. I would have found more connection talking to a dolphin. I tried to resist judging, but I mean seriously, what kind of a man reads lyric poetry? I was doing OK until his statement to me during a break in the deliberations, “I just can’t be responsible for putting a man in jail.” I don’t know if it showed but I turned about three shades of red in anger inside. We swore to a judge that we would deliver a fair verdict and find a man guilty if we believed he committed the crimes. Now I’ve got this spineless medieval minstrel telling me he can’t convict. I think it could be grounds for a mistrial if I could get him to say it to the judge. If I could swing the vote the other way, I still would never get a conviction with an attitude like that.

There must be somebody, I can swing.

Rudy breaks his silence again. “Do you think that machine on exhibit can entangle people?” The machine he refers to is the quantum computer. It’s the size of a brick, with a black powder-coated surface, and a glass plate that covers the lower quarter of the front, housing 10 black equi-spaced dots on a white plastic background.

“The expert testimony from Scott Aaronson seems to think it is possible with the state of the technology today.”

“But we heard some guy say the very thought of it was ridiculous,” says Shawon. Shawon drives a bus during the day, never went to college, and plays guitar in a garage band on the weekends. 

“Their expert witness was from Oxford college in Montana. Oxford is supposed to be one of the best schools in the world, isn’t it?” he asks.

I nearly gag. “Not the one in Montana.” Trying to put it in terms he would understand, I say “Think of Oxford as the Rolling Stones. Think of the one in Montana as a high school cover band playing the Rolling Stones.” Shoot, I might have just pissed him off too. He still plays in his high school cover band. He’s just ten years older now.

“Science isn’t about the who. It’s about nature. Nature decides, not the scientist,” says Lewis.

I protest, “Well, we don’t have the luxury of proving the science.”

“So you have reasonable doubt then?” asks Rudy.

“No. I’ve never been to Alaska yet I have confidence that it is there. I have never measured the speed of light in a vacuum. Yet I don’t doubt the number. I judge things all the time on their reasonableness. And you do too. And so does everyone in this room. No one has time to validate everything.” I did the two-slit experiment in college. I did the mathematics of the wave function. I remember calculating the Hamiltonian of Psi for the two-slit experiment. The same psi that Psi Co. named themselves after. I didn’t know how to make my laser shoot out one photon at a time so I don’t really know if the observation would still show an interference pattern using one photon at a time, but I’ve read descriptions of it in textbooks. So, yeah, I trust it, unless someone gave me reasonable doubt not to. And then maybe I’d read more.

“But do you think that little device can entangle people?” presses Rudy.

 I’m starting to not like Rudy so much. 

“The brain has about 100 billion cells each with a 1000 connections changing firing at about 200 Hertz. If you held the superposition for 3600 seconds, the duration of the settlement meeting, then.” Lewis is writing feverishly in his notebook. After a minute he says, “About 10^20 states per brain!” He scribbles some more. “That could be held simultaneously in 70 entangled qubits.”

“Slow down there Einstein,” says Pam. “Let’s stick to the expert testimony.”

“Well, the experts said 70 was technologically feasible with current technology,” I say.

“Yeah, at 0 degrees Kelvin and with high energy lasers,” Lewis snorts.

“Zero degrees Kelvin?” I know that zero degrees is forbidden in quantum mechanics because then you would then know a particle’s position and velocity perfectly, a violation of the uncertainty principle.

“A few degrees Kelvin, it’s an expression,” squeaks Lewis. “No one has solved the decoherence problem at room temperature and at the scale of people.”

“The only one incoherent in this room is you,” snickers Shawon.

Helen says, “Well I read that someone has to look to see what happens, like that cat in the box. Nothing happens until you look, anyway.” 

Lewis rolls his eyes. The quantum potential of the room deteriorates rapidly from there. How does a jury debate advanced physics when seventy-five percent of the room didn’t even take high school physics? 

The rest join in the rambling conversation that seems to have nothing to do with physics, the evidence, or the trial anymore. I so wish I could quantum tunnel out of the room. Nothing to do but sit here and suffer. 

Todd says, “I wished we lived in a simpler time.”

“Okay, let’s take a poll,” Pam says, finally cutting off the rambling conversation. “Let’s see if this is getting us anywhere.” She collects the ballots and tallies them. “Eleven say not guilty, one says guilty. Okay. We have one holdout. Let’s vote by show of hands. We might as well know who it is,” says Pam.

“OK. Who is for conviction?” No one raises their hands. “No one?” she looks around the room eyeing each of the jurors suspiciously.

“OK. Who is for dismissal?” Everyone raises their hands. Everyone but me.

“So you are the troublemaker,” Pam says to me. “From the moment you walked into that jury box,” she adds accusingly. “Well, you didn’t vote for conviction. Does that mean you haven’t made up your mind yet?”

“I’m pretty sure he’s guilty.”

“Well, why didn’t you vote for conviction then?”

“Because beyond reasonable doubt is a tough criterion.”

“Any other explanation is more likely than the one she gave. What’s so tough about that?” I hear a couple of snickers.

I suppose that pushy crap works when you’re the boss. But she’s not my boss. It takes every shred of control I have to resist telling her to f**k off. 

“I’m here to deliberate, not to be made fun of. It seems to me that every shred of evidence indicates the story is true. The only real defense is whether or not the technology is sufficiently advanced or not to do what she claims it can do. So she just made it up? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Divorce does weird things to people,” Sarah says. “My mom took an ax to my dad’s Ferrari because she said he paid more attention to it than her.”

“Sorry about that. But that is kind of my point. If she wants to f**k him over, she calls him a pedophile or says he hit her or says he cheated on her. Making up some weird hi-tech story just doesn’t make any sense.”

“You are the one that said she is smart,” Rudy is using my own words against me. Bastard.

I try to argue against the skilled lawyer, “She believes it. Her ex believes it. So that means either they are both telling the truth or they both were duped. Who would dupe them? Why?”

“More to the point, if they were both duped, then isn’t he innocent?” Rudy crosses his arm and freezes his pose. I think it is for effect. I feel as if he is cross-examining me on the witness stand. I wonder if it is one of his ploys at trial.

“Whaaaaaaat?” Ramon says.

“If they both were duped, then Will Powers didn’t manipulate the outcome. Someone else did. But someone else isn’t on trial here,” argues the lawyer.

“Maybe not innocent but certainly not guilty,” says Pam. “I think that pretty much settles it then. Should I call the bailiff to tell him we’ve reached a decision?”

My jaw drops. I hate it when people try to put words in my mouth. My tongue rejects the bitter metallic taste of the forced words. “What decision?”

Pam sits back in a huff crossing her arms.

“It’s possible, but not on that little computer,” says Lewis. My mind flashes back to Will Powers holding up the hand-held device like OJ after he put on that glove and acted like it didn’t fit. The expert witness, the quantum computing guy himself said it would take megawatts of energy and a machine the size of a small building to maintain an entangled state for that long in even a room of small size.”

The other sharks tear into me from every angle but I don’t feel a thing. All except the one seed. The one seed of doubt. How could that little machine harness that much power without incinerating itself like the puff of smoke before a disappearing magician? Could they run the machine without that much power? Now I am speculating. I have to stick to the evidence provided. The seed grows. Is Lewis right about the number of qubits? More speculation. A doubt. Is it a reasonable doubt? Enough to acquit the sleazy defendant?

