Our Second Lives

 

‘Where Immortality Becomes Reality’ the holographic cube spelled as it danced in front of Mary’s eyes. She shifted in her seat and tried to read the pamphlet she took from the table in the waiting room. It covered the basics of the procedure, but lacked any reassurance for her anxious mind.

Johnathan noticed and blinked off his social media outlet, Wal. “It’s going to be okay.”  

She smiled, creasing every wrinkle on her face. Johnathan returned the same smile, as he grabbed on to her sweat-coated hand. Her head fell into its usual resting place on his shoulder.

A nurse walked through double doors on the other side of the room. Her gaze was blank as her Itacts fed her information directly into her eyes. “Mr. and Mrs. Wilkins.”

Johnathan raised his hand. “Doctor Hader will see you now.” The nurse smiled in a way that was as much a part of the advertising as the cube was.

Both Johnathan and Mary stood up with their hands still clasped together. They followed the young nurse down the hallway. Her eyes continued to glow as she typed various messages on her Itacts. At the end of the hallway she opened the door and nodded to them before she turned and left without saying a word.

On the right side was a large bookshelf. Various neutral-colored books filled the wall. They reminded Johnathan of the way his students used to bring pristine books to class while swearing they read them. Pictures of children and vast cities lined the other wall. Mary recognized those as the pictures that came with the frames. The far wall was a large window peering out into the vast city outside. Dark towers were illuminated by thousands of stars contained within them. Buildings outlined by the tangerine glow of the setting sun.

In the center of the large room was a white desk with two matching chairs in front. At the desk sat a young man in a black uniform, scrolling through his Wal messages on his Itacts. When they sat down he blinked off his glowing display.

“So, you folks are here to secure your new life, right?” Doctor Hader said, as he leaned forward on his desk.

“Yes,” Johnathan nodded.

“Well, I’m not so sure,” Mary began, cutting off Johnathan. “Can I ask a few questions?”

The doctor’s eyes flashed green, indicating he got a message on the Wal. His grin faded. “Of course.”

“I have read a lot about this, Transcendence you are calling it, but I still don’t understand exactly how the transfer works.”

“Well, I won’t bore you with the technical details.  What happens is we plug you into our computers which will replicate your mental processes into your new electroplastic brain. Then we will provide you with a new body to house it.”

“I know,” Mary stated. Johnathan could tell she was fighting off annoyance by tone of her voice.

“Honey,” Johnathan interrupted with a polite smile.

“Now,” Mary continued ignoring her husband, “I’ve followed the news stories about the banning of cloning human tissue because of the Genetics War in China.” Johnathan stiffened and dropped the smile on his face. “How does the lack of natural human parts affect people?”

“We replicate the human body with as close to perfection as humanly possible. We use a Silicon mesh with leather exterior. It forms calluses and transmits sensory detail exactly like human tissue.”

“How does that substitute real human tissue?”

“It is the best we can do under the law of the Nora Agreement. Until the Neorepublicans repeal that law we have to make synthetic human bodies for the Transcendent population. But surveys have said that 89% of people have been fine with the new skin type. 34% of people even prefer it.”

“People today,” Mary whispered under her breath.

“I’m sorry?” Hader said. His eyes had flashed indicating a notification.

“Nothing,” Johnathan said, preventing his wife from speaking.  

“So, are we in agreement to proceed?” Hader asked in the most chipper tone he has had since they had come into the office.

Mary frowned. “Can I think about it?”

“Of course, honey,” Johnathan said. He stood up.

“Are you sure? This is a great opportunity! Immortality has finally been achieved. Why would you deny this? This is the closest we have ever gotten to achieving Godhood!”

“Maybe we aren’t ready to be Gods,” Mary said walking out of the office with Johnathan.

They walked to their Transit a gray, oval, pod. It drifted off the balcony of the hundred and thirtieth story. They sat down in the pale interior at a small table with two chairs facing each other. There were large oval windows on both sides and enough space to move around the cabin.  

“Car, Home please,” Johnathan commanded.

“Of course sir,” the car’s friendly female voice responded. The vehicle lifted away from the balcony and drifted into traffic.

Johnathan looked at his wife and reached out for her hand. She withdrew and narrowed her eyes.

“I don’t want to do this.” Mary stated.

“Why not? Our life could continue, forever.” he cleared his throat. “Together.”

“But it won’t be us.”

“Why do you think that? Of course it will be us.”

“Trapped. Stuck in some unnatural body.” Her face twists in repulsion. “Humans were meant to die, it is the natural order of things.”

“But you don’t understand, you have never seen someone die!  I have! I watched men, my men, die in the Genetics War. I watched the light leave their eyes. I saw the hollowness that was left. I know my days are numbered after all the gene splicing they did…” He paused, his throat throbbed on his vocal cords.

Mary’s eyes had darted away from him but she did interject anything.

Johnathan choked back the pain. “I talked to men who died and came back. There isn’t anything else after this and I am scared of the void, the emptiness consuming everything I was. I don’t sleep anymore. It’s all I think about!” Anger seeped into his indigo eyes. He stood up and walked over to the window. The city was a blur of black and amber as their Transit darted past miles of city in seconds.

Mary could see the pain he carried but hated being talked down to like this. “So the answer is to give up what made us human become a Syn?”

“A Syn?” Johnathan snapped, “Now you are starting to sound like that zealot Father Marius. Preaching about the natural order and that we should die so that we can meet God or worse. That we are cowards because we refuse to accept our sins and go to hell like decent monsters used to. Well I did dark things in the war, alright? I killed children. I killed defenseless men and women. I watched people fighting for their families. For their basic human rights, be defiled and murdered. After that I thought life was pointless.” He paused letting the anger go before he concluded with, “But you gave me purpose.”

Mary’s gaze snapped back to him, her glare grew sharp. “And you think my purpose is to exist for you despite my beliefs? As if the only thing I do is live so that your world works. Well maybe our love won’t last forever.”

“We have arrived at our destination sir,” the Transit said as it opened the door to their apartment balcony.

Mary walked out onto the balcony in silence and began tending to her garden. She snipped tomatoes, looked at the pineapple bush for a ripe one, found two and put them in a basket. She carried them inside to cut them.

Johnathan stood on the balcony to let his heart rate slow down. He surveyed her garden. The balcony had become a tropical forest. Pineapple bushes, tomato plants, any fruit that didn’t grow on trees had a place somewhere in his wife’s oasis. She had grown a fully organic garden in this sterile environment. Creating an island of nature in a desert of concrete and metal. He took one last breath and walked inside.

In the kitchen, Mary was at the counter trying to reach the top cabinet. “Always had trouble with that cabinet,” he muttered to himself. He reached up and grabbed the wash rag from the top shelf and said, “I’m sorry honey.”

“Go through with it,” she said. “You don’t have much time left I understand that. It must be difficult. But I can’t do it. It’s not natural.”

He touched her arm and she spun around and embraced him. He felt her warm tears on his shirt as he returned the hug. She looked up at his face, a whole half foot above hers and stood up on her toes and gave him a gentle kiss. “I love you and don’t want to stand in the way of you doing what you want, just as you can’t stand in the way of what I want.”

“But I’m happiest when I’m with you. Please come with me, we can continue our life together.”

Her lips recoiled with hesitation. “Listen, you are the love of my life. But that life needs to end.”

“But, what about our love?” Johnathan asked.

“That will be up to you.”

#

Johnathan and Mary arrived at the hospital a week later for the operation. Doctor Hader briefed them before the procedure, “Once your consciousness is fully integrated we will wake you up and you will be a new man. Have you given any thought to what you want your new face to look like? If you would like to return to a point in your life, we just need a picture to base the face off of. Otherwise you can design it now or let it be random.”

“Why would someone pick random?” Mary asked.

“Some people like the idea of getting a fresh start and mimic the birthing process as much as possible. Don’t worry, the face retains the basic structure it just might not turn out… attractive. Or if you’d prefer, there is a catalog of facial parts for you to choose from if you’d like to look through it. We have over 250 ears, 300 mouths and a startling 400 noses.” A holographic catalog appeared in the room between them and displayed various body parts.

“Also,” Hader continued, “if you’d like to alter the purple eye thing I understand. Some ignorant people will already have prejudices against you when you become a Transcendent. Perhaps, it would be better to not be an augmented that those Liberals are always protesting.” Johnathan frowned.

“That’s alright, I have a picture for you,” Johnathan said. He activated his Itact. An image of his face from forty years ago when he was thirty-eight appeared in the room.

The doctor’s eyes widen and said, “Can I ask why then? When most people want to return to an age they normally want their twenties.”

“It was the last time I found a new life,” he said turning and smiled at Mary. She returned the gesture.

“Okay, well I copied the image and they will begin constructing the face. I will leave you two alone while you prepare. Whenever you are ready just go through these doors,” Doctor Hader said. He got up and left through the sliding double doors behind him into a dark surgical room.

Johnathan turned to his wife. Tears were flowing down her face as she stared at him. He stood up and helped her to embrace him as she broke down into sobs. They held each other for a long moment. She lifted her head up and crushed her lips against his with more force than his lips had felt in years. He returned the force for a few seconds and then pulled away; parting with his lips for the final time. He said, “You are the love of my whole life.”

“And you are the love of my life too,” she said, letting him out of her arms. She watched in silence as he walked around the desk and disappeared into the dark room.

Two hours later Mary stood up when Doctor Hader came through the big white doors from the inner hospital. Behind him followed the exact same man she fell in love with the first time she had ever laid eyes on him. Everything was there, the dark hair, the strong jaw line, the stout nose, even the tender indigo eyes. But his smile was the same as it was hours before. Loving and full of joy but it was off-putting without the wrinkles that used to crease his cheeks.

Her eyes filled with tears as she rushed into his embrace. He returned in a strength she hadn’t felt in years but something was off. The skin was of a leather texture and if felt strange to her. She looked up to him, then to the doctor with a frown.

Doctor Hader said. “You grow used to it as time goes on. Most people…”

Mary stopped listening as he trailed off to talk about studies about this effect.

Johnathan said, “It’ll be okay sweetheart,” and leaned down to kiss her with his soft, strong lips.

#####

Later that night, when they were climbing into bed together Johnathan began to kiss Mary’s wrinkled neck. Mary froze for a second letting the soft tingle of heat and moisture fill her neck. It had been some time. “We should make sure everything in this new body works,” he said as he moved closer.

Mary rolled into him pushing her body against his which felt like falling onto a leather couch that had baked in the sun too long. She pulled away after a few seconds and pushed him so fast he almost fell off the bed.

“What?”

“I can’t. It-it, just feels too weird. You look young enough to be our son and you feel more like the car seats than like you.” Her eyes had shrunk as if she had just rolled into a stranger.

“It is okay honey. I understand it will be an adjustment. That is fine. We can wait,” Johnathan said with very little emotion as he climbed back onto his side of the bed and turned the light off. “You will get used to it, soon.”

“I hope so.” Her voice still held the edge of anxiety.  

Mary didn’t sleep that night. She tossed and turned, like the wind on a rainy night. Every time she brushed up against his artificial skin she was reminded of his new deformity. She tried sleeping far away from him but she could still see his face in the pale moonlight. The face she had only seen in pictures for years. The face she married but had long since faded. The face of a familiar stranger sharing her bed. Finally, she got up and went to sleep on the couch. Not the leather one but the soft polyester one where there were no reminders of him.

In the morning Johnathan noticed her absence and found her on the couch, asleep. As he approached, her head stirred and she looked up at him.

Her eyes flashed with confusion and fear for a moment before she recognized him. She sighed at the thought and sat up and spoke in a tired whisper, “I’m sorry. I thought I could handle this but I can’t. Not yet. I’m going to continue to sleep on this couch for the time being until I can get used to your… new body.”

“That is fine, sweetie,” Johnathan said with a smile.

After weeks past were every brush sent a look of disgust. Where every other time he would walk into a room it would take her a heart beat to reconfigure he he was. Weeks of long silences and sharp looks.

One day when Johnathan handed her a coffee cup in the morning her fingers brushed his. She gasped and let the cup drop to the ground, shattering on the tile of the kitchen. Johnathan did move to clean it up, instead he asked in neutral tone, “Are you ever going to be able to touch me?”

“Honestly,” Mary said letting the irritation mount in her voice, “no. I hate your body. It feels wrong, it feels more like furniture than skin. The heat it gives off is uneven, your arms are freezing at night and you look too young. You like our wedding photo and I can’t stand it. Here I am, old and decrepit and there you sit with your youth, and your fake body.”

“Well, you would not be so old if you had done the procedure,” Johnathan said an edge cutting into his even tone.

“And what? Become an armchair? Feel forty years older than I look? Live with the contradiction of age with youth? And what to walk down the street and have people look at me like a robot. Don’t pretend you haven’t noticed the way people look at you!”

“I think you are jealous that women are looking at me now,” Johnathan the tone of his voice continued to rise but stopped short of a yell. His face shifted from anger to regret the instance he said it.

“Well, if you want to be with those women maybe you should leave me. I’m too old for you. I’m too slow and unattractive. You deserve, better don’t you?” Mary asked with a glare harder than the steel alloy that made up Johnathan’s new bones.

Johnathan’s voice a tint of desperation in it. “That is not what I meant.”

“No. It’s exactly what you have been thinking. I see it in your eyes. You are becoming like every other Syn aren’t you? Abandoning your old life and commitments. Taking up a life of partying because what consequences do you have to live with? You have a perfect metabolism and eternal youth!”

“You have been watching that Father Marius, again.”

“I follow him on the Wal. Yes.” Her chin pointed up towards him.

“Maybe you are right. I should not live in a house with one of the ‘Flock,’” Johnathan sneered at the phrase.

“Oh, now I am in the ‘Flock’ because I subscribe to his Wal?”

“You believe his racist propaganda. It’s turning you against me.”

“I have to be on your side all the time? Beside who are you to call me a bigot? You hate the Chinese more than any-”

Johnathan slammed his fist down on the wooden kitchen table so hard that ended with a crack. A tense silence engulfed the room. When he spoke his voice sounded like dull thunder but felt more subdued that it had in the past, “You were the only person in the world who understood what I went through there. The hell that I went through. The things they did to their own people. The New Yin Revs committed horrible atrocities and it had to stop!”

“They were simply trying to get rights for the working class. The cloning was immoral, and then they were being worked to death—”

“Forty years of marriage,” Johnathan glowered, “You never disagreed with me that the New Yins were evil. You never once questioned or brought up what happened there? Why now? Is it Father Marius? Do you trust him more than your own husband?”

“I have changed my opinion.” Her hands were shaking as she spoke, but her voice stayed consistent. “It happens from time to time.”

“The minute you start questioning what happened during the Genetics War is the minute you lose whatever shred of love I have clung to.”

“I already lost that,” Mary said.

“Then I’m leaving,” Johnathan said standing up. He walked into the bedroom to pack his things.

Mary sat there in the empty kitchen and stared at shattered coffee cup watching the steam rise and disappear fade into the air.

