“What was it this time?” She looked exhausted, shoulders slumped over a file covered with names, and ruffled her wings at me like an angry pigeon. “Transporter trip? It’s usually a transporter trip.”
“Um,” I said. The last thing I remembered was the departure platform at Greater Houston, and the familiar buzz and glare of a successful transport. “Is this what it looks like?”
“I’m marking it as a repeat,” she said, and pointed me toward a small white room, already looking at the next file. There were fine lines at the corners of her eyes. I wondered if she had a flaming sword, and if I should be worried.
In the white room, I was met by myself.
“Hello, you,” the other me said, swinging one leg over the back of a chair and straddling it. “Where was it this time?”
“Mars,” I said cautiously. “Just a weekend trip. I’m dead, right?” The room was as bare as a VR stage. “Or this is the weirdest ad I’ve ever been in, and I’m not sure what you’re selling.”
“No, you’re dead,” said the other me. “Look, I keep drawing the short straw on this whole explanation thing, so I’m going to go fast. Two things that are true.” She held up two fingers and waggled them. “One, Heaven is real, God is real, all that religion stuff is real. Not the nasty bits, just the simple, straightforward, everybody gets an afterlife part. That’s real. That’s thing one. Thing two? Transporters are murder.”
“No, they’re not,” I said. “I use them all the time.”
My other self twisted her mouth into a crooked smile. “Follow that thought through,” she said.
“I mean,” I said carefully, “they just take your atoms apart and put them back together again. On the other end.”
“That’s death,” the other me said. “Literally and technically. You’re dead, and your copy goes to Mars for the weekend. Well,” she amended, “your new copy. We’re all copies here, except for the ten year old. She was first.” Outside the open door, the pigeon-winged woman had started laughing, the way an exhausted parent laughs when the children start drawing on the walls with crayon.
I swallowed. “I don’t use transporters that much. I mean, I don’t really keep count.”
“Yes, we can tell,” the other me said, and guided me into the next room. About forty versions of myself were grouped in small clusters, having quiet conversations and looking bored. They were all about my age, but slightly younger. Except for one little girl who seemed particularly bitter.
None of them looked happy. “You’re sure this is Heaven?”
“Yep,” said the other me, and put a hand on my shoulder. “That’s every transporter trip you’ve ever taken. And that thing with the jellyfish when you were a kid, when you were dead for twelve seconds and change. That counted.” She waved at the ten year old, who glared at us.
“I guess we all led good lives or something,” I said weakly. Ten year old me should definitely have been happier. I mean, she’d been here for what, thirty years? Give or take?
The other me, the first one, looked where I was looking and nodded. “Oh, the first few decades were great. It’s recently, really, that everybody’s gotten… well, like this.”
It was deeply awkward. There wasn’t anything else in the big white room to take our minds off each other, and none of my previous selves seemed to want to talk to me. “Shouldn’t there be marble columns or something?” I asked finally. “Trees and fountains? Lots of light?”
As I spoke, two columns and a fountain sprouted gently, and the room was bathed in warm golden sunlight, like it was four-thirty on a perfect afternoon. “Oh, sure,” said the other me, poking at a column. “Lots of people start with this. Don’t feel bad,” she said to the expression on my face. “Familiar’s just fine. Anyway, we’ll go through all this again in a few days, when the next one of us gets back from Mars, so…”
“Okay, no. No more,” I said, looking around at myself. “This can’t be it. I can’t end up like all of you.” Sunlight sparkled, perfectly, on the fountain next to us, and I resisted the urge to kick it.
The other me cocked an eyebrow. “You’ve been traveling a lot lately.”
“Well, how was I supposed to know?” I said. “Everybody uses transporters.”
“That’s the point,” she said, guiding me past a pair of shining trees. Some of the others followed us, not closely. “All those little deaths, all the time now. People used to spend time with relatives, ancestors, some interesting famous people, but now, well.” She shrugged. “There’s just too many of us.”
“Heaven’s overcrowded? I thought Hell was other people,” I said. Nobody laughed. The ten year old rolled her eyes and left the room, which at least meant there was a way out, I thought.
The other me sat us down on a delicately filigreed bench, by a small pond rippling with fish. “They’re calling us multiples,” she said. “Repeats. And there’s talk, you know, that it’s not really sustainable. People think the whole system’s going to break down.”
“The afterlife?” I had a brief moment of panic, then remembered I was already dead. “Is that possible?”
“Oh, no,” the first me said, waving her hand like she could wave the thought away. “But it’s a strain, you know. The place wasn’t built for repeats.” Some of my other faces looked worried.
“Just hypothetically, though, if it did break,” I said. “What would happen?”
The other me shrugged. “You know, nobody’s saying. It’s probably fine, though.”
“Probably.” I looked around, imagining stacks of myself piled like cordwood, grumbling. Or maybe the whole place would shatter like a mess of pixels, or something even worse. “Can we do anything?”
She smiled wide, and I swallowed. “Well, if you think of anything, you be sure and let everyone know.”
Fish turned in gentle loops under the pond’s surface, perfectly. It wouldn’t be nice to kick at them, I thought. Besides, the sunlight was warm on my skin, the fountain burbled pleasantly in the distance, and life had always been short. “So, what do you all do?” I asked, settling back on the comfortable bench. “When you’re not running slightly older versions of yourself through the tutorial.”
“Oh, well,” she said. “Pretty much anything nice you can imagine.” She waved in the direction my child self had gone. “Our ten year old made an ice cream land with tame dinosaurs. And you can still meet your relatives and ancestors, if you can find them. They’ll still talk to some of us, the younger ones.” She chattered on, and I thought about the news story I’d seen, when I was waiting my turn at the transporter to Mars.
Home versions. Just announced. So convenient, to transport back and forth from home every day. Multiple times, probably.
Everyone was going to want one.
“Tell me about the ice cream land,” I said, and smiled at the fish. Let the next version of me tell everyone the bad news. Meanwhile, I’d see as much of the place as I could, while it lasted.