There is something. Something in my mind about that machine. I’ve seen it or at least a picture of it somewhere before. It’s not coming to me. I hate my memory. I hate having to google for something every time my memory fails. I hate when something comes to me four or five days later. Like, what the f**k was my brain doing for four or five days? In my frustration, I snap a pencil in half between my fingers not realizing how tense I am.

Sarah stands up. Reaches across the table, bending over, her breasts hanging down in front of me. She holds out her hand. “Let me throw that one out for you.” I hand her the two snapped halves of the pencil. She hands me a new one and sits back down. The moment is gone. What was I thinking about? I can’t remember. It’s not coming to me. I hate my memory. I hate having to google for something every time my memory fails. I hate when something comes to me four or five days later.

Rudy asks, “So do you think it’s possible that the quantum computer could entangle people?”

He’s got me there. Something just isn’t adding up but I don’t think it is Ms. Power’s story. I just can’t put my finger on it. It gnaws at me. I don’t think she is lying but I have this one little detail that I can’t fit into my mental model. I have the seed of a doubt; a reasonable doubt. I concede “No. No, it doesn’t seem possible.”

“Lets vote.” Pam takes the tally. “12 for acquittal.”

Acquittal

“So say you all?” asks the judge.

“Yes,” we each answer in turn.

The judge slams the gavel on the desk and says, “Case dismissed.”

So that is that.

As we walk out of the trial room, I have a pit in my stomach. I don’t understand how I could have voted to acquit. It feels wrong, like I didn’t do it, like somehow, my left brain and right brain both wanted guilty but some hidden brain fragment got the better of me. Like that jury was evil, like this building is evil. Just like Ms. Powers described. I was there. I know what I voted for. I can’t figure out why. Can’t turn back now, that wave function has collapsed.

On the way out of the building, I pass a newsstand. I see a Scientific American magazine, the front cover boasts of “Quantum Computing the Universe” with an artist’s rendering of a Hubble deep space picture inside an image of what presumably is a quantum computer of the future, a quantum computer with an array of black dots each one representing a qubit.

It hits me like a bolt of lighting, the faulty wiring in my brain jumping back to a lost thought in the jury room. The box they showed WAS a fraud! That’s where I’ve seen it. It’s an artist’s rendering. F**k! I wished my brain worked when it was supposed to, my life an endless stream of treppenwitz moments. So I should feel okay then. Lewis and Rudy were right. But I feel worse. Why?

Is Psi Co. defrauding their clients? Why would they bother with a fraud? Why tell your client it’s the real thing when you don’t have to tell them anything? I walk a bit; the thoughts swirling in my head, no Sarah to distract them at the moment. Maybe they are just protecting themselves from dipshit clients like Mr. Powers. If they spill the beans, Psi Co. brings out the fake little box.

Lewis said it, “a machine the size of a small building.” I stop. I look back at the Psi Co. complex. The building. The government section of the building only occupies the bottom three floors. That weird smell in the room. People’s devices not working. Could the room be a quantum computer? Or part of it? The building? The hair on the back of my neck is standing on end.

I always said, on any given day, even the same jury could reach a different conclusion. Justice is blind! Not to prejudice but to consistency. Who knows what tips the scales of randomness one way or the other: dropped papers, a broken pencil, ill-timed comments, a buxom distraction, a perfectly timed rational argument. A whole cascade of events and if you had the power to choose the events that lead to the outcome you want? Especially keystone events in people’s lives, like the outcome of a trial?

I can’t get my head around it. Was I quantum entangled? Was the version of reality that presented the realization of the one chain where I voted the wrong way? Was I coerced of my own free will? Of my own free will did I choose coercion? Has Psi Co.. figured out how to commoditize free will? Beyond a reasonable doubt, I think I’ve been duped. Of only two things am I certain. If Psi Co. has the power to control free will, I wouldn’t want to be Will Powers. And I no longer can afford to take my free will for granted.

A Haunting Game

Reading Time: 15 minutes

Authors Note: Fourth in the Christmas Carol series.

2017: Christmas Spirits
2018: The Gift of Giving
2019: ‘Tis The Season

Pre-game Show

Three apparitions stand beside a well lit Christmas tree in a studio setting. A camera pans over to them and then zooms in for a close-up shot of moaning and wailing.

“Welcome to ESP Network Christmas Eve haunting. I am the Ghost of Christmas Now. These are my co-hosts, Christmas Past and Christmas Future. We have a great show coming your way. A new ghostly triad takes on that inscrutable veteran of hauntings, Ebenboozer Scrooge,” says CN, the Ghost of Christmas Now.

“Gentle ghosts. How are you enjoying your retirement?” asks CN.

“Well, CN, I have lots of fond memories of shaming lost spirits back into goodness, but haunting is a young ghost’s game,” says, CP, the Ghost of Christmas Past. “We had our time.”

“Yes, CN, I miss conjuring up terrifying pictures of a lost spirit’s future, but the future is the only way forward. Time to let the young ghosts give it a go. I think they have some great talent and can take goodness through terror to a whole new level with just a little bit of planning and foresight,” says, CF, the Ghost of Christmas Future.

“Nothing like scaring the hell out of someone by showing them the gossip that goes on behind their backs when they don’t show up. I miss it too, but I love the action in the booth and bringing commentary to the eight monitors of the Dead Zone, the ESP Network patented broadcasting venue.”

“I love it too,” says CF. “I still look forward to each and every vicarious haunting.”

“Me too,” says CP. “Our team is still together. Let’s make some future memories.”

CN touches the spiritual transceiver in his left ear. He says to the viewing audience, “Okay. Mary Frickin Christmas is down on the field with Marla, the set-up ghost for tonight who will kick-off the haunting.”

One of the studio monitors shows Mary Frickin Christmas holding a microphone in her hand and Marla at her side.

CN says, “Merry Christmas, Mary Frickin Christmas.”

Mary is dressed in a blue down jacket and exhales the cold of death with each breath. Mary holds her black knit mitten to her ear over her black knit cap to receive the sound from CN. “Merry Christmas to you and the rest of the team. I’m here with Marla, one of Ebenboozer’s oldest and deadest friends.” She turns to Marla, “So what’s your game plan this evening?” She extends the microphone to Marla.

“I think this is just a routine haunting. Ebenboozer was a softy when I knew him. We’ll have him carving roast beast in no time.”

Mary shudders from the chill of death in front of her but maintains her professionalism. “He gave the old team fits back in the day. What makes you think you can turn him around so easily?”

“We have an awesome team of unique talents and the team has a great new playbook with whole new strategies on fear and shaming. But I don’t want to give too much away,” explains Marla.

Mary turns toward the camera. “There you have it. Lot’s of confidence down here on the field, CN. Back to you.”

“Well done, Mary Frickin Christmas,” says CN. He listens to another announcement coming over his spiritual transceiver. “Ok, now over to Holly Daze, reporting to us live from inside the living room of Ebenboozer Scrooge. Happy Holidays, Holly. What’s the mood like on the playing field?”