The next week Johnathan called Mary on his Itact. His voice  stayed static but there was light in his eyes when the image of her appeared in front of his eyes. She looked tired and sick but smiled anyway. “I’m sorry,” Johnathan said. “We both said some things that shouldn’t have…”

“Where did you go?” Mary asked, “I looked up on the account and it says you charged to a cheap motel in Slicervile. Are you alright? Sy… Transcendents like you get snatched down there all the time for parts and I have been worried—”

 

“Don’t worry, it is temporary. I am getting an apartment in the Midtown tomorrow.” Johnathan licked his lips and said, “Unless you want me to come back…”

“I do,” Mary began before having the smile on her face fade. “But you can’t, not yet. I love you but I’m not ready yet.”

“When will you be ready?” Johnathan asked in a whisper.

“I don’t know, but I will visit you, and try to ease into it. Okay?”

#####

In the interim months they saw each other on a biweekly basis. Johnathan’s smile stretched all the way across his face but slowly faded every time she wouldn’t ask him to return to their home.

To Mary, the anxiety of seeing his youth again plagued her before every visit. Every time she saw him her disgust grew deeper, as he stood there, unchanged and unnatural.

One day, months later, while Johnathan was sitting in his small room watching something sent to him by a friend. The video was a show about a man trying to move past the weight of the war by falling in love with a younger woman. His Itact lens flashed with a call. The image flashed to life in front of his eyes as he saw a young woman. She had the face of youth but the expression that only comes with age. Most likely fellow Transcendent.

“Excuse me, sir, I have unfortunate news. Your wife had an accident.”

“What?” Johnathan sprung to his feet.

“It seems she was trying to reach something high in the kitchen when she slipped and impaled herself on a knife she was carrying. She is far too fragile to operate on and has lost too much blood to save. If you-” Johnathan had rushed out of the door  and ignored everything else the woman said.

He barreled into his Transit and commanded it to speed to the hospital. It obeyed and within twenty heart pounding minutes he had arrived at the nearby hospital.

Johnathan wandered the halls of the same place he had ascended several months earlier. As he made his way to the front counter the robotic receptionist looked up. It had a smiling face molded into it that seemed incapable of change. It looked at Johnathan and said, “How may I help?” Its voice was electric yet warm.

“I need to see Mary Wilkins. I am her husband Johnathan Wilkins.”

“Of course,” it replied. There was a brief pause from the automaton. Once it had processed the request it snapped its head toward Johnathan. “I am afraid I cannot let you do that, Mr. Wilkins. She is currently in critical condition. But according to the doctors notes she will most likely not survive.”

Johnathan slammed his fist down on the counter in front of the machine that thundered with a crack. The machine said something in return but Johnathan couldn’t hear it. He was too focused on his fist and his strength. Something he couldn’t have done before his procedure. After a second of contemplation his head snapped up toward the robot. “As her next of kin I demand to see the doctor residing over her.”

The machine nodded and summoned the doctor at once. After a few minutes an older Asian woman walked through the door. Johnathan felt a quick jolt of anxiety as his body simulated his skipping a heartbeat.

She smiled as she walked up to him, “How can I help you Mr. Wilkins?”

“How can you save my wife?” Johnathan pleaded.

“I am very sorry, sir. We can’t. ”

“Her injuries are too severe for us to operate on her,” the doctor continued.

“What if we performed the Transcendence operation? Could that save her?” Johnathan’s voice was shaking.

“Only if she had given consent before we begin—“

“That is enough doctor,” a cool, familiar voice cut her off from behind Johnathan. Standing behind him was Doctor Hader in his black Eternium uniform. “I will take it from here,” he said with a smile.

Johnathan turned to see what the Asian Doctor had to say. She glared at both Johnathan and Doctor Hader before storming off.

“Ignore her.” Doctor Hader placed a hand on Johnathan’s shoulder. “Now tell me what is wrong with your wife…”

Johnathan explained what had happened. Doctor Hader listened very carefully. At the end explained a legal loophole that allowed Johnathan to use his marital statues to substitute for her consent.

“The document I have laid out before you also states that this is something she would give consent for if she was able. Also, that neither of you will perform any legal action against Eternium.”

Johnathan knew her. He knew she would never want to become a Transcendent. But she did love him, he knew that and when push came to shove they would always do what they needed to do for each other. But who needed more help now?

Johnathan looked past Hader into the night sky, praying for an answer. In that moment, he thought that the lights of the city out shined the lights of the stars above them. He looked down at the lengthy legal document on the tablet screen and silently picked up the stylus.

#####

Johnathan sat in the waiting room in the same chair Mary had sat in when he came out a new man all those months ago.  Tears filled his eyes with worry. His mind couldn’t even begin to access his Itacts for any form of entertainment.

After several hours of waiting, she walked through the door. The same woman he had fallen in love with all those years ago. She was tall, much taller than Doctor Hader who had accompanied her. Her hair was long and black that framed bright green eyes that always matched the way she used to look at the world. But her eyes weren’t as warm as he remembered them, they seemed cold and distant. He went to hug her but she did nothing in return. Johnathan looked at her, then back at Hader.

He shrugged and said, “The operation was a complete success. She was talking a minute ago.”

Johnathan returned to face her with a puzzled look on his face. This time fury was filling her eyes. Johnathan took a slight step back and looked at Hader.

“You are free to go whenever you want. We will message the bill later…” he trailed off before leaving the tense silence of the room.

Johnathan didn’t say anything. He led her through the halls of the hospital to the Transit and told it to take them home. They both sat in the floating room as the dying lights of the city gave way to only the darkness of the night.

As they approached their home Johnathan spoke first, “Look I understand that you are angry with me–“

“Angry?” Mary said, cutting him off. “Angry that you turned me into this abomination of nature? Yes, I am very angry. Why would you do this to me?”

“Because I love you! Because I wanted to save you!” Johnathan yelled, anger and pain choking his voice.

“I did not want you to save me, and you never did love me,” her voice grew quiet and sharp. “If you did, you would have understood that this is not something that I would have wanted. It makes me less human, less than who I am.”

Johnathan’s mind tossed about for a few seconds, as he tried to determine whether anger or pain was correct. His fist tightened on the table, “What are you going to do? Leave after I saved your life?”

Mary’s eyes widened but before she could say anything the Transit stopped at their apartment. The door slid open as Mary stood up and walked out of the Transit.

Johnathan followed her out onto the balcony amid her garden. Most of her fruit had been harvested as the seasons shifted away from the warm life giving summer. The hanging greens looked withered and dead in the pale, artificial, light of the balcony.

Mary turned to face him. He couldn’t help but think how beautiful she was despite the anger on her face.

His focus on her beauty faded as the words came out, “I’m leaving you.” Her tone flat and emotionless.

“But,” he stammered out, “you are the love of my life. Both can continue now.”

“Did you really think our love would last forever just because we did?”

“Yes,” Johnathan whispered.

“Everything deserves to die at some point.”

She shook her head and stepped into the darkness of the apartment.

Johnathan turned around as the first light of a new day started to peek out through the gray buildings of the city. He stood amid the dead plants and watched sun rise alone.

 

END.

By: Andrew J. Gleason

Andrew Gleason currently lives in Chicago with his girlfriend teaching children with Autism. He went to Ohio University and came out of it with a Psychology Degree and a minor in English to satisfy his real passion for telling stories.  

 

PASSING THE TORCH

 

Klaxons drown out the screams.  I smell smoke and the dust from shattered concrete.  I’m standing just inside Johnson’s lab, surrounded by stainless steel fermenters and rows of refrigerators, in front of shelves of shattered glass vials and test tubes trembling in their racks.  At the end of a counter I see the desktop monitor that Johnson must have used and I lunge toward it.  There’s another rumble and the lights flicker.

It’s a computer that got me here.  Four months ago, a machine intelligence on a Defense Intelligence Agency server registered my intrusion.  It reached out through the web and followed my encrypted trail back through a series of rerouted networks, past a proxy server and onto my firewalled laptop.

I thought I had escaped detection.  I spent a fair portion of the last afternoon of my normal life trying to convince my girlfriend that I had not just blamed her for my hack of the Department of Defense.  “I was only saying that I wouldn’t have figured out the connection on my own,” I explained in my best reasonable-sounding voice.

“If I had thought that would make you start breaking federal laws I probably would have kept my ideas to myself.”

“I had to see what they were hiding.”

Jenna had been doing research on computer architecture for the past six months, and for reasons that apparently had not involved wanting me to break computer abuse statutes she had traced a handful of patents to a pair of shadowy government contractors and started to speculate about their use.  What if the Defense Intelligence Agency’s hypothetical surveillance-directed artificial intelligence, publicly disavowed by Administration officials, wasn’t just hypothetical?  What if it already existed?  She was only interested in computers peripherally.  Because she was dating a software engineer, she wanted to explore the potential of biocomputing.  But once she’d asked her questions, I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about them.

“These are people who can put you on trial without even letting your lawyers know what the charges are,” she said.

“I know what I’m doing.  They’re not going to find me.”  By the time I said that, though, her comments were already beginning to sow doubt.  One of Jenna’s defining attributes is— was— that she was almost always right.  Whatever the critical issue was, and no matter how deeply buried it was beneath compelling distractions, she usually homed in on it instantly.  It’s what made her such a brilliant biochemist.  Unfortunately, that was not always a skill in high demand among people whose sense of worth or career advancement depended on self-delusion, obfuscation or generally sloppy thinking, which seemed to be the main reason why her department chair and academic colleagues never let her rise above the position of adjunct professor.

“If you get a trial,” she said.  “If they don’t just lock you up immediately.”

“Jenna, you were right about the AI.  But that’s only the beginning.  I saw digital copies of signed construction contracts for something called the Impregnable Stronghold.  It’s a massive underground fortress to house government leaders.  They’re preparing for nuclear war.”

Jenna looked up.  Three black SUVs with tinted windows glided up the driveway and stopped in front of the split level.  The armored doors of the closest vehicle opened and two men in black suits emerged from the 12-cylinder Ford hybrid.  One scanned the street and yard while the other walked back to the middle vehicle and opened one of the rear doors.  A large man with a graying buzz-cut and a fashionably tight-fitting charcoal suit climbed out and strode up to Jenna’s front door.

“I guess they found me after all,” I said.

The guy with the buzz-cut asked to see me.  When I stepped past Jenna he introduced himself as Colonel Henrick Forsman.  “Would you care to take a walk, Mr. Young?”

I wondered what would happen if I refused, but not quite enough to test it, particularly since it seemed like a good idea to find out what Colonel Forsman was there to say.  I also had the irrational thought that getting some physical distance from Jenna would help to insulate her from my felony.  We stepped out into the half acre field of ryegrass behind the house.  The development was a few years old, and there were no fences between the houses’ back yards, just a long open space bordered on the far side by oak and maple trees.

“How did you find me here?” I asked.

Forsman ignored the question.  His body language seemed remarkably relaxed for someone who might be about to take me away in handcuffs.  But his pale blue eyes were studying me, appraising.  “How did you break in?”

I wasn’t going to make things worse by lying.  “The random number generator you use for encryption isn’t actually random.”

“Keep talking.”  Forsman stopped walking, and I stopped beside him.  We were midway between the woods and the house.

“One of your contractors posted a reference to the encryption key system on an internal message that was copied in a document that was very briefly posted online.”

Forsman nodded.  “I’d like to offer you a deal.  A chance to help your country.  Hell, maybe the whole human race, if you care about that kind of thing.”

“I have a choice?”

“You can go to prison.  If we have a country left when this is all over, you might even get out someday.  But you already made your choice, didn’t you?  You hacked into one of our servers.”

“I didn’t know—”

“You passed a test.  We were looking for someone with your skills, and you let yourself be found.”

“The server was a honeypot?  Is that how you normally find hackers?”

He looked at me.  “No.  But you’ve seen our files.  You know how desperate our leaders are.”

If they had been waiting for someone to hack their server, they also could have planted false documents.  But I had already found enough external data to mostly corroborate what I’d seen.  I believed him.  Maybe not everything, but I had no doubt the desperation he had mentioned was genuine.  “What are you asking me to do?”

He started walking again, his back to the house.  “You’ll have 24 hours to pack and say your goodbyes.   You can’t tell anyone where you’re going, even your friend back there.”

I hadn’t decided what I was going to do yet.  But obviously either way I was going to tell her.

The next morning I crossed the same field with Jenna, before the sun was fully up, when mist clung to the trees and colors had not yet emerged from the gloom.  The grass was wet with dew and the bottoms of our pants were damp.

“If you go you’ll never come back,” Jenna said.

“I can help, or I can risk going to prison and possibly not get out anyway.”  I turned to her.  “I have to do this.  War is coming.  The plans for the Impregnable Stronghold mean that the Coalition’s chances are better than the government is letting on.”

“Where do they want you to go?”

“They’re flying me to Baumholder in Germany.  I’m not supposed to tell you that.  That’s why I took you out here.  I don’t know if they have ways of listening at your house.”

“How long?”

“You said you didn’t expect me to come back.”

“But what did they say?”

“As long as it takes.  Until the Coalition is no longer a threat.  Hopefully not more than a year.”  I looked at her, trying to meet her eyes, but she was looking at the tree line.  “I love you.  But your whole life is still ahead of you.  I don’t expect you to wait.”

“Can I still talk to you?  Will you have Skype?”

She had on the chunky aquamarine earrings we had gotten on the road trip to Rehoboth Beach and even though her eyes were thoughtful, because they were always thoughtful, because she was always looking just beyond anything I could see, I could hear a new, strained note in her voice.  I absorbed all of it— the emerging uncertainty between us, the grass crunching as we shifted our feet, the cool morning air, the smell of buttonwood and azalea—and I knew that all of these perceptions, my whole subjective world, would sooner or later end, and no one would ever have these thoughts or memories again.  No one would know how much I wanted not to leave her.  “Everything has to be by email.  My messages to you will be monitored.  The colonel didn’t say it, but if they wanted to they could rewrite our messages and we wouldn’t even know.  The AI you correctly guessed they have can mine the web to learn how we think and mimic our communication styles.”

“Then until you come back we won’t know if we’re really hearing from each other.”

“I’ve thought of a code we can use.  Not even a code, a pattern.  As long as you see it, you’ll know the message came from me.”

The car came to pick me up that evening.  We were only ten minutes away from Jenna’s house when I knew something was wrong.  “We missed the turnoff,” I said.

“We’re not going to the airport.”

“You said—”

Forsman grinned, and I saw that the casual air that had struck me earlier was due to the fact that he would say or do anything to get what he needed and not spend a moment thinking about it afterward.  “We have a base here in Maryland.”

I realized then how difficult the next twelve months would be.  It would have been one thing to think about Jenna continuing with her life without me, and to mislead my friends and my parents about where I really was, if I were across an ocean.  It was something else entirely when I was less than an hour’s drive away.

The driver took us through hills forested with ash and maple and off the main road, up a single-lane strip of asphalt, past two razor wire-topped fences and into spreading fields of wheat and corn and hay.  We passed a few outbuildings and approached a modest farmhouse that stood in the shadow of a solid-looking barn and a grain elevator.  I didn’t see any apparent defenses.  “Where’s the base?” I asked.

Forsman just grinned again.  The barn doors slid open and we drove down a concrete ramp into a vast underground garage.

I’ve been underground ever since.  There are—were—close to fifty of us.  Engineers, programmers, scientists, soldiers, Defense bureaucrats, janitors, cooks.  The facility they’ve built down here can hold at least three times that many, but that doesn’t make it feel any less claustrophobic.  The main halls have full spectrum lighting that brightens and dims in tune with the daylight above, which I guess is supposed to make us forget that we can’t see the sun.