Death was too short not to enjoy it.
Author’s Note: I’ve always been somewhere on the scale of bothered-to-terrified about the standard transporters in Star Trek. Site-to-site matter teleportation would be fantastic, if only I didn’t have to worry about whether it was “me” that emerged on the other side. I’ve also been replaying The Swapper, an indie game in which you’re constantly abandoning cloned versions of yourself that may or may not be conscious, and started thinking about all those potential transporter copies – what if they didn’t die, but went somewhere else? An overcrowded afterlife was the logical next step.
Monica Joyce Evans is a digital game designer and researcher who began publishing speculative fiction in 2019. Her short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Analog, Nature: Futures, Flash Fiction Online, and DreamForge Magazine, and her most recent academic work can be found in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. She lives in North Texas with her husband, two daughters, and approximately ten million books. You can reach her at email@example.com.
When the cars started driving themselves, we went back to the old ways. It wasn’t a slow change, the way the news made it out to be. One day we were in control, and the next we weren’t. Now they can strike anywhere, anytime, any make and any model, all with dead-eyed electronic smiles on their windshields.
The old ways help us stay safe. I teach my daughter to chalk runes around the house, double yellow lines that forbid the cars from crossing. We bring a baby stroller everywhere we go. It saved a friend of mine once, making him rank slightly higher in the car’s inscrutable calculus than the woman on the other side of the street.
Sometimes I wonder if he feels guilty.
I know I wouldn’t. I need to be there for Margot, so that I can protect her in this new world, and keep her childhood peaceful. She’s the only reason I keep going. No one else matters.
Today, Margot and I are going to the park. Margot is wearing her favorite shirt, the one with the pink stripes and the ice cream scoops, and I’ve done up her hair with matching bows. A bright rainbow of face paint covers her button nose. She skips along happily, clutching her chapter book to her chest as I push the stroller with its disguised doll.
“I’m going to see the bridge troll, Mama,” Margot tells me. I resist the urge to sigh.
“Bridges are on roads, sweetheart.They aren’t safe anymore, remember?”
“You never let me have any fun.” She pouts and stops skipping.
“We’re going to the park right now,” I point out. Margot huffs and buries her face in her book. I want to tell her not to read while walking, but that’s one battle I won’t ever win. I step to her left, between her and the road.
The book she’s reading has a troll on the cover. Its eyes glow yellow and its rocky body blends into the bridge behind it. Next to it stands a young girl with her hands on her hips. I make a mental note to skim it after she falls asleep tonight: I don’t want her getting the wrong idea.
It’s the way people thought before the cars. Some people still think it; try to take the cars down. I hear about them on the news, next to footage of their weeping parents. Margot is only curious about the cars now, but I can’t help worrying that she’ll grow up to be one of those radicals.
Margot tugs at my sleeve.
“Want to guess a riddle?” she asks.
“Sure, honey.” We’re almost at the park now. It’s isolated, deep enough in the maze of the suburbs that I can let my guard down a little.
“What has legs but no feet?” Margot asks, placing her finger halfway down the page.
“I don’t know, what?”
“I win,” she squeals, holding the book out to me. “It’s a chair, it says right here. Now you have to let me go to the bridge.”
“Not if I catch you first!” I chase her all the way to the park, roaring like a bridge troll.
There are other families at the park, and other children on the swings. Margot spots her best friend Nadia playing in the sand pit and runs off.
Across the sand, my friends Dave and Samir are chatting at a picnic bench. Samir spots me and waves me over, smiling wide. I scan the park for escape routes and hiding places before joining them.
“How have you been, Alicia?” Samir asks. His disguise of the day is all harsh lines and interlocking spirals, so dark they look like tattoos across his face. In the oldest days, it was unwise to share your true name. Now you can’t share your true face.
“We missed you at our baby shower,” Dave adds.
“Right.” I had been too afraid to leave the house that day. There had been a car victim in the news, a child Margot’s age, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. “I’ll bring your gift to the next self-defense workshop.”
Samir rolls his eyes, but I know he’s more exasperated than annoyed. After all, Dave leads the workshops. He had been a designer on the cars long ago, back when people were still actually in charge of them, but his workshops tend toward the arcane.
“I’m working on a charm.” Dave holds up a spinning, blinking object that flashes pattern after pattern. “If we can overload a car’s sensors for even a millisecond, it might swerve.”
“Do you have to call it a charm?” Samir grumbles.
“If it works, it works,” says Dave. “I think there’s a lot we can learn from the old ways.”
“They’re machines, not fairies. The way we get back to normal is by somebody figuring out who hacked into the AI, not by all of us pretending that they’re magic.”
“What about in the meantime?” I interject. “Things aren’t getting any better. Half the kids in Margot’s classroom haven’t come in since the attack by the high school; the district says we’re all moving to remote schooling.”
“Maybe it would be better.” Dave places a hand on my shoulder. “She’ll still have the backyard, and Nadia can come over for playdates.”
“I just want her to get a chance to live the way we lived, you know?”
Dave and Samir give me sympathetic nods, but they don’t say anything. There’s nothing to say.
I turn back to watch Margot play, hoping some of her carefree joy will stick with me.
The sand pit is empty. A half-built bridge, a pinecone troll, and a trail of sand left like breadcrumbs are all that remains of Margot and Nadia.
I start running.
At least she’s with Nadia, I think to myself. At least she isn’t alone. It pains me to make the same cold decision as a car, but Nadia is older than Margot, and age is supposed to be one of the metrics.
I sprint across streets and swing around corners with wild abandon, following the sand. Margot is out there. Margot, who I still can’t convince of the dangers of the world. In another life, I would have wanted her to stay innocent.
The nearest bridge isn’t a bridge at all. It’s actually a freeway overpass that crosses a quiet road, but it’s close enough in the eyes of a child. Margot and Nadia stand there at the edge of the shadows, their arms linked.