“Somber. Very somber. I’m reporting to you from the Christmas screen saver on the TV in the living room. The only signs of Christmas in this house are on this screen saver and its candles aren’t lit, its fire isn’t started, and its Christmas tree isn’t even turned on. I don’t feel a single vibe of Christmas. I don’t see any signs of Christmas. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t even know it’s Christmas Eve. I disagree with Marla. A routine haunting isn’t going to cut it. I think this is going to be a much tougher game than they expect. Back to you, CN.”

A shadowy image moves about the screen saver in Ebenboozer’s TV, lighting candles, starting a fire, and turning the Christmas tree on.
“We’re getting close to game time. Time to make your predictions,” says CN.

“I’ve seen this lack of situation awareness a thousand times before,” bodes CP. “I think the home team will prevail.”

“I agree with CP,” says CF. “The visitors better bring more to the game than a routine portrayal of a dismal future or this conversion is over before it starts.”

“Well, I’m going to buck the trend and go with the visitors. It’s going to be a great game. Marla’s opening kickoff is just moments away.”

First Half

It’s late at night. Ebenboozer sits alone in his house on Christmas eve working on his computer. On his TV, he has a screen saver showing a warm room with a Christmas tree, decorations, and a fully lit fireplace that makes the TV room glow a warm red. Outside the TV, the room is cold and is lit by a single office lamp.

An apparition passes through the front door dragging streamers of Christmas lights with presents caught in the mesh, clanking and cracking like tossed china.

Ebenboozer rises to greet the apparition and asks, “Who are you?”

“I am Marla, one of your closest friends.”

“Oh. I don’t recognize you. You sure I know you?”

“Oooooh!”

“Sorry, maybe it will come to me later. What do you want?”

“If you don’t change, you will be miserable for the rest of your infinite days.”

“Why should the afterlife be any different?”

“Because it’s a long time,” crones the ghost.

“I don’t want to feel like this, I just do. I want to change. You don’t have to convince me. I need a plan.”

“Oooooh! Aaaaah! Oooooh!” Marla wails. Chains rattle. Lights flicker. The Zoom feed doesn’t freeze. “You will be visited by three different ghosts tonight.”

“Is that counting you?”

“Noooo,” wails Marla.

“Should I run out and get some snacks?”

#

Ebenboozer drinks his usual nightcap. “Marla? Marla? Nope. I don’t remember a Marla. Maybe she has the wrong Ebenboozer.”

He falls asleep on the couch. The computer screen glows a brilliant white. An apparition emerges from it waking Ebenboozer up.

Ebenboozer, no stranger to apparitions asks, “Who are you?”

In a deep haunting voice, the apparition says, “Oooooh. I am the Ghost of Right Action.”

“The what? The Ghost of Right Action?” Ebenboozer chuckles. “Sure. Okay. Ghost of Right Action. You can dispense with all the theatrics. This is my fourth haunting already. I hear the other guys retired?”

The Ghost of Right Action coalesces into a scruffy-bearded old man with thick bifocal glasses looking more like a middle manager than a ghost. “Forget about those other guys. We are here to talk about you.”

“Okay, let’s get on with it then. What is it you want to show me?”

“That you suck at Christmas. Oooooh.”

Doors open and close. Eggs crack and pop in the refrigerator. The dog licks Ebenboozer’s feet.

The Ghost of Right Action walks over to the nightstand and points to a stack of unopened letters, some postmarked from Christmases two and three years ago.

“Would it kill you to at least open and read the letters?”

“Why? Do you think there is money inside?”

“No, because these people are taking the trouble to let you know that you are in their thoughts on this sacred holiday.”

“So, you think they want money then?”

“It’s not about money.”

“Ha. I’m just playing with ya.”

“Oooooh! Aaaaah! Oooooh!” wails the angry ghost. A picture falls off the wall. The vacuum starts running by itself. The dog rolls on its back hoping for a belly scratch.

“Five lousy minutes. That’s all it would take. Are you telling me you can’t spare five lousy minutes to open the cards?” the ghost chastises.

“Well, I’m seeing who will keep sending for ten or twenty years even though I never respond. That way, I will know who really cares.”

“Jeeeezzz,” sounds the ghost. “Good luck with that. You’re further gone than the reports indicated.”

“Reports? Are you guys spying on me in the off-season?”

“I’m out of here.”

The Ghost of Right Action poofs into nothingness. The recoil from the implosion sends a shock wave through the room knocking down the electronic tree, gusting up the electronic fire, and blowing out the electronic candles, all showing on the TV screen.

Ebenboozer looks up to the ceiling and shouts, “Thanks for nothing. The place is a mess and it smells like smoke.” He scratches his dog under the chin and says, “But at least my feet are clean.”

#

Ebenboozer lies back on the couch. Just as he starts to drift off into visions of sugar plums, a second ghost materializes in front of him, singing nasally and off-key, “‘Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la, la la la la.”

Ebenboozer asks, “And who might you be?”

“I am the Ghost of Good Intentions, fa la la, la la la, la la la.”

“The what? The Ghost of Good Intentions?” Ebenezer tries to stifle a laugh.

The Ghost of Good Intentions coalesces into an energetic, fit young woman dressed in a fuzzy-brown reindeer antler headband, a red-nosed ball on her nose, flashing multi-colored Christmas lights blinking randomly about her neck, an elfish green blouse, yoga pants, and stylish suede black boots.

“Okay, let’s get on with it then. What is it that you want to show me?”

“That you suck at Christmas.”

“So, I’ve been told.”

She picks up the remote and flicks through all the inputs. Each input reports “No Signal” in turn. “What’s wrong with your TV? Did you forget to pay your bill?”

“I canceled it. Too many lame choices.”

“Well how are you supposed to get in the spirit of Christmas if you can’t watch any of the great classics? And there are so many wonderful new shows on Netflix and Hallmark.”

“Hallmark? Eeeewwww.” Ebeneezer shudders viscerally at the mention of it.

She turns the channel back to the screen saver. Holly Daze is covertly mouthing the words to her, “What the heck are you doing?”

“Well, let’s get on social media then. We’ll connect and spread cheer online. What accounts do you have? Facebook? Twitter? Insta? Tik-Tok?”

“I only have Facebook, but for all I know, they’ve canceled the account. I haven’t used it in years.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I had like a hundred something Facebook friends, but I couldn’t stand any of them.”

“Oooooh! Aaaaah! Oooooh!” she groans with bewildered eyes. Thin wine glasses shatter. Aerosol cans spray aimlessly into the air. The heater kicks on because of the sudden chill in the air.

“How do you connect with anyone?”

“Do I look like I’m connecting with anyone?”

“You’re not supposed to be hanging out here by yourself on Christmas. Christmas is supposed to be fun and cheerful.”

“Well, that is what the drink is for.”

The Christmas lights around her neck all turn red and start blinking in sequence, her antlers grow sharpened tips, and her boots turn from suede to leather.

“Have fun with that. I’m out of here.”

The Ghost of Good Intentions disappears like the roadrunner eluding the coyote leaving nothing but puffs of dust in her wake. The curtains blow after her, a plant topples over spilling its speckled potting soil onto the rug, and the dog shifts to a more comfortable position on the floor.

Ebenboozer turns to his dog and says, “She was pretty hot. Ya think she’d go out with me after the holidays?”

