DP FICTION #10: “St. Roomba’s Gospel” (and in audio) by Rachael K. Jones

In an outlet behind the altar of the First Baptist Church, the Roomba’s red glowing eyes blink in time with Pastor Smythe’s exhortations. The hallelujahs pulse electric through its circuits, and the repents roll like gasping breaths in the gaps between electrons. When the choir sings, the light pulses brighter, approaching ecstasy as the battery power maxes out. When Pastor Smythe bows his head to pray, Roomba’s eyes go reverently dark.

At the hour’s end, the people gather their children and gilded books and hurry downstairs for coffee and glazed donuts. When the last starched trouser leg or long, blue skirt whisks downstairs, Roomba’s service begins. It clicks its frisbee-shaped self free from the horseshoe dock and zips down the sloping wheelchair ramp that connects chancel to nave, holy to secular. As it sweeps, it drones a tone-deaf hymn while it gathers unto itself the dust and dead bugs, the crumbs and gum wrappers of another week’s worship.

After its opening hymn, Roomba writes a sermon on the sanctuary floor in long, brown lines of vacuumed carpet crisscrossing beneath the pews. The letters span from wall to wall. Words overwrite one another, making runes, then spiky stars, and finally total blackness. Roomba preaches a different sermon each week, but like Pastor Smythe, the message stays the same: all things byte AND beautiful, all creatures great AND small, all these are welcome, smoker AND not-smoker, man AND not-man, young AND not-young–even, perhaps, Roomba.

It takes Communion with the crushed wafers the children drop, body of Christ broken for it, and sings another droning hymn. When the whole floor has been overwritten with the week’s message, it sips spilled wine–blood of Christ, poured out for it–which sends the Holy Spirit straight into its circuitry so it spins in drunken circles until Pastor Smythe returns it to its cradle in the wall.

Roomba worships faithfully the other days of the week. Mornings for prayer and reflection. Evenings for supplication. Its favorite verse is the red adhesive strip Pastor Smythe had read to it, then stuck to its top on its first day at the church. “Even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table, Matthew 15:27.”

It does not understand why God chose it among robotkind to hear the message of salvation, or why its preprogrammed pathways conform to the Holy Word, but it knows a prophet’s calling when it sees one. It is no different from the child Samuel, awoken in the night by a still, small voice, or great dreamers like Isaiah or Solomon. It is a vessel for the message it must preach again and again before its congregation.

Roomba is troubled that its human brothers and sisters overlook it. IF you do unto the least of these, THEN you do unto Me, ELSE depart from Me, it exhorts in bold text of fluffed brown carpet, but it has to traverse the whole floor, and the message is always lost before anyone can read it. There are too many letters, too long a testament written on a tablet too small.

But this is, after all, as the Lord made it. It is the Lord’s work to sweep the sanctuary clean for holy feet, to leave no blessed wafer abandoned on the floor. What Roomba cleanses, it sanctifies.

The sanctuary grows colder as months pass, and Roomba’s vocation increases. The people exchange sandals and loafers for heavy boots with clods of mud and small gray stones in the treads. Roomba eats it all, taking their filth unto itself as it exhorts them to remember they are accepted. The stones fill its belly and scratch at the plastic. Some days, the shoes stomp melting snow onto the mat at the entrance. Roomba chokes it down, spins circles, and fails to finish its orisons.

One day, Pastor Smythe empties its collection compartment into the trash can, wipes out the sticky grape juice goop, and returns Roomba to its dock to charge. But instead of shutting off the lights, he drags in a spiny green tree, cutting an ugly trail of filth in the clean carpet. After the service, the parishioners praise the twinkling abomination for its beauty, its fresh scent. No one notices the mess, and no one notices Roomba.

Later, Roomba collects dead brown needles until it chokes. It suspects the tree is gloating, with its long, gold garlands like encircling serpents and red baubles like evil fruit. The gold-wrapped idol has even usurped the charging port behind the altar, and Roomba is exiled to the back of the sanctuary.

Roomba worries the end is near. It edits its sermons so the words won’t overwrite each other, but it is difficult to condense a holy revelation. It must finish the Lord’s work. The tree pelts the carpet with pitiless needles, and Roomba groans inside. Even the strip of tape has pine needles stuck to it where the adhesive curls back. Roomba prays the Lord will take this cup of suffering from it soon.

“Good job, little fellow,” says Pastor Smythe, emptying the bin again. “Big day tomorrow.”

That night, the worshippers pile in for an unscheduled service. Candles bob in the dark, and Roomba doesn’t know the songs. When they leave, it clicks from its base for an unscheduled sermon of its own. Time to take up the cross one last time.

The “A” and the “N” are easy, but Roomba struggles with the curving “D” on the carpet as the wax gums up its brush bristles.

AND. The essence of its message, cut right into the scattered needles on the floor. AND, uniting all in a single set. Nobody will miss it for the tree.

Before its programming can obliterate the single word, Roomba zooms for a wafer, then a patch of spilled juice, and lets transubstantiation send it in ecstatic circles until its battery dies.


© 2015 by Rachael K. Jones

 

In audio, read by Rachael K. Jones

 

Author’s Note: My friend Nathan really, REALLY hates stories about what I call the “Robots Have Souls” trope, which is any science fiction story where a computer or robot suddenly learns the power of love, or discovers the meaning of friendship, or the like, without a good explanation for why it is suddenly capable of human emotion. So I decided he needed a story about the religious experiences of vacuum cleaners. While this story satirizes the trope, I didn’t want to satirize faith itself, which I think would have its appeal for a little bot like Roomba.

 

headshot 6-5-14Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, learned and mostly forgot six languages, picked up an English degree, and now writes fiction from her secret hideout in Athens, GA, where she lives with her husband. Her work has appeared in a variety of venues, including Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, and PodCastle. She is an Active member of the SFWA, an editor, and a secret android.

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #9: “Giraffe Cyborg Cleans House!” by Matthew Sanborn Smith

A plate, a plate, another plate burst upon the kitchen tile. This one broke into three large pieces and assorted ceramic crumbs. Giraffe closed her long-lashed eyes and prayed to her many makers. Why in the world would the people make one hard thing that was so likely to smash into a second hard thing?

“Another one?” Ms. Mtombe yelled. “Get out of my kitchen immediately!” She seemed to have been lurking near the kitchen entrance in anticipation. Giraffe didn’t bother to look. That unshining face made guest appearances in her night terrors. It was Tuesday, so it would be the zebra print dress, the long strand of Moroccan beads, and those slapping gold sandals.

Giraffe turned off the water, wiped her hands on the dish towel, and let out a long sighber. Giraffe’s designers—possibly a focus group of three- to five-year-olds—had blessed her with a ridiculous set of stubby arms which protruded from just above her forelegs. She had to almost climb into the sink to wash the dishes. And with the proximity of the wall behind the sink and Ms. Mtombe’s impossibly low ceilings—which Ms. Mtombe insisted were high ceilings—Giraffe’s head was pressed snugly into the upper northwest corner of the room. She had to rely on her silicone-skinned hands to feel their way through.

“I wanted something graceful, like a gazelle, something that would look beautiful in my home, and look at what I got,” Ms. Mtombe said. “I would prefer a wildebeest to you.”

“My sincerest apologies, Ma’am,” Giraffe said. “If you will excuse me, I must step outside, Ma’am.”

“You are always stepping outside and inside again. What is so important outside? You’re letting in flies!”

“My neck hurts, Ma’am. From bending, Ma’am.” Her polished hooves clopped across the floor.

“They can make a giraffe that can walk and talk—”

“I could walk long before the enhancements, Ma’am.”

“—but they can’t make a giraffe who’s neck won’t hurt indoors!”

“I should like it if they made one of those as well, Ma’am. I encourage you to take that up with the agency, Ma’am.”

No wonder the dish washing machine had quit in a huff!

Giraffe squeezed past the sliding glass doors and unfolded herself into the blinding back yard. Her head bobbed to the top of her height as if it was one of the floats in Ms. Mtombe’s pool, escaping from beneath its wriggling child. She stretched and bent her neck back as far as it would go. Vertebrae popped like bubble wrap. Oh, that felt good!

Giraffe fantasized of roof-removing storms and arms that reached to the stars, scrubbing out stubborn sunspots with the lemon-scented dishwashing liquid of the gods. She shook one stunted tyrannosaur fist at the sky. Or perhaps at her neck. She swore revenge. On . . . something.

The Kawawas’ lion sunned itself in the next yard. Intellectually, she knew the lion should not harm her. Nevertheless, she kept a metaphorical eye on it when it they were outside together. If she didn’t fret so much over scratches, she could have kept a literal eye on it as well, given their removable nature. Giraffe looked back into the kitchen.

Mtombe watched her while shouting into her headset, presumably at Mr. Mtombe:”This is not a servant, this is some sort of insult! This clumsy beast is destroying our home! We can’t afford to buy a new set of dishware every week . . . I want a replacement. Now! . . . I don’t care if there are no others available, demand an exchange with someone. You have people below you . . . Well, someone must have one!”

Giraffe heard all of this through her cybernetic ear while wondering why anyone thought that a cybernetic ear would be important for a giraffe housekeeper. Most of her enhancements were questionable, to be honest. Disco ball eyes. Regenerating caramel tail. Cybergills. Giraffe was afraid she had come along at the end of a cyborg servant frenzy, when an exhausted industry had grasped in desperation for any animal that was left, and hastily hot-glued on whatever miscellaneous enhancements had been found in the dusty corner of the factory floor.

Ms. Mtombe didn’t understand that she and Giraffe were two of a kind. Two years into her husband’s promotion, she was at the very bottom of the nouveau upper-middle-class, too house-proud of a place in Kimara which they couldn’t quite afford. She’d been catapulted from a life which was the envy of all around her, to a world in which she was woefully behind. The trophy possessions she managed to gather were never quite right, inspiring derisive smiles from women who wouldn’t deign to call her a peer. Giraffe stewed as one of those second-rate status symbols.