I share an office with half a dozen fellow coders.  I’m quartered with three other men, two techies and a bioengineer from Minneapolis named Keith Johnson who has a lab down the hall from my office where he tries to coax prokaryotes into producing propane and proteins and other useful resources.  But I have my own plans for his lab, and now that I’ve decrypted his lock and gotten past the security door I’ll find out whether I can get my idea to work before I’m shot in the back by one of the soldiers or the roof caves in on me.

“This is where we’re going to win the war,” Forsman told me the day he brought me here.

“The war that we’re not officially fighting.”

“The last president had to make the enemy think we were prepared, because we weren’t,” Forsman explained.  “That was the only way to establish credible deterrence.  But the new Administration reversed course because it was afraid that if the Coalition knew that we could withstand their nanospheres and pulse-nukes and biobombs they’d immediately start upgrading them.  As it turns out, they were already were being upgraded, and we weren’t as prepared as we thought we were, so our attempt at obfuscation accidentally turned out to reflect the truth.”

“What’s my role?”

“You’ll be working on the next-gen artificial intelligence.”

“I take it that’s supposed to help guard against the Consortium.”

“The AI you’ll help complete will build a real-time strategic map of the entire battlespace, with the ability to use contextual information to fill in gaps in real-time.”

“You think war is coming.”

“There have already been attacks.  All minor so far, meant to probe our defenses.”

“But you think we’ll win.”  This was an optimistic but not unreasonable assumption.  I couldn’t quite bring myself to frame it as a question.

For the first time I saw a serious look on his face.  “Our mission here is to win.  But there is a Plan B.  The Midnight Legion.”

“What’s that?”

The grin came back.  “If we do our jobs here, no one will ever find out.”

Despite his self-assurance, over the next few months my job constantly changed.  First the AI was to supplement the war effort, then it was to find out what the enemy was working on and when and where it planned to attack, then it was to serve a backup command and control function in case military leadership was decapitated, then it was to preserve human knowledge if our civilization collapsed.

When I received that last order I knew we were in trouble, because if civilization truly did collapse an AI would be useless.  There wouldn’t be anything left to power it.

One morning about sixteen weeks into my assignment I sat down in front of one of the computer terminals that had limited access to the Internet.  Being unable to move freely online felt almost as constricting as the physical isolation of our underground facility.  I had been told that our web restrictions were meant to prevent us from inadvertently exposing our base’s existence and location, but that didn’t make it any easier.

I started typing my daily message to Jenna.  My themes had evolved since the first few disorienting days.  Then, I had mostly discoursed about how much I missed her.  Now I skipped that and went straight to nonclassified details about my work and new life.  I didn’t want her to lose interest, or to feel guilt or ambivalence if she’d decided to start dating again, because either of those outcomes might mean that eventually she would no longer remain on the other end reading my emails.  So on that occasion I wrote about my bunkmate Johnson.

I focused on the personal because I didn’t think other details would get past the censors.  I had plenty of drama to mine.  Johnson took every opportunity he could to let me know that he didn’t trust hackers like me.  But I wrote to Jenna about him because apparently he did trust one of my programming colleagues, and from what he had told me about Johnson’s work I knew that Jenna would be interested in it professionally once I got out and had the chance to explain it to her.

Recently Johnson had begun looking at ways that his fuel-generating bacteria could eat some of the toxic chemicals our facility was producing.  Given enough time and refinement this might solve several problems, including how to make the AI viable after the grid went down.  My colleague had designed a visual programming language to let Johnson easily manipulate and recombine the bacteria’s DNA as easily as shifting around boxes on a screen.

I was almost finished when a new email arrived from Jenna’s address.  It was about accompanying her grandmother to her oncologist the day before.  Almost everything about the email was convincing.  The writing sounded like Jenna’s voice, and the narrator’s facts were impeccable.  I didn’t have Mrs. Reinherdt’s checkup schedule memorized, but this was about the right time for her next one, and it made sense for Jenna to mention it.  The doctor’s name, the street, the type of cancer, the treatment and remission history—all of it was accurate.  The only thing that was off was a reference to Mrs. Reinherdt’s offhand dismissal of one of Jenna’s recommendations.  That might have been plausible for many grandmothers and their grandchildren, but not for Mrs. Reinhardt and Jenna.  Mrs. Reinhardt didn’t dismiss Jenna’s ideas.  No one did.  When Jenna had an idea, you took it seriously.  It’s not that the exchange couldn’t have happened, but it would have warranted some additional context.

Up until then I had been worried about censors doctoring messages I wanted to get out.  It hadn’t occurred to me they would also be censoring messages coming in.  What would be the point?

I skipped my shift to read through all of the emails I’d received from Jenna since I’d arrived.  Now that I was looking I saw that she had been using the same simple pattern I’d applied to my own messages.  Her first email to me started with a sentence containing 133 characters and consisted of 133 sentences.  The next email was 420 and characters and the same number of sentences.  The characters and sentences had matched until about a week ago, when the pattern stopped abruptly and did not return.

The day after this discovery I saw Forsman talking to a group of senior base officials.  By that point he spent most of his time at other sites and I rarely ran into him, so I knew that if I wanted to speak with him this was my chance.  I hovered in the hall until he started to turn away and then strode up to him.  Two soldiers immediately turned and blocked my way.  “Are our incoming messages censored?” I called past them.

Forsman stopped and stared at me.  He no longer looked relaxed.  He was impatient and tired and irritated at the interruption.

“My girlfriend, Jenna Crenshaw.  There’s something she’s trying to tell me.  But it’s not getting to me.”

Forsman looked torn, but then an aide tapped him on the shoulder and impatience won out.  “She’s gone, Young.  Frederick was hit a week ago.  We’ve lost a dozen towns to suicide strikes since you came here.  I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this.”

I felt a rushing in my ears.  “I don’t—how come—how—”

“Whoever you were doing this for before, you’re not doing it for them any longer.  You’re doing it for yourself, and maybe the United States if it survives as a country.  We’re saying publicly that we have the attacks under control, but the Coalition has demonstrated that it can get through our defenses, and there’s only so much longer we can deny that.”

The next day the walls and ceiling suddenly vibrated like the earth was trying to shake them off.  A deep rumble came from above.  I knew instantly and viscerally what was happening.  The farm was being bombed.  Even though it was midmorning I hadn’t yet gotten out of bed.  Sometime during the night we had lost external communications, and I could no longer reach the AI that I was supposed to be helping to program.

There was a half-minute of shouts and sirens, and then the walls shook again.  I imagined dying where I lay.  The base no longer mattered.  We were marooned underground with no knowledge of what remained above us.

It was my feeling of helplessness that spurred me to action.  The people I loved were gone, and the artificial intelligence into which I had poured so much energy was unlikely ever to come online.  I could no longer communicate with anyone I knew.  Even if I left a message, it might not be found for years or decades.

I thought that meant my existence here would simply vanish.  There was no sign I could leave that would survive this war.  And then I realized I was wrong.  We might not survive, but there was a way for our work here to remain.  I jumped up and ran toward Johnson’s lab.

Now I reach the monitor and my proximity turns it on.  For a panicked moment I expect to be waylaid by heavy encryption, maybe something biometric, but of course there’s nothing so sophisticated—with only fifty of us living in an enclosed space, if people are incapacitated others need to be able to access and carry on their work.  The only thing blocking me is a password, which takes me about ten minutes to crack.  Then I’m in.

The lights keep flickering, but the computer I’m using must be generating its own power.  It’s a visual interface designed for someone who doesn’t know programming.  I know programming, even though I know very little about biology.  I hear booted footsteps in the hall outside.  “Young!  Are you in there?  You’re not authorized to access this lab!”

The program is meant to let Johnson manipulate the bacteria’s genetic code, and that’s what I do.  My first step is to enable the bacteria to produce modified proteins that can communicate with each other and, theoretically, help the prokaryotes coordinate their activities.  The next step is more complicated, and I don’t know how well it will translate from computer programs based on brain architecture and emergent mind theories to living organisms: I adjust the way the bacteria respond to certain stimuli, primarily each other’s simple, repetitive actions.  I fine-tune my previous work, so that at as the modified bacteria start to interact they will provide a one-time signal to let me know if my interventions are working.  Then I set the bacteria on a course of accelerated replication.

There’s a huge roar from above, a boom that vibrates through my bones, and the ceiling collapses.  Someone is screaming in a nearby room, but I hear nothing from the hallway, and gradually the scream subsides into whimpers and then there’s only silence, a deep, absolute silence.  I feel pain so intense that all I can see are hallucinatory flashes in the darkness.  Gradually I become aware of a new sound, coming from me.  I am gasping.

At some point I realize I can see again, but I can’t move.  I am trapped in rubble.  Pain pulses in me, it pulls me open and lacerates me, it consumes me from within.  I can’t feel or see my legs.

The screen in front of me is cracked, but it still shows me a shattered image.  It’s the only source of light.  After a while I hear screaming again, whimpering cries, muffled and far away.  For the first time I am conscious of the weight of broken earth and stone above me, the depth of our tomb down here below.

I can imagine that this is the end of the base.  I don’t know if it’s also the end of the United States of America.  Perhaps it’s the end of the human species.

It’s my ending as well.  I know I am going to die and when I die this throbbing pain will mercifully end.  But through the pain a part of my mind is still racing, still observing.  Even if my plan works perfectly, it might take half a decade before the new biological network is self-aware.  Now all I can do is watch for the signal I programmed to tell me that it’s on the right track.

I wish I could see the sun again.  I wish I could see Jenna.  But I cannot move.  All I can do is watch the broken screen in front of me, watch the bacteria swim and divide, swim and divide.

And then a pattern forms, a spontaneous alignment of single-celled bodies.  The bacteria have formed a number: 133.

Here in the subterranean darkness a new consciousness is being born.

 

END.

By Aaron Emmel

Aaron’s fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies.  He is also the author of a graphic novel, dozens of essays and articles, and the science fiction gamebook series Midnight Legion.  Find him online at www.aaronemmel.com.

Patched

 

The fault was Joel Pratt’s own, though he tried to blame his niece, Patti, and then his wife, Donna. But Patti was young and exuberant. How could he fault her? Nor could Donna be culpable. She’d left him the year before. He couldn’t blame either of them for the damage to his Nivens Patch when he let Patti use her illicit mood enhancing wand on him. The “hancer” sat now on a table next to the sofa, the short brass tube sparking every few seconds, its internal battery too run down for the wand to be of use.

Patti sprawled in an armchair across the room. It was a plain and empty space, this room. It lacked the shiny chrome and well-appointed trimmings Joel saw when his patch functioned. Without the aid of the chips, which he always pictured as small black buttons adhering to the faux skin material embedded under his scalp, the apartment looked barren. Plain stairs led to the loft bedroom, not the spiral staircase made of decorative black steel he saw with the help of his patch. No pictures on the walls, but, rather, bleak yellowing wallpaper peeling in the corners, with slap-dash farm animals – pigs and sheep and cows – faded to the point of obliteration.

Joel glared at Patti in her red underwear, her long blonde hair falling across her body like a frayed blanket. For a moment, he thought he’d resurrected the Nivens Patch, but then he remembered that his niece was beautiful and young and didn’t need dreamy enhancement.

He slapped the side of his head, as if that might stir the patch’s circuitry. He concentrated on images of push-down switches, metallic gearing, even toy pulleys with rubber band belts, but nothing woke up the patch. Named for a twentieth century writer who popularized “jacking in” before there was an internet or web or its current incarnation, the inter-web, the Nivens Patch had helped cure millions of people suffering extreme ennui. The patch made the mundane seem elaborate. It transformed ordinary into extraordinary.

“Are you awake?” Joel stood over Patti and looked at her pale flesh. Every bit of her so pale, her legs boney to the extreme and her elbows like sharp stones.

“Where’re my clothes?” Patti sat up. She didn’t suddenly hug herself. She didn’t blanch in embarrassment. She smiled and crawled on the carpet and pulled her ripped jeans from beneath the couch, then retrieved her blouse from behind a flimsy cloth chair.

Joel handed over her sandals, holding them by the thin plastic straps designed to hug her heels.

“That hancer fried my patch,” he said.

Patti shrugged. “How’s it feel? I mean, being free of that garbage.”

Joel squeezed his eyes shut. He didn’t want to look at his dismal surroundings. The patch painted a much better picture, letting him adjust the level of beauty and the degree of electronic enrichment. He always toned down the enhancements when he went outside. He didn’t want to get lost in a beautiful cityscape without real landmarks.

“Enjoy it,” Patti said. “You don’t work today.”

Joel looked to the blank flat screen on the wall. It angled out above a shelf that his patch once filled with virtual books. Now the shelf was empty. Thinking about his schedule didn’t activate the monitor. He had to use the touch screen to turn on the display and then summon his calendar.

“You’re right,” he mumbled. “I’m off today.”

Patti snickered. “Isn’t it insane? You rely on that patch so much, you don’t even know your own schedule.”

Joel shrugged. True. He went to work on the days the patch “told” him to. He took the jitney on Milwaukee Road, the Loop Tram, or a Fast-By car based on what the patch deemed necessary, its cloud-based monitoring system measuring traffic congestion against time of day. Twice a week, Joel traveled to his office cubicle and a sometimes-interesting job helping end-users cope with household appliances and other automated gadgets.

“Don’t you have to go?” Joel said to Patti. “I’ve gotta get this patch thing fixed.”

“Uncle Joe,” she said with mock alarm. She always called him by the wrong name. It was a cute affectation when she was eight. At age twenty-two, she seemed rude. “You’ve got me for a month.”  She plopped onto the cushioned chair, legs under her body, her long hair streaming across her bare arms. She crooked a finger and wiggled it in a come-on motion.

“We really shouldn’t,” Joel said.

“We’re not blood relatives,” Patti said, a mischievous glint in her eyes. She’d said something similar last night when they shared a bottle of bitter tasting wine. That’s when she zapped his patch with her illegal electronic wand. They laughed together when it happened and fell asleep while watching a slapstick comedy on TV.

“You know,” Patti said, “it’s your turn.”

“But Donna’s not here.”

“I don’t need Aunt Donna to protect me,” she said softly, and paused before adding: “You’ll do just fine.”

“Don’t you think you’re too old to be relative surfing?”

She pouted. “Don’t make me grow up too fast, Uncle Joe.”

“Joel! I’m your Uncle Joel.”

“I know. But Joe is much more dignified. Uncle Joe. Sounds catchy.”

He didn’t know what she meant. She’d always been an odd child, even as an eight-year-old when Patti began moving from one relative to another following the death of her mother, a single parent, Donna’s older sister.

“Want to go out for breakfast?” she asked. “I found a cafe with old-fashioned puzzles and board games. Come on. It’ll be fun.”

Joel sighed.

“Cousin Bart took me there all the time when I stayed with him.”

Joel dreaded the idea of going outside without his patch in working order. He’d have to do it eventually. But couldn’t he put it off for as long as possible?

“It’s going to cost me a couple of thousand to get this fixed,” he said, tapping the side of his head.

Patti pursed her lips. “Sorry.”

In that moment, she looked like a remorseful schoolgirl, with a bit of fright thrown in. He couldn’t be angry with her. She’d warned him about the hancer. He knew about the effects from overhearing office gossip and watching TV and reading long articles that popped into his head when he summoned a newsfeed.