#

Ebenboozer is sweeping soil from the rug into a dustpan and putting the dirt back into a pot. A third ghost materializes, glowing much brighter than the other two. Ebenboozer shields his eyes from the painful light and then puts on a pair of welding glasses that just happen to be stowed beside the fallen plant. The dog runs and hides behind the couch.

Ebenboozer asks, “And who might you be?”

“I am the Ghost of Radiant Ideology.”

“The what? The Ghost of Radiant Ideology? Where do you guys come up with these names? Do you have a marketing department or something now?”

The Ghost of Radiant Ideology coalesces into a high priest with flowing white robes backlit by a shimmering aura. Ebenboozer keeps on the welding mask as much to prevent retinal damage as to avoid direct eye contact with the high and mighty ghost.

“Ghost of Radiant Ideology, I fear you the most. What is it that you want to show me?”

“That you suck at Christmas.”

“Someone might have mentioned that to me already.”

The radiating priest spreads his arms to the sky. His loose sleeves hang from his wrists giving him the illusory appearance of an enormous giant.

“Ebenboozer. Ebenboozer. This is the season of giving.”

“Hmmm. Feels more like the season of spending.”

“Your gifts would bring joy.”

“Yeah, to the stockholders of the major retail corporations of the world. Isn’t every day already Christmas for them?”

“Spread mirth to all those you touch.”

“I’m not contagious anymore. The doctor cleared up my mirth with some penicillin,” Ebenboozer jests.

“Oooooh! Aaaaah! Oooooh!” moans the Ghost of Radiant Ideology. Plastics in the room prematurely age and crack in the radiant light, an unopened Christmas card spontaneously ignites, which Ebenboozer quickly puts out, and the mirror reflects light back into the room.

“Ebenboozer, why don’t you have a Christmas tree, the very symbol of radiant joy? And lights? And garland?”

“Nobody is coming over. So what’s the point?”

“Good luck with that. I’m out of here,” says the distraught ghost. The Ghost of Radiant Ideology turns off like a light switch.

Ebenboozer takes off the welding mask in the suddenly dark room. He shouts at the vanishing point of the vanished ghost, “Hey, whose power were you using to generate all that light?”

The dog whimpers from behind the couch.

Half Time Show

The camera cuts from the living room back to the studio for the half time report.

“Well that didn’t go too well for the triad,” says CN. “The offense sputtered, dropped the ball, fumbled, and failed.”

“Yep,” says CP. “The Ghost of Right Action started off with a routine nagging.”

A replay of the scene shows on the monitor as CP continues with the voice over.

“Ebenboozer easily deflected the attack with a few distancing jokes.

“The Ghost of Good Intentions tried to follow it up with the good intentions of connecting with other people but without any TV channels or social media connections, she really couldn’t drive the point home. Watch on the replay, as Ebenboozer recoils in disgust. She induced disgust at the thought of connection, not at the lack of it. A major sack on that play.

“Finally, the Ghost of Radiant Ideology comes in all aglow with shallow ideology.

“Back in the good days, we’d come at them hard with a proper shaming. A complete disaster for the triad,” concludes CP.

“The ideology of Christmas goodness is anything but shallow,” protests CN. “Do you think they can turn it around, CF?”

“It all comes down to proper planning and evaluation of your opponent. The triad needs a complete change of tactics. Berating, moralizing, and extravagant glowing aren’t going to get the job done. Ebenboozer has never responded to a proper shaming or force or vacuous ideologies. The triad is going to have to bring the real stuff if they want to turn this one around.”

“Let’s see if we can get some insight from Mary Frickin Christmas, standing outside the purgatory locker room,” says CN.

Mary Frickin Christmas is back standing with Marla. Mary says, “That was a tough first half. I think the triad took the worst of it. What’s the feeling in the locker room?”

“When a ghost has his or her back to the wall, they just go through it. They’ve lined up some new tactics and are ready to turn this thing around. I hope they get him good. I’m so angry he says he doesn’t remember me,” says Marla.

“That’s the inside scoop from purgatory. Down but not out. Back to you CN.”

“Thanks, Mary Fricken Chistmas. Holly Daze, are you there?” The monitor shows Holly Daze cleaning up the mess on the screen saver.

CN says, “Looks like some technical difficulties. Okay, we have an exciting second half coming your way.”

Second Half

Ebenboozer falls asleep on the couch. The computer screen glows a brilliant white. An apparition re-emerges from it, waking Ebenboozer up. The Ghost of Right Action coalesces back into a scruffy-bearded old man with thick bifocal glasses.

In a deep haunting voice, the apparition says, “Oooooh.”

“You are/I am the Ghost of Right Action,” they say together.

Ebenboozer says, “I think we established that already. What the heck are you doing back here? Is it next year already?”

“Noooo,” wails the Ghost of Right Action.

“Didn’t you cause enough damage for one night? Are you bonded, by the way?”

“Noooo,” wails the Ghost of Right Action. “I just wasn’t finished.”

“Okay, let’s get on with it then. What is it you want to show me this time?”

“I understand it’s a bit of a pain to open up the Christmas cards, and even more of a pain to respond to them.”

“Yeah, I think we’re finally on the same page,” Ebeneezer concurs.

“If you are just responding to make it even, don’t bother. But let’s look at it as an opportunity to invite other people into your world. Why don’t you up the game a little bit and suggest something you can do together. Make an offer. Take the initiative and see what happens?”

“Ooooh,” Ebenboozer responds.

“From where I’m standing, you could use a little a company now and then.”

Ebenboozer glares at the minor slight, but takes up one of the old Christmas cards and opens it.

“From John, the needy bastard. I just saw him less than half a year ago.”

“Now. Now. Did you get something out of the meeting?” The Ghost of Right Action reaches into the computer monitor and pulls out a pen and a blank Christmas card that says, “Merry Belated Christmas.”

Ebenboozer starts writing, “Enjoyed our conversations last summer. Maybe we can do it again sometime sooner.”

When Ebenboozer looks up, a stack of blank cards with stamped envelopes is in a neat pile on the table he is writing on. The Ghost of Right Action has vanished into nothingness as if Ebenboozer had the idea to write the cards all on his own.

Ebenboozer tries to shake off an odd feeling he doesn’t recognize.

#

Just as Ebenboozer finishes with his Christmas cards, the Ghost of Good Intentions re-materializes in front of him, singing “Now we don our gay apparel, fa la la la, la la la la.” She holds a set of brown furry reindeer antlers and a fuzzy red nose.

Ebenboozer puts his hands to his ears, “It’s going to be a long night, isn’t it? And who talks like that anyway – don our gay apparel?”

“You are/I am the Ghost of Good Intentions,” they say together. “Fa la la, la la la, la la la,” they sing together almost in harmony.

Ebenboozer says, “I think we established that already. What the heck are you doing back here? Haven’t you come down from your sugar rush high already?”

“Ooooh,” she moans. “These are for you. I’ve brought you a reindeer antler headband and a red nose. You can’t feel bad about anything when you are wearing a pair of antlers and a red nose.”

“I suppose not. Who can feel bad about anything when you look ridiculous?”

“Don’t be such a fuddy-duddy.”

“A what?”

She ignores him and puts the antlers on his head and the red ball over his nose.

Ebenboozer rolls his eyes but can’t resist cracking a smile.

