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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

Mashup

Floris M. Kleijne has spent most of his life writing short stories, and most of his so-called career compiling the kind of resume befitting a struggling writer: notary clerk, croissant baker, gopher, software developer, trainer, project manager, and labour health analyst. The patchwork career--and the incessant writing--paid off in 2005, when his third published story, the novelette "Meeting the Sculptor," won first place in Writers of the Future. He’s written about time travel, space travel, an axe murderess, people with gills, coffee obsession, murderous children (even though he’s a proud father of two), and a naked man in a cage (even though he’s happily married). Mashup is his tenth publication. His website is at www.floriskleijne.nl.
Told you so.
In his mind, David could already hear the smugness in Otto's voice. It was infuriating.
Even more infuriating than the ad itself.
At his implant's next chime, David had perked up with happy anticipation of the latest suggestion from his Orakl Gen4. He had picked up the device at the Orakl outlet on Broadway last night, and already he was totally smitten with the new AWOS. He hoped the kick of getting a new suggestion would not wear off any time soon. So far it had helped him catch a theatre performance last night that he would otherwise have missed, buy a couple of his favorite shirts at a huge discount, and hook up for coffee with a college pal who happened to be in Manhattan that morning. Cooler still--though eerier, because his car didn't have the Orakl interface--it had suggested a sorely needed gas stop. David could only assume it had extrapolated his cloud-stored behavior patterns. Eeriest, and therefore coolest--or, in Otto's words, creepiest--was the moment when the gorgeous default Orakl contralto whispered, "Look up, David," just in time for him to catch the soundless departure of the ISS ferry.
He couldn't remember the last time he had been this excited about a new gadget. He'd kept his cool through the purchase, not even fidgeting while the sales guy set about downloading his settings from the Orakloud. But the moment the transaction was complete, his stomach started fluttering, and his brain felt like it was filled with helium. Stepping out onto the sidewalk, he worked the new UI with nervous fingers.
"Hello, David," the voice sounded softly in his ears. That was one rumor confirmed: the Gen4 team had decided to bypass the built-in speakers if the user had implants. He could see how that might become annoying at some point, and made a mental note to ferret out the relevant setting. But for now, he was all for letting this sexy voice whisper her tips and recommendations. Remembering an oldies actress he had lusted over as a teenager--Connor? Connery?--he had decided to nickname the voice Jennifer.
But now, only a day later, he remembered an oldie about Wall Street, and her voice suddenly sounded a lot like a Gekko to him.
"Hi David," Jennifer had whispered after the chime. He had nodded twice, allowing her to continue. "There's a new club opening tonight, The Giraffe. I can get you one--or two--VIP tickets at a great price."
"What?"
Startled faces turned to him before hurrying along in the direction of The Village. A quick rush of embarrassment flushed his cheeks at having shouted out loud. But the anger quickly took precedence.
He hated clubs. He hated the noise, hated the mindless drivel that passed for music there, hated dancing. He hated the see-and-be-seen mentality, the white lines on bathroom sinks, the casual VIP room sex. He hated fancy cocktails at twenty bucks a shot, hangovers, crowds, sweaty bodies pressed together--at least, in numbers greater than two. He wouldn't go to a club if they paid him. And he hated new club openings twice over. In fact, with all their other differences, Otto and he were remarkably alike in their hatred of the Big Apple club scene. American Psychos, all.
Told you so.
David could accept that his new Orakl couldn't get it absolutely right every single time. Calibration, a limited data set, it all made sense. Even the manual said it was a lot like starting a new relationship.
But this was too much. No amount of misinterpretation of his cloud history could lead even a halfwit AI to suggest that he go clubbing.
It had to be an ad.
Fair enough, Otto. Even a paranoid gets it right sometimes.
"So you're getting the Gen4?"
Otto had thrown out the question like a challenge and bitten down on his bagel, chunks of avocado and gobs of mayonnaise squeezing from between the whole wheat bagel and avalanching down his chin. He wiped his face with the back of his hand in an absent-minded gesture David knew well, like he knew and recognized the monomaniac cast to Otto's eyes and the determined smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. This was Otto going into mental overdrive, his paranoid glands hitting maximum production, the world disappearing around him as ever-expanding convoluted conspiracy scenarios unrolled in his mind.