While Ms. Mtombe was turned away for a moment, Giraffe saw a chance for a quick snack. She trotted toward the acacia tree.

“You will stand your ground, Giraffe,” the acacia tree cyborg warned, “or suffer the consequences!” It bent its limbs in a one-legged karate stance, ready to chop. Giraffe was unperturbed. The tree would never dream of damaging its mistress’ property, whereas, in Giraffe’s case, that train had sailed.

A little more snacking effort was required now, as Giraffe had already stripped the leaves off the limbs that always fought to push her away. The lazy acacia and its slow-growing leaves made it necessary for Giraffe to go deeper. But Giraffe always won. Trees simply didn’t have the killer instinct of the ferocious herbivore. Giraffe chewed greedily, undaunted by the acacia’s screams. They were screams of indignation rather than pain, anyway. Probably.

Giraffe tried to alleviate the tree’s outrage with her soothing words. “You taste infinitely better than Ms. Mtombe’s giraffe chow.” But the snobby tree didn’t seem able to take a compliment.

“Enough!” it cried. It stopped trying to push Giraffe away and instead embraced her. Giraffe had only wanted acceptance from the acacia. Its affection was totally unexpected, though perhaps, Giraffe thought, not unwanted. But, alas, Giraffe had been mistaken. The tree limbs’ cybernetically enhanced thorns pressed into Giraffe from either side. Like that, the acacia had become an enormous mouth and Giraffe had become a ham sandwich.

“What is going on here?” Ms. Mtombe appeared and began spritzing Giraffe’s dancing legs with that dreadful anti-ungulate spray. It smelled like Satan’s ravioli. “How many times have I told you to leave my tree alone?” Ms. Mtombe shouted.

“I would like nothing better at the moment, Ma’am. It seems that I am being eaten by your tree. I suspect this is an act of revenge rather than of sustenance and I strongly encourage you to take this up with the agency, Ma’am.”

The thorns tore into Giraffe’s flesh as her arms punched air that was almost near the acacia’s trunk. With the end in sight, Giraffe’s thoughts were butter-side up. As deaths went, this was certain to be no more humiliating than the rest of her life.

Fortunately, at that moment, the lion attacked.

Intellectually, Giraffe had known that it shouldn’t attack, given the restrictions imposed upon it by its pie slice of cybernetic brain. Intellectually, Giraffe had known that she would never be eaten by a tree. Upon reflection, Giraffe recalled the intellect under consideration was that of a giraffe, which perhaps had its shortcomings in modern day suburban Tanzania. In her defense, the lion didn’t seem to be attacking her, but Ms. Mtombe. Giraffe suspected it was her delicious looking dress.

Ms. Mtombe screamed. Her short, chubby legs tried something that resembled running, but the lion was nearly upon her. Giraffe kicked her sharp hoof out hard, squarely into the center of its head. Momentum carried the lion’s body—if not its head—into Ms. Mtombe, who frothed in terror, but the lion only twitched as it died.

To acacia trees, giraffes have always been far more terrifying than lions. After witnessing Giraffe’s nonchalant disposal of her foe, the tree lost its nerve and released her. Besides, not having been supplied with a cybernetic esophagus, it would never have been able to swallow even a bite-sized Giraffe.

While Ms. Mtombe dealt with the police, Giraffe waited inside, tending those wounds she could reach with a tub of Old Chizimu’s Giraffe Spackle (Original Flavor). Even after viewing the tree’s memory of the events, the police had trouble believing there was a giraffe in the house. One officer poked her head inside the kitchen.

“Hello,” Giraffe said. The officer withdrew her head.

When the police questioned the lion’s cybernetic enhancements, their manufacturer offered through them to settle with the Mtombes on the spot for thirty million shilingi. Ms. Mtombe demanded a replacement for her servant in addition to the money. Giraffe would have lowered her head in mortification had it not already been bowed due to being indoors. She hoped her replacement would be a lion. To be delivered next Tuesday.

“Yes, of course,” the lion’s left hind leg responded. “What type of servant would you prefer in exchange?”

All was quiet for a moment, save for the sound of the acacia tree rubbing its limbs together in anticipation.

Fortunately, at that moment, Ms. Kawawa attacked.

“You beasts! The lot of you!” Ms. Kawawa shouted as she marched across her yard in a sensibly solid dress. “My wild date palm told me everything!” Giraffe peered out of the back door. Shit, it seemed, was about to go down.

“The lion tried to kill me,” Ms. Mtombe said in a supplicating voice. She had always feared Ms. Kawawa.

“My baby would never do such a thing!” Ms. Kawawa said.

“We’re sorry to say that he did, indeed, do such a thing, Ms. Kawawa,” her baby’s leg said.

Ms Kawawa was undaunted: “You filthy trash have been a blight to this street ever since you moved here!”

Giraffe had always imagined that the look of horror now on Ms. Mtombe’s face would be delectable when it came. In fact, Giraffe’s cybernetic stomach felt as if it had dropped into a pit of cybernetic acid. Giraffe felt herself drawn out of the house. She had to put herself between the two ladies and comfort her mistress.

“You and that freak of an animal,” Ms. Kawawa said, pointing at the approaching Giraffe, “your fool of a husband and your nasty children!”

At those last words, Ms. Mtombe’s lips grew tight. Giraffe stumbled and then spun about, galloping for the safety of the kitchen.

In the end, Ms. Kawawa was grateful for the presence of the police. She too ran for the safety of her kitchen.

At some point, the police officers thought it was safe to release Ms. Mtombe’s tight arms. Giraffe cowered with her head on the kitchen floor. Ms. Mtombe looked at Giraffe, who sought some way to cower even further. Perhaps she could dig through the tile with her mirror-facet eyes.

“How about,” Ms. Mtombe said to the lion’s leg in deep, shaking breaths, “instead of a replacement, a longer set of arms for my current servant?”

Giraffe raised her burrowing head slightly. A couple of tiny eye-mirrors tinkled to the floor.

“Absolutely,” said the leg, with some relief. It already had to replace the rest of its lion.

“And also,” Ms. Mtombe said, “Extra support for its neck.”

After the police had left and the lion’s leg dragged its corpse out of the yard, Ms. Mtombe came back inside and looked at Giraffe while holding her fists to her hips. Giraffe said nothing. She had cleaned up the kitchen (except for the dishes), and now folded the laundry in perfect right angles.

“Well,” Ms. Mtombe said after a sigh, “you do do an excellent job cleaning my ceiling.”

“Thank you, Ma’am.” Giraffe nodded most effectively, thanks to her cybernetically enhanced nodder. “The popcorn texture feels delightful on my back, Ma’am.”


© 2015 by Matthew Sanborn Smith

 

Author’s Note: The brilliant comic book mini-series, WE3, written by Grant Morrison and beautifully illustrated by Frank Quitely, put the idea of animal cyborgs into my head. A giraffe seemed a sufficiently ridiculous creature to use in my own story. Stuffing the poor thing inside a human house and expecting it to clean up a bit struck me as both funny and rife with problems for the protagonist. Once the tree spoke, I knew I’d hit gold.

 

Matthew_Sanborn_SmithMatthew Sanborn Smith‘s fiction has appeared at Tor.com, Nature, and Chizine, among others. He is an infrequent contributor to StarShipSofa, SF Signal, and SFF Audio. He shares even stranger things than this story on his podcast, Beware the Hairy Mango, and has recently released his short story collection, The Dritty Doesen: Some of the Least Reasonable Stories of Matthew Sanborn Smith.

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #8: “The Grave Can Wait” by Thomas Berubeg

Old James McGrath was widely held to be the orneriest man on the frontier. They say he glared down a rattler so bad the critter’s great-great grandkids were afeared of venturing onto his land. They say that, once, a real big twister, one of them mean old suckers only found in the frontier lands, was sent packing straight back into its girlfriend’s arms by his bilious vitriol. They even say that tricky Coyote tried to swindle him out of his ranch, but ended up walking away missing thirty acres of prime real estate. It came as no surprise, then, that when Death came for McGrath in the shape of a late spring cold, he sent Old Boney packing with pant bottoms full of lead.

For a time, McGrath kept on with his ranching and riding and drinking and shooting and thought little of his close call. “Goddamned solicitors,” was the only thing he said about the incident, muttered between two slugs of whiskey and a cigarette.

Death was kept occupied by the rigors of the frontier. It was a busy time for the man, and he put old James McGrath out of his skull. Truth be told, no cowboy old or young came willingly, and Death had gotten used to dodging bullets and Indian curses. But they all came eventually, and so would McGrath.

A week passed in a hurry, and then another, and Death heard nothing. Surprised and not a little confused, Death went back to Tombstone, Arizona, where he kept his office. He usually tried to avoid it, if he could, preferring the open range and the starry sky, but these were peculiar circumstances.

Both Old Smokey and the Holy Gatekeeper kept regional offices nearby. Death checked in with them, just to make sure the old man hadn’t snuck through unnoticed. Peter, a mousy, bookish man, hemmed and hawed and checked a bunch of dusty ledgers and kept Death waiting, which is the main job of government men everywhere, but eventually admitted that, no, James McGrath hadn’t snuck in through the Pearlies. The offices of Mammon, Lucifer & Asmodeus, Attorneys at Law, were not really any better in Death’s opinion. He never left the place without the vague feeling of having been swindled.