“Awwwww,” wails the Ghost of Good Intentions. “Did I see a little wisp of happiness?”

Ebenboozer blushes.

The Ghost of Good Intentions says, “Now you have a dinner you can go to tomorrow. I checked your pantry and refrigerator and you have all the stuff you need to make stuffing. I took the liberty of pre-heating your oven.”

They retreat to the kitchen.

Ebenboozer asks, “What stuff is the stuffing stuff?”

“We’ll start with that loaf of bread that’s harder than an iron anvil.”

Ebenboozer glares at the minor slight, but starts sawing the bread into small cubes.

“You’ll need to chop up an onion and a stalk or two of celery. Then add some spices.”

Ebenboozer finishes stuffing the stuffing stuff onto a skillet full of sizzling butter bubbles. He pours chicken broth from a carton over the mix.

“As soon as the oven is finished heating, stuff the stuffing stuff into the stuffing pan and stuff the stuffing pan into the oven for about forty-five minutes.”

She kisses Ebenboozer on the cheek and disappears in a puff before Ebenboozer has a chance to entertain any thoughts about her that could ruin the moment. On this exit, she breaks nothing more than her fair-scented wind.

Ebenboozer blushes again and shouts after her to cover his embarrassment, “Sure, leave me to do all the hard work.”

The dog sniffs at the cacophony of odors coming from the kitchen. Ebenboozer feels an odd feeling of warmth he is sure is caused by the poor insulation of his oven.

#

Just as Ebenboozer unstuffs the stuffing from the stuffed stove, the glowing Ghost of Radiant Ideology materializes, not glowing quite so bright as before. Without his backlit aura, the priestly robes look more like an oversized white cotton terry cloth bathrobe.

“You are/I am the Ghost of Radiant Ideology,” they both say together.

“Tough night for you ghosts having to work a double shift,” comments Ebenboozer.

“It’s only once a year and we get paid for the overtime,” answers the Ghost of Radiant Ideology glowing somewhat brighter at the thought of the extra spending money.

“What is it that you want to show me this time? Did you bring me a Christmas tree? Garland? Enough Christmas lights to overload a nuclear power plant?”

“A better analogy,” says the ghost tightening his terry cloth belt.

“A better analogy?” repeats Ebenboozer with disappointment in his voice.

“I think you are half-right about mirth.”

“Really? I’m half-right about something?”

“Yes. Mirth should be contagious, but you shouldn’t try to prevent it from spreading. It’s not a dis-ease. It’s a joy-ease.”

“A joy-ease?”

“Yes. The opposite of a disease. You should try to spread it. The more people you infect, the better off you are. The better off they are.”

“You want me to be a joy-ease super spreader?” Ebenboozer giggles at the thought. His reindeer antlers bob rhythmically as he chuckles. You could even say his shiny red nose glowed.

“We can work on the language, but yeah. That’s the idea.”

Ebenboozer can’t wipe the silly grin off his face at the unfamiliar warmth of joyous radiance warming his chest.

The Ghost of Radiant Ideology turns off like a light bulb.

Ebenboozer shouts after him to hide from the discomfort of joy, “I still would have liked a Christmas tree.”

#

Ebenboozer pulls the curtain open from the window. The dawn is stretching its rosy fingers across the morning sky. Ebenboozer checks the date on his phone.

“Christmas day. Wow! They did it. They did it all in one night.”

He stuffs the stuffing into the refrigerator. “I’ve got a busy day ahead of me. But if I don’t get a little sleep, the only mirth I’m going to spread is kids laughing at me sleeping in my own drool on a couch somewhere.”

Wrap-up

Ecstasy reigns in the studio over the incredible comeback. CN, CP, and CF are jumping up and down in unison.

When the excitement fades, CN jumps back into his studio commentary. “Incredible. Simply the most incredible turnaround I have ever seen. What happened out there, CP?”

“A complete Hail, Mary. The triad completely changed their tactics.

“Watch on the replay. First, The Ghost of Right Action nearly fumbles the ball with the crack about him needing company. But then he actually provides genuine support.

“Then the Ghost of Good Intentions finds an opening in the defensive line with the possibility of genuine connection. This is unbelievable. She actually helps him prepare a meal so he won’t feel foolish when he shows up.

“And finally, the Ghost of Radiant Ideology tones down the wattage on his glow to cut through all the hyperbole and bullsh*t. Look at that smile on Ebenboozer’s face. In all my hauntings, both real and vicarious, I’ve never seen anything like it.” He wipes a tear from his eye.

“Any thoughts, CF?”

“I have to give credit to the team. They really came up with a great game plan. Who would have thought that using the tactics of goodness could actually induce it? It’s a real game-changer.”

“Happy Holidays,” says CN.

Holly Daze, still fixing up the screen saver, replies testily, “Maybe once I get this mess straightened out.”

“Merry Frickin Christmas,” says CN to all.

“Merry Frickin Christmas,” to you too, replies Mary Frickin Christmas.

All members of the crew and team members wave as the program fades to black.

<<<<>>>>

The Grinch – 2020

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Author’s Note:
We pick up the Grinch’s story, as retold in the year 2020. The Grinch had been social distancing, digital distancing, and every other kind of distancing, as is his way. He was not savvy to all the happenings of the year.

“They are planning their gatherings,” the Grinch snarled with a sneer.
To spend a whole day, with those they hold dear.
Tomorrow is Christmas, it’s practically here!”

He hated the sound of kids playing with their toys,
He hated the thought of the NOISE, NOISE, NOISE, NOISE.

He hated the idea of them killing a beast,
On which they would delightfully FEAST, FEAST, FEAST, FEAST.

Then he growled, with his Grinch fingers nervously drumming.
“I MUST find some way to stop Christmas from coming!”

And, now, I will fast forward to when the Grinch invades the town,
In the interest of keeping, the word count down.

All the windows were dark, quiet snow filled the air.
The Whos dreamed troubled dreams, of a year most unfair.

“This is stop number one,” The old Grinchy Claus hissed,
And he climbed to the roof, empty bags in his fist.

Then he slid down the chimney, a rather tight pinch.
But, if Santa could do it, then so could the Grinch.

Expecting stockings all hung in a row.
The mantel was bare, there was nothing to stow.

Then he slithered and slunk, with a smile most unpleasant.
The feel of the room had a most empty presence.

No guns? No bikes? No skates? No drums?
No tree? No wreath? No popcorn? No plums?

He slunk to the icebox, to take the makings of a feast.
He found only half-eaten pudding, infested with yeast.

He used his green fingers, to sample a dash.
He gagged on the mold, and nearly through up the sash.

As the Grinch came up empty, ready to retreat back above.
He heard a small sound, like the coo of a dove.

He turned around fast, he saw a small Who!
Little Cindy Lou Who, who was no more than two.

She stared at the Grinch and said, “Santa Claus, why?
Why are you not wearing a mask? Why?”

Well, you know, the Grinch was so confused and so muddled.
He stood there beside her, completely befuddled.

“Why, my sweet little tot,” the fake Santa Claus pried,
Why do you want, my face to hide?”

And then thinking maybe, she thought it was Halloween.
or maybe some other holiday, that came in between.

He said, “Santa’s don’t wear masks, because they have to eat.”
To eat the cookies left for me, would be an impossible feat.”