It meant that the next bout in their ongoing verbal fencing match was about to commence.
En garde!
"Yes, I am getting the Gen4," David attacked, with a broad anticipatory smile. "And don't start in on me again, Otto. If you want to stick with your ancient iPhone, that's your thing. But some of us like to keep up with their own decennium, if you don't mind."
Otto parried and riposted.
"I don't mind, if you don't mind becoming their marionette within the next month. There's--"
"I'm not--"
For a few seconds, their voices clashed as they fenced for control of the conversation. Otto gained the upper hand.
"--and you'll be tramping from one new coffee shop to the next inane night club, buying tons of crap you don't need, watching brain detergent daytime TV, eating crappy food and having crappy sex, all because your oracle tells you to. And they will sit back and cash their stock options and laugh themselves hernias. You're so gullible!"
From anyone but Otto, it would have been offensive, but David smiled and parried with relish.
"Gullible? I'm gullible? Who's the one eating up this left-wing squatter pamphlet propaganda without even checking if it makes any sense at all? You haven't the first clue about Orakl tech, Otto, and you know it! First of all, this thing"--he tapped the black oblong casing of the Orakl Gen3 between them on the diner table--"doesn't tell me what to do, it just pops up useful information based on what I might be about to do...."
"Same difference."
"No, it's not! I decide, I choose, and this"--he tapped it again--"just pops up the specifics. Like, it's Sunday, and about 11 a.m., and it's learned from previous Sundays that I always go hang out with you at Capu around noon, right? And I have the double with extra milk, hold the cinnamon, and you have the large black with unrefined sugar, and the biobrownie, and I often get a slice of strawberry cheesecake, right? So it asks me if I'm doing Capu today, and pops up a suggestion to pre-order our usuals, right, and I accept. And later"--"David paused for breath--"later, I'm on my way here and I pass near my favorite clothing store, and it's learned my taste in shirts, right, and picks up a sale from the AW, that's the Ambient Web for Cro Magnons like you, and suggests I make a detour and pick up some shirts, but I decline. It's a convenience thing, you know. It--"
"Convenience? That's your argument? You know the kind of shit that's been pulled in the name of convenience? Fossil fuels were convenient; slaves were convenient; asbestos was convenient; just about every war there ever was, was convenient for someone. Hell, Anya was convenient, wasn't she?"
And there she was again. Even though they'd been friends for twelve years, forgiveness was not something Otto did well. Two years ago, David had gone out with Otto's kid sister a few times, and on the third date they'd gotten falling-down drunk and ended up in her bed, doing the nasty. It turned out that the blessing Otto had bestowed on their dating didn't extend that far.
What didn't help was that it all ended in tears when David broke up with her later. He had done his best to let her down easy, but Anya's crush had been huge, and for all his flakiness Otto was a great believer in the relative thicknesses of blood and water.
Anya had forgiven David within a couple of months, and they still hung out together sometimes. More than Anya did with Otto, anyway. She'd been with her current boyfriend for over a year, a music freak like herself and a much better match. She and David had even grown into the occasional joke about their misguided fling.
Otto claimed he'd forgiven David for breaking his kid sister's heart, and their friendship hadn't suffered. But in their verbal fencing, Otto would always manage to drag the affair into it. When that happened, David had learned through painful experience to ignore the feint and counter-attack.
"As if convenience is evil, Otto! You have TiVo, yeah? You autocomplete your texts, yeah? Come to think of it, if convenience is so bad, why haven't you thrown out that relic of a phone? It's convenient to be online all the time, isn't it? God, for a bleeding-heart lefty you're reactionary as hell, you know that? The only thing this... brilliant device does, is take away... help with... It's about the drudgery of details, you know? I decide to go to the gym, and the AWOS suggests a training program and reminds me to bring my towel. The decision is mine, but my Orakl knows what that decision entails. It's like a--"
"--mother," Otto said with a broad, triumphant smile.
Touché.
Laughing, David said, "I was going to say 'secretary,' actually. But 'mother' works, the cool kind of mother who doesn't nag but just thinks of everything."
