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The Killing Machine · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
The Difference Engine
I celebrated my fourteenth birthday on June 4th, 2062.

I was too old for parties by then, the kind with clowns and balloons anyway, so we went to that fancy steakhouse on the south side of town. While I was waiting for my prime rib, grandpa slid a colorful hallmark card across the table to me.

Inside was a fresh $1000 bill, which was a fair bit of money back then. More than my whole weekly allowance. Behind it, written in my grandpa’s crabby hand, was a short message: “Happy Birthday, David. Get some ice cream.”

Get some ice cream, David.

How I wish I had.

“A thousand bucks, huh? Pretty cool.” Scout leaned down to unlock her bicycle, which as usual was parked beside mine outside the school’s south entrance. “Any plans?”

“My grandpa said to get some ice cream with it.” I gripped my bike’s handlebars and waited for the fingerprint sensors to activate. After a moment the bike beeped and the magnets holding it to the bike rack disengaged, and I was able to pull it free.

“Your grandpa’s a smart dude,” Scout said. “But you know what’d be cooler?”

I stood on the pedal and rode the bike like a scooter down the slope leading to the street, keeping pace with her. Once we got to the sidewalk I kicked my leg over and settled onto the seat. “What’s that?”

“If you got some ice cream, and then you got a second, larger scoop of ice cream for your best friend.”

“Huh, yeah, that’d be cool.” I made a show of looking around. “But Chris has lacrosse today.”

Scout slugged me in the shoulder, which sent us both wobbling on our bikes for a few fraught seconds. “Me, jackass.”

I looked up before responding. We were still two weeks from the official start of summer, but already the early afternoon sun of western Ohio was a punishing presence. I could feel the back of my shirt sticking to the sweat running down my spine.

Yeah, ice cream sounded pretty good.

“Okay. But we gotta do something first,” I said. We reached the end of the street, and instead of turning toward downtown Hamilton I kept going straight into our neighborhood. Leafy trees cast welcome, dappled shadows on the sidewalk, and Scout kept pace easily on her old-style ten-speed through the quiet suburb.

“This? Really?”

“Yep! I stopped by on the way to school but didn’t have time to buy anything.” I set my bike down on its side in the grass and walked up to the packed driveway. Scout followed a few steps behind.

The house before us was a neat, single-story ranch with a mix of brick and vinyl siding, and the garage door was open. Inside, an older man chatted quietly with a college-looking couple. He gave me a squint, the kind adults always give to teenager boys – I’m watching you so don’t steal anything – but then he saw Scout with me and I guess that made him think I wasn’t up to any trouble, so he just nodded and waved a hand at the junk all around us.

“Didn’t think you were the garage sale type,” Scout said. She peered into a cardboard box loaded with dozens of garish ceramic plates, no two of which seemed to belong to the same set of dinnerware.

“I’m not, but I saw some cool stuff this morning. Hopefully no one bought it yet.” I picked my way through the boxes on the next table: neatly folded dishrags, ancient audio CDs that had turned yellow with age (“Collector’s Item!” a small sign hopefully offered), a lonesome black subwoofer that lacked any accompanying tweeters or, for that matter, wires. Lying among the boxes was a collection of snazzy antique carbon-fiber canes, and for a moment I considered buying one just for laughs.

But none of them were the box I wanted. I frowned and spun around, trying to remember which table it had been.

“Comic books?” Scout held a disintegrating collection of pages in the air. Little flakes of colorful paper rained down like snow. “They’re free.”

“No, it was in a box. I think… Oh, here they are.” Right next to the comics, actually. I unfolded the top, brushed away a little black spider that scurried around the underside of the lid, and gazed down at my prize with a stupid grin.

Electronics. Pre-war electronics. A whole box of the damn things! The faint hint of ozone and hot metal rose from them, like an electric motor run too hard. Tiny black streaks scored the metal seams and screw-holes, and the paint on most of them had bubbled and peeled from the intense heat generated when the EMPs had rolled across the globe.

Few electronic devices of any kind had survived the war, and the ones that did were either stupidly simple or heavily shielded. But sometimes, due to a quirk of fate or luck or the fact that your family’s refrigerator contained enough metal to generate a magnetic field table to divert the intensely energized electrons emanating from the e-bomb, something like your wifi router managed to survive, even though of course there was no power any more much less any internet for it to connect to.

Statistically, about one in twenty pieces of hardware still functioned, to some extent, after the war. There were, I judged, about twenty various electronic items in the box, give or take. If this were Vegas, I’d have even-odds of scoring a winner.

Scout peered over my shoulder. “Really? You’re still doing this?”

“Hell yeah!” I reached in and pulled out a slender metal rectangle about the size of a paperback novel. “This hard drive? It has, uh, four terabytes of data! That’s almost as much as modern drives can hold.”

“It looks broke.”

I turned the drive over in my hand. Something inside rattled, and one whole side was discolored with the rainbow effect of overheated metal. “Well, this one had a spinning platter. Even if it had survived the war, it would’ve degraded by now. I mean, it’s at least forty years old. But other stuff in here might be worth something.”

Scout rummaged through the box, knocking metal and plastic doodads around in search of something that didn’t look busted. “If you say so, man. Probably some copper in here, anyway.”

“Yeah, that’s prolly worth a few hundred bucks by itself.” I folded the box top back and shouted over at the man in the garage. “Hey, mister! How much for this gear?”

He set down a magazine and walked out to us. Sweat had beaded on his bare scalp, and he wiped it away with the back of his hand before speaking.

“Two-thousand for the whole box.”

I nearly spit. “What?! It’s junk, man!”

He shrugged. “It’s got some copper in it. Maybe some sapphire substrates.”

“But that’s, like…” It was a struggle not to roll my eyes. Sapphire substrates? You couldn’t recycle that stuff. I pulled out the thousand-dollar bill from my grandpa and held it up. “Look, this is all I got. You want it?”

“Hey!” Scout said. “That’s for the ice cream!”

If anything, Scout’s objection had the opposite effect she intended. The man glanced at her, glanced at the bill, then plucked it out of my hands. “All yours, kid.”

“Sweet, thanks.” I hefted the box experimentally and found it pretty manageable – pre-war electronics were cheap and light.

I couldn’t ride my bike with it, though, so we walked back to my house, Scout grumbling all the while about how nice ice cream would’ve been. She didn’t shut up about it until I promised to take her to get some later.

Girlfriends. More trouble than they were worth, sometimes.

“Someday we’re going to get you a real hobby,” Scout said. She picked her way through my parents’ garage, stepping between plastic tubs and boxes loaded with every kind of wire, connector, data port and peripheral known to mankind. She pushed an old voltmeter off to the side and hopped up onto the workbench next to my soldering irons. Her legs were short enough to dangle in the air, and she kicked them absently while I stowed my bike.