And his fib fooled the small child. Then he patted her head.
He got her a drink, and he sent her to bed.

He held empty bags, he held them quite nimbly.
Quite disappointed with his failure, he tossed them up the chimbly.

Then he went up the chimney, himself, the old liar.
Wondering why on the walls, there was nothing but wire.

And he found the same thing, at the other Who’s houses.
No evidence of Christmas, from even their mouses.
They must have known he was coming, the sly little louses.

It was a quarter past dawn when he fled in his sled.
His vision of stopping Christmas, painfully dead.

Three thousand feet up! Up the side of Mt. Crumpet.
As far away as he could get, to not hear the trumpets.

“Pooh-pooh to the Whos”, he was grinch-ish-ly humming.
“Another year of annoyance, Christmas is still coming.

“They’re just waking up! I know what they’ll do!
“Their mouths will hang open a minute or two.
“Then they’ll tear open their presents and shout WOO-HOO!”

“That’s a noise,” groaned the Grinch, “I just can’t bear.”
He covered his ears and averted his stare.

But he didn’t hear, a muted sound over the snow.
Why the silence this year? He wanted to know.

He stared down in Who-ville, the Grinch popping his eyes.
What he saw down below, was a shocking surprise.

Every Who down in Who-ville wore a medical mask.
They were avoiding each other and looking aghast.

Something had stopped, Christmas from coming.
When one Who approached another, the other went running.

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?”

“A Christmas without ribbons! A Christmas without tags!
“A Christmas without packages, boxes, or bags!”

Whos avoiding whos, wound his brain up all tight,
Until he figured it out, with a revealing insight.

The Who’s were in trouble, from a horrible beast.
They all became Grinches, so the beast wouldn’t feast.

He would finally have a Christmas, he could enjoy it in peace.

Bubble Dome City

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Dear Liza,

I’m not so sure a visit to Bubble Dome is such a great idea. It might sound like a great vacation spot. The temperature is a comfortable seventy degrees. Room temperature. It’s a pretty big room, at over ten square miles. But it’s still a room. The weather never changes. It never rains or snows or gusts or anything else on the inside.

There is not much to see. I can walk anywhere in the city in less than an hour. We have potted trees spaced out evenly on the walkways. Everything else is a building.

I live in an apartment on the eighth floor with my mom, dad, and brother. It’s 72000 square inches, one of the largest in the building. We have a garden on the roof and a fruit tree spliced with oranges and lemons and limes. I like it when we get to eat exotics. For a class trip, we went to the hydroponics tower. Each floor grows rows and rows of food. It’s where most of our food comes from. There is an enclosed aquarium outside of the dome. Our teachers told us it is filled with tilapia but the water is so murky I couldn’t see them. I hate tilapia. My mom says I have to eat it because it’s the only source of complete protein in my diet.

The outside is so different. Nothing but dirt and sand as far as the eye can see, as barren as the surface of Mars on the outside, judging by the pictures. Sometimes I can’t even see the outside through the thick ozone and methane and hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide haze that hangs over the dome. My teacher says it’s as smoggy as the atmosphere of Titan and just as lethal. Even if you could breathe the atmosphere, the heat would cook you. It might as well be the surface of Venus.

Someday, I will be old enough to walk outside the dome in a spacesuit. I can’t imagine what it would be like to walk for hours and to feel like you are not getting anywhere. Or to look back and see the dome, my whole world, as just a little bubble on the horizon, as I’ve seen in pictures.

It would be awesome if you could visit, but I think you would get bored pretty quickly. And to be quite honest, I think I would rather visit your planet. There just isn’t that much to do or see here on Earth.

The Alien World of Juxta

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Authors Note: I was thinking about something like the planet Juxta for use in a book. I am intrigued by the idea of making reincarnation into a biological function and seeing where it would take me. Then I watched the Netflix series “Alien Worlds” and decided to make a post. If you know the authors of the series, please forward it for an episode in the next season.

Amoebae

In the planet Juxta’s primordial past, Amoeba begat amoeba and amoeba ate amoeba in a never-ending cycle of birth and life and death on the bipolar planet. In the burning season, when Juxta was at its short but scalding perihelion within a half astronomical unit of its sun, all the amoebae dove deep into the soil to escape from the oven-baked surface crusted like a burnt loaf of bread. The oceans boiled and filled the skies with a Venusian-like blanket of steam and clouds smothering the planet in its supersaturated embrace. The tidal forces of the nearby sun activated the interior and the planet reshaped itself with volcanoes and plate movements. Amoeba begat amoeba and amoeba ate amoeba in the depths of the ground of Juxta.

Juxta moved quickly in its orbit when close to the sun heeding Kepler’s law of equal area in equal time. As Juxta retreated from the sun into the recesses of its solar system, the skies poured back into the ocean during the flooding season, eroding and sculpting and shedding the heat of the burning season out into space. The amoebae emerged from their hiding in the dark polar corners of the spherical planet to move about Juxta’s reemerging oceans and rivers and lands. Amoeba begat amoeba and amoeba ate amoeba in the surging waters of the regenerating planet.

In the slushy season with the sun fading to dim light in the distance, the planet turned cool and snow formed first at its poles. The icy polar tentacles of each pole reached toward one another like the magnetic lines formed by iron filings in a dipolar magnetic field. The migration of the amoebas began. Amoeba begat amoeba and amoeba ate amoeba on the great migration running from the icy polar regions to the fading warmth of the temperate zones and on toward the tropical, equatorial belt.

In the icy season of aphelion, when the planet’s orbit reached over 30 A.U. from the sun, reducing its image to nothing more than a pinprick in the distance, Juxta turned into a giant snowball. Some amoeba took time out from the endless cycle of begetting and feasting, hibernating as icy crystals. The creatures that remained behind thrived when free of predators for a brief while and proliferated before entering a hibernation of sorts by dehydrating their cells and using an anti-freeze molecule to survive the long cold winter on the surface. Others begat and ate in the depths of the great ocean as all the mobile amoebae migrated to the fissures where the earth had ruptured and renewed during the tectonics of the burning season to survive the long cold winter. Tardigrades.

During the melting season came the great thaw. Juxta shook its snowy and icy coat showing small patches of growing earth that merged into larger patches like a molting Arctic creature piecemeal-shedding trading its white coat for a dark one during the summer. The thin belt of color at the equator grew to a double patty thick sandwich with polar ice buns and finally disappeared leaving a sparkling blue and brown planet. Amoebae migrated back to their warming poles and hibernating amoebae resurrected from their crystalline slumbers. Amoeba begat amoeba and amoeba ate amoeba on the great dispersion from the vented tropical regions to the once again temperate latitudes and ice-free poles.

During the dry season, the sun grew larger and Juxta warmed with each passing day. Snow-capped mountains lost their white peaks. Rivers and lakes dried. The amoebae sought out shade and shelter in North facing slopes and in deep waters and in caves. Amoeba begat amoeba and amoeba ate amoeba, but mostly ate, as they aggregated and fought to follow the vanishing waters deep into the aquifers and underground rivers and lakes of the polar regions. And so it went for eons. The year and the seasons repeated in a never-ending cycle of hot and cold, steam and water and ice, and birth and death.