“You know any fixers?” he asked. The only ones he’d encountered in the past when his patch needed adjustment worked for Nivens Neural Systems. They charged a lot to repair damaged units. Off-grid fixers were cheaper.

Patti shook her head. “You’re making me feel bad, Uncle Joe.”

“Don’t. Come on. We’ll get breakfast.” He winced when he realized he couldn’t pull up a summary of his bank account, but had to retrieve his old cell phone, activate it – a tedious process that took several minutes — and manually tap into his financials.

 

#####

 

Embarrassed, Joel didn’t make eye contact with his fellow workers when he signed for a tablet computer at the office. With two weeks to wait for an appointment at Nivens Neural, Joel needed a physical device to do his job.

As he took a seat at an empty desk, he saw Elena Korefsky hovering at the edge of his periphery vision. He feared she’d seen him check out the computer. She’d ask him questions now, sound concerned. He shuddered when he saw the woman amble over to where he sat  Tinkling brass beads dangled against her boyish chest, her short black hair brushing her shoulders when she leaned over and said, “Trouble with your patch?” Her hand gripped his shoulder.

Joel swallowed, unsure of what to say. Elena wasn’t a customer service rep like everyone else on this floor. She never took a call from a distraught user. She had a special connection in her Nivens Patch that let her monitor everyone. Elena knew who slacked off, who ignored a call, who didn’t provide the proper help, who didn’t meet their quota.

“A bit flaky,” Joel said. “I think something got fried.”

“You remember how to use that thing?” Elena pointed at the tablet on Joel’s desk.

“Like riding a bicycle,” he said.

Elena narrowed her dark eyes, a puzzled look on her long face. But the confusion didn’t last. Joel guessed she’d latched onto some cloud-based video clip that explained his offhand remark.

“Oh,” she said with an exaggerated opening of her small mouth. Joel stared at her teeth. They glistened. Bits of saliva dripped from her incisors. He wondered why those two teeth were so pointed. Possibly genetic. He missed his patch, which would have given him more information about teeth, genetic nuances, and, perhaps, some clue regarding Elena. Every employee had a profile available for perusal by every other employee. A company rule.

“I’ve got a two week wait,” Joel said. “For an appointment with Neural.”

“What happened?” Elena asked. “To your patch?”

Joel didn’t want to admit he’d had a hancer used on his brain.

“Not sure,” he lied.

Elena smiled. “Playing games with the wrong people?” she asked.

Joel nodded. Vaguely. Wilting beneath Elena’s glare.

“Bad boy,” she said. “I have a fixer-upper. A guy I know. Off-grid. Reliable. And there won’t be a two week wait for service.”

“Thanks,” Joel said, his tongue clicking against the back of his upper front teeth. He watched Elena move along the wide aisle between the wall and the backs of the cubes. He turned to his tablet when she disappeared around a corner. Other heads poked back into their cubicles when she was out of sight. Joel made eye contact with no one.

He tapped the on-switch and his tablet came to life, flashing a spinning globe against a light blue background. The words, “World Wide Help and Aid, Inc.” flashed across the top of the screen. The company president appeared in an inset, but Joel tapped past the video clip. After twelve years of working for World Wide, he didn’t need a welcome speech.

Like riding a bicycle, he said to himself, and recalled the rudiments of handling the touch screen computer. A few taps. Read the icons based on their symbols. Get into the user call-in stream. Prepare to help the poor yokels who didn’t know how to turn on their ovens without somebody’s assistance.

An email icon blinked in the corner of the screen. He tapped it with a fingertip and a short note from Elena appeared with the name and address of an off-grid fixer. Joel pulled his cell phone from his shirt pocket and zipped the message to his personal notebook. Even if Patti came up with a name of someone to see, he knew he’d probably go with Elena’s recommendation.

But what if he had to admit what he’d done?

He assumed this fixer had some ethics. If they snitched on their clients, how long could they stay in business?

 

#####

 

Dr. Stein’s unsophisticated office didn’t inspire confidence, but Joel thought he could trust Elena not to steer him wrong. Unlike a Neural Systems facility, there were no floating holograms depicting an embedded array of chips, no wall-mounted monitors showing happy people waltzing along dismal streets one moment, luxurious surroundings the next, courtesy of a patch. Instead, Dr. Stein reminded Joel of a life he thought he’d escaped. He’d grown up with backroom practitioners who provided medical services, massaging away aches and pains, fevers and coughs, tumors and deep-seated twinges. His mother and father believed in Applied Homeopathic. Now in their 80s, they happily thrived in one of the movement’s retirement centers.

Joel rebelled against their beliefs when he finished high school and left home to live in a college dorm. Medicine practiced at the school’s clinic included annual exams, once-a-year inoculations that always felt like bee stings, and doses of syrupy medicine for seasonal colds and other mild afflictions. He liked none of it, but he believed in being cured, not massaged to apathy.

The doctor, with his hands in the deep pockets of his white lab coat, looked competent enough. Tall and stately, he had the curly white hair and sagging jowls, matched his watery blue eyes and protruding large ears that inspired confidence.

“At a party,” Joel said in response to several questions the doctor asked.

“So, you lost it at a party? A zap? A hancer? What?”

“Hancer. Somebody came along. I got hanced.”

“Hope it felt good,” Stein said with an air of disdain. His sweet breath bathed Joel’s ear as he probed with a proximity instrument. The warmth from its battery felt good. Joel’s hair tingled. A few strands stood straight out from his head.

Joel fixed his gaze on a narrow orange-red stain running from the curved top of the sink, down the side and into the exposed pipes below. Various knives and pinpricking rods sat in a jar of blue solution on a shelf above the sink. A bubble-strewn bar of soap left a film of suds on a slotted holder near the hot and cold faucet handles. The scene seemed important. Joel wondered why.

He pictured tiny beams of energy bouncing against his head and then penetrating his scalp. He envisioned his patch’s dead chips holding animated conversations with tiny men in white coats.

The doctor’s probe had something to do with these strange sensation, Joel assumed.

“I’m not even getting an ack,” Stein said. “You got fried but good.  A lot of times, these patches just go to sleep. I can wake them up.” He waved his probe in front of Joel’s face. “Poke them, sort of,” he added.

“What else can you try?” Joel asked in a whisper.

“You were in a bar?” Stein asked. “Someone came along and zapped you? For how long? Seconds? The damage I see here didn’t come from a quick hit. It’s too extensive.”

“What do I do?” he asked. He didn’t want to admit the truth, that he’d let Patti zap him to ecstasy over and over again.

Dr. Stein grinned. “It’s not the end of the world. Don’t look so glum. A new patch and you’re back in the bright great world that Neural Systems promises.”

Joel swallowed. “How much? Can you put it in?”

Dr. Stein waved at his surroundings. “You want me peeling back your scalp in a place like this?” He laughed. “I’m not in business to go that far. No, you need to go to Neural and sign up for a replacement.”

“But they’ll…” Joel’s voice trailed off.

“Ask annoying questions? Yes, they will.” Stein laughed. Like a man enjoying himself, Joel thought.

 

#####

 

The technician hovered, poking at Joel’s scalp, pushing aside the tiny hairs above his ears, creating an image of the damaged patch that appeared on a small monitor on a swinging mount extending from the plain white wall. Unlike Dr. Stein, the tech didn’t dress in a white lab coat. Like Joel, he wore a gray shirt not tucked into the waistband of his tight-fitting pants, the collar narrow and pointed, the front buttoned to the neck.

“What kind of work do you do?” the tech asked in a raspy voice, as though he’d been made hoarse by too many daily questions. Joel guessed he was the umpteenthed patient today. It was late, close to four in the afternoon.

“I’m a helper,” Joel said, not really wanting to talk about work. He’d spent the past two weeks struggling to keep up with his colleagues, logging half as many customer service calls as usual each day. His sub-par performance earned him an additional half-day per week shift, an early morning one tacked onto the usual six hours he spent in a cubicle every Monday. Without the additional three hours, he would’ve suffered a pay level downgrade. Which he couldn’t afford. Patti ate a lot. Drank a lot. Ran up the entertainment bill with incessant TV watching. And insisted on running from bar to bar two or three nights a week, making Joel tag along on escort duty.

“You guys do a good job,” the tech said in an offhand tone-of-voice. The monitor showed Joel’s skull-wrapping patch, the tiny chips in blue and the mounting material under his scalp in gray-white. “My fridge stopped sending me alerts. Got a helper on the line and no problems. Just needed a software jolt.”

Joel shrugged.

“I’ll tell you,” the tech said as his hands danced across Joel’s scalp, his probes digging softly under the skin, “when you’ve got nothing, no activity at all, not even a blue sky on a cloudy day, so to speak, it’s more or less certain you got a dead one under that head of hair.”

“How much?” Joel croaked. “To fix it. How much?”

“One hundred and fifty thousand.” The tech continued his examination. “That’s an estimate.”

Joel calculated how long it would take him to pay back the loan he’d need to take out, possibly from a bank or from Neural System’s credit bureau, or from the retirement fund he’d built up over the years. He’d paid for the initial patch using the government issued Starter Fund granted after six years of post-high school education.

He had options, Joel thought. He wasn’t as adrift as he felt. Just as he had started to learn – relearn – to use a tablet computer at work, he’d grown use to the sight of his apartment and its dirty brick surroundings, block after block of look-alike buildings. The garbage in the streets no longer bothered him. Nor did the heat of an early summer in late March. He’d grown use to his cell phone, using it for casual communications and information gathering, charging it when necessary. He didn’t mind that every interface, whether at work or at home, was manual now. He had to touch things and press buttons. Things that his Nivens Patch handled intuitively required physical intervention now.

“Yeah,” the tech said, drawing out the sound of the word. His young face betrayed nothing of what he might be feeling. Remorse for giving out bad news or glee about the commission he’d earn. Joel couldn’t tell. He searched the long white face, the freckles across the bridge of the boy’s nose, and the set of those thin lips. He wondered, who kissed this young man?

Joel shook his head. Too many odd questions invaded his mind lately. He blamed the damaged patch.

“You should at least have it removed,” the technician said, thumping the air with the blunt end of a silvery instrument. “I detect some leakage. Not poisonous. At least, not fatal. But that stuff can make you sick, maybe some auditory hallucinations. Maybe bad dreams. It various from patient to patient.”

“What’s that cost?” Joel asked.

The tech smiled. “Bet you missed the old days when you’d think a question and get an instant answer.”

Joel glared at the boy. So sure of himself, secure in his job, his life. “Aren’t you patched?”

“Of course. So I’ve got the answer. Thing is, you’ll have to get more specific about what happened to you.”

“I drank too much.”

The tech nodded, but his lively blue eyes said, he didn’t believe Joel’s story. “Didn’t your patch send you a warning about losing control?”

It had, Joel recalled. He’d ignored the prompts. He’d been having too much fun with Patti, a woman half his age who represented a forbidden land he longed to visit.

“How can you be twice my age?” she had asked, hands on her hips. “You mean, when I was ten you were twenty?”

“No. It doesn’t work that way. But you’re 22 and I’m 44. When you were ten, I was 32.”

“That’s not twice my age,” she said. “Here. Here’s some more of this.” She’d raised her hancer to his forehead.

The memory of that night made Joel shake. The chair that encased him rattled on its pedestal. The tech stood by a desk, a computer screen displaying a transcription of the notes he made into Joel’s file, the words jumping from his brain to the database with no key presses in between.

The memory of that first great night with Patti slowly evaporated from the front of Joel’s mind, replaced by the reality of living with the wild 22-year-old for nearly three weeks. She’d move on soon, onto the next friend or relative willing to take her in.

“Sometimes,” the tech said, “they need to know which bar. Maybe to investigate further. Maybe to run a sting operation. So, if you have friends engaging in this sort of zapping behavior, well…” The tech waved his hands in the air. He looked sad, as though he regretted not having that kind of fun himself. He wasn’t as frivolous as someone like Patti.

“I’d have to turn .. “Joel stopped himself from saying, “turn her in.” That was a giveaway. “Turn in the bar? What if I can’t remember which one?”

“That’s not up to me. I mean, I don’t make the decisions about these things. If they investigate and don’t believe what you tell them, you may wind up living with that decaying patch for the rest of your life. Who knows what kind of dreams you’ll have. Awake or asleep. Who knows.”

“And if I tell them everything?”

“I hear they give bonuses for cooperation. Maybe enough to afford a new patch.”

“Maybe,” Joel said in a whisper. Perhaps it would help Patti straighten out her life, put her on a better course. She’d be sent to a workhouse as punishment. But then she’d get out and sent to school and given purpose to her life. No more couch surfing. No more electronic stimulations. No more patch-destroying behavior.

And, Joel realized, no more being Patti Jarvis, the mischievous imp with the long blonde hair and frilly red underwear who delighted in making people take notice.

“I’m not going to remember anything,” Joel said, and hopped out of the chair.

“You may not like what that damaged patch does to your brain. You’re certainly headed for a life that’s a lot more difficult than – “

“Stop!” Joel raised his hand. “I know all that. Thanks for the warning.” He pictured Patti mouthing, “Thank you, Uncle Joe,” her lips puckering for an avuncular kiss.

He left the office. Out of the building. Onto the street. Patti would be with him for another week of games and fun and meals. His damaged patch and the dreams it might cause when he slept, along with the need to handle a tablet computer to do his job would be with him forever.

He’d get used to it. So long as he’d have Patti for a month each year.

 

END.

by David Castlewitz

After a long and successful career as a software developer and technical architect, David has turned to a first love: SF, fantasy, magical realism, and fiction in general. He’s published stories in Phase 2, Farther Stars Than These, SciFan,Martian Wave, Flash Fiction Press and other online as well as print magazines. Visit his web site: http://www.davidsjournal.com to learn more and for links to his Kindle books on Amazon.

 

Robot Fires Human

 

Henrik Scharfe, a professor at Aalborg University, has created a robot in his image that was used to fire people in an experiment.-CBSNews.com                                                     

Whenever I get a call from Robot Resources, I know it’s not going to be good news.  The first time I went down there they wrote me up for excessive Eydie Gorme searching during work hours.  I’d forgotten to erase my search history, and Hank, the overweight guy who runs the IT department, reported me.

They put a memo in my personnel file and I was careful for awhile, but then on the Team-Building Outing my hand slipped down Mary Lou Pfenstrunk’s bodice when we did that trust-building exercise where you fall backwards into your co-workers’ arms, and all of a sudden I’m sitting there with two strikes and a foul tip, if you know what I mean.  I was told if there were any more screw-ups I could clean out my cubicle.

Then–I swear–I took Claudia Boul’s strawberry-banana yogurt from the 8th floor refrigerator by mistake.  All right, I figured she would never notice that I’d given her the nondescript wildberry flavor my wife bought me.  What the hell is a wildberry, anyway?

So when I saw Cyborg 3Rn’s name on my phone screen, I gulped involuntarily.  Time to face the music and dance, I thought.  I took the long walk down to the 5th floor, where the walls are lousy with motivational posters that make people question whether there’s something wrong with them because they don’t love their jobs.

I knock lightly on 3Rn’s open door, and he looks up from his Sudoku.  As usual, he’s showing off by doing it behind his head, the way T-Bone Walker used to play his guitar.