“I guess we could do drugs. You wanna do drugs?” I popped the box open and considered the contents. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the collection, so I started pulling items out and setting them on the desk in a loose approximation of order.

“I was thinking, like, theater. Or maybe JROTC? Jessica does that and she says it’s fun.”

I frowned. “You have to go camping in JROTC.”

“So? You go camping all the time.”

“Yeah, exactly. I don’t need to go camping more.” I pulled out a black metal-and-glass tablet and puzzled over it. It was about the size of a small magazine, probably a datapad of some sort. The screen was cracked and left a dusting of fine glass flakes on my fingers.

I put it in the pile with the melted hard drive. Finished consumer goods were almost impossible to repair.

Scout fished around in the box and pulled out a slim black wristband. It was just a few shades darker than her own skin, and nearly vanished when she slipped it on. “Hey, what’s this? Jewelry?”

I took her arm lightly and inspected the wristband, using the opportunity as an excuse to run my fingers over her skin. She giggled and pulled her hand back.

“Heart-rate monitor,” I said. “Probably a watch, too. People really cared about their heart-rates back then, for some reason.”

“Think it still works?”

“Uh.” I considered it again. None of the black polymer casing had melted, and it was pretty clearly a solid-state design. No moving metal parts, and probably not much metal at all. “It might. You’d need to find some way to charge it, though, and I doubt there’s any software left for it. You wouldn’t even be able to set the time.”

She pouted and stripped it off, then tossed it at my chest. I managed a bumbling catch and tossed it back, aiming for the modest cleavage exposed by her shirt’s low neck. I missed, but it was worth the squawk of indignation as she nearly fell off the workbench avoiding it.

The next few minutes were quiet. Scout watched while I sorted the electronics by type or state of repair. In addition to the hard drives and consumer products, there were a few other computer components: memory sticks, PCI cards, what appeared to be a truly ancient telephone modem, video-game controllers, headphones with a built-in microphone, dozens of miscellaneous wires and cables, and some things I couldn’t even identify offhand.

And then, near the bottom of the box, something that made it all worth it. Something potentially worth a lot more than a thousand measly bucks. It fit easily in the palm of my hand, barely larger than a book of matches.

“Holy shit,” I breathed. “Do you know what this is?”

Scout frowned down at it. “A, uh, Seagate?”

“That’s the brand name,” I said. I flipped it between my fingers, studying the fine, fading text on the label. “It’s a solid-state drive. A hard drive, but with no moving parts. Instead of recording bits on a magnetic medium, it uses billions of transistors to store data by…” I could tell I was losing her, so I skipped a few steps to what made the drive special. “It doesn’t need electricity, it probably survived the war, and if it was made after 2020 it probably still has most of its data. How awesome is that?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Honestly?”

“Hey, it’s awesome to me.” I peered at the card’s data port. Looked like an eSATA gen 3, or thereabouts. I could rig something up if I had to. “Who knows what kind of data is on this?”

“Maybe the dude we bought it from? He was probably a kid when it happened.”

“He’d just want it back. Prolly say we should give it to the FBI or something.” I set the drive down and tapped it with my finger. “You know how adults are. They’re all so afraid.”

Scout was silent. After a moment she crossed her arms, hugging them to her chest like it was a cool autumn day instead of the height of spring. “Maybe we should. You said it could have anything. Could the Engine fit on it?”

I studied the drive carefully before answering. It was small, by ancient standards, with little more than a single terabyte of storage. “I don’t… no, not the whole thing, anyway. A kernel, maybe, but definitely not the whole Engine. That would take a million drives like this.”

“So it could have a seed?”

“Eh, it… maybe. Probably. Almost everything was infected by the end, but without a network the kernel can’t do anything. Even the whole Engine, if you had a single computer powerful enough to run it, couldn’t do anything without the internet. It actually existed for several years on a stand-alone system before some idiot connected it to the grid.”

There was no record of who that idiot at the University of Nebraska’s General Artificial Intelligence laboratory had been. Even if he survived – which he probably did, since there wasn’t any major damage to Lincoln – his employment files had vanished along with 99 percent of humanity’s data in the war that started a few minutes later. By the time it was over, two years later, the Engine was dead and the highest-technology nation on Earth was back to using typewriters.

I actually had a typewriter somewhere in here. I glanced around for it, distracted, until Scout spoke again.

“So it’s safe, then?”

I nodded. “Totally. There’s no computer in the world that could run it, and if you built one it still wouldn’t have a network to propagate on. It’d be like a ghost screaming in a box.”

Scout’s shoulders relaxed a bit, and she kicked off the workbench to lean on me. “Okay. But promise me you’ll call the police if it does have something dangerous.”

I gave her a quick peck on the cheek. “I will, but don’t worry. It’s probably just cat pictures. People loved those things.”

Several hours and a few burned fingers later, I had a cable soldered together that I thought might be able to power the Seagate drive without melting it in the process. Computer power supplies that worked with antique equipment were rare, and of course none of the pre-war power supplies worked. They were, by far, the part most likely to be destroyed by the massive EMPs that had set humanity back by half a century during the conflict.

So I had to jury-rig one together. Fortunately the designs were stupid-simple, just solenoids with a bunch of copper wiring, really. I was pretty sure it wouldn’t electrocute me, either.

By early-21st Century standards, my desktop computer was a pretty wimpy thing. People back then owned smart wristwatches more powerful, not to mention they had access to the internet. Some of the stories my grandpa told, well, they made me jealous. To have literally the entire knowledge of the human race at your fingertips… They must’ve felt like gods.

But grandpa told stories about the war, too. I heard them all as I was growing up, and I figured, on balance, we could do without the internet.

Some things just weren’t worth the risk.

There was no way my puny desktop terminal could run off the solid-state drive. But it could – maybe, hopefully – read from the drive. Assuming it wasn’t fried.

Or corrupted.

Or the data hadn’t decayed over four decades with no power.

Or it wasn’t encrypted.

Or I didn’t blow it with one milliampere-too-much of power.

Or… well, really, there were more things that could go wrong than could go right. Best-case scenario, I didn’t melt my own computer. I briefly considered disconnecting all the wires I’d spent the past hour soldering into place and just taking the drive down to the town’s recycling center.

Considered and discarded. I reached for the power switch, and was inches away when my mom’s voice sounded from the garage entrance.

“David, are you dressed yet? We’re leaving in ten minutes.” There was a pause as she took in my obvious state of not-being-dressed-at-all-for-an-important-event, followed by a quiet sigh, then the door closing.