"So you like it because you're a mama's boy," Otto said, but he was laughing with David.
"Sure, if that floats your boat."
"Glad to have that sorted out. How about another round?"
It was David's turn to smile triumphantly. He flapped his hand at the Gen3, activating the screen. Their usual second order was flashing a subtle green.
"Do you want to stand in line at the bar, or shall I simply touch Accept?"
Otto had grumbled about the lost flirting opportunity at the counter (for which he amply made up when the waitress brought their coffees), and over their second round said he didn't believe people were generally predictable enough for the Orakl to be reliable. David could tell he wasn't entirely serious though, just marking time, until he came back to his pet cause of capitalist conspiracy.
"Give me one reason, Dave, why they wouldn't take advantage. It's too much of an opportunity. First, they get you addicted by giving you three software generations of pampering for next to nothing...."
"You call a couple of hundred for the machine plus a monthly subscription 'next to nothing'?"
"Never mind what it costs. Point is, by now they have you not only relying on the thing, but actually trusting it, putting your faith in a device that they control. So what's to stop them from starting to plug stuff you don't necessarily need, but they want to sell?"
"That's why I pay the subscription, to get objective ambient advice, without ads. There's no percentage in it for your so-called 'them;' I'd catch on immediately if my Orakl suddenly tried to direct me to the spring sale at Macy's. It's like banking; it's a service built on trust. If they lose their trust base, they lose their customers."
"I still think you're naïve and gullible. This next version could be the one, you know."
"I know it's the one. It's the one where they're really mashing up the data they've been collecting, and on everyone in their network. So, as I imagine it, I'm hanging out in Central Park, and the theatre is doing The Taming of the Shrew, and the AWOS knows about the show, and knows I love the Shrew, and knows you're in town and looking for something to do, and suggests I get two tickets and give you a call."
"A, I'm not in your Big Brother Dating Service nightmare of a system, and B, I hate Shakespeare."
"That's not the point. The point is, it's social networking taken to its ultimate conclusion, it's ambient searching to the nth power, it's Web X, it's..." Noticing Otto's amused smirk, David finished with: "It's nothing a Cro Magnon like you can get excited about. Go get your shot of flirting, why don't you, and get us some more coffee. This round's on you."
The sales guy was stonewalling. Worse, he was patronizing.
"I understand your concerns, sir, but it is probably just a glitch. And who knows, maybe you will like this new club. The Giraffe?"
By the time David had made his way back to the Orakl outlet, his anger had abated to irritation. Sure the club suggestion was way off, but he had to admit to himself that his reaction had more to do with Otto's retroactive point-scoring than with the Giraffe gaffe in itself.
And it had been further reduced to only mild irritation when he'd noticed the cute girl behind him in line, also holding a Gen4, and making faces at its screen. They had made eye contact, and mimed their mutual annoyance at the device, and smiled shyly. He was plucking up the courage to invite her for a latte, when it was his turn. Then the sales guy started coming up with reasons to be unhelpful.
David was torn between throwing up his hands in disgust and pulling the guy over the counter. Was he really this thick, or had his sales brainwashing kicked in? He clearly didn't have the first clue about the Orakloud, which was bad for an Orakl salesperson, but he had also completely disregarded David's 'I hate clubs' rant, which was infuriating.
"You're not listening to me! This is an ad! First of all, that's a violation of the license agreement, which, before you ask, yes, I've read! Second--"
"Oh, but the license agreement is between you and Orakl, Inc., sir. We are just the retailer." An arrogant final smugness settled over his features.
"Fine! I'll take it up with them! And you can go... sell shoes!"
Exchanging a final look of complete understanding with the girl, he strode out of the Orakl store, resisting the strong temptation to kick over a display of Gen4s. The glass door onto Broadway gave a satisfying slam.
"Taxi!" he snapped at the Gen4. While he waited for the request to result in a yellow cab at the curb, he paced the sidewalk like the world's smallest, most pissed-off picket line.
"Ex... cuse me?"
David whirled towards the female voice. The girl brandished her Gen4 as if fending off an impending attack. She gave him a hesitant smile.