“Margot, Nadia, come here,” I call as loudly as I dare. “We can play somewhere else.”
“But Mama, we found the troll,” Margot says.
I get closer and see yellow in the shadows. Not eyes. Headlights.
I’m in front of Margot in an instant, spreading my arms to block her as much as I can. Nadia whimpers and ducks behind my leg, but Margot just tries to slip under my arm.
“I want to tell it my riddle,” she says.
“Margot, honey, this is a car,” I say carefully. She knows the stories, the warnings, but she has never seen a feral car in the wild before. I’ve sheltered her too well. “We talked about how they’re different now. It’s not going to answer your riddle.”
The car’s windshield changes from the neutral face that means no danger to something new: a question mark. I have never seen an autonomous car without an indicator face before.
“Sweetheart, I want you and Nadia to get back.” I use my sternest tone. When they step back, though, the car revs its engine and inches forward.
The car’s windshield displays a stop sign. The children halt.
“Okay, Margot. Ask the riddle.” My voice shakes.
She places her hands on her hips, her little chin thrust high in the air.
“What,” she demands, “has legs but no feet?”
The car displays a chair on its screen. My heart skips a beat as it starts rolling forward, picking up speed. Margot turns to me with wide eyes.
“It won, mama.”
I scoop Margot into my arms and start to run, but Nadia grabs at my leg, and we all go tumbling down to the asphalt. Margot starts to cry and I have just enough time to notice the bright red smear on her scraped elbow before the car is upon us and I have to act, now.
“I have riddles, car,” I say, desperate. “Play with me.”
The car screeches to a halt and slowly reverses until all I can see are its eerie yellow headlights and the question mark on its windshield.
“If I win, you leave me and my daughter alone. Forever. All of you.”
The car displays a red frown. I’ve asked for too much.
“Just her, then.” I wipe the tear-smeared paint off Margot’s face and force her to look at the car. It will kill us anyway if I fail here.
A green smiling face. A question mark.
The problem is, I don’t have a riddle. I’ve never really been one for puzzles, and the only games I play are the ones Margot suggests. Besides, anything I’ve heard of before, the car will also know. It knows so much. More than I do. It knows the answer to unanswerable questions. Like “whose life is worth more?”
Nadia trembles behind me.
Margot would be heartbroken if anything happened to her. If it comes down to that choice again, I know what I will do, but for now there must be another way. Samir was right: they’re cars, not fairies. But Dave was right too. Both of those things play by the rules, and both of those things can be tricked.
“You can’t kill us until you answer my riddles,” I tell it. Again, the green smile. I step forward and walk so close I can feel the heat of its engine. I try the door handle.
“What are you doing, Mama?” Margot asks, grabbing my hand with her stubby fingers. “Don’t let it eat us!”
“Just trust me, honey.” I tug on the handle again. The car hums, like its air conditioning has been left on high. The first glimpses of a plan are forming in my head. “I need to get my books from home, so I can find the very best riddles.”
With a click, the car door unlocks. I think it’s curious. Kind of like a child in that way, if the child weighed several tons and could kill with ease. Margot clings to me as I open the car’s door and climb inside, with Nadia at my heels.
The children huddle in the passenger seat, clinging to each other as I snap their seatbelt in place. I eye the manual override, but I know better. I’ve heard of people who tried that and held on. Heard what happened the moment they let go.
If we can just get home, though, I might be able to pull this off. Maybe.
I key in my address and with a sound like a sigh, the car pulls out from under the overpass.
It’s been years since I’ve been inside a car. My knuckles are white as I grip the useless wheel. Outside the window, the trees and the streets and the houses blur together.
I can almost understand why the world chose this path. There’s no traffic, no mistakes, no rude gestures. But it only feels safe from inside the car. I’ve lived too long on the outside to be fooled.
Maybe I can beat the car at its own game, instead of resorting to one of the frantic, risky plans bubbling up in my mind. I can’t come up with any suitable riddles, though, and I know my own books won’t be any help. All I know are the childish riddles I’ve picked up through my time as a parent, from playgroups and picture books.
Why did the chicken cross the road?
Because it was running for its life.
My house comes into view. It’s a single story, just big enough for me and Margot. Yellow painted rune-lines circle the structure, and all of the blinds are drawn shut. Weeds have broken through the concrete of the driveway. The car crushes them as it pulls up.
I unbuckle the girls and step out on shaky legs. I can at least get Margot inside. Maybe she can barricade herself somewhere, and force the car to destroy itself getting to them. But that’s a temporary solution at best.
The car revs its engine as Margot and Nadia head for the porch. It rolls up behind them and they freeze. Nadia is crying now, globs of silent tears pooling on her cheeks. Margot’s face is tight and pale.
“Stay out here, girls,” I say as gently as I can. “I’m going to get some books. Everything will be okay. I’ll bring some chalk for you to play with. Don’t worry, alright?”
Margot grabs my sleeve as I pass her. The look in her eyes breaks my heart almost as much as the look in her eyes when I have to keep going. The chalk will work, though. It has to work.
The house is quiet and still. The car’s headlights follow me through the blinds as I hurry to the shelves. Margot’s books are usually scattered around her room, but there are still a few fairy tales left where they should be. I grab them and the chalk.
Back outside, the car looms over Margot and Nadia, their nightmares made real for the very first time. It’s a small car, but they’re small girls. Too small to be dealing with this right now and certainly too small for what I’m about to ask them to do, but there’s no one else that can do it.
“Here you go, girls. Don’t be afraid.” I hand them the bucket of chalk, then turn my back to the car and hide my hands as I gesture to them what to do.
I can only hope they understand. I turn back to the car.
“I’m going to ask you three riddles,” I say, stretching my words out to buy time as the children begin to draw. I can see Margot trembling as she nears the car, but she draws anyway. So brave, my girl. “It’s the traditional number.”
The green question mark stays on the car’s display, unwavering.