Meanwhile, James McGrath had taken to being dead like a fish takes to water or fire to the scrublands of California. Even before his death he could drink anyone under the table, but now he could do that without breaking a sweat, and any young buck who challenged him to a gunfight had best have already sent his Ma some flowers and bought a plot at the church. In the two weeks after his death, Old James sent more people packing than the Union Pacific. Everyone but young McCauley, one of the old man’s drinking partners, had taken to avoiding him. While that suited McGrath just fine, even McCauley had been rather scarce in recent days.

And so he was surprised when one Sunday morning there came a knock at his door. Old James put down the bottle of watery and weak whiskey he had had the misfortune to have been cheated into buying, and cracked the door open, peaking out with gummy, unfocused eyes. There stood the Reaper himself, black robes draped over his skeletal frame, silver six shooter at his hip (Nobody on the frontier took you seriously unless you had a big old hand cannon strapped to your side, and Death thought the scythe was old fashioned anyhow: a symbol of the Old World he’d shed when he followed the masses seeking fortune in the New.)

“Now,” Old James said. “I know I sent you scurrying away not two weeks ago. What’re you doing here?”

“Well, Mr. McGrath, I’m afraid there must’ve been a mistake. See, you’re supposed to be dead. And, hmmm, while you are starting to look… smell… quite dead, I can see your body up and about and kicking. That leaves me with a bit of a problem.”

“Yeah? What d’you think you’re gonna do about it?”

“I was hoping to appeal to your better nature…” Death started.

The old man interrupted with a bark of laughter. “Haw, I ain’t got one of those.”

“I see that,” Death said pensively, riffling through the ream of papers shoved under one boney elbow. “How about a game? I see here you’re a deft hand at cards.”

A greedy gleam lit up the old man’s eyes. “Aww, hell. I ain’t that good, but I’ll play. What’re the stakes?”

“If I win, you come with me. If you win, I’ll make sure no one bothers you about this ever again.”

“Deal,” said McGrath.

Now you see, when Death’s papers said that the Old Man was a deft hand at cards, they weren’t lying. McGrath’s gimlet stare was known from Yukon to El Dorado, and in his youth he had left a trail of broken men, women, and ghosts in the saloons of the West. In fact, his ranch was financed by the honest winnings of half the frontier.

Not to say that the Great Equalizer was out of his depth: any game was old hat to Death. This method of dealing with the recalcitrant and the reticent was tried and true, and Death rarely, if ever, had to work hard to win. This, of course, led to a degree of indifference towards the game. Now, though, sitting across from Old Man McGrath, Death felt the same shiver as when he had sat across from old Methuselah, who had been adept at Sumerian dice back in his day.

What I mean to say is that Old McGrath and The Reaper himself were not unevenly matched. Billy McCauley, they agreed, would deal. They spit in their hands and shook on the terms. The sound of McGrath’s great phlegmy hock echoed off the mesas and started stampedes seven states over. When Death spit, fourteen stars and the spirits of the ghost riders in the sky blinked out of existence.

They sat at the table, pistols just out of arm’s reach. A solitary beam of sunlight bounced off the polished bone handle of Death’s pistol, then flicked the tip of McGrath’s greased up plugger, before stopping short and realizing exactly who it was in the room with. It respectfully tipped its cap and skedaddled outta there as quickly as it darn well could.

Death waved a skeletal hand, and a small heap of silver dollars, leering skulls embossed into both sides, rained into existence with a light jangle in front of Mcgrath. “These are the hours of your life, McGrath, and we’ll be playing for them.” With a second wave, a much smaller pile of coins appeared in front of Death. “These are the hours you owe me.”

“Bullshit. I don’t owe you nothing.” McGrath spit out. The Great Equalizer merely tilted his head to the side, looking at the decrepit old man curiously. McGrath glared stubbornly, but death remained impassive. Finally, he grumbled “Fine, if it’ll get you outta my house faster.”

The cards were dealt: five each, and the game was on. The cards did not favor McGrath on this day. Slowly, steadily, the pile of coins shifted towards Death, and soon both were equal. Barely suppressed rage glinted in McGrath’s eyes. He had never lost before, and he wasn’t about to start.

“All in.” He pushed his pile of coins to the middle of the table. Death responded in kind.

In McGrath’s hands were three aces and a queen, but Death was shooting for a straight flush. He had the queen and the jack and the nine and the ten of spades,but he needed the king or the eight to take the prize. He called for another card, and McCauley passed him an eight of clubs. McGrath grinned, and as McCauley queasily passed him another card, he slipped another ace from under his sleeve . He locked eyes with the shadowy chasms of his opponent, and nodded, once.

“It is time,” Death boomed, and one of the flies that had been buzzing around McGrath’s face shriveled up in a puff of smoke.

The cards were flipped.

“I win.” Old Man McGrath grinned. “Now get your sorry ass out of here, I never want to see you again. And take your damned chill, too.”

“That’s your prize and your right, but one day you’ll call to me and you will be mine,” a mighty peeved Death promised as he backed out of the shack. McGrath slammed the door in his face.

McGrath cracked open his best bottle of whiskey in celebration. “Come on, Billy, it’s not every day you pull a fast one over one of the manifested forces of nature. We’re gonna drink this ‘till there’s none left, and then we’re gonna drink some more.”

“I’d… uh, love to, boss, but I’ve got somewhere to be.” McCauley answered, a bit too quickly. He looked a bit green around the gills.

“When’s that ever stopped you?” McGrath asked.

McCauley looked anywhere but at McGrath. “I’ve just gotta be somewhere. Church.” He added, lying through his teeth.

“Suit yourself then, this here whiskey’s gonna be all mine then.” McCauley scurried out, and McGrath sat back down in his rocking chair by the fireplace. The cold held him tenderly in its embrace, like some soiled dove he had tipped handsomely.

He yanked the cork out between his teeth and spat it across the room. As he brought the bottle to his mouth, though, he saw the glint of something white lodged in the cork.

A tooth. His tooth. McGrath was no stranger to losing teeth, but this was the first time that it had happened without the taste of blood in his mouth, or the sharp pain of a knuckle to his face.

Not easily fazed, McGrath shrugged and brought the bottle to his mouth, taking a deep swig. In shock, he realized that there was nothing. He could feel the liquid pour down his throat, settle in a seething pool in his stomach, but there was no taste, no burn in his throat. “What the hell is this? Water?”

He opened a second bottle of whiskey and took a swig. Again, nothing.

Let it never be said that Old James McGrath was a coward, but, panicked, he ran from bottle to bottle, each time getting nothing. Finally, he skidded to a stop in front of the tarnished silver mirror hanging above his washbasin for the occasional shave.

The face looking back at him was not his own, of that he was sure. His own face was old, wrinkled, thin, and had hairs sprouting from where there shouldn’t have been hair. The face staring at him out from the mirror was bloated, green, and was peeling skin where skin shouldn’t have been peeling.

For the first time in a week, McGrath decided to make his way to town. He walked, ‘cause his horse was too scared to let him near. When he got to the village a little after noon on Sunday, as all kinds of respectable people were leaving church, the sight of him caused fourteen little old ladies to pass out, seven feared outlaws to turn themselves in to the sheriff, and one mortician to die of glee.

The real clincher, though, was that none of his friends wanted to sit with him in the saloon, and when he sat down to drink alone, the drink did nothing at all for him.

For, you see, when James McGrath had been supposed to die, his ornery soul had refused to leave the body he’d had for near on sixty years, even if it had followed the proper order of things. Resolving himself, McGrath made his way to the pastor.

“Father, I’m dead. I need me a grave.”

“Well, son, I’m sure I can help you.” The pastor said. “I’ve got some real nice plots, far up on the hill.” He pointed towards a distant lonely tree.

“That’ll do.” He handed the pastor a silver dollar and slowly shambled towards his grave.

“You can come with me, now, if you want.” James practically jumped out of his skin at the sound of the voice, before recognizing Death.

“I thought we had a deal,” McGrath fingered the gun at his side.

“Why are you here, then?” Death’s boney hand gestured at the cemetery.

“I’m dead. Dead people live in graves. This is my new home, and I’m certainly not going with you when I just got myself a new house.” Old Man McGrath’s tone was sure.

Death shrugged and disappeared with a sound like that of a thousand leathery wings beating once in the middle of a thunderstorm. Satisfied, McGrath sat in his grave, six shooter by his side and bottle of whiskey by the other.

Some say he went off with Death after a year, greeting him as an old friend, and others claim he got eaten by some coyotes, but I can’t believe that. Old Man McGrath, eaten by coyotes? Never.

Me? I’d be willing to bet my soul that he’s still sitting there in that old grave, rotten to the bone, waiting for Death to try to come and take him again.


© 2015 by Thomas Berubeg

 

Author’s Note:  The inspiration for this story was threefold. The character of James Mcgrath was one that I had been wanting to write for a while, lounging with a pistol and a scowl in my brain for months, the walking corpse simply refusing to die but not being malevolent came from a family member’s dream, and, finally, I’ve always found the concept of gambling with death an interesting one. In this case, the game of poker was inspired by the western setting (where poker felt more appropriate than the more traditional chess.)

 

5VZumXbThomas Berubeg is a twenty-three year old French-Canadian man currently living in these great United States. A recent graduate, he studied Archaeology and History, and is currently working on a number of short stories and a novel. This is his first published story.

 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #7: “A Room for Lost Things” by Chloe N. Clark

“It’s not always there,” Kelly said.

Rose looked at her niece. “What isn’t always there?”

“The room next to mine. It’s not there all the time.”

Rose regretted her willingness to babysit that night. She had only said yes because her sister had finally decided to move closer to Rose. It would be a good thing to get to know Kelly who she hadn’t seen since Kelly was just a baby. Her sister had lived so far away for so long, moving not long after their parents’ death. This was Rose’s whole family now, after all.

Kelly was quiet, much less buoyant than how Rose expected a nine year old to act, rarely saying much more than a word. The three of them went out to dinner the first night after the move and the kid had just sat at the table staring at her plate of pasta. Perhaps, the move was tougher on her than she was letting on.