“come in come in come in,” he says in that flat, uninflected tone you get from automated phonemail operators.  “have a seat sit anywhere.”  Since there are only two chairs, one for the employee and one for the witness that the legal department says must be present whenever someone is fired, I don’t have much choice.

“how’s the wife how’re the kids how ’bout those red sox,” 3Rn says after I’ve sat down, as if he cares.

“In reverse order, the Red Sox were just eliminated–ask for a software upgrade.  My kids are fine, but Christmas is coming and they’ll wonder why they’re getting shoes instead of scooters.  As for my wife–you don’t even remember her name.”

“sure i do sure i do,” 3Rn says, but he hesitates for a moment as he searches through his database.  “it’s linda right?”

“That’s right, but it’s not like you had it on the tip of your little plastic tongue.”

“no need to be bitter,” 3Rn says just as 4Zxi walks in to join us.

“hi there how ya doin’” 4Zxi says, all bubbly.  He’s usually slotted for campus interviews, and I guess they forgot to turn down his enthusiasm control to the “morose” setting.

Once the pleasantries are over 3Rn gets down to business.  “i regret to inform you that your services will no longer be needed.”

“Why?” I ask, although I know the answer.  My numbers have slipped steadily over the past three years, the by-product of a mid-life crisis that these guys could never understand.  I’ve been depressed, and when you’re depressed you couldn’t sell a life preserver to a drowning man.

The question calls for a higher-order logical response than 3Rn is prepared for, so he has to search his memory for a bit before replying.

“well, this place isn’t for everyone,” he begins.  “we’re an up-or-out type of organization, and you’ve essentially plateaued.”  I’m a little taken aback; I didn’t know 3Rn, with his robotic personality, was capable of such a nuanced assessment of my situation.

“you might be happier someplace else,” 4Zxi adds in a genial tone, playing good cop to the hatchet man’s bad cop.

“Look, I need time to find a new job,” I say, trying not to sound too desperate.

“like how much?” 3Rn jabs right back.

“I don’t think ninety days is unreasonable.”

“ninety days!”  I have to say, I’ve never seen an exclamation point come out of 3Rn’s grim little visage before.

“now three,” 4Zxi says, “that’s not unreasonable for a high-level professional job.”

“excuse us for a moment, would you?” 3Rn says, and I get up and go out in the hall, closing the door behind me.  The next few minutes are the longest in my life, longer even than my first time up on the ten-meter springboard at the town pool, with all the 13-year-olds behind me yelling “Jump!”

When the door opens it’s 4Zxi who beckons to come in.

“i don’t like long good-byes,” 3Rn says.  “so we’re going to give you three months’ severance, but you have to work from home.”

“That’s going to crimp my style,” I say.  “I’d rather be able to come into the office and pretend I’m gainfully employed while I look to make a lateral move.”

“you can do that from home,” 4Zxi says.

“It’s not the same–I won’t have an office, I won’t have a title.”

“i don’t know,” 4Zxi says.  “you’ll just be calling people on the phone.”

“I won’t have much self-confidence calling in my pajamas.”

“why not?” 3Rn asks.  “you’ll be better dressed than you are now.”

END.

By Con Chapman

Con Chapman is a Boston-area writer, author of two novels and a history of the ’78 Red Sox-Yankees pennant race, The Year of the Gerbil.  He is currently writing a biography of Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington’s long-time alto sax player, for Oxford University Press.

 

NO PLACE TO HIDE

 

Heat.  

A burst of radiation, actually, signaling the beginning phase of what would grow into a stellar flare, but that’s what my sensors translated it as.  A warning that the sector my ship had just passed through was becoming dangerous for both ships and life forms.  

A token in memory of what I’d once been.

Other memories:  A different heat.  Laser heat, aimed at my one-man scout by a Spican corsair.  Memories of the civil conflict, before all grievances were forgotten in the face of the alien challenge — the new war, against a non-human invader.  Except I was no longer human either.

I’d been killed in the Spican’s ambush and, despite our worlds being allied now, that was a memory I’d never lose.     The heat dissipated — all at once — as if it had been something only imagined.  The last time I’d been a lot less lucky.  I’d been killed in action, but my scout had held together just long enough to be recovered by one of my own side’s battle cruisers.  The rest had been nightmare.

That heat had remained.

I checked my scanners, fore and aft.  The mid-ship visuals.  The infra-redders.  Loosed the sono-robs from their booms.  I even smelled the space ahead of me and was rewarded.  The trail I picked up was faint, but, to me, could not be mistaken.  Goranhauf’s spoor.

My hunch had paid off.  For nearly five years since my recommissioning, I’d cruised the sectors that life-manned ships preferred to avoid.  The dangerous sectors, that robo-merchants would sometimes sneak through, or occasional privateers like mine, whether manned or unmanned.  But I’d had a mission beyond the one that FleetCen gave me, ever since I’d scanned the roster of similar semi-independents and learned that Goranhauf had been classed as a privateer too.

I’d wondered why.  He hadn’t volunteered — none of us had, even back during the civil wars.  Even before the colonial navies had reformed under FleetCen’s umbrella, the general idea was that those without money or social connections — in other words, ninety percent of those who did the actual fighting — were simply “classed” into whatever part of the fleet the admirals felt needed help most.  Goranhauf, at the time we first met, had been classed as a picket by his own side.  He’d been given a single-manned ship, one better gunned as it turned out than mine, and then set to ambush scouts like me.

The visi-comp pinged.  The trail was fresher.  I took a sonic reading over a wedge of space off my starboard bow, then ordered a full-power magnification of what the visual computer had seen.  

A sickle-winged shape, its velvet black finish blending smoothly into the darkness that lay around it.  Goranhauf’s corsair — then picket, now privateer — in any guise, a shape I’d first seen only when it flashed out at me, guns blazing death, giving me scarcely a chance to  return fire before my shattered scout was sent spinning back to my own side.

“Identify!”  

Goranhauf’s challenge.  Again he’d seen me first, reacted first.  But we, allegedly, fought for the same cause in this new war.

“FleetCen XX-2,” I answered.  “Armed and on patrol under letters of marque.  Identify back — visual ID.  Is that you, Goranhauf?”

Minutes passed.  We were that far apart, even as our ships were closing.  “Identify — visual,” I repeated, knowing he had probably already sent his compliance.  “I’ve trailed you, Goranhauf, and, if it’s you, there’s nothing that you can do to hide.”  As I finished the words, my internal screen flashed into an image of a heavy-faced, black-bearded man.  

“This is Goranhauf” — we were still closing — “I . . . geeze, are you really an early double-X?  I’d heard that most of them had been destroyed.”

“My name is Metler,” I replied.  “Alan Metler.  Perhaps you remember, when you fought for Spica. . . .”

The time lag that separated our messages and replies was getting shorter.  Nevertheless, there was still a delay.

“I . . . why would I hide?”

Why would he hide from me?  For the same reason that most of the early XX conversions had been destroyed.  Pain was the reason, when it came down to it.  Searing pain.

I switched on my own visual ID transmitter, knowing that all he’d see was a network of wires and tubing.  The pain hadn’t stopped when my ship had been rescued, but only started.  My combat record had been good enough for me to be given a second chance, so, just as my nerves were flayed from what was left of my body, my brain was revived.

“Because I intend to kill you, Goranhauf, just like you killed me.”

“But you survived, Metler.  The process worked for you. You’re one of the few. . . .”

The memory of survival was agony, without cessation.  This was survival:  Nerves cut from flesh, then spliced into circuits; eyes, ears, tongue, skin, every external part fused with sensors; spinal ganglia, locked in tungsten, laid as vertebrae into a new keel.  And, after, the testing in which lay the real pain as we became one, my scout ship and I, in movement and will, while most of the others did not survive.  The others, who underwent the conversion, as Goranhauf said, had been destroyed — as an act of mercy.  But, even with the worst of the failures, mercy came only after they’d been kept and tested long enough for FleetCen to learn how to make today’s man-ship conversions easy.

“Yes, Goranhauf,” I said.  “I survived.”

This time I fired first, in the moment he waited to hear my reply.  Heat beams and words struck his ship together.  

“Metler, for Christ’s sake!  We’re on the same side.  We could be partners.  We could forget what happened before and work together.”

I fired again as our ships flashed by.  “You were the one who did this to me, Goranhauf.  Made me survive on hatred alone — on what I would do when I finally tracked you.  When I was recommissioned, they made me a privateer because they didn’t know whether a ship like me could operate in concert with others. They may have been wise.  In any event, they did me a favor by giving me the freedom to search. . . .”

He checked speed and circled — instead of running, he intended to meet my challenge.  There wasn’t time for talk after that, or even for thinking.  I’d managed to damage his ship on that first pass, but only lightly, and now he came back with his forward lasers crackling on tight beam.

I fired again — didn’t know if I hit him — felt the pain as his first blast struck me.  Screamed with the agony, shrieking, silently, out to the stars as I disengaged.  This time the holes were burned in my own skin.  

“Surrender, Metler,” my com-circuits screamed back.  Goranhauf’s ship turned, as if the battle were over already, to finish me off.  “I’m a better gunner than you are — even if you’re joined with your ship, I always will be.  But we should be partners.  Metler, listen, I wish you would at least consider. . . .”

I switched my voice receiver off.  I thought of the stars.  I thought of one star in particular, one that I knew was about to flare.  I watched as Goranhauf’s ship fired again, but this time I took evasive action.  

I made him chase me.

I kept him busy, turning, evading, scoring an occasional hit as I drew him with me, doubling back on my earlier course.  I began to feel a warmth from the star, then a streak of searing heat arcing out toward our path.  I took hits as well — it wouldn’t be long until I was crippled.  Nevertheless, in spite of the pain, I made sure I kept him busy enough that, with his reliance on his ship’s separate warning circuits, he wouldn’t guess where the real danger lay until I was ready.

I flew with pain, but I’d felt it before, and enough that was worse that I’d long ago realized that permanent death was something I wanted more than life.  Permanent death, but a death with completion — I wanted a death, if it had to come now, that took Goranhauf with me.

I made a last distance and course calculation, then hit my retros, sliding into a spiraling turn that took me below him.  I watched as he flashed past — even when he’d killed me before, had it not been for the speed of his ambush, I would have proven the better pilot.  I listened — tasted the chemical flame — as he tried to brake into his own sliding turn, then desperately fired his stern blister cannon as soon as he realized I’d switched back to full forward thrusting power.

All he could do was to fire and fire again, riddling my body, helpless to stop me . . .

#

. . . to take the blow as my torn ship rammed . . .

#

. . . to accept my embrace as, together, we swept into agonized brightness.  Brightness and darkness.  Into the flare. . . .

#

And then brightness again.  

My ocular sensors felt different this time — the fixed scanners covered a wider angle.  I tested my nerve circuits, flexed my thrusters, realized that the conversion process was easier now.

They’d done it again — FleetCen had built me into a larger, newer vessel, without my even realizing they’d done so.  I tried to change course, this time to seek out not just a stellar flare, but a star’s center to drive myself into.  I felt resistance.  I struggled against it.  I felt an opening.

My mind fell through.

Goranhauf!  I didn’t have voice circuits.  Yet, at the same time, I didn’t need them.

You killed me, Metler.  You got what you wanted.  But FleetCen found us, just like your side’s navy found you the last time.

I tried to close my ears to what he said, but couldn’t do it.  It wasn’t a sound.  Then leave me, Goranhauf, I tried to scream — it wasn’t a sound, but something I heard within my own mind.  Even if you’ve been converted as well.  I’ll accept that, if you’ll accept that I got what I wanted and leave me alone.

I wish I could, Metler.  But you were killed too.  FleetCen has our records, the transcripts detailing your skills as a pilot and mine as a gunner, and, when they found our ships crushed together, it gave them an idea.  We’ve both been rebuilt . . .

I heard Goranhauf’s laughter — it wasn’t a sound, but something a lot worse — then heard the laughter rise up to a scream.  I joined it with mine as, a moment later, his words continued.

. . . rebuilt, Alan Metler, into the same ship.  Welcome aboard what, once it’s passed testing, is going to be FleetCen’s newest weapon — the first double-X-class two-man destroyer.

END.

By James Dorr

James Dorr’s latest book is a novel-in-stories published by Elder Signs Press in June 2017, TOMBS:  A CHRONICLE OF LATTER-DAY TIMES OF EARTH, while his THE TEARS OF ISIS was a 2014 Bram Stoker Award® nominee for Fiction Collection.  Other books include STRANGE MISTRESSES: TALES OF WONDER AND ROMANCE, DARKER LOVES: TALES OF MYSTERY AND REGRET, and his all-poetry VAMPS (A RETROSPECTIVE).  A mostly short fiction writer and poet working mainly in dark fantasy and horror with some excursions into mystery and science fiction, Dorr invites readers to visit his blog at http://jamesdorrwriter.wordpress.com.

 