“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
The question mark winks out. Moments later, the car’s screen fills with text. Every inch of the windshield is covered in blog posts and thesis papers, giving me every possible answer to the unanswerable riddle. Then it shows me a green check mark.
It makes sense. The cars have always been judge, jury, and executioner. This isn’t a contest I could ever win. The car starts rolling forward and a piece of pink chalk explodes into a cloud of dust and shards beneath its tire.
“I have two more.” My voice was supposed to be firm and strong, but instead it’s high and reedy. “You haven’t heard the best ones yet. Stay where you are until you answer.”
The car indulges me and stops. I open one of Margot’s books and read aloud.
“As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives…”
This riddle is one of Margot’s favorites. She likes the way the words sound; likes the lyricism and the puzzle combined. I try not to look at her, because I know I will cry. I hope she knows how hard I’m trying to save her.
The car, of course, has its answer the instant I’m done reading. The number one appears on its screen. This time, though, it’s an angry red.
“Very good,” I say, glancing at the girls and their chalk. “Just one more, and then we see who wins. One more riddle and the game is over.”
A red timer appears on the car’s screen, ticking down from thirty seconds. It wants me to stop stalling, but I just need a little more time. Thirty seconds will have to be enough.
I wait for the last five seconds before I speak. The silence is as solemn as the grave and is punctuated only by the scratch of chalk and the steady hum of the car’s engine.
“My last riddle for you, car,” I say, “is: how are you going to get out?”
For a long moment, longer than ever before, the screen is blank.
Then the car rears forward, headlights ablaze. I can’t help it—I close my eyes. If this doesn’t work, then it’s all over, and I won’t watch my daughter die.
There is no scream. There is no crunch. There is only silence.
I crack open the eye and see the car frozen in place. It skidded to a halt just inches from poor Margot’s face, but—thank God—she is unscathed. Nadia is panting with effort. Her hand shakes as she grinds her piece of chalk into the last mark on the rune, a simple do-not-cross indicator that signals to the very core of the car’s programming.
Margot runs to me. I hold her tighter than tight, burying my face in her soft hair. I wish I could stay this way forever, but it’s not safe, even now.
I bundle the children into the house as the car revs its engine and spins its wheels uselessly within the circle. It flicks on its high beams and the light spills through the closed blinds.
Nadia stands by the door and stares at the ground.
“You left me,” she says. “You ran with Margot.”
“Honey, I’m sorry.” I crouch down to her eye level. Only then do I see the nail marks on her inner palms, where she clutched the chalk so hard she nearly bled. Without her help, my daughter would be a smear on the pavement.
I place my hands on her shoulders. She looks up, her eyes wide and tearful and, I realize for the first time, the same shade of brown as Margot’s.
“I won’t ever leave you again.”
Nadia takes one of my hands. Margot takes the other. I lead the girls deep into the house, where the thick walls will protect us, and pull out my phone.
Dave can help, and Samir, and they will know other former programmers who will know more and more. The cars are connected, but we can be too. Our solidarity gives us power. And now, if I have to, I will join the charge.
Author’s Note: This story was inspired by James Bridle’s 2017 art piece “Autonomous Trap 001,” which features a self-driving car trapped by a salt circle. I saw his piece when I was in college researching the UX design of self-driving cars (such as windshield displays to communicate to pedestrians), so I immediately started thinking of all the other ways this technology could be connected to folklore. The story itself came from wondering why a car would need to be trapped in the first place.
Lauren Ring (she/her) is a perpetually tired Jewish lesbian who writes about possible futures, for better or for worse. Her short fiction can be found in Pseudopod, Nature: Futures, and Glitter + Ashes. When she isn’t writing speculative fiction, she is pursuing her career in UX design or attending to the many needs of her cat Moomin.
Ursula knelt on the uneven surface of sand and rock, putting her tool box down beside her. She paused and considered the robot before beginning to work.
Covering the top of the rover’s main body and extending outward from it, the solar panels were obscured by a thick layer of Mars’s pale red dust. That was where Ursula would begin, with the easier job of clearing the flat surfaces. Then she would move on to the more delicate task of removing the tiny grains of dust and sand that had inevitably worked themselves into the rover’s nooks and crannies hidden below the panels.
She opened the box and removed a sturdy brush with an extended head and began with long, broad sweeps across the panels. For the initial cleaning and maintenance, she tried to keep an empty mind, paying careful attention, re-familiarizing herself with every panel and antenna, every camera and spectrometer.
The large brush soon gave way to a smaller one and then another, of different shape, but there was no hurry. Ursula took the time required to do the job thoroughly even though she was aware that her own time was coming to an end.
This was Mars Exploration Rover A, called Spirit by those who sent her. Spirit had worked hard here in the Gusev Crater for five years until she became stuck, the loose sand too much for her six wheels, each of a diameter of only twenty-five centimeters.
Once Ursula had cleared the panels and body, she began to dig around the wheels, freeing each of them in turn. She did not have the skills to allow the rover to move again, that was beyond both her training and her mission objectives.
But, as she did with each of the rovers and landers, she moved it, just a little. The objectives recommended slight adjustments be made, to mimic the robot’s nominal behaviour. She changed the direction the navigation and panoramic cameras pointed in and extended the arm so that the rock abrasion tool at its end was directed towards a different spot on the surface.
Then it was time for reflection.
Brushing the dust from her own body, she stood up and bowed her head slightly, as she had been instructed.
First, she silently paid tribute to this hardworking, dedicated robot who had been sent to this planet, to explore and understand where humans could not.
And then, she acknowledged the efforts of all those who had imagined, designed, built, and sent the landers and rovers to explore the unknown.
And finally, she silently recited the details:
Mars Exploration Rover A, called Spirit.
Landed in Gusev Crater on January 4, 2004, tasked with the investigation of climate, geology, and the possibility of life.
Stuck in soft sand in 2009, but continued with stationary work until communication ceased in March 2010.
Mission determined completed on May 24, 2011.