Right, June 5th. The ceremony was tonight. I squeezed my eyes shut and disconnected the power supply.

“Guess we’ll see what’s on you tomorrow, little buddy.” I gave the drive a gentle pat, then went to get dressed.

The ceremony was at our high school gymnasium. I looked around for Scout as soon as we arrived, and found her sitting with the extended Padmanabhan family in the upper row of the bleachers. They wore bright, colorful saris and stood out like peacocks against the mostly white-bread residents of Hamilton, Ohio. Scout’s face lit up when she saw me, and we exchanged little waves before my dad plucked my sleeve and led us to an open spot near the front.

Personally, I didn’t think the 40th anniversary of anything was a particularly important anniversary, but apparently I was in a minority. I wasn’t born yet when they celebrated the 25th anniversary of the end of the war, and I could only imagine the 50th would be a pretty big deal.

But 40? Sometimes it seemed like adults fetishized any round number. I turned those thoughts over in my mind, just gathering wool, while the gymnasium slowly filled to capacity and beyond. Standing crowds spilled around the bleachers and extended out into the wide grassy sports fields.

The mayor opened the ceremony, and I couldn’t honestly tell you what he said. The usual stuff of boring speeches. Remembrance, sacrifice, America is the greatest nation on Earth, that sort of thing. I clapped when everyone else clapped and bowed my head when he called for a moment of silence, but instead of thinking about all the people who’d died, my mind kept returning to the little drive on my workbench and all the secrets it might contain.

Finally the mayor quit the stage, and I perked back up. This was the important part, why my family insisted we come. The reason we had seats in the front row, in the reserved section.

My grandpa shook the mayor’s hand at the edge of the stage, and then walked to the center. He was in his old uniform, which still fit nicely. There were only a few medals above his left breast pocket, not as many as on some soldiers I’d seen, who looked like they were wearing a fruit salad on their coat, but his mattered more. During the entire two-year war the military had awarded fewer than a dozen Army Crosses, and all but three of those had been given posthumously to the recipient’s family.

Grandpa stopped in the center of the stage and stood behind the lectern. He waited for the applause to finish, and spoke.

“Good evening, friends. Thank you for coming. I’m Lieutenant George Lawrence, retired, and I’d like to thank you for inviting me to speak at this ceremony.

“Mayor Christenson has already shared his thoughtful words about the importance of this day, so I won’t bore you by repeating them.” He nodded at the mayor, and a wave of polite, subdued laughter filled the auditorium. “Instead, he asked me to talk a little about my experiences in the war. ‘Tell the kids something they didn’t read in the history books,’ he said. So, if you all don’t mind the ramblings of an old man, I figure I’ve got a few stories to share.

“How many of you have heard of the Battle of Dearborn?”

I’d heard of it, of course. We all had. But I’d heard it growing up, listening to the very man who’d been there. From the hero of the Battle of Dearborn. The man who’d scrounged together bits and pieces of two dozen infantry companies whose officers were all dead or fled, and managed to turn back an assault by a full platoon of Engine armor: computerized, electronic tanks that had no fear of death and would run on miniature fusion engines until the sun ran out. And he did it with nothing heavier than anti-materiel rifles and a few pounds of explosives.

Each time I heard his story it grew more incredible. How one man, leading fewer than five hundred demoralized draftees, could defeat a weaponized artificial intelligence. But I’d read books about the battle, and if anything my grandpa’s stories undersold his heroism. Anyone who pointed a weapon at the Engine’s machines up to that point had died, but in the space of a week then-Staff Sergeant Lawrence did the impossible. He beat the machines.

After that, they weren’t invincible anymore. Tough, yes, and the war ground on for another two years, but we knew we could beat them. Even as entire countries vanished in flames, we slowly beat them back here.

I realized, at some point, that I was crying.

But that was okay. Grandpa was, too.

It was after school the next day when I finally made it back to my garage workbench. The little Seagate was still waiting for me, and I plugged the crude wires back in while Scout watched beside me.

“This is safe, right? Like, it won’t blow up?” she asked.

“Huh? Yeah, it’s safe. Solid-state drives draw almost no power whatsoever. Much less than modern drives.”

“Okay. I’m gonna stand over here, though.”

“Whatever floats your boat,” I said. Still, her caution was infectious, and I hesitated just a moment before flicking the switch on the power supply. The fan inside spun up with a quiet hum, the only sign that it was on.

Scout leaned forward. “That’s it?”

“Yeah, I told you, it doesn’t draw much. That’s one reason they were so popular.”

“So, does it work?”

That was the trillion dollar question, wasn’t it? I took a deep breath and connected the data cable to the jury-rigged mess of interfaces on the back of my desktop.

Nothing happened. I frowned and gave the mouse a little nudge – the cursor didn’t move; frozen. I tapped on the keyboard to no effect.

“Well, uh.” I frowned at the screen. “Shit.”

“Maybe it’s just thinking?”

“Pretty sure it’s not—oh, hello!” The mouse cursor blinked and jumped. I moved it again, successfully, and opened the file explorer.

And there it was. A new drive, capacity unknown, manufacturer unknown, format type unknown. I clicked it, heedless, and after another frozen second a seemingly endless list of folders appeared. The hard drive in my computer growled in complaint as it tried to keep up with the ancient technology.

“Wow. What is all that?” Scout said.

“Looks like folders of some kind.”

She hit me. “Thanks, jackass. What’s in them?”

I ignored her brutal assault and opened one of the folders, curious myself. Inside was a single HTML file with a dizzyingly long name composed of apparently random characters.

“Neat,” I said. “It’s a web file. Part of the old internet.”

“It’s not infected, is it?”

“Even if it was, it couldn’t do anything. It needs a special program called a web browser to run, and those don’t exist anymore.” I opened the file in a basic text editor and started scrolling down, looking for something intelligible. Most of it was tables and instructions and other lines of code too esoteric for anyone but a computer archeologist to understand.

But about halfway down, actual human-readable text appeared. Full sentences – or something like them.

'''Algebra''' (from [[Arabic]] ''"al-jabr"'' meaning "reunion of broken parts"<ref>{{cite web|title=algebra|work=[[Online Etymology Dictionary]]</ref>) is one of the broad parts of [[mathematics]]

I stared at the text, trying to puzzle through it without any luck. Beside me, Scout leaned forward to squint at the screen.

“Algebra? It’s about math? And what's with all the symbols?”

“It's a markup language of some kind. But, uh... yeah, no idea.” I scrolled all the way to the bottom of the file, looking for anything that might provide some context.

One thing stood out. A word, apparently a name, that kept repeating. A quick text search showed that it appeared nearly four dozen times in the entire file.

“‘Wikipedia,’” I mumbled. “What the hell are you?”