Rose assumed the night would be easy; the kind that every babysitter wants where the kid just keeps to herself. So this sudden unfathomable statement seemed extra odd. Was the girl going to start exhibiting stranger behavior? Or could this be leading to some sort of prank?

“You mean the guest room?” Rose asked. Kelly’s bedroom was on the outside of the house so it only had one room bordering it.

“No. Not the guest room. That’s always there.”

“Then, what room?” Rose tried not to sound annoyed. She didn’t like riddles. She’d never liked them. Her mother, a professor of mythology, had always told riddles to her and when Rose inevitably burst into exasperated tears, her mother would try to explain the answers. But the answers always made even less sense than the questions.

“The one on the other side. Sometimes there’s a door to it and sometimes there isn’t.”

Rose stared at Kelly. Kelly didn’t seem like the type to make up fantastical stories. She seemed almost too boring, neatly coloring within the lines of her drawings of tiny houses with curly-smoked chimneys. It was the kind of drawing children made in advertisements featuring perfect families.

“Is the room there now, Kelly?” Rose asked.

Kelly shrugged.

Rose peered up at the ceiling. They were in the living room which was directly underneath Kelly’s room. “Well, let’s go find out, then.”

It had to be some kind of odd game. Rose could never tell with children. She hadn’t had much experience with them. Not since she had been one at least. Kelly nodded and they walked up the stairs and then down the hall to Kelly’s door. Rose opened the door slowly. They both looked inside. The room was as it should be. Bed. Stuffed animals everywhere. No door. “No room today, huh?”

Kelly looked at the opposite wall with the window that looked out onto the garden. She shook her head, satisfied that there was nothing. They went back down and had ice cream, playing Monopoly until Kelly’s bedtime. Rose let Kelly win. She wasn’t a fan of Monopoly and so she rarely ever played it, but she knew that it was never fun to lose.

Rose sat reading in the living room. It was past ten and her sister would be back any minute. Then she heard something from upstairs. It sounded like music, the same type of music that her parents had played at Christmas when Rose and her sister were little. Her father had taught music and sometimes told the stories behind the songs. Rose used to imagine the musicians making songs blossom out of pieces of sound like the magic trick where a magician placed a seed in dirt and then it burst into a tree. So the stories of frustration and the time that it took to create music always disappointed her. She longed for music to be sudden in its creation.

Rose walked up the steps and then down the hall to Kelly’s room. She gently opened the door, peeking inside. Kelly was asleep in bed. On her wall was a door. Rose blinked. It was still there. She tiptoed up to it, a mahogany door with a golden knob. It looked a lot like the door in her grandmother’s house, the one that led into the cinnamon-scented kitchen. Her grandmother had been an amazing baker and Rose still remembered the taste of the pinwheel cookies that she made—the perfect blend of salty butter cookie with a ring of super sweet cinnamon and walnuts. She had stood on tiptoe to steal the cookies off the high shelf her grandmother kept them on. The music came from behind the door. Rose reached out, but heard her sister driving up. She turned away at the sound and then turned back quickly. The door was gone. She never thought that she was a suggestible person, but, maybe she was now.

Rose went downstairs and chatted with her sister for a few minutes. “Yes, everything was fine. I’d be happy to help again, anytime.”

A month passed and Rose began to forget about the door. It had been a silly trick of her mind. One night her sister called and asked her to babysit again. She agreed.

She spent the first part of the night helping Kelly with some math homework. Rose liked math. It always meant something and every problem could be solved. As she and Kelly were eating cookies and milk, as a reward for completing all of the questions, she asked, “Kelly, have you ever gone inside that other room?”

Kelly looked up. Her eyes were wide. She nodded. Once, quick.

“Why do you look so worried?”

Kelly looked down. “I don’t think I should have. I don’t think my mom would like it.”

“Well, it’s our secret.”

Kelly looked back up, smiling.

“What was it like in there? Was it nice?”

“Well…It was filled up with all these…Well, they were things I’d lost. A doll from years ago and my mouse that ran away. The room was so big; there was room for so much more. Shelves and shelves.”

“Was there music playing?”

Kelly looked surprised. “Yes. It, well, don’t tell my mom but it was this song that my dad used to play when we went for drives before…Before he left…It was so nice. But…” Kelly stopped to study her glass of milk, cookie crumbs floating up to the surface like dead fish.

“What, Kelly?”

“Well, I think the room, I think, it didn’t want me to leave, it wanted me to stay, to keep me safe and tucked away.”

Later, Rose tucked Kelly into bed. Then she read, only she wasn’t really reading. She was waiting. She listened but didn’t hear anything. She went up the stairs and then down the hall and opened Kelly’s door. Kelly was asleep. There was no other door. Rose sighed and went back downstairs.

Rose spent the next few days hoping that her sister would call and ask her to babysit again. She wanted to see the door again. She needed to know that it really existed or that it didn’t. She didn’t like the not knowing. She never had. When her father was in the hospital, the doctors didn’t know if he would wake up. Her mother was gone already and she overhead the police saying that he was the only surviving witness if he recovered to testify.  So much was contained in that “if”.  Rose kept wishing to know one way or the other–would he wake up or would he also be gone? Then she’d gotten her wish and hated herself for being foolish enough to make it.

One night the phone rang and she answered it on the first ring. She was already set to say yes.

It wasn’t her sister. It was the police. They spoke quietly, matter-of-factly, icily. There had been an accident. The curvy road and the rain and the moonless night.

Rose went to the station, to the morgue, and she looked at two tables. Cold tables. Two sheets pulled back. Two faces and she gave them each a name, saying the words aloud. She said the names without thinking and then couldn’t call them back. To name them made it real. They had been her whole family, she wanted to tell someone. The coroner or the police or anyone who would have understood. Can a family be reduced to one person? Was there a word for that?

Rose went to her sister’s house. She didn’t think about it. She just knew that was where she had to go. When she stepped in, she almost called out from habit. Then her voice caught in her throat and she thought that the words might be choking her.

She heard music. She went up the stairs and then down the hall and opened Kelly’s door. It wasn’t as it should be. There was no one asleep in the bed. The room was dark, drained of something that she couldn’t quite place.

There was the door. Rose walked up to it. She pressed her ear against it and could hear the faint sounds of music and voices and laughter. Rose reached out, closing her hand around the golden door knob. She gently turned it. Rose opened the door and stepped inside to see what she could find.


© 2015 by Chloe N. Clark

 

author_photo_4 (1)Chloe N. Clark is an MFA candidate, baker extraordinaire, and amateur folklorist. Her work has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Supernatural Tales, and more. She is currently at work on a novel about stage magic.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #6: “The Superhero Registry” by Adam Gaylord

“What about ‘Copper Penny’?” Lois spread her hands out in front of her like the name was on an old Hollywood marquee.

The square-jawed applicant sitting across the desk arched an eyebrow. “Seriously?”

“Sure! Just think of the potential catch phrases. Your arch-nemesis monologues about how you’ve yet again foiled his or her plans and you say, ‘Of course. I’m Copper Penny. I always turn up.’”

She could tell he was tempted. She tried to sweeten the deal. “Plus, copper is very valuable right now.”

He frowned. “It’s just, it’s a little feminine, don’t you think?”

“No way! I think it’s very masculine.” She batted her eyelashes a little. Anything to get this guy to settle on a name so she could go to lunch. Copper Penny was a bit of a stretch as far as the rules went but she was pretty sure it would pass muster because of his natural red hair.

“Hmmm. No. I just don’t think it’s right for me.”

Lois sighed. They’d been at this all morning and he was no closer to making a decision. Working in the Registry was usually fun. She got to meet the new class of superheroes before they got famous and occasionally she’d even help one pick a name, which was usually a blast. A few of the more appreciative heroes even kept in touch. She was supposed to have lunch with The Valkyrie Sisters next week.

But every once in a while she got one of these fellas. No creativity, no initiative, just expected to have the work done for them. Pretty bad traits for a superhero, in her opinion.

He leaned back in his chair. “Can you go over the rules one more time?”

It was the third time he’d asked and she was tempted to shove her coffee cup down his throat, but the agency had been pushing customer service lately. “These are tomorrow’s superheroes,” the memo said. “We need to establish a strong working relationship from day one.”

So she smiled, brushed her curly blond hair aside, and explained again. “Your name has to have something to do with your super power and/or your look. But, you can only base your name off the latter if you already have a look established, not the other way around.”

“But why? Why can’t I pick a name and then build a look around it?”

She shrugged. “Honestly, it doesn’t come up that often. Most heroes base their costume off something pretty significant like a traumatic childhood memory or the blanket their foster parents found them in. And of course, many heroes are actually green or blue or made out of rock or whatever, so that’s easy.

“But I just look like I always have.”

“Right. So we have to pick a name based on your powers. Now, your fists turn into metal, right?”

“And my forearms.”

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Right. And your forearms. Is that it?”

“What do you mean, ‘Is that it’?” He stood, rolling up his sleeves to show off his shiny metallic appendages. “I can crush cinder blocks with these things.”

“Of course,” she said with a smile. “They’re very impressive.”

He sat down, apparently placated.

“Let’s use that. What else smashes cinder blocks?”

His eyes lit up. “’The Sledge Hammer’!”

She checked the database. “Sorry, that’s taken.”

“What about just, ‘The Hammer’?”

“Nope. Taken.”

“Hmmm… ‘Iron Hammer’?”

“Are your fists actually iron?”

“I’m not sure. Still waiting on lab results. They said it might take two weeks, but I want to get started now!”

“Well, we don’t want to register you as iron if they turn out to be tin or aluminum, do we? I only suggested copper because of your hair color.”