Total distance travelled, 7.73 km.
Ursula then paused for a moment before she put away the tools and brushes and took them back to her buggy, ready for the next robot.
The process was specific and detailed, as Ursula made her way from one robot to the next, as she circumambulated the planet, as she had been doing since her arrival twenty-three Earth years ago.
Over the past year, though, Ursula had become aware of changes in her processes. Her central battery pack no longer held a charge the way it once had. And the joints in her left lower limb did not bend so easily as they had previously. Her memory circuits had become full and sluggish.
And on this sol, as she had disconnected from the buggy’s power source and rebooted her systems, she had been filled with an awareness that she would not be able to do so again.
But there was nothing to be done but to continue as she did every sol, to tend to the robots and acknowledge their contributions and where they came from.
Ursula herself did not require a controlled environment within her mode of transportation, although the vehicle was enclosed to keep as much sand and dust out as was reasonable, the better to protect her own joints, nooks, and bends.
The buggy had only enough space for her and the equipment she used to tend to the robots. Large wheels carried it over the sometimes precarious surface. It did not move quickly as that had not been a priority in its design.
It was unnecessary for Ursula to refer to the map built into her memory to know that the next robot she would visit was Mars 3, a lander sent by the USSR in 1971, very early in human attempts to explore this planet. In the midst of a dust storm, it had reached the surface, only to cease functioning a mere one hundred and ten seconds later.
As she made her way across Terra Sirenum towards the lander, Ursula powered down all but her navigation system, which was connected to the buggy. The buggy was a shell robot, dependent on Ursula for all computational needs, a skeleton with a power source.
When Ursula ceased to operate, the buggy would no longer have a purpose.
Perhaps one of the other Processor-Integrated Logistical General Robots for Independent Maintenance (PILGRIMs) would have need for it. Their paths did not often cross, and she had not seen another in more than three Mars-years, but the planetary-wide instructional system would accommodate for her absence and absorb her schedule into that of the others.
Ursula knew these things to be fact, as she had been aware of her projected lifecycle from her arrival. There was always some uncertainty as to how long any given robot would continue, but that was life.
The Mars 3 lander was unlike Spirit in every way. A lander not a rover, of course, but also of very different shape and intention. Bell-shaped and sitting on a flat circular base, triangular petals unfolded around it, Ursula began with a medium-sized brush and made her way slowly around the lander, sweeping out the sand and dust that had accumulated in the petals and freeing the lower segment of the lander from the planet’s encroachment.
Had the lander survived, she would have measured temperature, pressure and wind, she would have used her scoop to dig in the ground.
When Ursula eventually reached the time for reflection, she considered the short time that Mars 3 had existed as a functional object on Mars, more than some, but so much less than others, like Spirit and her sister Opportunity. But the length of functioning time was not the only metric by which the worth of a robot was measured.
What had been learned from the experience, what the builders on Earth had intuited from it — these were what was of value, Ursula had been told. She had been shown how each robot fit into the larger picture of Martian exploration and knowledge, an entirety into which they all contributed. The builders had impressed upon Ursula that the PILGRIMs also existed within this framework. While they might not be collecting, crushing, and analyzing rocks or taking seismic measurements, they were nonetheless an important part of the whole.
Ursula began the routine of putting away her tools. There had been a time when new robots arrived on Mars with greater frequency, but that time was now firmly in the past. The latest arrivals had been other PILGRIMs, working as Ursula did.
Once she was finished with Mars 3, Ursula again made her way back to the buggy and connected her navigation system.
The next location on her map was on Planum Australe, less than one thousand kilometres from Mars’ southern pole, where she would provide care to the remains of the Mars Polar Lander, which arrived in 1999.
Even as she activated the navigation system, Ursula was aware in the depths of her active memory that her systems were not likely to last the entire journey, short though it was.
But she had no decision-making tree that would direct her to a choice other than the one she had made every sol, to re-charge while the buggy made its way across the Martian surface towards her next location.
Halfway to the Mars Polar Lander site, Ursula was roused from her energy-saving half-slumber by a gentle but persistent signal from her base level emergency monitoring system.
Charging program has halted, the signal impressed into her consciousness. Restart charging program.
Ursula had to retrieve instructions for restarting the program from her deep memory cells. She had never needed to do such a thing before and she knew what that meant.
Restart will take four point three minutes, an alert echoed inside of her.
Her skeletal structure jerked as the restart began and her limbs twitched.
No thought processes occurred while it continued.
Charge at thirty per cent, the signal eventually told her.
She considered that. It should have been more than that by now, but she restarted the navigation connection on the buggy’s dashboard.
As the buggy continued over the uneven terrain, Ursula ran a full diagnostic procedure on herself, even though it was a drain on her charge and she knew what the result would tell her.
Three-quarters of the way to the polar lander, the results of the diagnostic were unfortunately clear.
She had reached the end of her mission.
The report suggested a build up of sand between the thermoelectric modules through a crack in the outer housing of her right leg. If there was a way to fix that, Ursula did not know what it was. Her purpose had never been to perform mechanical tasks.
She was a pilgrim — she paid homage and provided care.
Overriding the buggy’s intended route, she brought it to a stop.
This was as good a place as any and she wanted to ensure she had the opportunity to properly reflect in the time remaining.
Perhaps it was a flaw in her design, but she could not locate an appropriate set of instructions for what to do next. However, she had been provided with the means to improvise when necessary, within her parameters.
She left the buggy and found an appropriate spot, beside a large rock and arranged herself on the surface, as if she were examining it.
Agnes made her way across Planum Australe towards the Mars Polar Lander in her buggy, her systems dimmed as she recharged.
A gentle ping brought her back to full awareness. The planetary instructional system had updated her map and current destination.
The current destination was along the route she was travelling; there would be no detour necessary.
The buggy came to a halt beside another of identical design.
Agnes took up her tool box and went in search of the other PILGRIM, finding her easily, laying stretched out on the surface not far from the vehicle.
