This collection of 'ten-minute' stories are the perfect length for your commute or a thoughtful cup of coffee:
The future is ours and it's up for grabs...
Immerse yourself in the future of biohacking and implants, genetic modification, blockchain micro-transactions and futuristic dating-apps with author of 'Eating Robots', Stephen Oram.
Prodding and poking the possible, Oram starts with another flash fiction foray into the world of Unified Sentience and ends with virtual reality for babies and biohacked fish.
With sharpness and wit, these sci-fi shorts will grab your imagination and refuse to let go.
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BIOHACKED & BEGGING
I'm trapped inside my head.
They said it would be like heaven, this Unified Sentience. No more speaking, just thinking. They said that sharing each other's thoughts would be the final step for humanity, the moment when true empathy was born. So, why am I sitting here on the street staring at the legs of passers-by begging for attention? Look at my skin. Dry, grey and cracked. Can you believe they genetically modified us to deteriorate when we lack flesh-on-flesh with other humans? It's for our own good, so they say. It stops us hiding our loneliness. I mean, what would happen with no physical contact? A mental meltdown? Well, that's the threat.
I immersed myself in this Unified Sentience once and the cacophony of crap that invaded my mind was crippling. I couldn't cope. In fact, I didn't want to cope. The tedious barrage of other people's thoughts was hell, not heaven. I'm not religious by the way, but these are the terms that come to mind. They promised a land of harmony and gave us a life of achingly boring noise. Come on, join in. Don't you dare withdraw; we'll redesign your body to make sure.
It was bad enough when we had the tech rammed into our brains. You will listen to each other. You will empathise. We soon hacked that. Turned it off or at least turned it down, but no longer. This ability to know each other's feelings and thoughts is now a part of my humanity, no longer tech. Great. We evolved. It's become an innate biological ability and it's a nightmare. There's no switching it off. You can only resist. And I do.
Day after day after day I come and sit on this same street corner. I hold out my hands, begging to be touched. I don't need them to look. I don't want them to connect, and I push them away with a torrent of nasty thoughts when they try. They back off soon enough.
They see my skin. They know I need flesh-on-flesh. A few brief moments and I'll last another day or so. It doesn't take much. The trouble is, they can smell the desperation. I can feel it in my head as they come near. Superficial hypocrites, emanating good thoughts about how nice the street is, the bountiful shops and their wonderful lives while hiding an undercurrent of sadness and loneliness buried beneath the trivial happiness they layer on in thick dollops. None of that alters the fact that I'm sitting here with my hands open and my sleeves rolled up.
Nothing. I've been here for hours and nothing.
A couple of children have veered towards me with warm thoughts of kindness and sympathy. Their parents grabbed them and walked a little faster to get away. They know what I need. A simple touch would help. They're scared of being infected by whatever it is that's dragged me down, petrified to let me into their heads. Not that I want to be in their heads or have them in mine. Absolutely not.
I shift position and the skin on my legs scrapes on the rough pavement. The pain is excruciating.
A woman kneels in front of me and grabs both of my hands. She feels my pain. She knows about Tim. I feel it in her too, the loss of a child, the ripping of life from where it belongs. We connect. She glances over her shoulder at her companion. A wave of their mutual love rolls over me and I feel my skin get a little softer. Without thinking, I send a pulse of gratitude back her way and she cups my face with both hands. Her companion wants to hug her to express admiration, but the woman won't allow it. Instead, she channels the admiration from her companion to me.
I feel lighter. I feel wanted. I want to feel. My hostility trickles away. I don't want anyone crawling around inside my head. That's not what I'm after. I want ... I want ... I don't know what I want.
They link arms and continue their journey, touching others as they go, brushing their flesh against the flesh of their fellow humans.
Fleetingly, a man places his hand on my palm and my skin heals a little more. A child touches my arm with the tip of her finger and her mother doesn't stop her. I feel warm and fuzzy.