First he was struck by her eyes, the reddish brown of pine bark, and sparkling with life and intelligence even in their current startled mode. Then he took in her hair, windblown and strawberry. His belly lurched with the sudden realization that she was, in fact, absolutely stunning to his eyes. A second later he also realized that his frustration had almost evaporated, giving ground to a giddy feeling he remembered last feeling in his senior year.
He gave her a quick smile that felt all too goofy on his face.
"Can I help you?" he said, and mentally slapped his forehead. Lame!
Still hesitant, she answered: "I was wondering... I couldn't help overhearing..." And then, all in a rush, "If you're going to Orakl, I'd like to come with."
He blinked, not just at a loss for words, but apparently without language at all. Kicking himself in the ankle, he got his tongue back into gear, but when he opened his mouth he wasn't sure what would come out.
"Yeah. Er, sure. Why not?" And, after some thought, "How come?"
She brandished her Gen4 again. She was still holding his eyes with hers, and it felt like they were in a bubble together, that not so much excluded as was created by the noises and scurrying around them.
"I heard what you told the guy. And I think I have the same issue here. This advice makes no sense at all. It just--"
"Taxi for Davawos?"
His Orakl handle in the driver's voice pierced the bubble. With another of the goofy smiles that were all he had right now, he gestured at the yellow cab, and said, before he could stop himself, "That's us."
They sat on opposite ends of the back seat, facing each other and smiling stupidly as they exchanged an endless series of likes they shared, haunts they both frequented, dishes they loved, music they zoned out on. The cab moved slowly south through the increasing traffic, its navAI having had no trouble in distilling a destination address from David's "Orakl HQ, Manhattan, please."
David felt very little of his furious urgency to confront Orakl anymore. What he really wanted was to take this girl to Capu and keep talking over endless lattes. Four blocks along, it already felt like they'd known each other for ages. But it also felt somehow appropriate, this shared mission, so he let the cab continue towards Wall Street while he drank in her overwhelming presence. Sarah, her name was. Of course it was.
All too soon, the driver announced the Gates Building, Wall Street.
"That's us," she said with a small shrug. David swiped his card without even bothering to adjust the outrageous default tip. Together they exited at the foot of the towering white skyscraper. She grabbed his hand and moved towards the entrance.
"Come on!"
He let himself be dragged into the building, marveling with every step at the feel of her small, firm hand in his.
"Unfortunately, I am not at liberty to divulge that information."
David was beginning to appreciate the attraction conspiracy theories had for Otto. Only a day after the Gen4 launch, and Orakl had upped and moved out, with the receptionist flat-out refusing to admit that she even had a forwarding address for the wayward firm. As far as David was concerned, she could go marry the Orakl sales guy and have a brood of obstinate children.
Sarah, who had been doing the talking, said, "That's just stupid! We're both customers! Why wouldn't you..."
She was all flustered face and clenched fists, and her frustration was renewing his own. But he had a clear view of the receptionist's smug, stubborn expression, and the way she set about reordering her desktop left no room for doubt. They were out of place in the giant white marble lobby, and they were being dismissed.
Outside, David demanded another taxi from Jennifer.
"Check their site?" Sarah suggested, taking his hand again.
"Yeah, and let's see what Bing knows. But I have another idea. I have a friend who--wait."
"Jennifer, text Otto." Otto had caught a flight to LA right after their Capu session yesterday, but for what David wanted to ask him, geographical distance was meaningless.
"Okay," Jennifer whispered in his ear.
"Text is: Otto, can you find me the new Orakl HQ? Details later, but you may have been right about them. End text."
"Message sent," Jennifer said.
While they got into the cab that had appeared, David explained Otto to Sarah.
"So he's odd, weird even maybe, and he is more paranoid than that mad old Australian actor in that oldies conspiracy movie. But he's totally into the whole underground scene. Squatters, left-wing activists, the Watchers: you name it and he knows them. If there's anything fishy--"
Interrupting his explanation, the cabbie asked for a destination. Without much hesitation, David gave him Capu's address in The Village. If nothing came of the HQ search, they could at least have those lattes. And anyway, chances were there would be no one left at Orakl at this time, though he was hoping that they would be working well into the night so soon after their move.
He got out his Gen4 to check the web.
His Skype rang.
It was Otto.