She knelt down and selected one of the smaller brushes. Carefully, beginning with the head, she brushed away the thin layer of sand and dust that had already begun to accumulate.
Then Agnes tilted the PILGRIM’s head slightly to the left, as if she was considering the other side of the rock.
It did not take long for her to finish and then it was time for reflection.
First, she silently acknowledged that the PILGRIM had been a hardworking, dedicated robot, sent to this planet to perform a job that humans could not.
And then she considered the dedicated effort of all those who had imagined, designed, built, and sent all the landers and rovers and other robots, like the PILGRIMs.
And finally, she silently recited the details.
Processor-Integrated Logistical General Robot for Independent Maintenance 92-04-38, called Ursula.
Landed on the edge of the Jezero Crater on February 23, 2093.
Tasked with the care and acknowledgement of the human-designed presence on Mars.
Time spent, twenty-three Mars years.
Distance travelled, 72 569 km.
Author’s Note: I have a great fondness for the rovers and landers and orbiters that humans have sent (and continue to send) to Mars and I know others share that feeling. We, collectively, imagine and design and build these robots to go and do the work we want to do, but for the time being, cannot. It says a great deal about humanity that we do this, but as well, it has resulted in a planet that is currently inhabited entirely by robots. The seed of the idea for a Martian pilgrimage route came to me a few years ago, around the time the rover Opportunity stopped working. I kept beginning and abandoning stories about it, because none of the plots were quite right. Once it occured to me that other robots were the obvious pilgrims, the story unfolded easily.
Monique Cuillerier is a writer of (mostly) near future science fiction. When she is not writing, she likes to run, knit, garden, and get very angry on Twitter. Her favourite object in the solar system is Saturn’s moon, Enceladus and her favourite tv show is either Babylon 5 or Star Trek: Voyager (her cat Janeway votes for the latter). She is Canadian, born in Toronto and living (for the time being) in Ottawa. Her work has appeared in the Bikes in Space anthologies Bikes Not Rockets and Dragon Bike, as well as Queer Sci Fi’s Impact and Migration.The scarf Monique is wearing in the author photo depicts the Mars Perseverance Rover and Ingenuity Helicopter (available from STARtorialist).
Noémi tried to focus on the mermaids and ignore the floor. She lay in the middle of her living room, upon a nest of laundry bags and blankets, hoping for just a couple hours of sleep before she had to open the shop tomorrow. The new pain pills did as little as the old ones, and so she pulled the covers over herself at sundown and tried to use the internet as medication.
Chronic pain and Mermaid Tumblr. It was a normal night in her world. Videos and GIFs of those fish-tailed people swimming, their fins swirling through water currents, sometimes lulled Noémi into distraction. She needed those distractions tonight.
Her phone buzzed with a text from Tariq. He was working late.
u want a bed, but would u sleep on a sofa?
I’d sell a kidney for a sofa.
what if some1 died on it? but u keep ur kidneys
Okay, it was a weird offer. But was this that much weirder than the selkies down the hall who kept offering her herbal remedies? You knew you were pathetic when selkies pitied you.
You also knew you were pathetic when your roommate offered you dead people’s furniture. But her mother had worked with estate auctions, so Noémi had grown up with plenty of grim hand-me-downs. A bed was out of her price range. She knew what her mother would’ve said.
Is it clean?
clean as a disney movie
She sat up and her entire spinal column rioted. She felt vertebrae kicking over trash cans and lighting cars ablaze in her lower back.
Dying on a sofa would be the highlight of my year.
“Good!” Tariq yelled from the hall outside their apartment. She didn’t register it was him until their door swung open and he shimmied in butt-first, dragging a bulky sofa behind him. “Because I am not carrying this back to Apartment 3A.”
It was sand-colored with brown freckles, a fashion risk even for a freebie. At least it wasn’t splattered in gore.
She meant to run a hand over its arm rest, but immediately found herself sitting on it. Sinking into the cushions felt like a hug from a friendly giant. The honking and crying and thrumming of the city outside their apartment seemed to calm down.
Forget sleeping on the floor; she never wanted to touch the floor again.
“Hey,” she said, “try sitting on this.”
Tariq asked, “Did you take your meds tonight?”
She asked, “Someone died on this?”
She couldn’t hear his answer over the sensation of touch not hurting for the first time in hours. The leather was so warm, so welcoming, just like skin.
Tariq shook Noémi’s foot, and she pulled her blanket over her face. She mumbled, “I don’t need dinner. I’m turning into a human ramen.”
He said, “It’s eleven.”
Sunlight blurred her vision and she rubbed the grime from her eyes. “Eleven? Then how is it light out?”
“They invented this thing called ‘A.M.’ You slept through your alarm.”
“No…” She didn’t know what she was denying. She stretched out on the sofa. For the first time in weeks, her back didn’t feel like it was on fire. The pain had calmed to a dull throb—an annoying pain rather than an intense one. If she’d overslept, her body obviously needed it. She almost felt more tired than yesterday.
Tariq pried the fleece from her hands. “I made you a couple waffles. Please, please eat them.”
Her appetite was a magician; it had one hell of a disappearing act. Pain made it easy for Noémi to skip meals. Still, with bleary eyes, she read the concern in her friend’s face. It was the same concern she’d felt on so many nights when she helped him through his anxiety attacks.
She smiled up at him and said, “You know something? I slept.”
He offered her a hand up. “That’s pretty awesome. We should party tonight.”
There was no party that night. The food truck broke down and Tariq texted that he was stuck helping his uncle fix it.
Noémi felt for him and was relieved at the same time; she could barely move her fingers by the end of her shift at the pet store. Gryphon chicks were adorable, but insisted on being hand-fed, and the basilisks had broken out of their blackout cage and were looking at customers again.
The pain ground her brains into powder. What people didn’t understand about chronic pain was that it wasn’t about your legs going weak – it was about getting mentally exhausted managing the assaults. All day, she fantasized about sitting down.