I don't want them inside my head. Not yet. Not for a long while yet.
Another touch. And another. And another. It's as if someone has turned on the tap and I'm sitting under a waterfall of goodness. A boy strokes my arm repeatedly while his father watches from a distance, sending waves of encouragement to me and his son. My skin is changing colour, becoming silver. I close my eyes and let him stroke. He's not my son, but ... I can dream, can't I? You'll allow me a small moment of relief, won't you?
I feel his father step closer. I know his thoughts. Yes. Yes you can, if that's what you need.CHAPTER 2
Mr Enhancement hands his white dress shirt to his assistant and flexes his back muscles. Two long lines of ears that snake their way down either side of his spine wiggle in time to the tightening and loosening of his body. His spine of ears broadcast the snap snap snap of his clicking fingers and the audience are enchanted. With remarkable dexterity, he runs his hands up and down his arched back and the crowd gasps at the horrific noise of hand on ear. Up and down he rustles; more and more they wince. He clicks a final click and then silence. His silence. Their silence.
He leans over his shoulder, smacks his lips in a kiss and they cheer. With one almighty leap he's halfway up the ladder to the tightrope. A second leap and he's there, clapping his hands behind his head for all his ears to hear.
One careful step at a time he edges out along the rope, balanced only by his outstretched arms. There's nothing between him and the adoring crowd below. He jumps, twists and lands facing the way he came. They roar.
He dislocates his arm and stretches awkwardly to stroke his spine of earlobes. The soothing sound calms the crowd and they fall quiet. Stroking. Kissing. He has them hypnotised.
There's a piercing crack as he tears his arm from its socket and throws it at them. Some laugh, most scream. He tears off the other arm with his teeth and casts it towards a different part of the crowd.
As he steps on to the ladder, he kicks them his left leg and hops to the ground where he bows until his back is parallel with the floor. Rapturous applause ripples along his exposed ears and the sheer force of appreciation reverberates around the arena.
His assistant clicks Mr Enhancement's limbs back into place and Mr Enhancement gives the crowd one last loud kiss over his shoulder before sauntering away waving his shirt in the air.CHAPTER 3
'Alexa. Who is the most popular person in the world?' asked Nicole, even though she knew how her resident bot would respond because she was and had been for the past few years.
As she rubbed her daily dose of face cream into her skin, she cringed at how old and wrinkled she'd become. Thank goodness she didn't have to show her face to her public any more, one of the great things about being a social media star.
The blue ring around the top of the bot lit up. 'Gamila is the most popular person in the world.'
Slowly, Nicole screwed the lid on to the pot of cream and placed it on the shelf. This was a moment she had prepared for many times over the years, the moment when someone else became more popular than her.
'Alexa. Show me Gamila.'
A hologram of a young, dark-haired woman stared back at her from behind a posy of wild flowers.
'Alexa, find her location. I am going out.'
With a scarf wrapped around her face, Nicole ventured out into the night. It was an unfamiliar feeling, to be among people, and one she'd avoided as much as she could. Another reason to hate the young imposter, Gamila. 'Alexa,' she said to the microphone built into the hood of her coat, 'tell me where to find her.'
Alexa guided her through the streets until she could see the young Gamila sitting in the window of an upmarket restaurant surrounded by fans taking selfies. The perfect set-up for what Nicole had in mind.
Inside, the crowds made her even more uncomfortable. She pulled down her hood and unwrapped the scarf, hoping that the restaurant cameras were less sophisticated than the CCTV on the streets and wouldn't be able to match her as she was now to the old photos online. Step by step she got closer to Gamila, taking her time and making sure she didn't attract any attention that would result in being ejected from the establishment.
'Hi,' said Gamila as Nicole got to the front of the queue. 'A photo for your grandchildren?'
'Something like that,' said Nicole. She leant forward and put her arm around Gamila's waist. As she snapped the selfie, she injected Gamila with a needle so fine she didn't notice.