Evolution

A billion years passed. And then another. During the Cambrian explosion of Juxta, amoebae and their kin learned to coalesce into aggregate organisms improving their chances of survival over their unallied adversaries, but the only way to survive the burning season was to decompose from their multi-cellular patterns back into their singular cellular selves and dive deep down into the earthen safety of the interior. Slime Molds

When the amoebae emerged from their singular cell sequestration during the flooding season, they would re-aggregate into their colonial selves. The amoebae learned to send chemical messages to other amoebae and those messages differentiated one group from another so that amoebae sorted themselves out into species of amoebae that cooperated and competed in a primeval-soup ecosystem of complex amoebal forms. Amoebal species learned to cooperate with other amoebal species forming more composite species with each colonial form learning to specialize in function like the organs of a complex organism. The patterns of the amoebae become something greater than the amoebae, themselves. An ecosystem and an evolution of cooperating and completing composite species evolved into ever more complex forms convergent with forms one might recognize on Earth. Lichens

The amoebal signaling message of an individual cell was passed from generation to generation. It grew sophisticated enough to remember the same single-celled creatures or their ancestors after the transition of the burning season to create and recreate individuals so they could disassemble and reassemble back into their former selves without chaos and formlessness. And so after each burning season, individuals reincarnated back into their own clones, transcending body and form and season and climate and the harshness of the heat of the burning season, although variation was always inevitable depending on the fortunes and misfortunes of each of its single-celled lives. During the cold and dim icy season, species learned to migrate to their ancestral underwater mounts like salmon returning to the creek of their birth and mostly for the same reasons, though certainly not to die. The emergent creatures engaged in a reproductive process at the level of the aggregated individuals. During sex, two compatible partners would completely dissociate into their amoebal constituents. Each and every amoeba in the pair would replicate. One set of the replicated amoebae would recombine with the partner’s set of replicated amoeba to form two new individuals with new combinations of their parent’s patterns and memories. The original set of individuals would reassemble into their original selves, the whole process as a strange form of cloning and sex passing on new mixes of pattern and meme to the fully grown offspring.

The composite amoebal brain learned to encode the patterns of ultra-long term memories in the replication molecules of the individual amoeba so the memory of patterns and the pattern of memories would be passed from one generation of the individual to the next. Memes and genes encoded together. Memories or fragments of memories would be passed from one generation to the next both surviving the amoebal isolation of the burning season when amoeba begat amoeba and the icy season when partners begat partners.

Culture and memory and generation and year became one and the same driving the evolution of Juxta forward through eon and era, playing out over time like a film of Juxta natural history viewed one frame at a time.

A Year

Life adapted to the bizarre seasons and climate and year of Juxta. Complex species, though more accurately described as recurring patterns of interactions between amoeba and other protists, emerged from the fitness functions of cooperation and competition.

After the scorching of the burning season, and as the clouds finished the worst of pouring themselves back into the oceans, the amoebae emerged from the single-celled safety of the deep ground of each pole, sending out cell-smell messages to find their kin and bodily neighbors, of their previous incarnation. As the torrents of rain and flood subsided, the surviving protists reassembled themselves into goo and then back into a facsimile of the creature it once was, filling in missing pieces with redundant cellular replications if necessary to re-instantiate itself, the whole becoming much more than the sum of its parts.

The creature looked about and others like it looked upon him, new yet not, in a new incarnation of itself. The creature found plentiful food in the other creatures it dominated, which had the misfortune of reassembling near its hungry and bellowing stomach. The creature hunted and foraged happily and successfully with its comrades, though even apex predators sometimes fall prey to disease, parasites, other predators, or just bad luck.

The weather turned cool. The creature and its clan undertook the mass migration from the poles to the equators always staying ahead of the worst of the weather. Snow began to fall at the poles and ice appeared on the surface of calm waters. The chill triggered instinctual memories and even distinct memories of past migrations in its previous incarnations. Mobile creatures of all types migrated from the poles toward the equator and from the lands to the sea.

As the long winter fell and the sun looked like nothing but a bright dot in the distance, the creature’s protists reorganized itself to form gills and webs and a bioluminescent organ used as both a lure for prey and a method of communication with the members of its clan like a lifecycle-confused amphibian. It entered the ocean and swam to the spot of its birth, migrating to underwater heat vents like a salmon returning to the spawning grounds of its birth, feeding and growing on the concentrations of life at the vent. Great Animal Migrations The clan aggregated with other clans into an underwater city of aquaculture and society.

When the time was right, the creature sought out and competed for a compatible and willing mate. When the courtship succeeded and a partner was found, the pair engaged in something that we would call sex in the safety of private corners of an underwater nook but would not recognize as such. At the height of mutual orgasm, the constituent protists of each individual released the hold of one another dissolving into an amoebal solution. Each amoeba divided and replicated itself so the organism was at once itself and a clone. One copy of the clone intermingled with one of its partner’s copies, exchanging compatible protists in the process. When the moment of orgasm passed, the protists reassembled themselves such that four individuals now stood where there were once two, two identical as the original and two mixed into something new. The new individuals held mixed memories and features of the two originals after the biological exchange of form and culture.

You may find it difficult to call a full-grown, mentally ready creature your child, but the new mixes would need time to learn their new bodies and adapt to their new memories, having only a half-intimacy of both their parents that could prove both enlightening and uncomfortable to all concerned.

When the smells of the long winter were replaced by the smells of the thawing waters, and the creatures of all species began the reverse migration, a dispersal back to the land and then outward to the poles following the thaw both north and south, the creature and its clan swam back to the land, surrendered their aquatic forms, and began the long walk back to the pole following the warming weather.

When the land dried and the oceans shrank into the clouds and the creatures had long resettled into their polar homes, the creature dissolved itself into a pile of goo which then disbanded, its constituent protists diving deep into the earth as single-celled creatures struggling to survive and thrive to start anew in the next generation.

Authors Addendum: Do you think it would make a good episode? A good backdrop for a book? Let me know. author.mike.angel@gmail.com.

Weapon System Earth

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Author’s Note: An Homage to Star Trek: Next Generation. Sorry about the #2, I just couldn’t resist the second-grade humor.

“Away team to the ready room for a debrief.”

The team follows the Captain into his ready room. Each sits in the seat befitting their rank, the Captain at the head of the table.

The Captain turns to #1, who lead the away team. “Report. What did you find?”

“The entire planet has been weaponized. The planet has an incredibly sophisticated sensor net capable of detecting any military movement on the surface, in the atmosphere, and to a limited extent, the exosphere. The sensor net is interconnected in a global network capable of relaying data to any of its command posts in seconds. The network also interconnects to a quite deadly actuator system for the launch of an assortment of fissile and fusile weapons.”

“So the whole planet is a giant weapon system?”

“Yes sir.”

“Anything else?”

“The network generates petabytes of information. They use AIs to process the data for threats and response selection. It is doubtful that we could overload the system.”

“Impressive. The recon reports did not indicate such advanced technology. Do you recommend first contact with the Earth?”

The officers look at one another but none takes the initiative to respond.

“Why the hesitation. From your report, it seems pretty cut and dry.”

Again the officers look at one another and back at the commander without responding.

“#1, I want your recommendation, now. Do we abort the mission?” the Captain demands.

