‘She who laughs at the flames’

She who stood steadfast against the wrath of pithy tyrants. She held her ground even when they were giants. In both word and deed, she always took a stand. A lady prepared will have a master plan.

She who cast caution to a rudderless wind. Never looking backward for an excuse to defend. Drawing inspiration from the whimsical and mundane. The compartments of her life, were like cars on a train.

She who dared laugh at perdition’s eternal flame. Not once did she fear when it called her by name. Death nor damnation, couldn’t break her iron will. Unrepentant to the last, hell never brought her to heel.

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‘The coupon’

Theirs was a typical relationship. For the first few years the two were completely inseparable. He couldn’t stop thinking about her. She treated him like a proverbial king. They were so emotionally connected that they finished each other’s sentences but after their five year anniversary, the ‘love’ endorphins greatly dissipated. The admiration and mutual respect were still in abundance but it was definitely different from that point on. Though solid, the relationship was on a slightly downward arc.

There were no specific reasons for it. They didn’t fight or argue. It was just a naturally-occurring decline in carnal attraction. The downside to knowing your partner so well is that everything they do becomes very familiar. There were no surprises anymore. She knew all of his rituals and he knew her routines. Life and ordinary complacency got in the way of maintaining their initial spark.

Suddenly her cute quirks were no longer endearing. They grated on his nerves and it was exactly the same for her. His personality was annoying at times. Anyone observing them might have marveled at how the same traits went from cherished to aggravating in just a few years. It was just human nature. We become desensitized to the same old thing, no matter how amazing it might have seemed before.

This static trend continued for a few more years. She wanted more and more time to ‘find herself’. His company in and out of the bedroom was less desired; and he was hurt by that ongoing physical rejection. It was the first marriage for both so they had no frame of reference to gauge their perspectives against a previous relationship. At different times they both assumed it just reflected a normal couple’s growth. Even if that so-called ‘growth’ was expanding in opposite directions.

In the next few years, they had a handful of very heated arguments. It was never physical but there was definitely some simmering animosity and resentment below the surface. Their philosophical disagreements grew broader. Not surprisingly, their intimate relationship also dwindled to smoldering ashes. Despite these personal woes, they excelled in their professional lives. They acquired a very nice home and many desirable possessions in the trade-off. It was perhaps the complicated financial entanglements which kept them together during this difficult phase.

Near the eve of the holidays, he fretted over what to buy for her. He had to settle on a gift card from her favorite store. In the beginning of the relationship, he knew exactly what she desired but the further they drew apart, the more private and secretive she became. All the personal ‘space’ she used to find herself, was also a distance buffer away from him. His gift card idea was uninspired and boring but at least it insured she could get what she really wanted. It was the ‘safe bet’. She opened it up and couldn’t even feign enthusiasm. A sigh of disgust escaped her lips. He threw up his arms in frustrated surrender. He was officially out of patience.

In her hands she held his gift. The small box was expertly wrapped and topped with an ornate bow. He was filled with a sense of dread. It clearly wasn’t large enough to contain what he really wanted and he didn’t want to cause any more of a rift between them. If it was possible, he was even less of an actor than she was. He couldn’t even begin to fake his true feelings; even to prevent a fight. He pulled at the ribbon slowly. The bow unraveled and fell to the floor. As he pulled the lid off the box, he tried to prepare for whatever was inside. Instead of an electronic gadget that he expected, there was only a single piece of paper in the bottom. It wasn’t even as thick as a gift card. He nervously reached inside to retrieve it.

In bold lettering it read: “The bearer of this coupon is entitled to one (1) no-strings-attached, sexual encounter with the person of his choice. There will be absolutely no repercussions from his spouse.”

As she stood in front of him, he read the card a half dozen times to make sure he read it correctly. His initial reaction was that of confusion. Then doubt. The whole thing stunk of a cunning trap, or a cringeworthy joke. On the back of the embossed card was a clever, very relevant footnote.

“No, it’s not a ‘trap’. I promise.”