'Thanks,' said Nicole, and then she left the restaurant as fast as she could without looking suspicious.
Back in the safety and the comfort of home, she relaxed on her favourite leather sofa with a glass of Alcosynth.
The fun was about to begin.
'Alexa, show me Gamila's feed.'
The last entry was from four hours ago – a long time in the world of social media celebrity, especially since automated accounts had been made illegal. This was an era when you had to post for yourself or not at all.
Gamila had stopped. No warning or explanation.
There was considerable speculation about what had happened, with many commentators pretending to have the inside knowledge. But none of them were right.
That pinprick had sent microscopic nanobots into Gamila's bloodstream which had activated once she'd arrived at the specified location: her home. Nanobots designed to crawl around her body and gradually close it down, leaving her in a state of deep hibernation from which only Nicole could wake her.
'Alexa. Who is the most popular person in the world?'
'You are.'CHAPTER 4
The two presidents swaggered into the glass dome, one from either side.
The crowd, citizens from each empire separated by a transparent metal partition, cheered and jeered in equal measure.
President Putin waved a photo of her great-grandfather in the air and President Trump held the photo of his great-grandfather against his chest. Photos of the presidents who simultaneously, and some said with prior agreement, had made their positions hereditary.
Larisa scratched her nose, something she did when she was excited or scared. She was both. Tickets had been really hard to come by and she was ridiculously excited, but every time she pictured telling her baby son that she'd been at this momentous event, in person, she was hit by the fear that the world might not survive long enough for him to hear the story.
The presidents ceremoniously bowed and took off their shirts. They sat and stared at each other across the table with their skin glistening from the sweat of being fully pumped with enhancements and implants.
The psychological build-up to the negotiations had begun. There was a lot at stake. Energy resources were low and both empires wanted control of what little was left, either to sell at crippling prices or to hoard for their own. The fate of millions of citizens depended on these two champions and whether they could negotiate a solution. Alternatively, if their desire for global domination took over, a winner would have to be decided through a series of challenges set by the resident AI.
President Trump slammed his fist down and snarled at his enemy who, if the rumours were true, was his half-sister. President Putin smiled back with the characteristic twinkle in her eye that Larisa loved. Elbows were placed firmly on the table and they locked hands. The crowd erupted with applause; the warm-up rituals had begun.
Off to the side, tech teams moved sliders up and down to adjust the implants inside their champion's body. Enhancements that were limited to the rich and powerful.
The traditional handclap began slowly, gradually picking up pace until Putin slammed her opponent's arm on to the table for the third time. She'd won.
The surface of the table displayed what seemed to be two random sets of different coloured shapes, a puzzle. The tech guys went crazy, shifting the focus of the enhancements from physical to mental. Immediately, Putin started shuffling her pieces around with phenomenal speed and dexterity, glancing across to her tech guys every few seconds. Her citizens were whooping with joy. Larisa felt the bitter pleasure of being on the winning side. Sweat poured down Trump's face and the veins in his forehead were enlarged. His citizens were silent. He seemed confused, frozen as if he'd been paused. And then a grin appeared and his tech guys relaxed. Something had clicked. With a calmness that was starkly at odds with the topless sweaty president of the arm-wrestling, he moved his pieces with precision. An engineering diagram of an earpiece took shape. Cleverly, the AI had chosen something pertinent. It was the negotiator's number one tool – a nifty little device that instantly translated one spoken language to another. Essential, since each president had made a conscious and public decision not to learn the other's language.
A facilitator strolled across to the table and put an identical earpiece in the left ear of each president.
Putin opened the negotiations by punching the air and shouting.
Larisa couldn't lip-read and only the approved commentators were allowed to listen in, broadcasting their interpretation to the crowd through the official headphones. She tuned into Putin's channel. The commentator was spouting the usual drivel they resorted to when there was nothing to say, repeating the inevitable name-calling and self-congratulatory nonsense.
