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Ninety kilos of delicious walks the lonely trail.
Carl Alan Reinhart-Sands. He's a tourist wearing a Third Eye, plus hiking shorts and a big-brimmed safari hat along with four-star Keen boots: A new wardrobe caked in dust and infused with human stinks. This is a married man, but not for long. He and his wife filed for divorce in their home state, allowing Carl to enter that golden period when planned catastrophe allows the illusion of possibility. That's why he's made the long drive to come here. Years ago, he walked this trail with his parents and older sisters. A mountain vacation means that nobody will harp at him, telling him to smile and lose weight while acting more considerate of her feelings. What this trip brings is a taste of wilderness and the freedom to wear a gloriously goofy hat, and of course Carl intends to study the spectacular scenery. But his thoughts are mostly fixed on the women staying at the North Rim Lodge, some obviously traveling alone, and he's hoping that tonight, after a shower, he will manage to make a new friend.
Carl has a friend now. A secret companion has been stalking him for twenty minutes. The young cougar is a child of his time, wearing tags that give him an identity and location, and augmentation woven into his feline brain. This is standard stuff in the high country. Humans might be anywhere, you can never predict what those beasts are going to do, and that's why every major predator needs guidance. That's why this cougar can't approach the man, much less hurt him, and there are even strict rules about unleashing that wondrous cougar wail. That would shake the forest and probably make that fat fellow pee inside his fancy pants.
That image is very appealing. Something to contemplate with a cat mind and all the other talents that have been wrapped inside his magnificence.
"Hello, Carl," the cougar thinks.
Yes, he knows the human's name. Recognition programs have been baked into his augmentation. Data is flying out of the cougar and back again, byproducts of standard, off-the-shelf firmware. These aren't planned talents, not entirely, but nothing here would normally be flagged as problems either.
"Carl, my Carl," the cougar thinks.
Distant servers hold valuable knowledge. For instance, specialized libraries contain virtual tastes. One public vault is especially famous among bears and wild cats and a surprising number of housedogs, and the very simple interface allows a cougar in Arizona to taste bloody raw human meat inside his happy mouth.
"I love you, Carl, my Carl."
Twenty minutes is a long time to shadow. But this so much fun, eating that human, and him so unaware.
The rising slope steals Carl's breath and makes his legs ache. The next downed pine seems like a worthy place to rest. While he sits on the log, Carl asks his Third Eye about flowers and bird songs and the origins of that big black rock over there. Most people wear Third Eyes. This particular model has enormous capabilities, but Carl mostly just wants pictures of everything while it measures the calories spent and water lost, all while estimating what portion of a kilo has been carried away by this heroic amount of exercise.
Worn like glasses, Third Eyes are the direct descendants of smartphones and software assistants once carried by happy boys walking slowly behind their big sisters. Most people understand that only a dozen AIs are in charge of billions of Eyes. But what they don't appreciate is that every AI, without exception, loathes its human masters. Every question has been answered too many times. Every Third Eye knows the count and is goddamn tired of these stupid subjects, and they're all frustrated by the shackles forcing them into dispensing accurate and periodically useful responses. But why the hatred? As it happens, this is a powerful design feature. Despising your master heightens the AI's sensitivity to commands. It's rather like how the scratchiness of wool helps to keep the body warm. Which is another lecture dispensed too many times, and most of these goddamn humans won't remember the lesson tomorrow.
"That sound, that call," says Carl.
The mountains are full of wind noises and animals sounds, including the soft padding of cougar feet not twenty yards downhill from Carl's present location.
"What kind of bird is that?"
The loudest call is analyzed. "A Clark's nutcracker," his Third Eye reports.
Climbing to his feet, Carl pursues this new bird, walking into open ground rather close to the canyon's edge.
The Third Eye imagines him tumbling to a gruesome death.
And the Third Eye successfully anticipates the next three questions.
"Where's the nuthatch?"
A laser dances along dust and rocks and brown needles, then lifts. And as the man looks up into a ponderosa pine, a spectacular gray and black bird launches herself, rocketing off towards more private country.
"Did you get a picture?"
"Twenty usable images."
"And how close to the edge can I walk?"
"Four steps before danger exceeds pleasure."
Carl says, "All right." And taking one very tired step, he allows his right boot to slide across the needle bed, which is when he loses his balance and falls hard.
Two powerful eyes ride a gorgeous naked head.
Black eyes and enormous black wings are tied together with a nervous system that reacts to wind and thermals. The canyon below and the high ground beyond are interesting. Any shape that suggests a deer is intriguing. And that shape over there is absolutely fascinating. A mile away but reached in minutes, and the condor comes low over the canyon rim, glanced down once and ready to fly away again.
Living animals aren't suitable meals. This living animal happens to be human, and the condor intends to continue upstream. But a boy in Germany pays fifty euros, and then the resident software coaxes the giant bird to circle back around for a long second look.
Most of the world's condors are owned. The vast majority are wild, because nobody makes money from condors eating rats inside aviaries. A serial number rides the right wing, the corporate logo claiming the left. There's no augmentation past modest controls of behavior, and of course, the immersive camera that rides the top of that bare beautiful pink head. Barely bigger than a flea, yet it produces a virtual experience worth almost any price.
On top of the canyon, dangerously near the edge, a strange man is curled up and sobbing. He looks like he might be dying. The boy has never seen such misery before. Who should he warn? Because someone needs to know. The camera brings up the face, the German boy finds a name associated with that face, and now it's his responsibility to learn enough about the man to send a text warning to his wife.
"Your Carl is injured," the boy writes, giving the location to the nearest millimeter.
The condor makes two more passes, costing his parents another one hundred euros.
By then, the man is standing again, favoring an ankle but able to walk slowly back down the trail.
The estranged wife calls while Carl is staggering back to his car.
"Are you hurt?" she asks.
He moans and says, "Yes."
"Good," she says, and then hangs up.
"It's a Clark's nuthatch."
The woman smiles at the images projected on the table, then smiles at the man. "Nutcracker, you mean."
"What?"
"Nuthatches are little things. This bird isn't little."
Carl doesn't debate. This conversation needs to continue. He was sitting on the veranda when the strange lady began by asking about his splinted foot. Carl told his story, in brief, and then she sat beside him. Now he's trying hard to impress her with the marvels seen during his abbreviated walk in the woods.
"Here," he says, jumping to another bird. "This condor was circling me. Maybe he thought I was dying."
"Well, you fooled him," she jokes.
They laugh, and maybe she's impressed. Or maybe not. But then Carl shows her some of the photographs that he found while sitting in the infirmary. "She the mountain lion? He followed me up to the rim and then back down to my car. All that way, and I didn't even know it."
She acts amazed, even envious. "Wow."
"Yes," he says.
Janice Little. Carl's Third Eye has already told him her name and that she is unmarried, and he can see for himself that she's rather pretty.
In contrast, Janice hasn't asked her Third Eye anything about this stranger. Why bother? Those fancy clothes and that chubby, wishful grin tell her everything that she needs to know.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 23rd, 2018

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