“That’s the very sort of thing that a wife’s ‘gotcha’ trap would proclaim.”; He thought in amusement to himself. He made brief eye contact with her for the first time since reading the bizarre coupon. She wasn’t smiling. She looked dead serious. Was she gauging his reaction to the one-time ‘infidelity coupon offer’, or just trying to reassure him it was really ok to use it. He couldn’t decide.

“Is this some sort of joke, or test?”; He stammered. She shook her head slowly from side to side. There was no hint of amusement on her lips. It was apparently a serious offer. His mind began to wander at the unlikely possibilities. If it really was a serious proposition, who would he choose? There were several ladies who had caught his eyes over the years but that would only open up another can of worms.

Then as logic returned to his brain, he began to question the real reason for this unusual ‘gift’. Why would she offer to let him have an unanswered dalliance? It was more than just a little bit suspicious. People generally only display that level of unjealous ‘generosity’ when they had already taken a turn on the infidelity merry-go-round, themselves. It was almost as if she was trying to assuage her own guilty conscience. His mind reeled at the terrifying possibility. Rage, fear, suspicion, and disgust coursed through his veins. As much as it pained him to visualize, it would make sense and explain a great deal about their strained relationship. Regardless, he dared not ask ‘that’ question. He wasn’t sure if he could handle the answer. Instead he just stood looking downward with mouth agape.

She spoke, to break the pregnant pause. “I know what you’re thinking. No one else in the world knows you as well as I do. I’ve already went through those same dark emotions. Many, many times, I’ve anticipated your unspoken questions about the coupon. I’ve also imagined how you would respond, if the situation was reversed. No, it’s not a joke or a trap to see how you would respond. And no, I’ve never been unfaithful to you, sweetheart. Our distance in the past few years and my lack of affection is because of my own distractions and personal issues. I’m deeply sorry about the wall I’ve erected around myself. It’s not you. It’s me. Please try to be patient as I slowly remove those bricks, ok? For this reason, I want to offer you some form of… ‘compensation’. All I ask is that you try to avoid an emotional connection with whomever you choose to hand it to.”

Tears of relief welled up in his eyes. He extended his arm and handed her the coupon. It was the best gift he ever received.

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‘The first generation’

In the late 21st century, the human race was at a perilous crossroads. While at its technological zenith, the homo-sapien gene pool had become severely compromised. The reasons mostly fell back to a small number of very preventable factors. There were numerous antibiotic-resistant diseases thriving in the wake of effective treatments. Pollution and deadly carcinogens were rampant in the biosphere. Lastly, there was a long history of failed experimental genetic tampering, to contend with.

All of those serious issues played a significant part in the biological decline and grave threat to the species. Coupled with the inherent risks of homogeneous reproductive trends and a well-meaning but misguided population (who willfully countermanded the ‘survival of the fittest’ maxim), the human race was headed for an irrevocable collapse.

The leader of the international foundation for science and health began a top-secret project. His goal was to squirrel away enough money to start an underground eugenics revolution for the future. Ultimately the mission was to quarantine an entire generation of genetically engineered newborns to be free of the current problems. Phase one was the secure the funds and build an advanced biological facility to grow and protect them.

Phase two would come later when the individuals were conceived and genetically engineered to be free of all known disease and DNA defects. Selected from a stringent list of agreed-upon traits and diverse principles, the ‘first generation’ would represent the finest that man had to offer. There, they would be isolated from the very fragile and flawed creatures that preceded them. They were the future and great effort would be made to avoid contaminating them with current human failures.

It was no small task to hide such an ambitious and controversial project from the public. The risks were great but the director and his small circle of enthusiastic volunteers believed in it. They feared that the growing list of problems would eventually bring about a catastrophic ruin for mankind. ‘The first generation genetic project’ was intended to be an insurance policy, or back-up plan of sorts.

Once the high-tech facility was finished, they formed a committee to discuss the potential issues with making ‘mankind 2.0’. Strict rules and universal bylaws were ironed out. All policies were agreed upon. Infrastructure and long-term plans were set in place. One hundred individuals were created in the lab, from the most genetically perfect DNA available. These biologically diverse children would inherit an advanced set of genes, stripped of all known defects and diseases. Further removing them from the risk of contamination or harm, they were raised in an automated, (otherwise) human-free nursery. They were to be the only living things within their insulated biosphere.