The next few days passed uneventfully. After a few final exams, school let out for the summer, which gave me plenty of time to mess with my new toy.

The first order of business was backing up the data. The solid-state drive had survived an AI apocalypse, followed by 40 years in some dude’s basement, but I had no idea how long it would last hooked up to my hillbilly power solution. For all I knew, it could catch fire any moment.

A second copy would give me more options, too. I could take it to an actual researcher, like the one from Cincinnati University who came to talk to our computer science class a few months back.

Copying files was a slow process, though. My computer wasn’t really designed with that drive in mind – nothing built in the past forty years was – and it took hours of constant, mind-numbing processor time to even make a dent in the files.

So Scout and I went to get some ice cream.

“So, it’s like, an encyclopedia?” she said. She sat across our small table at the mall’s Baskin-Robin and took a small bite from her double scoop of mint chocolate. A little bit got on her nose, standing out against her skin like the moon on a dark evening, before she wiped it away.

The encyclopedia, apparently.” I’d gone for my usual, a strawberry milkshake. Scout complained that milkshakes weren’t really ice cream, but I was paying so whatever. “It had entries for everything. Everything you could think of. People, events, animals, individual stars. Everything.”

“How big was it?”

“The whole thing? No idea. The version I have is an archive, apparently designed to survive offline through some kind of civilization-ending catastrophe.”

She snickered. “Well, I guess it did. So how big is the one you have?”

“About four million entries. The core, so to speak. Articles someone decided were important.”

She paused, her eyes losing their focus for a moment. “Wow. Not gonna read them all, I take it?”

“Nah. But just think about it, Scout! I’m not sure another copy of this thing exists anywhere in the world. A whole record of life, right before the war.”

“We have those. They’re called ‘People who lived through the war.’ Like your grandfather.”

I rolled my eyes. “Whatever. It’s still cool.”

It didn’t seem she agreed, but whatever. We had ice cream to finish.

A week later I had several copies resident on various modern drives. They weren’t as nimble or secure as the solid-state drive, but I felt safe working with them, so I tossed the Seagate back in the box. A museum might want it.

In the meantime, I had a new toy: a primitive HTML translator that kinda-sorta rendered the Wikipedia files like they were meant to be read. Apparently Wikipedia used its own markup language that the reader couldn’t account for, so the text was still filled with odd characters and symbols, but it mostly worked. I could click on links, just like they did back in the old days, and it loaded the next page!

There was something addictive about it. I knew I could go to any library and look up all the same information, plus anything from the past forty years, but the ability to just click! and have anything I wanted at my fingertips. That’s how life was, back then. Everything, at everyone’s fingertips.

A lot of the articles were corrupted and unreadable. The solid-state drive wasn’t perfect after all. But for every corrupted or unreadable entry, there were five more in perfect condition.

Perhaps if I’d been a normal 14-year-old, more interested in girls or sports or videogames than stories salvaged from a dead, networked world, things would’ve been different. I wouldn’t have started searching.

But that’s who I was.

So I read.

I found the first sign that something was wrong with the encyclopedia in the entry for New York City. I don’t even remember how I ended up on that article – following random links, maybe, or tracing the lines of some idle thought.

The error was right there, in the first paragraph. “New York City was largely abandoned after the terror attacks of June 4, 2020, destroyed a large portion of Manhattan and western Brooklyn.”

None of that was true. Or, it wasn’t exactly true. New York City was abandoned after the Engine detonated a small nuclear weapon in Grand Central Station. Until that day most people didn’t even know what the Engine was, much less that we were in a fight to the death with a rogue AI.

What the hell. I clicked on the link to the supposed terror attack.

Nothing loaded. After a moment, the program went blank except for the words “Unable to read file.”

“Shit,” I mumbled. I reached for the keyboard, about to query the database for anything else on the attack, when an idea tugged at the back of my mind.

What does the encyclopedia know about AIs? The archive, according to the time-stamp on the files, was created just a few weeks before the war. So anything about the war or my grandpa’s heroism was straight out, but there was a lot more to artificial intelligence than just the war.

Just thinking about the Engine sent a momentary shiver down my spine. It had fooled an entire generation of the smartest computer scientists in the world, and here I was knocking at its door. Or, at the very least, tip-toeing around its grave. It was the closest thing to a waking god our world had ever known, and I’d spent the past two weeks rooting around inside a piece of pre-war tech that probably contained traces of its code.

It took all my willpower not to reach over and shut off the power. Instead I took a deep breath and typed in the search box: artificial general intelligence.

I don’t know what I was expecting, really. Something about the University of Nebraska’s AI school, or the Department of Defense’s Cyber Command. Maybe something about the Chinese, or the Japanese attempt at a primitive AI-powered ballistic missile shield.

None of those things appeared. Instead the archive pulled up a lengthy, dry, theoretical article about AI research. Future developments. Proposed tests. Science fiction.

“What the hell?” I leaned back and stared at the monitor. It was like someone had scrubbed the archive and replaced it with articles ten years out of date, or – in the case of the New York City attack – completely wrong.

Three hours later, I was still stymied. The list of holes had grown, and the notes I’d scribbled now flowed onto a third page. But worse than the holes were the articles that simply shouldn’t have existed: terror attacks, Islamophobia, Wahhabism.

Al Qaeda. Now that was a long article, none of which made sense.

Well, there was an easy way to solve this: ask a man who’d lived through it. I shut the computer down and went to get my bicycle.

Grandpa lived less than a mile away. He was outside spraying down his Honda in the driveway when I arrived.

“David!” He waved, then shut off the hose and coiled it on the drive. “How are you?”

“I’m good.” I gave him a perfunctory hug, the only kind teen boys can give in public. “I’m not bothering you, am I?”

“Of course not. Come in, get out of the sun.”

I followed him into the house, which was blessedly cool. He poured out two glasses of iced lemonade, and we clinked them together before taking a drink.

“How’s Scout?” he asked.

“She’s good. Said she really liked your speech at the remembrance ceremony.”

Grandpa shook his head. “Sure she did. So polite of her to say so, though.”

“It’s true!” I protested. “It was, you know, pretty cool.”

“I’m glad you think so. Now, what brings you to an old man’s house on a beautiful summer day?”

I had a few notes written down, and I pulled them out of my back pocket. “I, uh, wanted to ask you a few questions.”

“Ah, let me guess.” He set his glass down and leaned back in his chair. “About the war?”

“No. Before that.”

He paused for a moment, and the look of something like surprise flashed across his face. I got the feeling he wasn’t used to being asked about life before he’d become a hero. “Oh? Okay, shoot.”

“Thanks.” I licked my lips and crinkled the notes before starting. “So, uh, when did people first learn about AIs?”