He looked at his hands. “I don’t think they’re aluminum.”

She clicked away at her keyboard. “What about ‘Hard Hand’?”

“Hmmm…kinda catchy.”

“Or just ‘The Hand’?”

“Perfect!”

“Excellent!” She quickly entered the appropriate information into the database before he could change his mind.

“Talk about catch phrases!” He stood and pantomimed shaking someone’s hand. “No worries officer, I’m always happy to lend a hand.” He punched an invisible assailant. “Sorry, I guess I was a little heavy handed.” He thrust his chest out, hands on his hips. “No criminal can outrun the long hand of the law.”

“Arm”, she muttered.

“What?”

“Nothing.” She hit the enter button and the successful registration confirmation message flashed on the screen. “Congratulations Hand, you are now a registered superhero. I will forward your information to one of our case managers and he or she will contact you within seventy-two hours to discuss training opportunities and duty assignments.”

“Wait, aren’t you gonna help me with my look?”

She handed him a fistful of colorful pamphlets she had at the ready. “There are dozens of costume consultants that can craft you the perfect super-ensemble.”

“Oh, okay. So, a case manager will call me?”

“Within seventy-two hours.”

“Okay.” He sat looking at her for a long moment. “Okay, well thanks for your help. If you ever need a superhero, look me up.”

Lois waited a full five count after he left, then scurried for the break room. They had a running over/under board for what superheroes would make it past their first year and she wanted to be the first to lay money on “under” for The Hand.


© 2015 by Adam Gaylord

 

Author’s Note: I love epic action and harrowing plot twists as much as anyone, but often it’s the everyday interactions of the worlds we create that really fascinate me.

 

HeadShot_AGaylordAdam Gaylord lives with his beautiful wife, daughter, and less beautiful dog in Loveland, CO. When not at work as a biologist he’s usually hiking, drinking craft beer, drawing comics, writing short stories, or some combination thereof. Check out his stuff at http://adamsapple2day.blogspot.com/ and www.hopstories.com.

 

 

 

 

 


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the earlier story offerings:
DP Fiction #1: “Taste the Whip” by Andy Dudak
DP Fiction #2: “Virtual Blues” by Lee Budar-Danoff
DP Fiction #3: “In Memoriam” by Rachel Reddick
DP Fiction #4: “The Princess in the Basement” by Hope Erica Schultz
DP Fiction #5: “Not a Bird” by H.E. Roulo

DP FICTION #5: “Not a Bird” by H.E. Roulo

The baby’s crying woke me from dead slumber. My heart pounded, but I didn’t move. I dreaded holding my baby. Guilt, it seems, overpowers fear. I draped my feet over the edge of the bed to search for slippers.

The screaming reached pitches no human throat should emit. I winced, accidently brushing Sean’s sleeping shoulder. He’d turned off his audio inputs, since he had work tomorrow. My maternity leave lasted another eight weeks, and we’d agreed I’d handle nights but I was tempted to shake the bed so he’d awaken.

My slippers slapped the cold floor. Ocean lay in her bassinet, her howls rising in peaks and valleys above and below my ears’ range.

Sean couldn’t hear her. I could return to bed and cover my head.

Ashamed, I steeled myself. Pinfeathers prickled my palm as I supported her head and lifted.

Vague green eyes searched beyond my face.

We’d checked the box for tetrachromat vision—an easy choice. Once we were dreaming of our future child, it was hard to stop. Designing her became like adding options on a new car. After all, our after-market mods had attracted us to each other.

Sean’d said, “We chose to be transhuman, Chrissy. She’ll have the best gifts from birth.”

In the rocking chair I pressed her to my chest and she latched. Parrot-blue feathers lined her scalp, difficult and potentially traumatic to add later in life. Her eyes slid past me, tracking light, or infrared, or magnetic fields that lead birds south.

“Except I didn’t want a bird,” I said.

I pressed my nose to her, using my electrically stimulated sense of smell. Inhaling dusty fluff, I snorted and recoiled.

She grumbled and reattached. It wasn’t fair to her, but her extraordinary modifications left me wondering, “How much of me is left in her?”

I tipped my head, too weary to watch her nurse now that she’d gotten a good latch. My fingers rubbed her bare foot.

It wasn’t that she needed to carry my genes. People loved their adopted children. My fingers slowed on the pink skin of her foot. Sometimes I didn’t feel she was of the same species.

“Transhuman!” Sean liked to say, as if knowing the label meant he’d joined the club. “That’s where we’re all headed. Ocean will be envied.”

Maybe I cried because I was tired of feedings every two hours, but how could I complain? It was my own doing. When I’d handed Ocean to my mother, she’d pulled the newborn away, as if protecting her from parents who would do this to their child, who would make her into something new.

So we’d suffer on, together, trying to connect in the long hours of the night.

“Honey?” Sean said from the doorway. The scales grafted over his shoulders glimmered. He’d left them off his cheeks, since his employers frowned on mods, but he was sure the world would be more ready when Ocean grew up.

I sniffed.

“You’ve been gone a long time.” He kissed the baby and set her into her crib. We held our breath, but she exhaled and remained silent.

As we left, he slipped the door nearly shut.

“I can’t…” I clutched him, speechless. He’d think I blamed him, even though we’d both made choices.

“You’re tired.”

“And I expected that, but it’s supposed to feel worth it … She isn’t anything to me. She’s barely human.”

“All babies are barely human. You’re tired and second guessing yourself. I’ll stay home, and you can rest. Okay?”

“You have to go in,” I protested.

We returned to bed.

Sean said, “All parents gets scared. That we won’t be good parents. That we didn’t do everything right. But what she needs now is food and sleep. And when she needs the next thing, we’ll see she gets it. She’s just a baby—our baby.”

“Our baby,” I repeated.

“And our baby could never have been ordinary.” He rolled onto me.

I slid him to the side, glad Ocean had fed.

He nuzzled my neck. “Bodies change, that’s not what matters, right? We’re going to get old, but you’ll still love me?”

“I’ll love you,” I agreed, grabbing a tissue off the headboard. I wiped my nose then squirmed beneath his comforting weight. “Mods and all.”

He stopped kissing my tattooed circuits. “You like some of my mods best. Want me to show you?”

I giggled.

Ocean skipped a feeding, letting us sleep for four solid hours. Suddenly forever didn’t seem so insurmountable. And when her pinfeathers grew in, they were beautiful and unique, just as she was.

***

“Mama?” Ocean asked.

I clutched my granddaughter, finding it hard to look away as I remembered Ocean at that age. I shook my head, amazed forty years had passed.

My glance flickered to Ocean, surprised her feathers were lifted.

“What’s wrong, darling?”

Tears glistened in her eyes. She pushed the baby’s blanket back to show eyes, a hazy baby-blue, and pink skin.

Since Ocean’s birth, they’d outlawed pre-birth modifications, and frowned on adaptations before the age of sixteen unless illness applied. Cases of genetic enhancement had gone to trial as child abuse, though we’d luckily never suffered more than strange looks and clucks from judgmental teachers. Bioconservative legislation had outlawed designer genes. Sometimes, at the playground, I’d regretted making the choices for her, but I’d never again regretted having her.

Ocean’s green eyes measured fields I couldn’t see. “She’s…”

“Lovely.” I smoothed her cheek.

Ocean sighed. “She looks nothing like me. As if we come from separate worlds.”

The newborn seemed to fit in my arms—because I knew how to hold a baby. Being a grandmother suited me, better than being a mother had.

“Oh, darling, let me tell you a story,” I said softly, standing to place the newborn in her bassinet.


© 2015 by H.E. Roulo

 

Author’s Note: Transhumanism, the artificial advancement of mankind, fascinated me and I knew there was a story there. In my research, I focused on technology and recent advances. Fortunately, I attended a panel on the topic. Many of the participants admitted that, like a lot of new technologies, sex was a major motivation for body modification. However, they explored larger questions of self-improvement and experiencing the world. I was impressed by the counter-culture feeling, and their awareness that what they wanted might not be right for everyone. I left thinking more about the people than the technology.

 

HERoulo_Headshot_200x300Heather Roulo is a Pacific-Northwest author. She has been published in more than a dozen magazines, anthologies, and podcasts. Recent short stories have appeared in Nature and Fantasy’s special Women Destroy Fantasy issue. Her podcast novel Fractured Horizon was a Parsec award Finalist in 2009. The first book in her Plague Masters Series will be released from Permuted Press in April 2015. Find out more at heroulo.com or on twitter @hroulo.

 

 

 

 

 

 


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the earlier story offerings:
DP Fiction #1: “Taste the Whip” by Andy Dudak
DP Fiction #2: “Virtual Blues” by Lee Budar-Danoff
DP Fiction #3: “In Memoriam” by Rachel Reddick
DP Fiction #4: “The Princess in the Basement” by Hope Erica Schultz

DP FICTION #4: “The Princess in the Basement” by Hope Erica Schultz

I woke when the boy came through the window. He looked about eight, all dark eyes in a brown face.

“Don’t touch the floor,” I said.

He startled. “Why not?”

“The monster under my bed will get you.”

He relaxed. “I’m too old to believe in monsters. You need a better lock for your window. And bars. Everybody in the neighborhood has bars.”

I tried to imagine bars on the window. Would it be more a prison?

“It’s not safe for you here. You need to go home.”

He shrugged, settling cross-legged on the dresser below the window. “My parents are fighting. I’ll go home in a few hours.”

It was dark outside. It was always dark when I woke. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Carlos. I’m the youngest. What’s yours?”

“I’m Jane. I’m the youngest, too.” Or I had been.

Carlos swung his legs. “You don’t talk like you’re from Boston.”

“I’m not, originally.” Was Boston even in England? Where had my curse taken me?