“These ‘first generation’ children will be educated by state-of-the-art computer systems. They will receive four times the personal attention that ordinary children do. They will have a balanced diet of nutritionally sound food and have a mandated exercise regimen to insure they remain physically fit. Our education team have produced an amazing program for them to learn from. They will not have any exposure to viruses or disease. They will not be susceptible to emotional instability. With the positive, bullet-proof world we have made for them, they will be able to focus on building a perfect society for their descendants.”

And so, the first generation grew up in a would-be utopia. They did not want or desire anything. They had no knowledge of the troubled, outside world. Project caretakers observed their progress through one way viewing screens. In the isolated biosphere, the one hundred growing individuals lived, just as they were expected to. Oblivious to the external world and their curious audience.

They did not cry because it did no good to cry. There was no soothing mother to nurture them. They did not suffer the pangs of hunger or fear because all of their physical needs were provided for. They were taught compassion and love by their robotic caregivers. In truth, it wasn’t the same as experiencing true tactile feedback from a human being but it was necessary to ensure purity and independence.

Soon, the one hundred engineered infants grew into toddlers. Then into childhood and early adolescence. Once puberty began however, they possessed no organic frame of reference to study or learn from. They didn’t have any older siblings or grown-ups to imitate. It was a pioneering journey for all of them. One that was experienced with the pure, detached logic of a computer.

For one hundred angsty teenagers with a raging set of hormones and no concept of an outside world, it was a particularly difficult time. The boys felt biologically attracted to their female counterparts but the feelings were largely unreturned. As with normal biological development, girls typically develop faster than boys of the same age. The girls had no older boys on the same maturity plane, to gravitate toward.

Understandably, this caused a great deal of physical and sexual stress. At one point, the caretakers feared they might have to intercede. The cybernetic chaperones could do little against the threat of physical altercations. Fortunately, the issue worked itself out, over time. As they grew older, the teenagers developed normal pair-bond relationships. This brought up another aspect of human biology: jealousy and anger.

Regardless of genetic programming or the isolated environment, the first generation was not immune to those negative emotions. The caretakers observed the same primal, unfiltered behavior in the artificial vacuum of the biosphere. It was identical to what mankind had exhibited for thousands of years. Some of the girls would flirt with one boy, just to make another jealous. Some of the boys would try to secretly maintain two different romantic relationships simultaneously. The same behaviors had manifested themselves since the beginning of time.

There were several individuals of both genders who did not locate a significant other. As in any society, there rose an ‘alpha male’ and ‘alpha female’ leader within the population. They were desired by many inside the commune but instead of settling for an unattached mate of lesser status, the less popular individuals just remained alone. It was another lesson in the stubborn nature of human biology. Everyone wanted a ‘winner’.

As nature has a way of doing, 100 soon became 102, 104, and so on. Parenthood inside a closed society wasn’t ideal but the young pioneers adjusted to the challenge reasonably well. There was a remarkable lack of curiosity among themselves about their own mysterious origins. The human race has a tendency to not ponder certain existential questions.

It was the first time any of them had seen infants since they were infants themselves. Being new teen parents came with a steep learning curve. They were young and still growing emotionally. Patience was in short supply at times. The compound library computer offered parenting tips and insight but in the end, they still had to do the work. Meanwhile outside the first generation bubble, the external world grew increasingly frayed. Wars raged. Disease spread. Famine ravaged the weary survivors. Civility and civilization broke down. Somehow during all the chaos, the international foundation for science and health managed to keep their rogue experiment a secret.

Phase three of the project was supposed to occur after the first generation achieved awareness of the outside world. Once they began to naturally question their existence, their caretakers were going to slowly expose them to the truth. It was meant to be a gradual process. Besides the immense shock of learning that they had spent their entire lives quarantined inside a geodesic dome, they had to be inoculated against all the rampant diseases of the external world. It would take some time for them to acclimate to the old world. There was no specific timetable for phase three of the experiment. It was just planned to occur organically.