“Huh, not sure I remember specifically. A few years before the war, but they were just experiments, or things like smart cars. Not like the Engine.”

“And when did you hear about the Engine?”

Grandpa closed his eyes and nodded. “Same time as almost everyone else. The New York attack. After that… well, things changed real fast.”

“Yeah.” I cleared my throat. “What, um… sorry, this might be a little weird. What is terrorism?”

There was a long pause. Grandpa stared at me, his hand frozen in the act of reaching for his glass.

Finally, he spoke, and it was more breath than voice. “What?”

I swallowed, suddenly cold. “Uh, terrorism? I read about it somewhere, but it didn’t really explain what it was.”

“Ah.” He seemed to relax. “It’s something that doesn’t exist anymore, David. It was a crime designed to scare people. But it hasn’t happened in a long, long time. Since before you were born.”

“Oh.” That wasn’t really an answer, and I wasn’t sure how to proceed. “So—”

“Sorry, David, I don’t mean to interrupt, but where did you read about this?”

It never occurred to me to lie. Why should I? Grandpa was my hero, my idol. Of course he would know what to do.

So I told him the truth. “I found some old files from before the war, but they’re all messed up. Some got corrupted, and—”

“Corrupted?” He frowned. “David, is this about your hobby? You know better than to play with pre-War software.”

“No! Well, yes, but they’re safe. I checked a bunch, and there’s no way anything left over from the Engine could contaminate them. They’re just text files.”

“Nothing to do with the Engine is safe.” He got up and poured the rest of his lemonade in the sink, and I got the feeling our conversation was over. “Listen to someone who lived through it: nothing about that period is safe. We have to… We have to let the dead rest, David.”

How was a fourteen-year-old supposed to answer that? I stood, mumbled an apology, and scooted out.

Let the dead rest. At the time, I thought he meant the people the Engine had killed.

But death, of course, cared nothing for how you died. Everyone was equal in its embrace.

“Explain to me again why we’re here?” Scout asked. Her heels clicked loudly on the concrete pavers leading up to the Hamilton Municipal Library’s main entrance.

“Historical research,” I said. “Anything we can find on AI, or terrorism, or Islam.”

“What’s Islam?”

“Some kind of religion, I think. The files on it were missing, but it kept coming up. I think it had something to do with the Engine.”

“What, like, computer worship?”

We stopped at the card catalogue, and I counted down the files to the computer archeology section. “No, it was older than that. Hundreds of years old.”

She shrugged. “Never heard of it.”

“Well, see what you can find. I’ll look for stuff on the Engine.”

There was, of course, plenty about the Engine. Although research into AI was strictly prohibited, historical accounts of the war filled an entire bookshelf. But they all focused on the Engine’s activation, the first battles, the slow, grinding war against the machine, and finally the end. The e-bombs, the EMPs, the nuclear holocaust that wiped out much of the Middle East and South Asia.

Granted, I didn’t expect an instruction manual for how to build an AI, but a little history on the University of Nebraska’s project would’ve been helpful. I sighed, pulled the most promising book from the shelf, and went to find Scout.

She was bent over a desk in the culture section, completely absorbed in some book. I snuck up behind her and poked her side, just beneath her ribs. She let out a gratifyingly loud squeal and spun around to scowl at me.

“David!” she hissed. “Seriously. We’re in a library.”

“Yeah.” I gave her a peck on the cheek as an apology. “Any luck?”

“Uh, sorta?” She gestured to the books on the desk. “Islamic art, Islamic calligraphy. Islamic architecture of the Northern Maghreb. Islamic Poetry of the 18th Century.”

“What about just Islam?”

She shrugged. “Nada. Maybe it wasn’t important?”

“No, it was all over Wikipedia. Even with all the missing files, it was everywhere.”

“Are you sure you can trust those files? If that drive was on the network at the same time as the Engine, it could’ve done whatever it wanted. Changed anything.”

“Yeah, but… I dunno. It’s just weird. Why would it do that?” I picked up the book on Islamic calligraphy. It was filled with glossy photos and illustrations of beautiful, twisting characters, like nothing I’d ever read before. It didn’t even seem like language. “I’m gonna get this, I think. You want anything?”

She shook her head, and we walked in silence over to the checkout counter. The librarian raised an eyebrow at our selection, and she paused a moment before stamping the due date in the AI book, but whatever she was thinking, she kept her peace.

Of course, given how old she looked, she probably knew more about the Engine than the book did.

We stopped outside. The sun beat down, and the air was so thick it felt like it poured down my throat with each breath. My shirt instantly stuck to my skin.

Scout squinted up at the sky, then shielded her eyes with her hand. “So, uh, what now?”

Ice cream would be great, I decided, but I had to get back to my computer. The truth was in that archive somewhere. “Home, for me. Wanna come by?”

“Sure, nothing better to do. Maybe we could stop at the…” She trailed off and stumbled to a stop.

“Huh? Stop at the where?”

She didn’t answer, though. She just pointed, and I followed her finger to the edge of the sidewalk.

A police cruiser was idling on the curb. A pair of cops leaned against it, their black uniforms as dark as night against the white paint. One of them looked at me, looked down at something in his hand, then back at me.

“David Lawrence? I need you to come with me.” He glanced at Scout and the books she was holding. “You too, miss.”

They kept me waiting for hours in a sterile, bare room. There was only a table, two chairs, the lights overhead, and the door. Nothing else interrupted the painted cinderblock walls. Not even a one-way mirror like in the old police movies.

It wasn’t cold in the room. If anything it was warm. But I was still shaking when the door finally opened and a man stepped through. He was about my father’s age, tall, wearing a smart suit. Nothing about him screamed “cop” at me, but his eyes were sharp.

“Hello, David.” He took the seat across from me. “I’m Special Agent Mark Crosby, from the Cincinnati office of the FBI. Do you know why you’re here?”

Maybe I took too long to answer, but he started to frown. Immediately I shook my head. I shook it so hard the chair beneath me rattled.

“Hm.” He pulled a manilla folder out from somewhere and set it the table, opened at such an angle that he could read its contents, but I could not. “You’re familiar with the Construction Laws, I hope?”

“Y-yeah,” I said. I had to pause before I went on. “You can’t make an AI, or research them. Not without approval.”

“And you know the penalty for violating those laws?”

“I wasn’t!” I shouted. I had no handcuffs or shackles, but it took nothing more than a glance from this man to sit me back in the seat. “I was just studying the history. I found some files, and I think there are some mistakes in them, or maybe mistakes in what we’re taught. There’s, like, a bunch of stuff missing, but there’s also a bunch of stuff that—”

He stopped me with an upraised hand. “We know about the files, David. We’ve already been to your house. I’m afraid you won’t be getting your computer back.”