Her attention drifted, searching the crowd for anyone she recognised or fancied.
Suddenly, the audience became agitated as the channels fizzed with the rapid-fire chatter of excited commentators. 'Unbelievable. Trump has the audacity to threaten to alter the weather and dry up our rivers. That's an act of old-fashioned war, surely?'
Putin raised her finger slowly, pointing at Trump's forehead. Larisa switched channel. 'She's reminding him they still have the old weapons, threatening to use them unless we sell them our wave energy at a reasonable price.' Putin mimicked the firing of a gun. 'And I quote,' said the commentator, 'comply, or we eradicate your citizens in a cloud of radiation.'
Larisa sat back, deflated. She'd hoped for more, hoped for at least an attempt to find a solution. She blinked rapidly to activate her lenses and tapped her wedding ring so it displayed a live hologram of her baby son at home, gurgling and without a care in the world. The poisonous commentary from her headphones made her feel sick so she switched them off and focussed on her baby. So cute. She wiggled her finger and he rolled around as if he was being tickled. Everyday life. Family. That's what mattered. Just as she was wondering if she should call it a day and go home, the crowd gasped. She looked up. Both presidents were serious and thoughtful.
She tuned in. 'I can't say for certain, but even with my limited understanding, I'd say it's faulty. It's not translating exactly what's being said. But hey, look at the result. They're compromising.'
She switched channels. 'This is a new angle from Trump. One that President Putin can work with. I've no idea what brought this on. It's transformative.'
Stillness settled across the crowd. What was happening? Neither commentator seemed to know. And the commentator who had spotted the faulty translations was saying they'd been fixed, but that a corner had been turned and remarkably the negotiations were continuing to be positive. The whole room was in a state of shock, staring at the two presidents shaking hands. Incredible.
A synthesised androgynous voice whispered through her headphones. It was a new voice, not one of the authorised commentators. She listened carefully. 'We are Occupy Babel, hacking for the future of your children.'
She clasped her hands, fiddling with her hologram ring. It seemed too good to be true, but if Occupy Babel were back, there was hope again. She hurried out of the stadium to head home. She had a baby to bring up.CHAPTER 5
I AM BLUE
Arriving long ago from a distant place, I joined your rainbow, watched and waited.
Slipping out from the beautiful arc, I painted your sky and brushed your sea. I brought colour to your lives. Did you notice?
An alien in your midst hoping for contact, yet you ignore me, mix me with others and dilute my soul.
My sadness permeates; you call it the blues.CHAPTER 6
THE ENVOY OF THE ULTIMATE OBSERVER
Dear Ultimate Observer,
I've arrived safely and with little incident along the way.
Unless I hear to the contrary, I will investigate as usual and inform you of my opinion on the viability of this particular universe.
Unlike you, they are bound by linear time and organise their calendars in a way that closely aligns with the phases of their satellite moon, but not quite. That might be an indication of a dysfunctional need to try and tame nature or it might be a sign of a sophisticated understanding of your essence – that's something for me to determine while I'm here.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Biohacked & Begging"
Copyright © 2019 Stephen Oram.
Excerpted by permission of SilverWood Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Christine Aicardi 9
Biohacked & Begging 13
Mr Enhancement 16
Dormant Status 18
Pumped-Up Presidents 20
I Am Blue 24
The Envoy of the Ultimate Observer 25
Effort Less 56
Syrup and Cigarettes 63
Capitalist Crumbs 67
The Queen’s Heart 71
Zygosity Saves the Day 76
Modified Manhood 81
Kept Apart 85
From Dust to Digital and Back 90
The Cathedral of Cows 93
Connections Count 101
The Never-Ending Nanobot Nectar 124
The Potential 127
Happy Forever Day 130
Mr Lindberg 133
The Blockchain Blues 137
Come Closer, Come Under My Skin 140
Placodermi Protection 157
RESPONSES FROM THE EXPERTS 159
ALSO BY STEPHEN ORAM 165