With time and nature, more of the original 100 became parents. More mouths to feed meant a faster drain on the resources. The food supply was regulated by the compound’s central computer system. It had been programmed to sustain the nutritional needs of one hundred people for at least twenty years. Once both those parameters were significantly exceeded, it became increasingly obvious that food shortages were going to get worse.

As a knee-jerk reaction to those realities, It was only a matter of time before someone said; “What if there is more to the world than we know?” Once that intellectual hurdle was overcome, it emboldened others to explore. Initial claims of an infinitely larger, external world were chastised as heresy. “There is no world but our own!”; The majority decried angrily.

The testimony of subsequent explorers was merely treated with a heavy dose of skepticism. That in itself, was progress. Only with the passing of time and philosophical advancement was the concept of ‘outside’ slowly considered. One of the later explorers was wise enough to bring back photographs to help validate his fantastic claim.

One by one, the frightened inhabitants of the first, second, and third generations of humanity 2.0 crept outside to see the external world for the first time. The bloody wars which destroyed the Earth were long since over. The people who waged them were also gone. Time had healed the scars of what once was. The Earth was new again. The progressive actions of the international foundation for science and health, had saved humanity to start over.

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‘I can see the future’

I can see the future,

by the reflection in your eyes.

We’ll walk hand-in-hand,

together through the lies.

Ignore their distractions;

and never question why.

Once you see my smile,

this truth you can’t deny.

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‘An unfortunate itch’

“The parasites around here have been particularly tenacious lately.” Terra complained to her sunburned next-door-neighbor. “They keep digging beneath my skin and causing ugly infections and rashes! I’ve tried to burn them off of me or wash them away but somehow they always manage to hang on. They are determined to hold on for dear life, aren’t they? All I need is for them to rear even more bloodsucking young to torment me.”

The neighbor nodded in sympathy. “I used to have the same problem. I bet my pest infestation was just as horrible as yours, if not even worse. They crawled all over me as I slept. I’d find them digging into my scalp and building nests. If it wasn’t that, they were buzzing around my head with infuriating frequency and polluting the sky. Finally I’d had enough and managed to get rid of them for good. Now I’m no longer a host to any of those destructive creatures.”

Terra listened politely but sought to object to how simple the neighbor made mass-extermination sound. She chaffed at such a heartless characterization of a species and his glib solution.

“It’s just not that simple for me, though.”; She protested bitterly. “I realize they are destructive pests and do a great deal of harm to me but they are still living creatures. They only want to live and reproduce like any other organism, right? I feel bad when I destroy them. They are just following their predetermined nature. I wish there was a way to communicate with them. Maybe we could find a way to coexist.”

The neighbor looked at her as if she was hopelessly naive. “When you grow tired enough of the irreversible damage they do to your body every day, you’ll take the war against them to the next level.”; He scolded. “It’s the only way to get rid of these leech-like organisms permanently. Otherwise they’ll just keep coming back and continue to live off of your permanent misery. We aren’t any better off with their species in the world. They bring nothing but a pestilence of continued pain and infestation.”

Terra grimaced at Mars’ harsh appraisal. Despite the savagery and indifference of his words toward these primitive creatures, she knew his judgment about them was right. They would continue to attack her relentlessly until she was a nothing but a weakened shell. It had to be done. She released the first of many fierce tropical storms upon them; while simultaneously raining down a purifying fire and a series of global earthquakes. Soon her pockmarked skin and littered landscape would be smooth again and parasite-free.

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‘The nostalgia circuit’

One of the most prized talents of a professional musician is to be able to perform their compositions as close as possible to the original recording. Despite sincere efforts to maintain a constant standard in this area, all of them inadvertently change their songs over time. As they grow older, their voices change, they pronounce lyrics differently, or they are unable to replicate the performance level of their younger selves. It was just a fact of life of growing older until very recently.

This unintended song evolution would continue over time. Eventually the music bore little resemblance to what the audience loved about the original recording. The musical ‘decay’ was a career killer for older music artists. It meant less people in the seats during their nostalgia themed concert tours. To prevent the costly decline in fan interest, the affected performers started using a new memory revitalization technique called ‘Refresh’.