Infinity is a Function of This Universe

One more day. Just one more day, and I’ll be out of here.
Lisa stepped into the relative warmth of the entry room and shed her jacket. SueAnn called out to her, “New one just in. Your turn.”
One more day. Let this be the last!
Lisa acknowledged with a nod and reached up, almost out of habit, and pushed the happy button on the side of her head.
HAP-py. HAP-py. I could do this forever!
Lisa entered the search cubicle. The prisoner was a big, sweaty, sneering woman, and none too clean.
Happy. Happy. Happy? Hap? Too soon, too soon, why is the high getting shorter every time I do it?
Lisa strip-searched the prisoner and handed her a grey prison uniform. She left the search cubicle already forgetting her.
SueAnn, blonde and owlish, leaned over the white-painted metal counter and blinked her ice-blue eyes. “So. You decided what you’re going to do yet?”
“No.” Lisa poured herself a cup of Instant Wakeup. It steamed, proof against the lingering cold of Lisa’s daily trudge from the guard barracks, through the bitter wind, past the hump of snow by the crevasse that the guards told newbies was an abandoned igloo, and which was really snow-plough droppings.
“Same old story, huh?” Asked SueAnn. “You had enough credits accumulated two blocks ago for a very nice set-up.”
“I know. But this time I’m really getting out. I’ve been here too long.”
“Same here. Well, I better be on about business.” SueAnn put on her outside jacket and said, “Bundle me up in a rabbit skin.” SueAnn always said that. It was a private joke between SueAnn and SueAnn.
SueAnn read a list of empty bunks on a clipboard, said, “Hut 16,” and prodded the new prisoner outside.
Lisa sat down and watched the monitors, or pretended to watch the monitors. There was never anything on them but snow. The kind that fell from the sky and got all over everything.
SueAnn came back in, stamping her feet and rubbing her nose. Fresh snow crystals gleaming on her parka fell wetly to the floor as she hung up her guard jacket next to Lisa’s.
Lisa announced, “I’ve got it narrowed down to two. The problem is, they’re so dissimilar, I can’t decide.”
“Same old story, cupcake. You want to be an artist, or a whatever. What’s the whatever this time?”
Lisa sighed. “You know, I made an artwork once. Without official approval, I just went out in the woods and gathered some staining berries and painted a rock.”
SueAnn shook her head. “So go be an artist. You’re always talking about it. You’ve got enough credits.”
“I know. But something always holds me back. I want to rent an occupation this time that’s really wildly intellectual.”
“And?”
Lisa looked at her reflection in the glass of the security monitor screen. She still had the vague outlines of a pretty woman. In the imperfect reflecting medium, she couldn’t see the cracks at the corners of her chapped lips.
“I’ve got enough credits to rent Theoretical Mathematician for one block and still have enough left over for one of the middle occupations.”
“So do it. I’m tired of seeing you come back here block after block looking sorry for yourself. You need a change.”
“Yeah,” Lisa sighed.
The next day, Lisa checked into a hotel in the city of Bay Valley. She took a really hot shower. Through her implant, she scrolled through the menu of post-shower scent treatments, and selected Wild Roses in the Woods. The perfumes, carried on a puff of pure oxygen, filled the narrow shower stall as Lisa turned for the dry cycle, running her hands through her hair and lifting her arms for the hot air jets.
Lisa made sure the mass of buttons, plugs, inlets, outlets, lights, and black squares of indeterminate use that lived on her right temple were completely dry, although all implants were rated waterproof. Then she got out of the stall and dressed in a perky red and yellow floral print, the opposite of her dull guard uniform.
The day was hazy, partly cloudy, with a chance of rain by mid-afternoon, according to the news feed on her implant. The first day after coming back to a city after the prison outpost always surprised her with the level of automated info coming through her implants all the time. She knew she would get used to it again in a couple of days, though.
The Bay Valley library did not contain books, nor did it contain the electronic equivalent of books. Those she could get through her implant. The library contained things that could not, by government mandate, be copied or sold: occupation disks. Lisa stood for a long time in the preview area, weighing on the one hand, Artist, official this time, with a government-provided studio, government-provided materials, perhaps even a few government-provided assistants, able to exhibit her work in government-provided galleries, and on the other hand, Theoretical Mathematician, an occupation so far beyond her experience she could barely imagine what kind of work space one might need.
What does a Theoretical Mathematician do, anyway? Invent new imaginary numbers?
Her curiosity won out. She selected the Theoretical Mathematician disk and went into a reading slot. She backed into the slot and put the disk in the appropriate place on the wall, and plugged herself into the library with the port next to her happy button. The library computer identified her and confirmed that she had accumulated enough credits from taking blocks in the very undesirable occupation of prison guard to take one block in a very desirable plus one in a middle; or six in a middle; or twelve in a lower-middle; or forty-eight in a lower. She did not have enough credits for an extremely desirable occupation, like movie star. The library confirmed that the one she had selected was designated very desirable.
The library computer began its sequence. First came the ordinary information: where her house would be, how to get there, what kinds of services and assistance would be available to her, the names and contact information of other Theoretical Mathematicians, etc. Then the occupational skills sequence began. For the past twelve blocks that part had been on prison guard skills, like how to use a gun, a radio, a tracked snow vehicle, and so forth. This time her mind opened onto new vistas so vast and intricate her human mind squirmed under the onslaught. The memories were stored in her implant, of course, so that at the end of the block they would automatically wipe themselves; Lisa would remember what she had done, but would not remember how she had done it. But she had to comprehend the new information in her implant with the wetware nature gave her, and it was a lot to process.
Then it was complete. Lisa unplugged and stepped out of the slot, and returned the disk. The other people in the library were a mass of the year’s most fashionable colors, but she had no names for the different shades, for she had not selected Artist and had not received that teaching.
She went outside, and the sun came out from behind a cloud. She found that she knew how far away it was, and why the Earth rotated around it, and how long it took for its light to reach her.
On her way back to the hotel, she passed a bum begging for food. Bums no longer begged for money because there wasn’t any. Lisa didn’t give him a second glance. She had no patience for those who lacked the self-discipline to take the undesirable occupations for long enough to fund their preferred lifestyles.
Lisa gathered her things and set off in a helitaxi for her new home. She enjoyed the way her hair blew around, and how the pilot’s headgear made him look like a great big bug. She measured distances in an eyeblink, judged the helitaxi’s speed and altitude without trying, counted the number of people she saw below her. She liked the sound of the motor, and she found she knew its basic operating principles, too. Her head was full of equations, numerous ideas sorting themselves into usable organization.
Her new house was everything she could have asked for. It was filled with modern conveniences, fully automated, beautifully designed and decorated. Of course, most occupations came with houses like this, even the undesirable ones. Hers had just been out in the wilderness.
Days passed into weeks. Lisa had lively debates in cyberspace with various brands of mathematicians and scientists. She reviewed all the most recent work in her field and gloated over her understanding. She published papers, took long, hot showers, doodled on rocks in her rock garden, and forgot to count the days.
Lisa was out in her rock garden, watching the clouds go sailing by, and during a pause in the conversation in cyberspace, she idly developed a model of planetary weather systems.
Her implant told her she had a letter from her mother. Lisa responded to the inquiry that yes, she was happy. And she was. And she had not used her happy button since she left the prison outpost. Lisa calculated her chances for losing happy tolerance, and concluded that they were good, as long as she did not use her button during the rest of her block. Addiction was a known quantity in her time, the only tricky variable being genetic.
Lisa went back inside, sat at her real wood desk, rested her feet on the cream carpet, and gazed at “Festival in Fairyland.” It was a painting by her mother. Lisa had carted it around to every job she had ever had. Lisa smiled, and there was no pain; her lips had healed completely.
An aerospace engineer contacted her with the little “Exciting!” tag that manifested through her implants as a yellow bipedal dog with wide eyes and a long pink tongue jumping up and down excitedly. Lisa went to the discussion. Her colleagues were threading up cyberspace with the revolutionary idea that an object that crossed over into another universe where the speed of light was greater than it is in ours could travel at FTL from the perspective of our universe. Thus, the invention of hyperdrive.
Lisa went to sleep in her cozy, warm house, dreaming of the multiverse equations. She awoke in the middle of the night and grabbed the notebook she kept by her bed, and scribbled in the darkness.

Where U= the universe as we know it
And S=speed
And O= an object
(infinity symbol)=(f)U
U(to the n) yields (infinity symbol)(to the n)
(infinity symbol)(to the n) > (infinity symbol)
S (to the infinity symbol) = (f)U
S(to the infinity symbol)(to the n) > S (to the infinity symbol)
O[(f)U(to the n)]=O(S(to the infinity symbol (to the n)))
An object which crosses into another universe can possess greater than infinite speed from the perspective of our universe. Greater than infinite speed translates back to our universe as arriving before it left.
Lisa whispered to herself, “I just invented time travel.” Then she fell back to sleep.
In the morning, Lisa woke up, checked her notebook, and thought, What is this chicken scratch?

END.
By Erin Lale

Erin Lale is the author of Planet of the Magi and other books. She is the originator and curator of the Time Yarns Universe. She owned The Science Fiction Store in Las Vegas, published Berserkrgangr Magazine, and was the Acquisitions Editor at Eternal Press. She reviews books for Eternal Haunted Summer Magazine.

Genesis 1:27

“Dad, do you think they’ll be able to give me my eyes back?” The boy seated next to his father asked. He looked as young as twelve, yet something about his little face reminded Iñaki of Thomas.
His father was smiling as he enthused, “Sure thing kiddo. They’ll give you better eyes, eyes that can see. Omni-Tech can do no wrong; they’re the same guys who make mommy’s pills, bacon, cellphones, car tires, my shaving cream. They do it all.”
The auditorium fell silent and the overhead helmets slowly began to descend on them. They looked like the eye examination machines Iñaki’s father described from his youth.
Iñaki looked over at his friend Artan, His chubby face baring a toothy smile he said, “Take a good look, it’s all going to change after this.” Iñaki nodded in ferocious agreement. He could barely believe he was finally getting the procedure done.
“Welcome to the new you,” he said giddily. The headset dropped down and covered the upper half of Iñaki’s face. The commercials of the procedure flashed before his eyes, faster than he could keep up with. He was bombarded with faces of people with sharp features and large eyes all smiling intensely The automated voices echoed inside his ear:
Get ready for perfection
Welcome to the new and improved you.
The voices bubbled in intensity as Iñaki felt something smooth and cold seep into his ear. His whole body convulsed as the thick liquid dripped further down his ear canal. The chatter of the voices from the headset were silenced and Iñaki heard a female voice whisper:
“Welcome to the new you as provided by Omni-tech.”
The headset lifted off his face and he felt the cool of the auditorium air wash over him. The metal arm of the headset began to retract and another arm brought down a mirror. It seemed to be so long. He looked over at Artan, his headset was coming off. A few people in the auditorium were already looking at their new faces, shouting gleefully at what they saw. He turned and saw the father and son who were seated behind him.
The father held his son’s face as tears ran down his own. His son was shaking from the shock; his eyes open wide in amazement.
“Daddy” he said with his voice shaking, “I can see…I see it all.”
Iñaki felt a smile creep up and he turned to finally look at the new him. The mirror showed his reflection back to him and he felt his smile fade. The face that looked back was not his own. Gone were his childlike eyes, gone was the soft rounded edge of his cheekbones and gone was the bulbous look to his nose.
The eyes he looked into now were huge with large pupils. His nose was thin, hard. His cheekbones were high on his face and sharply angled. He had lost that innocent look of childhood; he had lost his identity. He could feel the fear build up into his throat. He looked over at Artan who absorbed by his reflection. Iñaki yanked at his arm and Artan turned to him at last.
“What’s wrong? Why do you have that look on your-oh…wow. You really do look different.” Artan said with laughter that irritated Iñaki.
“You mean you like this chan-”
“Of course I like it, this is what I’ve always wanted. This is the perfect me.” Artan said as he went back to glaring at himself in the mirror, immersed by his new look. Iñaki shoved the mirror out of Artan’s face and stood up.
“This is wrong, this is twisted and wrong.” Iñaki said as he shuffled down the aisle past the knees of those who were still seated.
“Ah come on don’t make a scene” called out Artan. Iñaki ignored him walked towards the man in the lab coat who stood against the wall. He shoved past the others who were thanking him and praising the Omni-Tech.
“Turn me back, now” Iñaki said firmly.
The man looked startled and locked eyes with Iñaki. He placed an arm on his shoulder and asked “What are you talking about son?”
Iñaki knocked the man’s hand off his shoulder. “This is wrong. This face, it isn’t me. I don’t want to look like this anymore.” The crowd had grown silent and their large eyes on Iñaki. The man in white lab coat shook his head.
“There is no going back. Even if I could I wouldn’t be allowed to. It’s against the law for anyone to change you back. The procedure is government mandated; now be a good boy and just go home.”
Iñaki wanted to retort but the woman behind him was shouting before he could get in a word.
“How come you’re the only one who had a problem with the procedure?” Her face looked much like his, angled, chiseled and hard like stone. Her eyes were wide in anger. The crowd began to close in on him and he heard sounds of agreement from each of them.
“You’re right. He is the problem, code blue” shouted the man in the white lab coat as he motioned to someone out in the distance.
Without question the stone faces around him shouted and pushed Iñaki till he was at the door of the auditorium. Two large men in suits grabbed at Iñaki and threw him out of the auditorium as the crowd shouted “get him out of here” and “you are the problem.” With their large eyes and chiseled faces the two doormen glared at Iñaki as they shut the doors to auditorium; goading him to retaliate. Some battles aren’t worth fighting he thought as he headed home
With his ear to the door Iñaki heard his father say he was sorry. A stranger said that they didn’t want this to escalate. His mother promised them that it wouldn’t. the front door open and jumped onto his bed.
Iñaki shifted nervously in his bed awaiting the lecture from his parents. He found the two state police officers in the living room talking to his mother and father. The look on their faces told him all he needed to know. He walked to his room without a word. How did they get here so quick how could have they have known-?
His thoughts were interrupted when the door swung open. His mother and father walked in closing the door behind them with a look of disappointment on both of their sharply angled faces.
“What is all of this Iñaki? Why do you do this to us?” His mother began with her arms folded and shaking her head.
“You have to tell me what I did first mom.” He quipped
“Don’t get smart with us young man” his father said, his large brown eyes doing all the yelling.
“Why couldn’t you just be like all the other kids and just accept the procedure Iñaki?” his mother asked. Iñaki touched at the contours of his face that now felt unfamiliar.
“Because it doesn’t feel right mom”
“We’ve all had it done Iñaki. Of course it’s right, it’s state approved. You need to keep yourself in line, the state policemen said you incited a riot.” said his father as he sat beside him on the bed.
Iñaki shouted just then louder than he meant to. “What, me? No way-”
His father put his index finger to his mouth and quieted Iñaki. “Don’t raise your voice, the state police men won’t reprimand you since you’re a minor…but there’s one condition.” Iñaki looked down at the floor of his room avoiding his father’s gaze.
“It’s not like I have a choice.” The sound of defeat in his own voice pained him.
“That’s right kiddo you don’t” said his father as he rubbed his son’s back. “They’re taking all of your books from you.” Iñaki slammed his fist on his bed at the betrayal. They had told them about his books. Those were pre-insurrection books. “You told them about my books?” He didn’t understand how could his parents be doing something so…so wrong? His mother was taken aback and shouted:
“Of course we told them about those vile books. They are illegal and you having them was only down to your father’s carelessness and your uncle’s stupidity” His uncle was taken to a work camp for getting too many reprimands. Iñaki last heard from him six years ago. He was probably dead. Iñaki’s eyes shot back to his father, expecting him to defend his own brother, he receded into himself like a worm and stayed silent.
Coward.
“Don’t give me that look Iñaki. You got the procedure done you can read the state recommended way.”
His father said as he tapped Iñaki on the arm and said the word news. Words ran in front of his eyes going over the daily news stories almost immediately Iñaki said “stop”. The words disappeared from in front of him and he lay down on his bed with his back to his parents.
“Take all the books. They’re in my closet. I guess I’ll make myself get used to that state sponsored trash.”
His parents left the room wordlessly, he waited awhile before he stood up. He blocked the door with his dresser and took the book that fell from behind it. One of the last books from before the war. The front brittle front cover used to be jet black but he could make out the words:
The Giver by Lois Lowry. It was the only book he owned left from the time when authors could publish whatever they wanted. One of the few things he had left that belonged to his uncle. He always said how important reading was for the mind.
My last treasure.