#1 responds without hesitation to the direct order, “I recommend for intervention, not abort.”

“Intervention? Explain yourself.”

“Well, despite the sophistication of their weaponized planet, the weapons aren’t pointed against a potential planetary invader. All the weapons are pointed back at the planet itself. The whole planet is jury-rigged like a floor full of mouse traps. If one goes off, it would basically trigger the destruction of the whole planet.”

The captain squints his eyes and shakes his head to work through his incredulity. “What kind of weapon system points at itself?”

#2 speaks. “My team has a hypothesis, sir.”

#2 clears his throat and continues, “We believe it’s a self-destruct mechanism built because the natives would prefer to destroy their planet before enduring alien rule, just like the self-destruct mechanisms we have on the ship to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.”

“But the whole planet? We would sacrifice to keep others out of danger. If they kill everyone, what’s the point. It is just suicide.”

“Yes, sir. That is what we believe. They prefer suicide to subjugation.”

“It would seem prudent to abort then. #1, why then did you recommend deferral? Do you concur with #2’s assessment?”

“No sir.”

“Do you have an alternate hypothesis to propose?”

“Yes sir. I think the Earth suffers from some sort of schizophrenic paranoia affecting all of its inhabitants. Or perhaps an autoimmune deficiency causing the planetary immune system to turn on itself. In either case, it would be our ethical duty to conduct an intervention and provide treatment.”

“True,” says the Ethics officer.

The captain turns to the Exopsychologist and asks, “Exopsychologist. What is your assessment of the mental health of the planet?”

“I believe that #1’s diagnosis of schizophrenic paranoia is essentially correct, although I think the underlying cause is somewhat more nuanced. Despite, their advanced weapon system technology, the population has not yet developed a planetary consciousness. At this point, it does not think like a planet. It does not think like a coherent individual. This planet has grown up as an orphan without either the discipline or love of a parent civilization. You won’t be able to reason with it. You will have to treat it like you are the parent, and it, your unruly, spoiled child.”

“Indeed. The problem is the weapons. Security officer. Do we have the firepower to deter an incident?”

The weapons officer responds, “No sir. By our estimates, there is enough firepower for the planet to destroy itself ten times over within thirty minutes of initiation. We have enough firepower to stop at most 20% of the firepower within our line of sight. Any pre-emptive strike would likely trigger an unstoppable incident.”

The captain grimaces, not happy with any of his options.

The crew waits.

Finally, #1 breaks the silence. “Your decision, sir?”

“Stand down. We will return to base and report the situation to senior management. If they choose to come back with the necessary firepower, we come back and intervene.

“Ethics officer. Do you authorize this course of action?”

“Yes, sir. I think it is the best we can do under the circumstances. Just hope they don’t blow themselves out of the galaxy before they figure it out or before we return.”

The captain stands at attention and straightens out his uniform. “Back to stations.”

The crew and the captain exit the ready room and return to their stations.

The captain sits at the helm and orders, “Plot coordinates for station Sano 1.”

The navigation officer responds, “Coordinates plotted, sir.”

“Engage.”

Needomaniac

Reading Time: < 1 minute

needomaniac: a person or thing that requires excessive attention but can never be truly fixed or satisfied.

Every item,
is an ocean of need.
A nymphomaniac,
of infinite greed.
A ravenous hog,
you constantly feed.
Always demanding,
your time it bleeds.
Doing nothing,
still has a fee.
Filling your mind,
like a strangling weed.
Let me leave you,
with this little creed.
The item to tend,
is your sanity.

Hug a Zombie

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Author Note: It is a satire, just a satire. More than anything, I want to introduce the idea of digital distancing, maybe the start of my own little Meme. I swear, I tested positive for anti-memes.

So far, scientists have more questions than answers. Here is what they know so far.

ZVoid-21 is the first biodigital virus ever discovered. It is transmitted primarily through memes and social media directly into the brain stem of its victims. The virus immediately affects the production of neurological transmitters. Serotonin production is reduced resulting in OCD-like behavior. You may notice the affected individual begin to incessantly forward meaningless memes to everyone they have social media contact with. The biovirus also induces a dopamine dependency that seems to only be satisfied by immediate and continual likes in response to the sending of the meme.

In the second stage of infection, the biodigital virus attacks the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain. Victims begin experiencing emotional outbursts, pounding excessively at their keyboards, and even verbally attacking individuals that fail to validate their entries. In some victims, the biovirus attacks the hippocampus. Victims begin to experience selective memory tending to only remember things that support their pre-infected dispositions.

In the final zomboid stages of infection, higher functions in the pre-frontal cortex shut down. In this stage, victims become completely withdrawn from their physical social surroundings. While they sit at tables with others, their heads seldom lift from their digital media. The affected individual seems to lose all sense of awareness as a biological entity. Lab studies have shown that the removal of social media at this point results in complete withdrawal or violent attacks to the point of eating their antagonists as you may have seen on the news clips.

Zombies cluster in groups with similar pre-dispositions. Unless provoked as previously mentioned, they seem to be more dangerous to other groups of zombies with dissimilar dispositions than towards the unaffected. Pre-industrial communities have developed no cases of ZVoid-21 nor have they been attacked by any of the affected. The only known attempted attacks on the unaffected occurred during an organized zombie campaign in all the major cities. Fortunately, within an hour, all of the zomboid protesters stopped to post selfies of themselves disrupting the coherence of the event. The only damage occurred to social media servers trying to absorb the massive viral load of selfies and nascent memes.

The only defense against the biodigital virus that has shown any effectiveness so far is digital distancing. All anti-meme inoculations and remedies have so far proved ineffective.

For those who might be asymptomatic, the CBDDC, the Center for Biodigital Disease Control recommends turning off all digital media whenever possible and spending more biotime with your friends and family, gradually extending your digital distancing time into bio-only holidays and vacations.

For those with early symptoms of ZVoid-21, the CBDDC recommends slowly increasing your time between posts and checking for likes. The idea is to slowly reduce your need for immediate gratification and validation with the goal of learning to live with deferred and even withheld stimulus from your friends and followers. The fear of uncertainty in relations and social status is the leading indicator of susceptibility to the disease. A CBDDC spokesperson suggests practicing techniques of manifesting mindfulness and confidence as successfully used in pre-digital times until an effective ZVoid-21 vaccine can be found. They also strongly suggest visiting natural environments with the recommendation that you turn off your alerts, turn on your DND sign, go into airplane mode, and leave the earpods in their case.

Many argue that it is just people living. Epidemiologists who proactively encourage digital distancing are at odds with economists who argue that such behavior will bring the attention economy and ultimately the real economy to its knees. Both groups argue that any sign of intelligence is completely asymptomatic in the other. Social media sites argue that global interconnectedness and the overthrow of hierarchical control systems are far more important than the mostly benign symptoms of most cases of ZVoid-21. 

But that is little consolation to parents who have infected their children, to the scores of friends lost to dings and little red hearts, and to unfathomable petabytes of banal information that threaten to overwhelm the fabric of our society.

As of this writing, there is no known cure and none forthcoming. Until there is, stay safe, digitally distance, and try not to be miserable. Hug a zombie (but don’t take his digital media if you don’t want to become a snack). Who knows, it may help.