Once home, she barely opened her string cheese before plopping onto her freckled sofa. Lying on it was like her entire body was biting into a marshmallow. This she had an appetite for. The cushions slid apart, enveloping her in the leather, like it wanted to swallow her.
In her dreams, it did.
Her phone vibrated on her chest. It was work. It was also noon, and she didn’t know what day.
She answered, and picked her string cheese off the carpet. She must have sleep-punted it.
She said, “Hey Lili. Sorry. I must have—”
Lili cut her off, “I think the mogwai are picking the locks on all the cages after hours.”
Lili was a succubus and normally had everything together. If she was as nervous as she sounded, then this was dire.
Noémi forced herself to stand free of the sofa’s wonderful grip and walked to the center of the room to wake up. Her spine popped and she shuddered. She asked, “Did they eat after midnight?”
“Not this time, but I found one molesting the breakroom pantry.”
Noémi was sitting on the edge of the sofa. She didn’t remember sitting down. “I found the nicest furniture. You’ve got to come over and try it.”
“You know that when I say ‘the monsters are picking their locks,’ I mean ‘get your butt over here immediately,’ right?”
Noémi said, “Got it.”
She hung up, and had the funny desire to kiss the sofa goodbye. And why not? Nobody was watching.
She leaned in and smooched a cushion. It smelled like a perfume that Noémi had only ever encountered in dreams.
Then it was 6:24 PM. Her phone had eight messages.
She thought the knocking was Tariq having lost his key, but it was Lili at the door. All six feet and two inches of her. Lili’s normally lustrous golden hair frizzled out like copper wire. She had gory paw prints on her skirt which hopefully weren’t her own blood.
Noémi said, “Oh my gosh, Lili, never in a million years…”
Then Lili was inside her apartment, stooping to go nose to nose with her. She thought the succubus was going to bite her head off. “Where were you?”
“I’ve almost never missed work like that, and it won’t happen again, I promise.”
“I thought your new meds killed you or something. Your landlord said you wouldn’t answer the door.”
Noémi bit the inside of her cheek. “I may have slept through her knocking.”
“I’m awesome. You know I wanted a bed, but we found a sofa and it’s the best thing in the world. My body must still be catching up on sleep.”
Noémi backed into the apartment. The sofa was tucked into the far wall of their combo kitchen/living room. She fought the urge to curl up on it right now.
Lili looked like she’d bitten into an extremely ripe lime. “When did you invite her?”
“Her? Are you gendering my furniture?”
Lili pointed a sangria red fingernail at the sofa. “That’s not furniture. That’s a succubus.”
Noémi tilted her head. Giving it a few seconds didn’t make it make any more sense. “I know you’re the expert, but I’m pretty sure succubi don’t have armrests.”
“Come on. You know my mom is a used bookstore, right?”
“I thought she owned a used bookstore.”
“The sex economy sucks. With all the hook-up apps and free porn out there, a succubus starves. My mom turned into a bookstore so people would take bits of her home and hold them in bed. It’s why I work at the pet store and cuddle the hell hound puppies before we open.”
Noémi asked, “Is that why they never bite you?”
“What do you think? Everybody else gets puppy bites, except me. I get fuzzy, affectionate joy-energy. Gets me through the day, like a cruelty-free smoothie.” Lili blew a frizzy strand of gold from her face. “But this sofa has devolved really far into this form. I know succubi that went out like her—she’s just a pit of hunger shaped to look enticing. No mind. Just murder. Where’d you even find her?”
“It was a freebie. I mean, maybe somebody died while sleeping on it, but that doesn’t mean anything.”
“And you’re sleeping all the time now? Always on it? She’s totally eating you.”
“My sofa is not a murderer.”
Tariq walked in through the front door, and they both looked up at him. He said, “Hey ladies. Breaking it in?”
That’s when Noémi realized both she and Lili were sitting on the sofa.
They shrieked, and ran from the apartment, dragging Tariq with them.
Noémi and Tariq slept in the stairwell that night, each careful to jab each other in the ribs if they started inching back towards the apartment. Lili tore across the city in search of anyone who doubled as a furniture mover and an exorcist.
Noémi didn’t sleep a minute for the rest of the week. The pain that had dwindled during her affair with the sofa now returned with the cruelty of a direct-to-video sequel. For most of the day, she could barely think. Through the nights, crashing in the back room of the monster pet store, she could barely sleep. Everything was a fog of social auto-pilot.
She had to bribe Lili to come back, promising to scrub the hell hound cages. The puppies had eaten a mogwai and their bowel movements had turned into some horrible form of post-modern art.
Lili arrived at the apartment wearing a bright yellow hazmat suit. Tariq donned six pairs of plastic gloves before deigning to touch the succubus-turned-sofa. He and Lili had to do the lifting.
Noémi could scarcely stand up straight, let alone carry furniture. Instead she stuffed the remaining sofa cushions into a trash bag. She hesitated over the last one, on which she’d laid her head for the easiest nights of her year. She held it, thinking about how people got lost.
When Noémi came into the alley, Lili was dousing the sofa with equal parts holy water and kerosene.
Tariq reached for the garbage bag, but Noémi clutched it to her chest. Noémi asked, “Do you really think the sofa is that bad?”
“Yes,” Tariq said. “Pure evil. She haunted our apartment without paying rent.”
“She was probably lonely. She couldn’t find a companion she could keep. But now she’s found a new identity, and someone who appreciated her…”
“She was eating you.”
“Could we ask her to, you know, stop eating me?”
Lili emptied the last liquids over the sofa and said, “There’s no consciousness left in her. She’s just hungry furniture now. And you’re just loose change about to get stuck between her cushions.”
“I didn’t feel like loose change. I felt different. Everybody gives you magnetic bracelets, and pot brownies, and tells you to sleep with your legs over your head. It all did jack for me. But the sofa was helping.”