This was so unprecedented that David forgot for a moment how to answer. It wasn't just that he himself rarely used a voice connection anymore. Otto never bothered to call, preferring any kind of data exchange over the bother of real-time dialogue.
"What is it?" Sarah said with concern in her voice.
"That's him," David said, and hit Pick Up.
"What's up, man?"
"So glad I got your message. Pulled me right out of my funk. I was stuck, man. No idea what to do. Never mind everything else, this is actual. You gotta help me man!"
"Ease up, Otto. I am getting googled. What's up?"
"My sis. She's gone!"
"What? Where?"
"Nowhere, man! I've been trying to get to her, but she's nowhere. Completely offline. No status updates for two days!
"And then I got this message, man. Unknown source. I don't know, man. It sounds like she's been grabbed."
"Come on, Otto. Anya's twenty-two, not five. I'm sure she goes offline sometimes."
But he wasn't sure. Even if it was only her private persona that was offline, the one Otto kept tabs on, would she really stop posting updates for that long?
Otto's hysteria was catching.
"I know I don't see her that much, Dave, but she's online 24-7. Twenty-four-seven, David! And that message... let me send it over."
Jennifer chimed in his ear. "Message received. Read?"
He nodded twice. Sarah opened her hand in a question. He held up his own. Wait.
"From: Otto," Jennifer whispered. "Forwarded. From: unknown. Want to see Anya again? Come tonight. And leave the Man at home." An address followed. David could place it, somewhere in the northeastern docklands. Not the most savory neighborhood. Empty warehouses mostly, abandoned office buildings. The City had plans for development, but they hadn't taken off yet. One of the squats where Otto sometimes stayed was around there somewhere.
David felt his hackles rise. This sounded bad.
"Jesus, Otto! No wonder you're freaked out. Listen, you're still in LA, right?"
Otto made an assenting sound. "I'm working out a way to get back to the Apple, but shit, that's going to take a while!"
He had to decide now, he knew. It wasn't a real choice though. It was Anya.
"Okay, so I'm in a cab right now, on the move. Let me check out this address, see what I can see. It doesn't say a time, but it's tonight now, as far as I'm concerned. Let me tether my GPS to you, so you can follow."
"Yeah, you do that, thanks man. Be careful."
Otto hung up and David turned to Sarah. "Change of plan." As quickly as he could, David explained, showing her the message. Her eyes widened in shock. "So I gotta go out there, like, now." He hesitated. He accepted the necessity of what he was about to say, but very much did not want to. "So... where should I drop you off?"
She hesitated for only a second before shaking her head. "I'm not going anywhere," she said, and gave him a brave smile that melted his innards. "I'm coming with."
With a long-lived, wondering frown, the driver accepted his new destination and pointed the cab northwards. High-rises gave way to office and apartment blocks, growing ever more shabby and ill-maintained as they approached their destination. Darkness had closed in on Manhattan, and they drove through the creepy orange light of old sodium lamps. Traffic thinned out, until the occasional cab or patrol car were the only vehicles in sight. The few pedestrians moved furtively.
Live Maps on his Gen4 gave him a real-time view of their progress. By now, three blocks from their destination, most cars they saw were stationary, and more often than not stood on piles of bricks. No more apartment blocks; they were well into the warehouse district. Some of the buildings still showed signs of use: relatively undamaged commercial signs, a view of stored wares, the occasional night watchman. But for every active warehouse, three were derelict, windows shattered, walls hidden behind dozens of overlapping tags.
Two blocks away, David asked the driver to slow down. Their destination address took up most of the final block, right up against the water. He shifted to the middle of the seat, leaning forward and staring hard through the windshield. Sarah moved against him and followed his gaze. Even in the tension of the moment, the feel of her body against his was electrifying.
The warehouse took shape ahead. From behind, it was all but featureless, but there was some kind of antenna shape, wide and bifurcated, sticking up from the side facing the water. David's brain conjured up a fresh set of movie-inspired conspiracy theories.
"Weird," he mumbled.
Then he noticed the steady stream of taxis traversing the cross street along the water. Compared to what they'd seen over the last few minutes, it was like freeway rush hour there.
Then the indistinct, elongated shape along the base of the building resolved into a long line of people.