While the futuristic technology was primarily pioneered to help maintain the quality of musical performances, the word got out. it quickly spread to other applications. A brain scanning device was used to locate the oldest memory related to a specific event. Then it was used to overwrite all subsequent reoccurrences of the same information by using the same chemical process our brain uses to remember things.

The idea is that the purest, most accurate version of any memory is the first one. All later recollections related to remembering an original event would reflect a certain level of mental distortion or decay. By replacing all later, imperfect copies of the original knowledge, it helped the entertainers perform the most authentic rendition of their songs.

Naturally, it wasn’t just musical performers who wanted to take advantage of this exciting new technology. Police investigators requested that crime witnesses undergo the procedure. People who wanted to remember their first time with a new lover, or someone who desired to relive a past glory or an academic achievement, were also very common customers of the rising tech company. Any instance where a clearer memory of the past was an advantage, was promoted as an ideal reason to use ‘refresh’. It became known as ‘the nostalgia circuit’ for the clever double meaning behind it. Originally it was intended to improve performances on the rock music nostalgia circuit. Later it came to also include the chemical repair of fading memories

of people in their cerebral ‘nostalgia circuits’.

While it was expensive as first, the price of ‘memory touch-up’ work dropped considerably over time. It became fashionable to have even the most common of memory events ‘refreshed’. No one wanted to be limited by nature’s fragile database. Science could improve on the fading human experience. Why walk around with an incomplete version of one’s last spousal fight? Why have a poor recollection of our tenth birthday party? Eventually, some fastidious people even began to have their last ‘refresh’ session, refreshed.

With human memory being such a tangible, finite thing, it was only a matter of time before the touched up memories themselves started to distort and fade. Maintaining the clearest version of one’s most prized memories became a competitive obsession among the status quo. As in many things, science gets ahead of itself and charges blindly into new medical horizons before knowing what dangers lie over the hill. By the time all the damaging psychological issues of the ‘refresh’ process came to light, almost everyone in the world had been directly affected.

More specifically, there was a troubling issue with its methodology. There was a huge lapse in nostalgia discrimination between full original memories, versus a brief reflection of the same past event. Failing to recognize the significant difference between them caused an accidental, irreversible erasure of more recent, unrelated memories.

If someone thought briefly about a prior refreshed event, the chemical programming would instead replace their abbreviated flashback with the full original memory, in its entirety. In this unfortunate way, many nearby things were accidentally associated and overwritten.

It was similar to the disc storage space that a full length movie would occupy on a hard disc drive. If a ‘find and replace’ computer program incorrectly associated a full film with its much shorter trailer of previews of the same file name, it could accidentally erase and overwrite all instances, up to the normal memory space which the full movie used.

People soon had huge, unrepairable gaps in their everyday memories. Every time they thought about the ‘refreshed’ events, another large chunk of their short-term memory data was lost. That it turn, would trigger them to think much more often of the vivid, full recollections dominating their damaged mind. It was a destructive cycle that got exponentially worse with each parasitic circuit.

The victims of this crippling memory disease only had a handful of remaining memories to dwell on. The average, short-term events of their lives were completely lost. All while the nostalgia circuit played on a monotonous, continuous loop. As promised, they were as pristine and accurate as the first time they were experienced. In the end though, that was of no importance.

The destruction to the human race was absolute and complete. Like a mental virus, it was so embedded into the public consciousness that it was impossible to remove. No one could even remember the ‘refresh’ technology in the first place. The infantile survivors drifted around helplessly. They were incapable of making new memories or forming lucid thoughts. One technological scientific advancement had set the human race back more than one hundred thousand years in evolution.

Only the remaining children too young for the nostalgia circuit were free of its deadly influence and effects. They would have to educate themselves and raise humanity back out of its newly primal state.

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‘The world is an inferno’

Their life was a flame which started with a spark. In the early days it was a candle, cradled by the heart.

Some days it danced dimly, others it burned bright. The best way to gauge a life, is by the contrast of light.

Their fire raged intensely, and then cooled in decline. Near the end were just embers, with no fury to find.

Another flame was extinguished, In the end it was time. The world is an inferno, every blaze has its prime.

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