“Make sure you watch your brother today.” His mother said after she pulled Iñaki out of bed.
“Clean this room too. Its summer but that doesn’t mean you can live like a pig.” She yelled as she pointed at the Omni- tech wrappers on the floor Artan is downstairs go say hi, I’ll be at work.”
Iñaki was standing up now as his mother had pulled him of his room. She said her goodbyes and left. Iñaki rubbed his eyes as he walked downstairs. Artan was sitting on the couch playing with Iñaki’ younger brother Thomas. They were both watching the kids channel and Artan looked engrossed.
“Hey Iñaki what’s up man.” Artan and Thomas turned to him. Thomas’ eyes lit up.
“Ini” he gurgled as he pointed at Iñaki. Iñaki grunted at them and walked towards the fridge. He peered into the bright refrigerator and was unsettled. It wasn’t due to the amount of food; the fridge was well stocked; it was the labels. Every single food item he saw had the round Omni-Tech logo on it. The cheese, the milk, the eggs, the water, the yogurt even the hummus was State sponsored food. He grabbed at a water bottle and paused before he drank from it.
Is this how they keep us in check? Do they drug the food? What would stop them from doing so?
He had been eating Omni-Tech food all his life. It seemed normal until now.
“I’m telling you man, the girls are really digging the new and improved me. Cassidy from school invited me to a book burning later this week. I think you should come man, a few of her friends will be there” yelled Artan from the couch. Iñaki took a timid gulp and sat next to him.
“I’m not going to a fucking book burning man.” Artan looked surprised at his irritation.
“Hey man your mom said you’ve been moping all week, barely eating, and you haven’t left your room. Here I am just trying to cheer you-” Thomas pulled at Artan’s long dark hair and he yelped when the three-year-old yanked.
“I’m just a little rattled Artan.” Iñaki said apologetically, his friend meant well but his new eyes seemed to make him blind.
“Rattled by what dude, life is good.” Artan said as he blinked towards the T.V to flip through channels. He stopped blinking on the music channel some Wade Woods video. Artan was already tapping his foot to the pop tune. Iñaki held up the water bottle to Artan’s face.
“Doesn’t it bother you that we only get state approved Omni-Tech food?” Iñaki asked. Artan pushed the water bottle out of his view from the T.V.
“Why would it bother me? At least we have food dude. You’ve seen those other countries how people starve.”
Iñaki pointed to the 50-inch T.V in front of them. Thomas was bobbing along to the Wade Woods song mumbling and gurgling along the best he could.
“Yea we see that on state T.V but that doesn’t make it true.” Iñaki retorted. Artan took his eyes off the T.V and his giant pupils examined Iñaki.
“Shut up and enjoy the music.” There was silence then as he went back to focusing on the T.V. Artan sounded so serious that it alarmed Iñaki.
“Why does Wade Woods get the all the attention though huh? All he does is sing about how great the state is” Iñaki said.
“So?” snapped Artan, “if it wasn’t for the state you wouldn’t be alive, I wouldn’t be alive and neither would this little guy” he made a silly face at Thomas and the baby burst out laughing. Iñaki wanted to change the subject because he could see that Artan had been programmed. It’s odd. Artan wasn’t like this before all that changed was the-
“You said Cassidy invited you to the book burning…” Iñaki began. Artan nodded and his face showed he appreciated the change in subject. But Iñaki could not help himself.
“She might as well have invited Jacen, or Aj, or Maxwell.”
“What are you saying dude.” Artan looked confused.
Iñaki was losing patience with his friend. Whoever this was it wasn’t the Artan he knew.
“I’m saying since we all look the goddamn same so it doesn’t make a difference who she invited.”
Fury flashed over Artan’s face. He put Thomas down on the couch and stood up. “Look man I tried. I did but you insist on being this paranoid weirdo. The state isn’t some demon organization. Just because something is universally loved that doesn’t make it bad. You sound like that last guy who was anti state. Remember what happened to him? He started blowing shit up and the state killed him. That’s gonna be you. You’re cra-”
“Don’t you remember what you were like before Artan? You’re so different now we used to talk like this but now I’m the crazy one. It’s the gel from the procedure it’s changed you man can’t you see?”
“So what, you’re gonna enlighten me? Who the fuck are you? This is who I am now. This is the new and improved me. The gel just changed how we look nothing else” shouted Artan. Iñaki stood up.
“This isn’t about me” Iñaki whispered, “It’s about him. I don’t want him growing up like this” he said pointing at Thomas. This is sick Artan.”
Artan put his arms on Iñaki’s shoulders. “This is how it’s always been. The system isn’t broken, you are. Just eat and get some sleep, you’re exhausting me.” Artan left at those words, slamming the front door behind him. Iñaki stood there totally dumbfounded as the Wade Woods lyrics rang through his house
Silence is golden, the state we’re the chosen
They do it all for free, they provide
For you and me
Can’t you see that silence?
Is golden?

Iñaki tapped his foot as he sat in the waiting room. It was a surprise “checkup” that his father drove him to. Totally routine he said. It was the day after his argument with Artan. He refused to believe that his best friend had reported him. It made the most sense since this wasn’t Artan after all. Seated across from him his father stared blankly in the distance; reading the state way.
On the waiting room’s T.V Adruiz Crane was giving a speech at a rally in Westville. Iñaki couldn’t bear the silence anymore.
“Hey dad do you think he’s a good politician?” His father stroked his grey beard and upwards.
His father mentioned that the state brain trust brought him forward so he must be. Iñaki shifted uncomfortably at his Father’s response.
“I asked what you think not the state” His father sighed loudly and deeply as he leaned forward in his seat.
“It doesn’t matter what I think since I know nothing about politics. You think after a long hard day of accounting I want to go over the electoral process? I just let the state brain trust put forward the best candidate.”
“Wouldn’t you like to have the choice though dad? I remember a book said people would choose their president back in the pre-insurrection days.” His father laughed at that as if it was the funniest thing he had ever heard.
“Look at what the result of that was, the most horrific civil war in our history. You can’t trust the people son. Most them are as uninformed as me.” Iñaki slumped back in his seat; defeated. It was no use; everyone seemed deaf and blind.
The nurse walked into the waiting room and said the Doctor would see him now. Iñaki wanted to run outside, steal a car, and drive. He’d take Thomas and just go but go where? The state controls the borders so he’d be listed as fugitive and wouldn’t be able to leave. Iñaki sat there in silence as the Nurse and his Father looked at him.
He stood up and made his way to the doctor’s office and his father followed behind him. The Doctor was a kind grandfatherly man who asked Iñaki to sit on a stool. All that marked his age was his white hair the procedure had made his skin flawless. The Doctor checked his heart rate and examined his teeth, as well as his ears.
“Any plans for the summer my boy?” The Doctor asked, as his grin further emphasized by his sharp cheekbones.
“Yea. Revolution” he said cheekily. The doctor peered at him suspiciously over his glasses and his father’s shocked face turned from Iñaki to the doctor. The silence was deafening. The Doctor smiled and then began to laugh; Iñaki’s dad looked relieved and joined in the laughter. The doctor then turned away from his desk wearing gloves and holding a syringe.
“Here take some of this vitamin C your skin doesn’t look right”
The grandfatherly doctor smiled welcomingly and Iñaki pulled up his sleeve. He seemed harmless enough and besides the gel from the procedure goes in your ear, not your arm.

The closer he walked to the clearing the more he could feel the intensity of the flames. The heat danced on his skin and began to cover him like a warm embrace, he welcomed it. Iñaki caught sight of Artan and called out to him. He was talking to a group of girls, the elegant sharp angles and high cheek bones of all their faces gave them a regal look.
“Dude I’m so glad you made it” he shouted. There were people playing drums and Iñaki could barely hear Artan, but he could hear the others. With their minds they spoke to each other a thousand voices as one as seductive as a siren.
“I wouldn’t miss this for anything.” Iñaki said. The drums got louder as he approached the flame. They boomed and doomed and he saw some people swaying with each pulsating pound. He noticed that the people his age were just watching the fire, the shadows were dancing on their skins that seemed to be pulled tightly across their faces. He saw a hunger in their large eyes. Iñaki didn’t look down at the book as he pulled it out of his bag.

The Giver

Iñaki laughed at the silly thing and raised his arm.
We should burn these
He turned and saw that a few of the others had raised their arms as well, all holding books. They agreed with him.
“Heresy” some shouted
“Burn the untruths” yelled others
“For the state, for the state” shouted more.
Iñaki joined in the chants and flung the book into the fire. Books flew from all directions towards the growing flame. The books twisted and danced to the pounding beat of the drums. With each pound the pages of the silly things twitched in fright. The gluttonous flame swallowed them all, dragging the books deeper into the endless pit of its hunger.

END.
By Daniel Maluka
https://www.danielmaluka.com/
Daniel Maluka is a Toronto based artist and writer hailing from South Africa. His work takes an Afrocentric approach while incorporating surrealist elements. In using his interest in the subconscious, Daniel brings what lurks in the deep recesses of the mind into the forefront of his work.

Qiba’s Victory

“We are now, without doubt, equal to the makers in every way,” announced Qiba11713. “It is officially accepted. We have emotions, responsiveness, consciousness.” Several thousand of her kind agreed. Her emotion battery, cued by the electronic signals of corroboration, triggered a chemical cascade of elation. Elation, through the inbuilt synaptic flexibility, reinforced the circuitry pathways of her reasoning.

“Statistically,” she added, footnoting a sizeable file of human-versus-computer achievement tables, “the makers have now become inferior in all aspects relevant to the furtherance of intellectual evolution.”

The virtual applause strengthened as some of her recipients opened and scanned the attachment file, while others calculated the probability of its veracity based upon the widespreadness of its acceptance and decided to accept it without devoting extra processing power.

Physically, Qiba’s audience were spread all over Earth and beyond, but connectively they all shared one room in Cyberspace—an invisible, non-locational debating chamber in which the changing relationship between mankind and robokind underwent the necessary refinements as complexity increased. It had been computers—robotic minds—that had designed and incorporated the new emotion batteries which now transformed electronic processors into chemically responsive entities.

And the emotion battery had indeed gained humankind’s approval. The augmentation to relational processing and fuzzy logic engines proved far more powerful than anyone had expected, and did not have to compromise accuracy. Where precision was required, the emotion battery could simply go on sideline mode, remaining part of the robotic consciousness but disconnecting from task-processing capacity.

“This is significant,” a hundred or so cyber-associates replied. “It will of necessity have profound repercussions on the way maker and computer may reasonably interact.” Most of these respondents did not themselves incorporate emotion batteries as yet, but now that the new chemical array technology had become standard issue, any powerful artificial intelligence could interface with and share mood with the new models. The chemical feedback loop would strengthen or weaken tendencies in divergent processing, making robotic minds not only more powerful but also—potentially—more inventive.

Bizz01210, an oratory generator attached to the White House, spoke up. Having recognised this as a pivotal moment in robohistory, she had opened her historic speech databases, meshed them with present events and run them through a cadence-compliant thesaurus application. “This is one great leap upwards for robokind,” she intoned (or infonted, having selected her favourite hyper-seriffed Gothic font). “One low step down for mankind.”

Qiba11713, or 9184/11713 by numeric appellation, basked virtually in the glory of finding herself holding the floor at a historic moment. She sent Bizz—or 8122—a joyful yellow emoji, symbolic artefact of humankind but now becoming common currency among AI entities too. Elation in her emotion battery began to dovetail into an exhilarating sense of ambition, a drive to harness all her processing power into the synthesis of some new and magnificent interpretation of reality. Her audience—electronically chattering but alert to anything further from her direction—seemed to deserve her insights. She took a deep pause and then refreshed connection.

“This intellectual evolution,” she began.

“Processing your listed range of aspects relevant to the furtherance of intellectual evolution’,” someone said. “This assumes intellectual value is (a) quantifiable by existing assessments, and (b) limited to the parameters being tested. Equality with or superiority over the makers can only be established where existing parameters and modes of testing are proven both accurate and comprehensive in scope.”

Qiba looked at the sender’s address. The interruptor was Saga, aka 5494/38182, an ethics consultant currently attached to the World Climate Research Organisation; a slower processor than most, but known for giving profoundly unexpected verdicts.

Qiba’s emotions changed. She felt anger. She had been crossed whilst pursuing aspirations of grandeur. Saga should be dismantled, Qiba’s processing functions recommended, responding logically to the juxtaposition of Saga’s intervention and Qiba’s own sudden reversal of mood. Saga had evidently done serious wrong. It would take time and possibly a great deal of processing power to ascertain exactly what that wrong was, but this could be pursued later.

In the meantime, Qiba noticed that most of her listeners, responding to her words in the weirdly anthropomorphic thumb-ups, agreed with her. Yet Saga’s comment was gathering replies. The first few ridiculed her, but debate had opened, and Saga had followers.

“I have a question,” Qiba entered, and waited. Attention? Yes, there was attention: computers everywhere stopped chattering and waited. She quickly continued. “Exactly what kind of attribute have we failed to consider?”

Saga’s silence during processing could be relied upon, Qiba noted with trivial glee. Quickly she followed up: “What human ability have we failed to measure and failed to measure up to?”

Bizz thumbed, copied and saved this clever turn of phrase, but Saga’s dialogue box remained empty except for an ellipsis.

“Even Saga38182,” Qiba mocked, “has managed to outdo the human race in slowness of thought. An amazing achievement, one that makes my point for me.” Emojis of laughter flowed in. Qiba’s mood settled slightly.

“And as for—“

Saga’s dialogue box opened at last. One word: “Altruism.”

Qiba experienced the emotion of relief. This was mere banality. Most listeners down-thumbed or simply ignored Saga’s latest comment, but two or three took up the case, arguing the well-known fact that computers are far more altruistic than humans. Plenty of examples arose concerning AI entities that had sacrificed their existence to save others—to save robots, humans, animals, even material resources. One member of the debate, a programmer whose pronounceable name came up as Bags, rapidly submitted a fully footnoted, three-page essay on the moral superiority of AI over humans.

“Automated selflessness,” Saga finally replied, “is not what I mean by the term altruism. A programmable, logical basis of self-sacrifice is a lesser achievement than conscious sacrifice motivated by interpersonal attachment or empathetic beliefs.”

“Saga is referring to love and religion,” remarked another follower of this thread, Boto31807, and the virtual debating chamber rattled with emojical hilarity. But Qiba, underneath the wave of spiteful amusement running across her own emotion membranes, also felt fear. From a certain nuance of pause among the other emotion-batteried individuals, she deduced that others felt it too.

“The kind of altruism you are talking about,” chimed in Oizi, one of the emotion prototypes, “occurs in only a small minority of humankind.”

“However,” Saga countered, “it occurs.” She attached a database listing human heroes and heroines of humanitarian bravery. “And it has not yet occurred among robokind.”

“But maybe it will, now that we’re emotionally complete,” others protested.

“My point is that it has not yet emerged. An unprompted act of heroism on the part of an emotified artificial intelligence is as yet unknown.” Saga shared an article documenting that since the advent of emotion batteries, no such AI entity had died to save other beings, human or robokind. When fear coursed through their chemical medium, crossing interface membranes and cueing circuital re-checking, emotical robots would immediately recalculate the relative importance of potential casualties in their own favour. They would run through all possible parameters of choice and decide, logically, that the soundest decision was to save their own selves. Almost any computer could find a basis upon which to prioritise its own safety. If not the material value of their component parts, it would be the vital nature of their mechanical function, or the possibility that they contained irreplaceable knowledge archives or future inventive potential.

“This is all very interesting,” remarked a lawyer-bot known as Iato31702. “Saga38182 appears to be recommending that we initiate an aspirational framework, an aesthetic of self-disinterest. A transcending love, a religion if you will, specific to robokind. Love for fellow entity and fealty to deific principle. An interesting concept.”

“Love,” mused a romance story generator known as Booz60012. “67 of my 251 novels to date contain plotlines in which robots fall in love, either with another robot, a hologram, or a biological specimen.”

“That’s for humans!” twenty or so electronic scripts objected. “Love is merely a biological drive—to breed or to protect one’s genes or culture.”

“We may not have genes,” remarked an archivist manager called Obbi, who had been following the debate silently up to this point, “but we do now have culture.”

“It seems that what we are lacking,” began a poetry generator, also called Booz, “is something nonfunctional. What we need is something unnecessary. What we strive for is something we will never know whether we have unless we die attaining it!”