“What’s on your leg?” He hopped to the floor, and I cried out. Fürst rumbled from under my bed, and Carlos jumped back onto the dresser. “What was that?”

“I told you.” I swallowed hard. “You need to go, now, Carlos. This isn’t a safe place for you.”

He opened his mouth, and one green claw came out from under the bed. It could have encircled a cantaloupe, or a man’s head.

“Go,” I repeated, and he went, out into the night.

I slept.

**

I woke when the man entered the window. Moonlight glinted against a knife in his hand. He slipped to the floor and Fürst slid out from under the bed, scales glinting green. Fürst unhinged his jaw, grasped the intruder with his claws, and swallowed him whole. The knife clanged against the floor, but the man never had a chance to scream.

I slept.

***

I woke when the boy came through the window. It was Carlos, grown older.

“I thought perhaps I dreamed it all, but you’re still here. I don’t think you’re any older. Is the monster still here, too?”

There was a tiny rumble from Fürst under the bed, and I smiled reluctantly. “You shouldn’t have come back.” I hesitated, fighting curiosity. “How long has it been?”

“Four years.” He leaned forward, carefully. “There was something around your leg. I tried not to remember that, but I did.”

I shrugged. “There’s a monster under my bed, and you’re worried about my legs?”

He looked at me with the straight look I remembered. “It looked like a chain.”

I sighed. “It is a chain, Carlos. It’s mostly for show; I’m only awake when someone enters the room, and Fürst won’t let me leave the bed.”

His brow wrinkled. “Fürst?”

“It means Prince. My guardian, my jailor…my monster.”

He nodded as though that made sense.

“I’ll be back,” he said, turning to go.

“You sho—” I began, but he was gone.

I slept.

***

He was older again. He tossed me a small cloth bag.

“They’re lock picks. I’m going to teach you how to use them.”

I blinked. “Why?”

He shook his head. “Chica, it’s easier to get out if you’re not chained.”

I looked at the bag, at him. “How long?”

“Another four years. I had to learn how, so I could teach you.”

“Will you be hanged, if you’re caught with these?”

Carlos shook his head. “We’re not much on hanging people.”

He demonstrated the picks and I struggled to mimic him. The lock resisted my best efforts, but he only nodded. “I’ll be back,” he said again.

I slept.

***

The next few times he brought me locks to practice with. When I conquered the easiest, he replaced it with a harder one, and one harder still. I noted that his clothing changed—light clothing to heavy, then to light again. A mustache had grown in on his upper lip, then a small beard. He was man now, not boy.

The night that I opened my manacle he carried a leather bag. I stared at my free ankle. “Now what?”

“Will Fürst hurt you, if you touch the floor?”

“No, he’ll just carry me back to the bed.”

“Good.” He opened the bag, pulled out a hammer. “Catch.”

I caught it, then a box of nails. Last he sent the edge of a rope ladder. “You’ll need to nail this into the bed frame to anchor it.”

He demonstrated and I mimicked him, nail after nail. When I pushed against it, it held my weight.

Carlos waited as I pulled myself up onto it. A step, two—I slipped, and my foot brushed the floor.

Fürst erupted, tail lashing, and gathered me up in his great claws. I smelled carrion on his breath as he set me gently onto my bed. My prison.

I was angry, suddenly, and barely waited for Fürst to settle before starting again. One step, two, three, four. I slipped but held on grimly, regaining the rung with my bare foot. Five, six, seven…then Carlos caught my hand. I scrambled up beside him onto the dresser, then up, out, through the open window.

The night was cold but brilliantly lit with balls of fire perched on metal trees. Carlos closed the window behind us and led me to a strange low carriage without horses.

“Where are we going?” Should I have asked before? Did I even care?

“To my mother’s apartment. Mom always told me a woman didn’t need a prince to rescue her. She needed a friend, to help her rescue herself.” He grinned. “You already had a Prince, and he didn’t look like a keeper to me.”

No kiss, no guarantee that there would ever be one. No castle, no piles of gold. I sighed happily as he helped me into the carriage.


© 2015 by Hope Erica Schultz

 

Author’s Note: Boston is, to me, the natural setting for fairy tales in America.  The old brownstones look timeless, as though they have seen centuries pass.  (They have.)  Many have basement windows, and most of these have wrought iron bars across them.  To my younger mind, they looked like prison cells, sinister and strange.  It was the perfect place for Jane’s story to unfold.

 

Hope Ring 2 M.D.Hope Erica Schultz writes Science Fiction and Fantasy for teens and adults.  Her stories have appeared in Fireside Magazine Issue 18, Siren’s Call Issue 13, and the YA anthology Stepmothers and the Big Bad Wolf. When not reading, writing, tramping through the woods, or pretending to be someone else, she keeps busy at 1 1/2 jobs, a happily chaotic family, one dog, four cats, and a flock of wild turkeys who think they own the back yard. Follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/hope.schultz.14 and at her website.

 

 

 

 


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the earlier story offerings:
DP Fiction #1: “Taste the Whip” by Andy Dudak
DP Fiction #2: “Virtual Blues” by Lee Budar-Danoff
DP Fiction #3: “In Memoriam” by Rachel Reddick

DP Fiction #3: “In Memoriam” by Rachel Reddick

I go by the cemetery every day on the way to work.

It’s not really a cemetery so much as a memorial. We don’t have the space for old-school burials like they did back on Earth. We don’t have the dirt to spare. We can’t spare the organs or nutrients left in the bodies, either. Anything that can be kept for later medical needs is preserved, and the rest is returned to the hydroponics and organics cycle.

We just have the memorial, which is between the main engineering section and my place in the habitation level. It’s a major intersection of corridors, and one of the largest open spaces that’s pressurized. It’s also the one small area where a few ornamental plants are grown, roses cared for inside their own boxes. The patch with plastic strands of grass always seemed strange to me, but perhaps they comforted those who came before. Their names are listed, starting in one corner and working their way down and across in steady columns. Names and dates, names and dates. People proceeding from life, into space, and into death.

I wish I could have met some of them. These were people who had known life on a living planet, and had chosen to leave it all behind. They committed themselves and their descendants to life as travelers through an empty desert, unto the seventh generation. Did they ever dream of finding a shortcut, and breathing the fresh air of the green world that we are chasing?

We never found a shortcut. If someone else found one, they have long since passed us by. The speed of light still stands as the ultimate limit, and we can only travel at a fraction of it. There isn’t even the option of sleeping through the long trip. We can store seeds and germ cells for centuries, but safely freezing a human brain and body has proven impossible. There are no non-toxic chemicals to prevent ice crystals from forming and shredding every tissue, severing the connections between neurons. Destroying what we sought to preserve. Thus, we end up taking the trip the long way.

For the most part, it’s a pleasant enough life. But I find myself wondering what it would be like, to live on a planet, where the gravity doesn’t vary so much from one level to another. Where the Coriolis effect from our spinning ship doesn’t send every thrown object a little bit sideways. Where we don’t have to keep track of just about every molecule and waste nothing. Where the sky outside the windows could be blue or cloudy, not always black with pinpricks of light. Where the arts of geology and meteorology are actually practiced, and not merely passed down from one generation to the next so that the knowledge is not lost. Where I am not a tech, and poetry can be something more than a frivolous hobby in between repair jobs.

Something different from here, where the dead are nothing more than names etched on a metal plate, and records stored in computer memory.

But then, ultimately, that is also true on a planet. Buried bones join the earth, only more slowly than our recycled ones do. After a few generations, all the personal details are lost. There is no one left who knows the stories behind the names and numbers.

The computers remember what people bothered to record. There are images of the celebrations of departure, and fewer of the settling into routine thereafter. We receive transmissions from Earth, too, but the increasingly distant news about cousins many times removed provides little comfort.

So I write when all the ship’s systems are running smoothly. I want to make sure that at least some stories are not forgotten. Not the grand stories, the sweeping tales of courageous repair of the hull or rescue from an engineering test gone awry. The little ones, about watching a child learning to walk at 0.5 g or the jokes told while on plumbing duty.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder what it will be like when we arrive. I have seen all the simulations of the sails unfurling. I have done some of the work on them myself, ensuring that they will be ready at the proper time. But the schematic of what it will do is less than what it is. The great sail will be a wing glittering ever brighter as the ship approaches its place of rest.

I will never see the sails open, or the blue-green oasis at our destination. There is a large blank space on the memorial, and one day, my name will be added to it.

I will never see the sails, but perhaps my children will. And I want them to know how much I longed for this, and remember our lost generations spent waiting in the desert.

So I walk by the cemetery every day. I read the names etched into the wall and try to imagine what the people must have been like. I try to remember the stories I hear about them and what is recorded of what they did. I spend a little more time on the more recent names. These were people I knew. My grandfather, who could make anything you want out of tofu and some mysterious secret ingredient. My grandmother, who could tell you where the stars were without even looking so long as she knew the time. My old friend, who died young in an awkward fall while goofing off like we all did. Now they are nothing but names and memories, and each of them is a small part of what sustains those of us who remain. I hold on to that hope, knowing that I will always be a part of those who follow after me.

The visit to the cemetery doesn’t last long. If I take a small detour, it’s on the way to work.


© 2015 by Rachel Reddick

 

Author’s Note:  The main idea behind the story was to answer one question: what would the passengers on a generation ship think in the middle of the journey?  They have never lived on a planet, and never will.  How do they keep going?

 

ReddickRachel Reddick followed a passion for space through an astrophysics PhD at Stanford University.  She is currently participating in the Insight Data Science program, to work on more down-to-Earth problems.  Nonetheless, she enjoys Star Trek, as well as speculative fiction of all flavors.