When you’re a fourteen-year-old boy sitting in an interrogation room, losing your computer doesn’t seem bad compared with, you know, being in jail. “Okay. But, uh, I can go, right?”

“Sure.” Special Agent Crosby pulled a single sheet out of the manilla folder and slid it across the table, followed by a pen. “I just need you to sign this.”

I thought it was blank until I picked it up. There was only a single line of text at the top. My name was already filled out for me.

I, David Fisher Lawrence, agree to abide by the terms of this pact.

There was a solid line below for my signature. Aside from that, it was empty.

I turned it over. Nothing there, either. I read it again, wondering what I had missed.

“What, uh… I mean, where’s the rest of it? What pact?”

“You can read the full pact when you sign it,” he said.

Even as a child, in the worst negotiating position possible, that struck me as unfair. “But how am I supposed to know what I’m signing?”

“You don’t. You’ll find out after you sign it.”

I put it on the table. “And if I don’t?”

He sighed, so quietly I almost missed it. “That’s up to a judge. Depending on how much he thinks you know, you’ll probably go to a special room, a lot like this, and you’ll live there until you do sign it.”

“Like, a prison?”

“Not ‘like’ a prison, David. An actual prison.”

I swallowed. “You can’t do that. I have rights.”

“We can do it, David. Every year we do it. Some people spend years in prison, but eventually they all sign. Now, it’ll go easier for you if you just—”

Some unknown anger seized me. “Do you know who my grandfather is? You can’t just make me disappear. He’ll find out, and then you’ll be the one in prison!”

No answer. We stared at each other for what felt like a full minute, each waiting for the other to break.

Neither of us did, though. The door behind him opened, and the last person on earth who should have been there walked through.

“Sorry about this, Mark,” my grandpa said. “Let me talk to him.”

I felt relief first. How couldn’t I? But grandpa didn’t take my hand and lead me out to freedom. Instead he sat in the agent’s chair and closed his eyes.

He looked much older than his seventy-three years.

“I’m going to break a rule,” he said after some silence. “I’m going to tell you what’s in the pact, and then you can sign it if you want. Everyone in my generation signed it. Your parents did. I hoped your generation would never have to, but now that we’re here, I hope you do. It’s much better than prison.”

“I, uh.” I stared at the page again. “Okay. Go on.”

“The first thing you have to understand is how afraid we were at the time. How afraid we all were. Fear… Fear makes people do things that might seem wrong later.”

I shook my head. “You didn’t have a choice, grandpa. The Engine would have killed everyone on earth. That’s not fear, that’s just normal human—”

“The Engine didn’t kill anyone.”

I stopped again. Several heartbeats passed before I found my breath. “But the war… Two billion people died.”

“I know. We killed them.”

The shakes had stopped. Instead I felt numb, like I’d gone a year without sleep. “What? No.”

“You have to understand that we were afraid, David. Nearly a million people died in the New York City bombing. They said other cities were next. Boston, Chicago. We couldn’t have taken that. No country could have.”

“They? But the Engine—”

“There was no Engine, David. There was a group of people who shared a religion, and they…” He stopped, and for the longest while I thought he might not continue. “They destroyed New York City. It wasn’t the first, and we knew it wouldn’t be the last, so… We were afraid. We had to do something.”

Something. The pieces were starting to fit together. The Wikipedia article on New York City. The complete absence of information about artificial intelligence. It was like a picture had suddenly come into focus in my mind.

Islam. Islam, an ancient religion that no one my age had ever heard of. I closed my eyes.

“How many?” I asked.

“All of them. Almost two billion, by the end.”

Please, please no. “Dearborn?”

“Dearborn had one of the largest populations of Muslims in the country. We couldn’t nuke our own city, so… So they sent us in.”

“Right.” I didn’t feel anything. There was nothing left to feel. “And the AI war? All lies?”

“When it was over… It was a bad time, David. We did what we had to do, but how could we live with ourselves after that? So we decided to forget. We made an agreement,” he reached out to touch the empty sheet between us, “and everyone alive at the time signed the pact. The Pact of Forgetting, we call it. And someday, if we are clever enough, and our lies convincing enough, the last person who signed the pact will die, and that will be it. There will be no history, no genocide. Just stories about a war that never happened.”

What would prison be like? I’d never really considered it, of course. Who does, at fourteen? But now, if my grandpa was telling the truth, that was precisely what lay before me. Prison, or sign this devil’s document. Become part and parcel to millions – no, billions – of deaths.

I realized I was crying. “You were a hero,” I choked out. “They said you were a hero.”

Silence, for the longest time. My tears dried on my cheeks, and renewed themselves again.

Finally, “There were no heroes, David. Now please, sign the paper, and we can go home.” He slid the pen closer to me.

I picked it up and held it in my hand.

And then I put it down, and pushed it away.

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#1 · 1
Bleh. I hope the rest of the stories don't taste like this.

First off, my pet peeve. "I wish I had!" "Little did I know!" That sort of thing? you do it at least twice here, and it bugs me to death. It doesn't feel like clever foreshadowing; it doesn't really draw me in as a reader, it just makes me less interested in reading on, because I feel like you're smirking at me and congratulating yourself on how clever you are, and I don't like it.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but I'm really not a fan of this trope. I'd say there's a reason it's been mostly abandoned.

The rest of the story was... competently constructed, for the most part. I feel like you tipped your hand rather too early; I basically knew what was going on by the second third, and I had a pretty good idea how it would all end from the "Dun dun dun!"-ing you'd been doing. The ending, when it came, was just about as distasteful as I imagined it to be.

But on the world... here's the thing about conspiracies. You can fool all the people part of the time, or part of the people all the time, but all of the people all of the time? That's immeasurably hard. Everyone signed this? Everyone abides by it? Your distopia falls into the same things I accuse 1984 of; twisting reality through klein-bottles to serve the plot. I just can't suspend my disbelief enough to accept that things would actually work out the way you've imagined them, and that basically killed the story for me as soon as I realized what was going on, which was probably about halfway through. Even if I enjoyed your premise of 'people are racist enough to kill two billion, united enough to hide it, and powerful enough to keep that secret for forever', I'd have trouble engaging based solely on the sweeping scope and ridiculousness of those premises.

It was well-written on a mechanical level. You seem to know your stuff about EMP's, at least; some people seem to think of them as a temporary thing when they're definitely not.