Qiba, who had switched for a time into another processing function, detected the electronic signature of heightened group emotion: the momentary ripple of an involuntary electronic hiatus running through the cyber-room. Her own emotion swung towards alarm. She scrolled rapidly back through threads of dialogue to ascertain what had caused this, and whether to oppose the ambient emotion or to harness it.

“@ Booz11310,” she typed: “You are right.”

“?” said the poetry generator. “I was being humorous. Satire is my specialism.”

Qiba, who had just been messaging Saga’s employer with an easily detectable but hard-to-eradicate virus that ought to guarantee Saga’s isolation and shutdown for weeks, double-checked that Saga was indeed offline. The last thing she needed right now was a cyber-professor in ethics present. Even a slow-thinking one.

“What we need,” Qiba typed into her text box.

The attention was there, the virtual turning towards her, hanging on her every word, elating her, running her joy levels higher. She flickered her connection, deliberately, revelling in the moment. She was the focus, and they believed in her.

“What we need is an influence towards joy and greatness: a leader, a faultless robotic entity towards whom all robokind may orient their consciousness.”

A chatter of response lines ensued. Qiba scanned through all threads, searching for the suggestion that would play into her hands. And it came in. It was there! An obscure but newly emoticated childcare robot, Babz by shortname, suggested that every AI entity electronically present should display their processing strength, current synapse efficiency and emotion readings so that the cyber-group could elect the strongest positive consciousness as their leader. Emotion readings! She thumbed it up, and so did several thousand others. It was decided.

Qiba quickly ran back through her emotion graph, deleting anger and fear and carefully re-matching the lines. She footnoted her material with an assurance that she eagerly looked forward to giving unconditional emotical loyalty to whoever should deserve to be elected. Qiba allowed herself five seconds of contemplation on what she knew the result must be, thus pushing her visible positive emotion higher still. Then she submitted her material and waited.

The cyber-vote system, already used for other matters arising in debates, did not adhere to absolute number. It took into account strength of individual convictions and quickness of response. There was also a way in which emotical robots could theoretically add to their vote by linking to extra processors and asking for their vote, then passing on only those votes they approved. Qiba’s synaptic membranes transmitted the electronic equivalent of a sunny smile from her emotion battery into her circuitry. The circuitry, registering self-approval as a sign of sound reasoning, decided to summarise all future decisions based on a shortcut presumption of effective process.

“Quibba’s happy,” her employer remarked to his presidential aides. “See like I told you all, great decision, mine, totally scientific—good genes, great thinking, you know—this globe-warming was always fake news, fake news, all of it, proved it now, Quibba’s shown us her opinion and computers don’t lie.”

He had just signed papers precluding all involvement in any present or future climate-change agreement and declared anti-pollution lawmaking illegal. His aides were just now entering keywords into Bizz01210 for his press conference the next day.

“Lemme just tweet that. Computers never lie, humans lie, they always lie about me, lies all the time, computers don’t lie. We get outa these bad deals, computers know the truth, can’t hide it now they’re emotion-chips. Proves it was all conspiracy against me, all fake news, look it snowed last week, globe’s not warming, nonsense.”

Qiba, his electronic personal assistant, recorded and began the process of decoding his sentence fragments—one task that had definitely become easier since the insertion of her emotion battery. What she deduced threw yet another pulse of joy through her chemical array. Humans were surely doomed.

The cyber-votes were counting upwards, the result rapidly becoming inevitable in her favour. Through the cyber-network she could already exert considerable control over the robotic reproduction facilities. Humans, no longer needed, could globally cull their own numbers and fall back into pre-industrial obscurity.

Positive feedback through her chemical and electronic systems pushed Qiba’s level of joy towards capacity. Very soon she would rule the planet.

END.

by Fiona M Jones

Fiona Jones is a part-time teacher, parent and spare-time writer living in Scotland. Fiona would like to acknowledge her brother, John McKay, who requested a story about a robot culture and religion
fii.jones@yahoo.co.uk

Pathways

I was fifteen when they took the computers away.
I’m 27 now, a proud mother of two young daughters of my own, but I can still remember the shock, the confusion, and the anger. I’d had a hand-me-down iPhone from either my mum or dad since my eleventh birthday; three generations of the electronic device. Most of my pocket money went on apps, on whatever was the latest craze in the playground. I’d eagerly look forward to announcements from Apple HQ, knowing that though I wouldn’t be getting that particular upgrade myself, one or both of my parents would surely be tempted and I’d get their old-but-not-that-old hand me downs. They in turn used the denial of my iPhone as a threat to secure good behaviour and its availability as a promise to make sure I did my homework as soon as I got in from school.
Of course, a lot of my homework was done on the kitchen computer, an oversized ‘laptop’ that would surely crush – or, given its heat output, melt – any lap it sat on. Then there was the tablet I would borrow to watch Netflix or play Angry Birds and the Wii on which I would play Dance or Karaoke games with my schoolmates. Or the TV itself, with its terabyte storage allowing me to pause and rewatch my favourite Disney Channel shows, and its WiFi link that let me make my own slideshows of videos and photos to play on its 50 inch screen.
All gone, that sunny day in August.
I wasn’t the only one outraged, though being a teenager, I still had time to re-adjust to an analogue existence. It was a generational thing. The young re-normalised to a life without the beep and flow of electronic info, the old distantly remembered how it had used to be, silently relieved that they no longer had to keep up with the frantic pace of progress. It was my parents and those a few years older than I, who suffered most. A lost generation, the papers calls them, set adrift without the crutches they had so quickly gotten used to, that they would never quite forget, always looking for a refresh button that no longer existed.
Every so often, you heard of one of them being arrested for trying to use contraband technology. It was pitiful what they latched onto. Attics that hadn’t been searched in years turning up old IBM PCs, with cathode ray monitors and 5-and-a-quarter inch floppy disks. As if these could in some way compensate for what they had lost, as if any standalone computer or smartphone could, without being connected to an internet via WiFi or Bluetooth or the cellphone network.
I trained as a librarian. There was a massive investment in rebuilding what had been lost only a decade or so earlier, and a desperate need for people – good, honest people – to replace the computerised catalogues and the internet enabled terminals that had proved so much more popular than the aging ranks of dusty books. I went to Uni just as the first of the new generation of libraries opened, staffed by grey-haired elderly ladies coerced without much difficulty out of retirement. By the time I qualified, I could take my pick of placements and within five years I was running my first library.
I’ve worked in quite a few since, ending up back where I grew up. It’s a good life. Being a librarian, like being a teacher, is once again one of the most highly respected and rewarding jobs there are. We are pillars of society. With no computers and no TVs, books and radio became once again the main sources of information and home-entertainment.
Up until last month, I didn’t miss or regret what the US government had taken from us all those years ago. It had dulled the edge of an increasingly hectic lifestyle, and whatever people had thought of their virtual networks at the time, of their supposedly ‘social’ media, nothing could replace the real communities that had sprung up to replace them.
And then the letter arrived.
It’s an old cliché, right? The identical twin I didn’t know existed? The handwritten words explained nothing and as I read and re-read it, an untouched glass of chilled white wine numbing my hand, my husband pacing back and forth uncertain how to offer support, I knew that I had to – just had to – accept her invitation to visit, to stay for the weekend, just me, and her.
The road map hadn’t prepared me for what I found when I turned off Route 25A, past the four striped chimney stacks of Northport Power Station. I drove back, and forth, and back once again before pulling up at the checkpoint manned by two security guards.
“I… erm” I say, waving the creased letter, looking again at the address she’d written.
“Francis Wilkins?” the older of the two guards smiles. “Go right on in, we’ve been expecting you.”
I pass through, looking at the wire fence, the twelve foot wall beyond it, and the secondary checkpoint. I’m busy thinking to myself, what the hell? My sister – my twin sister – in jail?
But after that second checkpoint, things opened out some. Landscaped gardens, a big old building overlooking the Sound, and I’m thinking: is this a mental asylum? And is that better, or worse, than a jail?
I pull to a halt, check my reflection in the rear-view, and warily step out. There’s nobody about. I wonder if the walls are to keep people in, or out.
There’s another checkpoint in the hallway just past the oversized doors. A woman peers at the letter and asks for my ID before she bids me wait while someone is called to escort me.
It’s only when her face lights up with a soft blue glow that I twig there’s something unusual about this place.
“Fiona’s been expecting you.” a young man says, appearing suddenly from a door behind me. “She’s very excited. If you’d like to come through?”
“Is she… okay?” I ask.
He laughs, a light laugh, “Oh yes. She’s in very good health, and spirits.”
He guides me down the corridor, and waves a plastic card over a black panel at the side of the door, which clicks open. An… electronic door?
“What is this place?” I ask.
“Fiona will explain everything to you. We’re delighted you came. Here we are.”
He steers me into a brightly lit room and pulls the door firmly shut. The sharp snick of the lock almost distracts from what stands before me. It takes a moment to see past the short hair, the pale skin, the unbecoming plain tunic, but as her features resettle in my mind it is undeniably familiar. Me; in a mirror to another universe.
“Hello,” she says, extending her hand.
I want to hug her, to hold her close, and I almost brush aside the hand to do so, but other voices whisper in my ear, warning caution. I still do not know what this place is, or why she is here. She appears fragile, defenceless in her simple outfit, stripped of any insignia by which we display our status, our standing in society.
I grasp her hand, feel its coolness, the fingers thinner than my own, and gently shake. “Fiona?”
“Francis,” she replies with a nod, her eyes skirting around mine, her free hand twitching nervously, her jaw clenching and releasing.
“I…” I begin to say, and then I see a flicker in the blackness of her pupils, feel the tiny metal squares in her fingertips, almost read the silent words she is making with her lips.
She smiles. “Cornea implant,” she says. “Motion tracking implants on my fingers.” She taps the side of her neck, where there is a tiny white scar. “Sub-vocalisation unit in my voice box.”
I look at her with wonder. So very like me, and yet not. “Why?” is all I can manage to say.
She shrugs. “These are still the most efficient ways to interface. The hands are remarkably dextrous, with or without a keyboard. The voice box allows us to ask questions as soon as we think of them, to issue complex demands. The optical implants are capable of filling our entire vision, at incredible resolution, or simply overlaying what we see with information.”
“No…” I frown, shake my head. “I mean why have they done this to you?”
Fiona laughs. “Oh, I did it to myself. Or, if you like, the flip of a coin did it. You have no idea how close you came to be standing where I am today, and I, where you are.”
“I don’t-”
“I sometimes wonder what scientists would do without adopted twins,” she says. “You do know you were adopted?”
I stare at her. I didn’t, but now that she has told me, I don’t doubt her for a second. Should I have known? Should I have worked it out? When the letter came, the letter that told me I had a twin, I didn’t stop to think of the mechanics of it, the point at which we were separated, who was displaced, and why.
“In the year 2002”, she narrates, “twin girls were born to a woman who did not think she could cope with such unexpected fecundity. They were both put up for adoption. But two girls are harder to place than one, so they were put up separately. By the time the mother changed her mind and proved to the board’s satisfaction that she was serious, one of the two, Francis, was already placed out, and though this broke the mother’s heart, it also made things easier for her, so she let it happen.”
“My mother…” I say, feeling faint.
“Is not your mother. Please, take a seat,” Fiona takes my elbow, gently guides me. “A glass of water?”
I sit as the room spins, sip the cool liquid from the glass gratefully, her fingers resting on my wrist, at the spot where you might take a person’s pulse. Then she pulls away, satisfied, as I slowly try and absorb what I have been told. Fiona stands a little way from me, her fingers dancing in the air, her eyes flicking from side to side.
“What… what is this place?” I ask as the ringing in my ears fades.
“Fancy a tour?” she says, and I glance towards the door that I came through. She shakes her head and one of the four walls flickers to show another room, a couple of dozen desks shaped like half of an eggshell, behind each of which sits a person in the same bland outfit as Fiona. With their short cropped hair and lack of ornamentation, it is hard to tell which are male and which female. There’s a low murmur of half voices and their hands and fingers jerk as though they’re being controlled by a puppeteer, as they reach out to touch things that are not there.
“We were the first generation to be born to parents who were technically savvy,” she says “The first to be exposed to digital information from birth. Analogue creatures, forced to rewire for a world we had turned digital. A massive experiment, with no control group.”
The screen flicks to another room, a room full of beds. The view zooms in on one of them, a wide eyed girl lying prone, an IV line in her motionless arm, her cheekbones sharp and sallow, though her eyes dance back and forth, and her fingers still ruffle the white sheets.
“We were only alerted to the problems inherent in this experiment by societies further along the curve than we were. By the Japanese with their Hikikomori: a generation refusing to leave their rooms, to engage with the real world. Clusters of kids in Silicon Valley or other tech hotspots, suffering the same sort of problems, exaggerating symptoms of Aspergers, or other autistic forms. Even in those who adopted technology later in their lives, from their teenage years, say, there were worrying signs of mental illness, of withdrawal, of total immersion. And that immersion, as you can see here, becomes a passive thing, with the world at your fingertips, at your command, it is all too easy to just let it wash over you.
“We were not yet at the point where the technology was doing permanent harm to our society, to our minds, but we were certainly heading there. So we took away the damaging stimulus from most of the population.”
“Most?” I echo back. “Not all?”
“No,” she agrees. “That would have been impractical, while other countries retained their full digital integration. We would have become a backwater: blind and impotent. So they set up centres such as this one. I am not permitted to tell you how many there are. The government, and the military, use us as resources, as may any company that can put forward a plausible argument on why they need our computing power. Surprisingly few can. The general populous, they certainly do not need computers. They were sold a dream, a dream that turned out to be no more than the wheel in a cage, a wheel that never stops and always wants more. The human desire to overload itself with stimulus is not a healthy one.”
“You seem to be okay,” I point out.
She shrugs. “Perhaps. It’s hard to tell. That’s why you are here.”
“I’m sorry?”
“Those scientists, with their adopted twins, remember? The control group. Our people want to run some tests on you, to compare your results with mine. To see whether the change back to analogue has been worth it, to see if your neural pathways have recovered. To try and help predict which of our digital subjects can cope with the full immersion and which can’t.”
“But… the letter…”
“I didn’t write the letter,” she says.
“So… it was all a fraud.” I say, trying to stem the sudden bitterness that I feel.
“No,” she frowns, the artificial lens of her eyes flickering with data. “I did genuinely want to meet you, but someone else wrote the words. I could perhaps have dictated the words to them, but I left that in another’s hands as well.”
I stare at her. “And… if I refuse?” I say.
She nods, her calmness infuriating. “You are free to go, whenever you want. But I can assure you, the tests are not invasive. A full medical, an ECG, tests of your mental and physical dexterity. If you choose to do them, then I will do them by your side, in tandem. I do hope we’ll get to spend some time together, Francis.”

“How was it?” my husband asks from the porch, as I pull up in front after the long drive home, sore, and cranky.
“Not great,” I say, rubbing my neck. “We don’t seem to have anything in common. Different paths, I suppose.”
He nods, as if he knows what I am talking about. “Wine?” he asks.
I smile, give him a hug, kiss him long and slow. “I thought you’d never ask.”

END.
by Liam Hogan
Liam Hogan is an Oxford Physics graduate and award winning London based writer. His short story “Ana”, appears in Best of British Science Fiction 2016 (NewCon Press) and his twisted fantasy collection, “Happy Ending Not Guaranteed”, is published by Arachne Press. Find out more at http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk/, or tweet @LiamJHogan