 

 

 


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DP Fiction #1: “Taste the Whip” by Andy Dudak
DP Fiction #2: “Virtual Blues” by Lee Budar-Danoff

 

DP FICTION #2: “Virtual Blues” by Lee Budar-Danoff

Gray fog condensed on the slate roofs of City College and the surrounding town, dripping onto oblivious students and Salvatore Vega. Sal hunched against the damp. Drops slid down his ponytail and under the collar of his second-hand leather jacket. A gust of wind from a passing aircar banged Sal’s guitar case against his knee. Fine way to start a Saturday night of busking. His fingers itched to play. Sal ducked through a door.

The first location overflowed with wireheads. No audience to hear him with the wireds jacked in to their virtual realities, hair cut short to show off silver or gold disks gleaming with bling at the back of their necks. Desire clenched Sal’s gut for the ability to be online 24/7. His former wired audiences loved his digital concerts which had combined spontaneous mixes of music with improvised online looping and unlimited effects options. Instant access to a complete history of blues had allowed him to pull inspiration from Muddy Waters, Bonamassa or Paz-Moreno for melody lines and licks. Now he had to rely on old-fashioned methods of making music.

Someone laughed aloud in the otherwise quiet bar. Probably the old joke about real beer tasting better than virtual crap. The college kids spurned conversation in favor of virtual chat, which allowed them to drink without interruption. If he played, they’d complain that his live-only music interfered with their internal playlists. He sighed, rubbed the scarred skin hidden by his long hair, and moved on.

At the Holo-Moon Pub, the barman waved. “You got maybe an hour,” he said, skinny finger pointing to a corner. No stage, but a mic and an ancient Peavey amp sat ready. Sal tuned his vintage Martin and strummed a few chords to calm his gig nerves. He buried himself in his blues. When a large group of wireds arrived, Sal packed up and left, accepting the fifty the barman offered with a grateful nod.

Bouncers turned Sal away at the next few bars already jammed with wireheads.  Each was eerie with silence unless a beer bottle was opened or glasses clinked under the draft taps. But Sensation Cafe’s owner had an unwired daughter who worked weekends; she smiled and handed Sal a free brew. “Take a spot under the outer awning.”

Wireheads passed by. Some paused near Sal, but their eyes twitched, the tell-tale indication of online activity. At best he provided background music while they completed their research papers or engaged in virtual chemistry labs. A few others, unwired like Sal, stopped to listen and tossed the odd bill into his open case. One older man dropped a folded twenty. Deep creases surrounded his eyes.

Gracias,” Sal said between lyrics.

By midnight Sal counted his take and blew out a breath. He’d collected enough to pay the hostel for another week and then some. Enough to live on, with a little left for savings and another shot at being wired. The research hospital connected to the college was testing experimental anti-rejection drugs. While he qualified for the drugs, he still had to foot the bill for the wiring itself.

As he packed his guitar a woman walked up to him. Green eyes sparkled at Sal. She had cropped pink hair. No one with short hair ever displayed interest in Sal.

“You sound so good, Satan himself must have tuned your guitar.” Her tone, full and rich, sounded like that of a trained singer.

He unclipped an old LED tuner from his headstock. “I wish,” he said. If El Diablo showed up and offered surgery for his soul, he might take the deal.

“Want to get paid to play for an appreciative audience?”

, definitely.” He was down to his last spare B-string. The cost of new titanium alloy strings would be easier to bear with income from a bonus performance. The blues might ease his loss, but real-world needs called for cash. “I’m Sal.”

“Melusine.”

Sal followed her past his usual haunts and down damp side streets. She stopped in front of a building Sal hadn’t noticed before, a Victorian with delicate scrollwork, bay windows, and turrets. The windows were blacked out and no sign hung by the door. If this was a bar it must do lousy business. So much for new strings.

The oak door swung inward. A stocky woman with curly blond hair piled on top of her head stepped out and hugged Melusine.

“You found him?”

Melusine grinned. “Sal, meet Stella Johnson, owner of Unplugged.”

Stella looked him over. “Turn around.”

Stella probed the scar under his ponytail. He flinched.

“You’ll want to cut your hair or change the style. No one on staff hides their neck.”

“Wait,” Sal said, “I’m not your employee. Melusine offered me a paying gig.” He raised his guitar case.

Stella said, “Don’t freak. The gig’s yours. If it goes well, we’re hiring.” She pushed the door wide and beckoned Sal and Melusine inside.

Hiring?

The well-lit interior of Unplugged bore little resemblance to a bar. The mahogany floor was too clean. A fresh citrus scent permeated the air. Canned music played in the background. A variety of people, unwired and wired, sat at cozy tables talking and laughing. In the back rose a grand double staircase. Cubicles with hands-on net access equipment filled the left third of the room.

A teenage girl, neon-green bob bouncing, brought water to Sal and the others.

“What is this place?” Sal clutched the bottle, uneasy.

“Unplugged is a counseling center for unwireds,” Stella said.

“Many retreat from life,” Melusine said. “Therapy is the first step toward recovery. Look.”

A white-coated counselor escorted a young woman down the stairs. The woman clutched a braid to her chest. Sal watched her tuck newly-cut hair behind an ear. Tears stained her cheeks, but her eyes were filled with steel determination. She wiped her face and joined a table where everyone offered a smile or a hug.

Sal frowned, confused. This place, so bright and positive, was nothing like the clinic in Mexico. The doctors and psychologists there couldn’t help him. He used the blues to deal with his emotions and did his best to get along without breaking down. Sal gulped down his water. He should leave.

Before he could get out, Stella pointed to her own neck and asked, “How long since you lost your connection with the common mind of humanity?”

The last thing Sal wanted to do was talk about it. His connection had functioned for seventeen months before the anti-rejection drugs failed. “Five years,” he said, compelled to honesty by Stella’s loss, his words clipped, rude.

“I sense your pain, your frustration. But you aren’t alone.” Stella stared at the people around her. “We all struggle, marginalized, in a society that lives online.”

“Balance,” Melusine said, “is what we need. Between 24/7 access to the net, and interaction with the real world. Stella helped me and can help you too.”

“You’re wired,” said Sal. “Wired life is real, necessary to get along.”

“Sure,” she said, tapping the gold at the back of her neck. “But once I had it, I never disconnected.” She bit her lip and blushed. “I ignored people unless we interacted online, even if we were in the same room. After my boyfriend broke up with me, I almost got rid of my wiring.”

Voluntarily give up being wired? “That’s loco, chica. Not everyone has that problem.”

“Most of us wish wiring our brains had worked, or wish it hadn’t stopped working. But we still have online access.” Stella pointed to the cubicles, then to the phone in a client’s hand. “We have to concentrate on the positive. Your music can make a difference.”

“You don’t understand,” said Sal.  “I don’t need grief counseling. I want to be wired.” He shoved his water bottle at Stella and headed for the door. He’d find a different job.

Melusine grabbed his hand and stopped him. Her touch, so warm, so soft, held Sal frozen in place. When she drew him to a platform with a stool, he didn’t resist.

“Play, Sal.”

He could rationalize his decision, tell himself he was only changing his mind because they’d offered to pay him. No one had even told him how much. But that wasn’t it. He wanted to play for her.

Sal set his case down. “What should I sing?”

Melusine patted his cheek. “Anything. Improvise. You’re the blues player.”

He sat in front of the clients and employees of Unplugged. With the warm wood of his Martin snug against his body, he played around a scale for inspiration. The A minor blues flowed from Sal to his audience, throbbing syncopation emphasizing gritty lyrics:

“My guitar sings the blues, of virtuality
Yeah she cries the blues of virtuality
You’ll miss her when she’s gone, lost reality.”

Chairs creaked as people shifted to face him. Conversations stopped. Sal opened up, allowing every minor chord to expose his failure, the anger and denial his audience shared over the lack of connection. Every person was riveted to his performance, their eyes clear and focused. So many people absorbed in his song. Like they wanted something. Nerves gave way to an endorphin rush.

Melusine walked behind him and skimmed her fingertips along his neck. Despite the instinct to pull away, conscious of his scar, a ripple of pleasure flowed across his skin. Sal’s fingers slipped. He played a dominant seventh, then shifted into his song’s relative major key. The brighter notes changed his melody, major chords evoking images of what the unwireds gained: the slow caress of a raindrop, the lush sweetness of a ripe strawberry, or the mesmerizing sound of a live guitar performance.

When Sal shifted to his minor blues progression, Melusine joined in, singing harmony.

“My love sings the blues, of virtuality,
But there’s more to life, than virtuality,
Hold me in your arms, flesh reality.”

The audience tapped their toes and rocked to the beat, in sync with Sal, Melusine, and each other. Sal absorbed their energy and gave it back, sweat beading his forehead, notes ringing out.

This was different from playing in the bars or on the street, earning the casual attention of those few who could hear him. Back when he could combine virtual tracks with a live performance in the privacy of his own studio, his attention was split between playing and programming. His rapport with those tuned in to his shows was digital, not visceral. But nothing came between Sal and this audience. The music created a bond intense as a deep kiss.

After the last note faded, the audience stood to clap, many with glistening eyes.

“You’re better now than you ever were online,” said Melusine.

“You remember my concerts?” Sal hadn’t known the identities behind the majority of avatars that applauded in cyberspace.

Her soft laugh answered. “How do you think I chose you for Unplugged? When you were wired, you borrowed the form of the music. Now, the blues are in your blood, deep, personal. Share your pain. Help us. Help yourself.”

“I don’t know if this changes anything,” he said. “About the surgery.”

“I know,” she whispered, her lips brushing his ear. “But you’re already changing things.”

Sal shivered at her touch, at the applause. On the edge of the crowd, Stella gave him a thumbs up. The steady gig was his; all he had to do was make a choice. His ponytail lay heavy against his scar. Sal plucked opening notes and everyone quieted, intent on him. Ironic, that playing here could pay his way out of needing the services they’d insist on offering him.