And Jennifer chimed again. "Audio message received. Play now?"
David nodded, and slowly lifted his eyes until they settled on the antenna sticking out of the building. As the message started playing, he began to see what it really was, and felt hysterical laughter threaten. Before the first words of the message sounded, he was convinced he knew who it was.
"Hey Dave!" Anya's exuberant voice sounded. There was an incredible cacophony of noise in her background. "My Orakl said you were near. I should have known Otto would send you, the flake." She giggled. "My set starts in fifteen. Gimme a call when you've parked, 'kay?"
The cab had stopped at the curb, the driver turned around for further instructions. David was still staring at the thing sticking out of the warehouse roof. And so, it turned out, was Sarah, who had of course completely missed the message delivered through his implant.
"Is that what I think it is?"
Her voice echoed the laughter that wanted to escape his belly. Nice going, Anya. Famous enough already to go by your first name, huh?
"Yeah, it is. If you're thinking giant giraffe, it is." Or at least, the neck and head of one.
The message no doubt had made complete sense to the clubbing initiates. Even the Man reference: that scene loved to play the underground card.
"Just got a message from Otto's sister. She's inside. Sounds like she has the opening gig."
"What? So she's not missing? And she's a DJ?"
"Yeah. At least, she always wanted to be, always totally into music. But she's come far if she's playing here, now."
He shook his head. Otto, you paranoid fruitcake. Though he wouldn't put it past Anya to have designed the invite specifically to freak Otto out.
He glanced at the back of the giraffe's head again, and snorted. Through her fingers, she laughed with him. A moment later, gales of their intermingled laughter filled the taxi.
"I'll give Otto a call, let him know everything's fine," David said when they'd calmed down. "And Anya asked if I'd call her when I arrived. But after that, how about a latte?"
"So what's our final verdict on Gen4?" he asked Sarah with milk foam on his lip. When he'd gotten Anya on the line, he'd half-heartedly tried to offer to make it into the Giraffe, but she knew how he felt about clubs and told him not to bother. "Besides," she'd said, "you'd probably need VIP tickets by now to make it in before 2am. What? What's so funny about that?"
With Anya contacted, and Otto reassured, he had asked their cabbie to take them to Capu. Sarah sipped from her cappuccino and tilted her head.
"Well... it was on the money about the Giraffe, obviously. Well, except that it needs to learn not to send you clubbing for any reason." He smiled at that. She took out her Gen4 and stared wonderingly at the screen. "But that still doesn't explain... oh." A furious blush stole over her face. "Oh!" Her quick glance was the very definition of embarrassment.
"You never did tell me what your issue was, did you?"
Wordlessly, her blush deepening, she handed him her Orakl. He glanced at the message, time stamped just minutes before they met. She must have received it when he was already in the store, or the AWOS could never have made the match.
It said, "Bring clean underwear and a toothbrush."
"Oh," he said, and felt his own cheeks heat up. She lifted her gaze, and the smile that broke through her embarrassment was desire incarnate.
Turning off their Gen4s, he leaned over to kiss her.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 25th, 2013


This entire story was inspired by two words, handed to me as a story seed at a writing workshop: ambient web. As sometimes happens, the term triggered a subconscious associative process, so that by the time I had had a chance to think about what manner of thing the ambient web might conceivably be, my mind had already created a kind of Gestalt image of the entire story. All that was left to do, it seemed, was write it down. It’s never that easy, though.

A few hours of fast and furious writing ensued, starting with the fencing match at Capu. As also happens sometimes, David and Otto seemed to be having their latte-drenched conversation within earshot, and all I had to do was type fast enough to keep up. But when David told Otto to get the next round, I ran out of steam, at a complete loss about where the story should go next. I was stuck.

The story needed to simmer for four whole years before I finally realized that the Capu fencing match wasn’t actually the first scene. Only when I wrote the ‘told you so’ bit that goes before it did the story finally take off. Only goes to show that I couldn’t write a story with a straightforward timeline to save my life.

And in the convenience/privacy discussion, I’m firmly on David’s side. Bring Orakl on! I wonder if iOS or Android will be first to get there?

- Floris M. Kleijne

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