I didn't realize Scout was a girl until she got a female pronoun. Not sure if I'm just unfamiliar with that name, or what? I think the 'friend/best friend' joke might have played into it; I suggest using 'girlfriend' earlier, but you'd probably have to kill that joke to do it.
#2 ·
Characters were a strong suit of this piece; David, Scout and to a lesser extent, his grandfather all seemed well voiced and plausible. I also liked the little details sprinkled in about the world.

Conspiracies are tricky. The slow build was one of the better parts of the plot, though I was primed me to expect it. During the read, I appreciated the elegance of the cover story, but I can definitely see where Not_A_Hat is coming from in poking holes at it. Without more details (and even with), it still seems like there are an enormous number of ways for this to go wrong.

What about the rest of the world? I can't see the rest of the world taking nuclear warfare laying down. This might work better as part of a larger narrative, but it'd be a heavy lift. Also, the whole structure of this pact - I'm not really sure what's gained by having someone agree with something before they know it.

This is a big idea and well crafted, but it has trouble standing up to scrutiny.
#3 · 2
This story was well-written and the character work is strong. 'Scout' as a name is clearly a thematic tie to To Kill a Mockingbird, and in some ways this story also approaches themes of racism (or more correctly... what's the word for bias against a religion?).

Unfortunately, I think your moral center is wobbly. It's primarily undercut by the weight of the worldbuilding... I don't see a way that you can convincingly sell such a big twist. Did they also use EMPs on their own people to guarantee the records were gone? Granted, we're seeing the perspective of a kid in middle America, but do the adults actually believe that you can eliminate a religion in this manner, without people practicing it underground, or without isolated survivors in parts of the world? How exactly do books about Islamic art or poetry exist without in some way alluding to what it is??

But in some ways, plot holes aren't necessarily of primary importance, as long as you can sell the rest of the story and suspend the reader's disbelief through strong writing. You get close to there, but I agree with !Hat that the early foreshadowing is a little oversold and the final mystery is revealed too early. There was kind of a more foundational failing that stuck with me though: The immediate jump to needing to destroy a religion instead of a nation, or a group, or an organization strikes me as so morally bankrupt that I just don't buy it as in any way feasible. It makes the whole story's framing sit uneasily. This is clearly a polemic against racism, but in doing so, it also feels like it implicitly accepts some racist formulations. I.E., it's a secret dystopia (in a quasi-1984 manner, with the pact - which was a nice rhetorical flourish even if it didn't make sense)... But it's one that also demonstrates to have 'worked,' in a really unsettling way. Choosing 'Islam' as your boogeyman flattens out both the racism and the religion in order to fit your point, and you never sell me on 'this was bad.' A reader could easily take away from this story that the western world was attacked and made a horrifying but necessary choice to defend themselves - a Hiroshima for 2020, perhaps. And building in ambiguity here doesn't complicate your points in a good way - it undermines the moral allegory that you're building.

I feel like I'm being very critical here, but this is a story that I enjoyed, and which is getting ranked fairly high on my list. It's just left me with distinctly complicated feelings. I think my issues could be addressed, and that I'm probably reading it in a different manner than you meant to write it - I wrote as much as I did to try and analyze why it didn't click with me personally, in the hopes that you will find some of it helpful if you wish to revise.

Finally: It's a nice, subtle touch that Scout is presumably of an Indian ethnicity. I'm not sure how that actually ties into the point you're trying to make, but it feels very purposeful.
#4 · 1
The Difference Engine

That's a cute beginning, with the jab at inflation and all.

The very next scene leads in with a misstep – clumsy exposition about the bike mechanism.

A similar problem pops up later, with the explanation about electronics surviving the EMP. You could get this in more elegantly, a referring to them as “a smattering of electronic devices that had escaped the EMP blasts.”, or something along those lines.

Going forward, the plot progresses quite nicely. The exposition problem rears its head a couple more times, but it's not too distracting.

Things stop briefly for another big chunk of exposition in the form of a remembrance ceremony. This serves as a good time for me to stop and point out that exposition isn't always a sin. Here, it has a good reason to be recited, and it fits in well with the story, adequately building the stakes.

Okay, at the end, I'm uncertain. Structurally speaking, what you've got is very good here. You've got all the right beats for a mystery laid out. You telegraph the twist a bit too early, but that's always going to be a trouble with first draft mysteries (he says, a day after listening to the Writing Excuses 'cast that mentions this very issue).

My main issues were with the worldbuilding. First of all, I'll chime in with the all the above commentators and say that the notion of eradicating the entire religion of Islam and then successfully covering it up flies far, far past the bounds of believability. It also adds a shrill tone to the message you're trying to get across.

Second, I never really got the feel this was the future. Not an advanced future; not a decayed future. It feels like over the next 45 years, everything not directed with the plot had stayed pretty much the same. Your backdrop is basically a white screen and a couple of props.

The exception to this is Scout's background, which is handled with subtlety. seems to imply a bit of detail to the world. But being the exception, it works like the dash of colour that only underlines how pale everything else is.

I also liked the grandfather. He's easily the most complex person in the story. Somehow he manages to be a war criminal reveling in false glory, and yet somehow he still managed to be a little sympathetic. I just wish he'd pulled in a bit more screentime.

As a final note, I'll say I also liked the cleverness of the foreshadowing. Hold on? The machine war started four years from now? There's no way A.I. Technology would be advanced enough by then … Oh.

So, a mixed bag, all in all, but there are some gems hidden in there.
#5 ·
Alright, time for me to get back to reviews. (I went last night to a friend's MURRICA party, so I'm skipping fireworks tonight in favor of trying to catch up on things before Bronycon.)

Add me to the chorus of readers whose suspension of disbelief snapped at the reveal here. Before that, the writing was generally solid -- though it really seems like you're trying to have your cake and eat it too with technology (there's exposition about not having a power grid any more, but there are beeping fingerprint sensors and electromagnets built into the bike rack; and then you explicitly identify computer technology as having surpassed pre-war levels -- the SSD is smaller than the main character's drive -- yet they haven't rebuilt anything even slightly resembling an Internet). The character work and the slowly deepening mystery put this in the top half of my prelim slate, but everything else in the finals passed it by. I honestly can't think of any way to improve the fundamental premise without a major scrap and rewrite, so I'm just going to praise you on your prose and call this...

Tier: Misaimed
#6 · 1
I'll join the chorus:

As well. The line Marion Zimmer Bradley always used in the rejection slips she sent me when I was submitting stories to her fantasy magazine decades ago was: "Suspension of disbelief doesn't mean hanging it by its neck until it's dead."

I'll also add that I couldn't figure out the narrator's attitude toward the events he's telling us about. At the very beginning, he expresses regret over how things turned out, but at the end, there doesn't seem to be any regret at all. Has he changed his mind while writing the story and decided that he was right all along? That would be an interesting thing to do, but I don't see any sign that that's the case.