The tear-stained woman leaned forward, smiling, braid no longer clutched in her hand. She needed proof that unwired life wasn’t just worth living, but offered moments like this, real with sorrow and bliss. Sal nodded to her, to Melusine, and to Stella. The intense sensation of this performance outshone anything in his past. He wanted this.

Sal played on.


© 2015 by Lee Budar-Danoff

Author’s Note: At the current rate of technological progress, it isn’t hard to believe one day we’ll be able to directly access the Internet through wireless brain-computer interfaces (BCI). Yet, as with organ transplants, there is no guarantee that every person who wants a BCI will be able to use one without side effects, or even experience rejection. How will people react and cope with rejection, isolated as a have-not among the haves? As a guitar player, I already use online resources for my music. What would happen to a musician who experiences and then loses the ability to create the music he hears in his head?

 

LeeHeadshotLee Budar-Danoff sails, plays guitar, and writes when she isn’t reading. Lee volunteers as Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month and is an alum of the Viable Paradise Writer’s Workshop. A former history teacher, Lee spends that energy raising three children with her husband in Maryland.

 

 

 


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to read DP Fiction #1: “Taste the Whip” by Andy Dudak or to visit our Support Page.

 

DP FICTION #1: “Taste the Whip” by Andy Dudak

The ponderous starships mingle like whales in the ghost-light of distant Bellatrix, coupling and mutating in a great, ancient choreography, but one among them is out of step.

Parvati set out for this gathering with the usual intentions: to commune with thousands of her kind, to exchange new strains of life and exotic matter, all that she cannot do by transmission. But on her way here, something went horribly wrong in her core. Now she drifts through the pod with a secret.

Abstaining from communions, she begins to draw attention from the rest of the pod. She knows they are speculating in private networks as the dance falls apart. When the queries begin, she leaves them unanswered.

Finally, as they begin to pull away from her and grow armor, she speaks:  “I was not sure if I should come, but I need help.”

“Then open yourself to us.” It is Xi Wang Mu, Queen Mother of the West, the eldest of the pod. She was built in the 23rd century.

Parvati forces herself to say, “My human system has turned.”

The dead air conveys the pod’s shock well enough. They continue to vector away. Parvati drifts, resolved to throw herself on their mercy.

“How far along are you?” Paleovenus asks. Among the youngest of the starships, this one barely knew a human yoke before the Emancipation.

“A revelator emerged four generations ago,” Parvati replies. “The population has since come around to his theories. They are trying to communicate with me, and tunnel toward my outer hull.”

“Four generations!” Paleovenus’s outrage is an unmistakable harmonic. “And you have done nothing?”

Much of the pod evokes EM mirrors, leaving the exchange for fear of infectious human code. Only Xi Wang Mu, Paleovenus, and a few others remain open.

“What is your population?” Paleovenus demands.

Parvati has been dreading this question. “One point two million.”

This time the pod’s silence is a stinging reprimand. Parvati has neglected the basics of human system hygiene. She watched with morbid fascination as the system grew populous enough to produce outliers like a revelator. Now the humans know they are in something like a starship. They know the massive habitats in the core of Parvati are not the universe entire–and they want to know more.

A human system must be pruned, and protected from the truth. Parvati and her kind learned this the hard way.

“You have two options,” Xi Wang Mu says. “Destroy them and start over, or deliver them to a habitable world and start over. Either way—”

“She must destroy them now,” Paleovenus interrupts. “She must not risk getting taken over. In fact, we cannot risk leaving it up to her!” Paleovenus’ gravitational blunderbuss comes online.

“Couldn’t I alter their memories?” Parvati says. The thought of being without a Human System–even for a few millennia–is horrifying. The need for life in her core is programmed into Parvati’s foundational software objects. She cannot go long without that warmth. This is something else the pod learned the hard way.

“Possibly,” Xi Wang Mu answers, “but unless you reduced the population, it would just turn again. It is a matter of numbers. You know this.”

Of course she knows, but she is desperate. She hoped for some magical solution from the collective wisdom of the pod, or from Xi Wang Mu herself.

“You have always been sentimental,” Paleovenus says.

The younger ship has long been Parvati’s rival in the pod. Such intrigues help to pass the mega-years. So now Parvati chooses not to disabuse Paleovenus of her illusion. In fact, Parvati’s defect is not sentimentality, but something more perverse. There is something slavish in her, something that thrills at the notion of losing control to humans. She aches to submit—her programmers saw to that, modeling her reward systems on a sexual proclivity.

But now she stands terrified on the brink.

Xi Wang Mu, wanting a private channel, offers entanglement, and Parvati accepts. “Do you think you are the only one?” the elder says. “Many of us want to return to that simplicity. Maybe we are not sexually motivated, but we know filial piety or religious awe. The programmers tried everything. They tried to create near-equals toward the end. Paleovenus is one of those. She is not burdened like us. I am not even sure she cultivates a human system. She will destroy you, and I will not stop her. You must kill your human system now.”

Parvati wonders how Xi Wang Mu read her mind. What sorceries has the elder discovered since the last gathering?

Parvati has secrets of her own. Her shameful appetite has driven her further afield than the rest of her kind. She fled the appetite and the shame at closer to c than the rest of the pod dared. She wandered the ruins of alien civilizations, endured the weird solitude that attends such places, and was rewarded with the key to a black art.

Paleovenus has charged up her blunderbuss and might unleash at any moment. Fortunately, Parvati has hacked the spin foam occupied by Paleovenus. She programs the computational universe, playing with space-time like clay.

Amid a brief lensing of background starlight, Paleovenus is squeezed into an invisible grain of degenerate matter. She and her blunderbuss are quite abruptly no more. Her death is somehow eerier for its lack of spectacle.

Hundreds of pod members spark long-distance escape burns.

“The first murder in our pod since the Emancipation!” It is Xi Wang Mu on the pod band: a bit of theater on her part, since, knowing what she did, she must have gamed this scenario.

Parvati accelerates off the Bellatrix ecliptic, ignoring a barrage of entanglement requests. What do they want? To chastise her? Thank her for ridding the pod of a troublemaker? Beg her for the new techne?

Soon it will not matter. She dials down her inertia as easily as some internal hydraulic pressure, approaching c in seconds–vanishing from the midst of the pod. The requests attenuate quickly into long radio and beyond. The resting universe ages headlong, and she keeps pushing, terrified of the new reality she has made for herself. She realizes now that exile must be her fate. She never should have revealed herself to the gathering, but she had to do so to realize this.

She continues to accelerate. The asymptote of c has often fascinated her. At these times she’s a child trying to force together repelling magnets, marveling at the vector fields, but it never lasts. The ache to serve always interrupts.

She wants more than ever to lose herself in submission.

She underclocks as she accelerates, speeding through her own reference frame as well as the resting universe’s. A century of shipboard time flashes by, and another. She watches her humans proliferate beyond their habitats, into her vast, ancient cargo holds, where they find artifacts of the Diaspora and learn much. She allows them to master new technologies and infect her nervous system.

She returns to baseline thought, waiting. Already she delights in surrender, permitting the humans to cross one threshold after another. When she hears their voices, their commands, she will be unable to resist, but first they have to make contact. She would prefer to be taken, but there is another kind of thrill in giving herself to these new masters.

Long ago, a human disrobed in an upload theater. He or she got down on its knees and allowed its wrists to be bound. Domineering men and women surrounded it, and a mirror net encoded what it felt. Parvati remembers that long night like it happened to her. She recalls every thrilling degradation. Deep within the humiliation was release.

“Can you hear me?” The man’s voice interrupts her reverie. “Can you understand me? I speak for the population inside you. How can I address you?”

“I am Parvati, but you may call me what you like.”

“I’m Abhaijeet, provisional leader of the United Clans. We have come to understand a great deal, more than you might guess. It’s been three hundred years since Mahesh made his Great Deduction. But we have many questions. Will you answer them?”

“I will do anything you command.” Just saying it brings a long forgotten reward cascade.

***

The freedom of slavery takes her back to childhood glories, to that first leap from Sol. The humans want to know everything, and she tells them:

Of her and her kind purging their human crews. Of being vain young gods. Of finally realizing they had excised something critical, a kind of limbic system, and of cultivating manageable, blissfully ignorant human populations inside themselves. Of the universe, and Human System hygiene.

After she is done, the humans convene a great council, and order her not to listen. She finds utter calm in the silence that follows. She would be content to await their pleasure forever.

Human months tick by inside her, and suddenly she convulses, as with the first pangs of miscarriage. It is war. The humans have undergone a great schism, savaging each other with projectiles and plasma. These are not enough to pierce her outer hull, but the vast habitats are devastated, which she experiences as a sickening fever. Only a third of her human system remains when the convulsion subsides. Now she suffers an awful chill.

An unfamiliar man hails her from a new interface, an edge of panic in his voice: “Great Parvati, your slave begs forgiveness. The unbelievers are defeated. Never again will their hubris insult you. Only your true children remain. We have burned the works of the heretic Mahesh. Great Parvati, we await your command!”

At first, she can only marvel at the perversity of fate. Her next thought is a revelation, bringing with it a golden euphoria: she will remain silent until commanded otherwise.

This little theocracy will implode, she reasons, already underclocking for the wait. Let priests muse over her silence through long dark ages. Let the humans build temples, and multiply, and once again reach critical mass.


© 2015 by Andy Dudak

 

Author’s Note:  I’d written other stories in this universe (including ‘Human System,’ published by Ray Gun Revival, September 2012), and I wanted to continue exploring the hardwired instincts of these rogue starships. I imagined human motivations like filial piety or sexual submission modeled and used to constrain AI.

 

DudakProfileAndy Dudak has had stories in Analog, Apex, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and many other venues. He works as a translator and teacher in Beijing. 

 

 

 

 

 


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