#7 · 2
Well dang, it looks like I'm going to have to go rogue here, because it seems like people generally didn't like this one, while I loved it. More than that, I think it's the best-executed and most complete story I've read in this Writeoff, and I'm putting it at the top of my slate.

And here I didn't want to spend a bunch of time writing a review. D:

The writing, characterization, and plot structure here are all top notch. We get a nasty little mystery that, sure, strains some suspension of disbelief; but really, isn't the lead-up to the war that the grandfather describes exactly the sort of thing that a non-trivial number of people fear could occur? And isn't the subsequent "salt the earth and scour the adversary from history" reprisal exactly the sort of overwrought and excessively blunt response that others might fear? Maybe it's just that I was less successful at addressing the fear of "otherness" in my own Writeoff story, but I give this one huge props for rooting it's scenario in believable fears, regardless of how believable the scenario itself turned out to be.

But honestly, the whole story here feels to me like the stuff of classic sci-fi filtered through a lens of modern fear. I love the sheer awkward geeky teenage-boy-ness of the protagonist, and the fact that his pursuit of truth gets him a lot more than he bargained for. I think Scout was a great counterbalance to his wide-eyed enthusiasm, though I do fear she was shorted a bit on deeper characterization beyond that which was necessary to compliment our hero, which is a shame. I even thought the grandfather was excellent; he's a man who's done terrible things, and kept terrible secrets, but hopes they will ultimately lead to a better future. If we as readers find that unsettling, I think that's part of the point; we shouldn't think that what he's done is good. But neither should we feel so unsettled as to forget that that might be a plausible response from an otherwise not-terrible person who's seen too much, or who's been pushed too hard. The will of good men cannot count on the terrible strain of war, as it were.

I dunno. At some point this changed from me praising the work into me seeking to defend it before its critics while battling my phone's autocorrect. I should probably stop here, as I'm less likely to persuade those turned-off by the concept than I am to become enraged at my phone.

Tier: Top of my Top Contender list; and A Winner Is You!
#8 · 4
· · >>Orbiting_kettle >>CoffeeMinion >>Scramblers and Shadows
The lesson I learned here is: don't try being subtle.

Everyone commented that the suspension of disbelief was ruined by the fact that the conspiracy portrayed in this story was impossible. Where I went wrong was not making it explicit enough that this story is an allegory referencing two conspiracies just like that.

The real-world Pact of Forgetting was the name of the agreement forged in post-Franco Spain as part of an effort to put the years of civil war and Nationalist rule behind them. It did not involve actual forgetting so much as an agreement to simply let the past be the past, to ignore the crimes that were committed during Franco's rule because there was nothing to be gained by dwelling on them.

The second, of course, was hinted at in the date that keeps appearing in the story: June 4. The very first sentence, in fact, is "I celebrated my fourteenth birthday on June 4th, 2062."

June 4, of course, is the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, an event which is virtually unknown in China. The government has successfully suppressed teaching or acknowledgement of it, and the people who do attempt to protest it end up in jail.

When seven smart people review your story and none of them make these connections, it's a sign that the author didn't do a good enough job of making the connection clear. This goes doubly so in an event like the Writeoff, where readers have an entire slate of stories to get through and can't dedicate too much time or analytic power to any single one.
#9 · 1
· · >>billymorph
>>Cold in Gardez
While the allegory might be obvious in hindsight, I think that it still stretches the limit of the suspension of disbelief.

You made it seem like 2 billion people were killed (one every three inhabitants of our planet) and it could be hidden in some way. It was too big, too much. It requires that the US isolated themselves from the rest of the world, that all dissidents had to disappear, that everyone (which means again the rest of the world) would play along in killing so many and then keep quiet about it.

The pact of forgetting in Spain is a legal framework, but people didn't forget. And Tiananmen is a bit different than the situation shown here.

That said, I liked the high level concept behind the story, I consider it very well written and the build up was interesting up to the revelation, but it still doesn't work for me, even with the explanation.
#10 ·
>>Cold in Gardez
I disagree with you, vigorously. The subtlety in this piece was a large part of its appeal. If anything, I think this should serve as a reminder to the rest of us that historical evils can be suppressed and forgotten if we let them be. Maybe the scale of it here is orders of magnitude larger than what we might be accustomed to, but I see nothing wrong with a work of fiction positing such a scenario.
#11 · 1
>>Orbiting_kettle I definitely agree with Orbiting_kettle here. It's not the idea of a forgetting that's the problem, those happen and I can name half a dozen from WW2 alone, its the sheer scale of the genocide that blows all suspension of disbelief out of the water.

In a perverse way the whole war against the AI is far more believable story than the genocide. We know how difficult it is to keep a conspiracy rolling and how difficult a genocide is to perpetrate in secret (even ipso facto). Meanwhile, the AI war is a standard narrative trope so passes through most filters even if a few people raised eyebrows over how quickly it struck. The contrast between the two probably did the most damage to the suspension of disbelief in retrospect.

I will say though that this:

June 4. The very first sentence, in fact, is "I celebrated my fourteenth birthday on June 4th, 2062."

June 4, of course, is the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, an event which is virtually unknown in China.

Is not a good way to deliver hints. Requiring your reader to infer historical trivia in a birth-date is just asking for the point to go flying over everyone's head. It's fine to have those kind of things, and I actually like putting those kinds of references in my own writing as a reward for the reader, but they can't be relied on by any measure.
#12 · 1
· · >>Baal Bunny
>>Cold in Gardez

First, I have to throw in with OK and Billymorph above. Even had I seen the allegory, I don't think I would have been willing to overlook the believability issue. A story needs to stand on its own terms, before you bring in allegory or metaphor or symbolism. (That's just a personal preference, mind, but it seems to be one a lot of people share.)

On top of that, I I wonder if the style is suited to the subject. You've got a story here that comes very close to realism. That might be priming readers not to expect an allegory. At the very least, you're priming them to read the story as realist first, even if there's an allegory later.

Second, I totally agree about the WriteOffs being a bad arena for subtlety.
#13 · 2
As one:

Who missed any and all allegorical intent, let me second what >>Scramblers and Shadows said about the difficulty of mixing allegory and realism. The setting led me to read the story as SF, and that could still work by applying SF principles to it. Which means covering all the bases.

I mean, the first thing I thought of after finishing the story was: what about radio and TV? You could easily have your repressive government justify keeping a clamp on broadcast media by adding it to the list of ways the fictitious rogue AI spread itself. And the books on Islamic art and architecture would've been purged decades ago, seems to me. Make the police state a bigger deal in the background of David's faux-1950s mid-Ohio world right from the beginning, and it'll set up the revelations at the end more believably.