Muttering something in Latin, Lili tossed a lighter and torched the sofa. The backrest went up first, in a brilliant blue flame with silver smoke that climbed the alley’s brick walls. They needed to make this fast or their landlord would catch them in the act.
Tariq said, “I’m not going to tell you how to feel.” He stretched out his hand, offering to take the bag. “You want me to do the honors? Technically I was the one who brought her home and started all this.”
“Nah,” Noémi said, avoiding eye contact and tossing the bag of cushions onto the pyre. It went up in even more lustrous smoke, so thin it could’ve been vapor. It smelled like tears. “Let’s get out of here.”
Tariq said, “Look, take my bed until we find you something, okay?”
Noémi put a fist over her mouth. “Are you sure?”
“The surest. I’ve got a lead on some money.”
She hugged her friend for a fierce moment in time.
Then they ran before someone called the cops.
Noémi knew she’d woken at 5:32 because that’s when the text came in. It’d taken her forever to wind down, but she’d guess she’d slept four and a half hours. That was a record since the bonfire, and this was her first night trying out the secret weapon.
The incoming text read:
got a pair!!!!
Limited edition sneakers. You downloaded an app that pinged you at a random time and if your GPS reported you were in a certain radius of a certain boutique, you got a crack at one pair of obscenely expensive shoes. Tariq had basically haunted that neighborhood for days waiting for his phone to vibrate. With the magic of economics, he could flip the shoes to a trust fund kid and turn them into a new bed.
Or he could turn it into rent.
Or, as Noémi expected, he could sink all of those dollars into his uncle’s food truck. It was family and livelihood. And you couldn’t carry a treasure chest to the surface when you were fighting to tread water.
She texted him back:
You woke me up. Jerk.
He’d get a good laugh, never believing she’d really slept this late. She wouldn’t have believed it either, if she only had his bed.
She scooted to the far edge of the mattress, leaving her pillow behind, letting her feet scuff across the carpet. Impact sent sharp tingles up her calves, sparks of pain where yesterday there had been an inferno. When she stretched, the sparks sprang up at her spine, and then down her arms.
These were aches. They were not agonies. They were things she could live with, if it didn’t mean getting swallowed up by a spell from the other side of the bed.
One minute passed. She timed it on her phone.
The oblong lump lay in its pillowcase on the other side of the bed. Sofa cushions weren’t supposed to be pillows, although this one was changingNoémi’s mind. Neither Lili nor Tariq had noticed that the bonfire had been one cushion short.
Noémi asked, “And you’re not trying to kill me?”
She leaned in and hugged the cushion to her chest, in the way she liked to be held. It squished so perfectly that she wondered if there was a metric scale for comfort. She was able to put it down easily; no succubus mind control was at work. If this thing was self-aware, it wasn’t manipulating her anymore.
“A lower dosage of you is helping,” she said. “This way we can stay together. You won’t hurt me. You’ll eat me, but on my terms.”
The succubus-turned-sofa-turned-pillow said nothing in return. It was as good as inanimate. Lili was probably right that it was mindless, save its hunger. But it had a home now, and someone who consented to having her pain eaten. Noémi hoped her pain was delicious.
Idly, she petted the pillow’s seams, wondering when Tariq would figure it all out. They needed to talk before his bedroom turned host to a witch trial.
Two more texts came in: one of Tariq kissing a shoebox, and a second asking about her.
u get any z’s?
Only because I had company.
lol you better buy me new sheets
A moment later, he texted again.
some1 i shld meet?
She hesitated with her thumbs on the screen, creating an accidental string of N’s.
Lying to him now would be a mistake. God, she’d be dead without her friends.
Yeah. I’ll introduce you tonight.
He texted another picture of himself holding the shoebox up like it was the Infinity Gauntlet.She snorted so hard her eyes crossed, then reclined against the succubus pillow. So this was what relief felt like.
Author’s Note: I’ve lived with chronic pain for more than two thirds of my life, but until a couple years ago, I never wrote fiction about it. After a series of sleepless and listless nights, I fantasized about the Devil’s bargains I would strike to be comfortable for just a little while. But there are more interesting things out there to bargain with than the Devil, now aren’t there? Like, perhaps, a hungry hungry sofa. But it couldn’t be a story about isolation and disabled pain. It had to have the social elements. Here I tried to capture a little about the human support systems that keep people like me going, and that reflect that we matter. A painful world isn’t necessarily coldhearted. If it gets better, it does so because we look after each other.
John (@Wiswell) is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all of its trees. This is his third story at Diabolical Plots, following “Tank!” and “Open House on Haunted Hill.” His work has also appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Nature Futures, and Nightmare Magazine. He has made it through multiple decades of chronic pain, and wants you to know you aren’t alone.
The news came out yesterday that, for the first time, a story first published by Diabolical Plots is a Hugo Award finalist: “Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell, about a haunted house that just wants a nice family to come live in it.
A lot of people really love this story, for it was also nominated for a Stabby Award, a Locus Award, and a Nebula Award: all which are the first times that John Wiswell has been nominated for those awards, as well as the first time that works published in Diabolical Plots have been nominated for those awards. Well done, John!
We look forward eagerly to results–though it will be a while for this one, the Hugo Award ceremony won’t be until December this year so they can attempt to have an in-person convention instead of entirely online.
Content note (click for details)Content note: coerced surgery
At 8 a.m. sharp on Monday morning, Armond lines up at the Day Fair to apply for Bradification.
Armond’s palms sweat badly enough to leave wet spots on his resumes. Several candidates immediately strike him as actual competition, which doesn’t bode well for him. One chisel-jawed fellow practically looks like a Brad already. Armond has to land this job, or else. Between poor progress reviews and coming in last place at Company Fun Run practice, he has no other alternatives but promotion.
A Brad skims Armond’s resume in the applicant line. “Ah! Project management,” he says with Bradlike optimism. “We could use someone with your skillset.” Brad dabs blood from his nose with a big white handkerchief and shakes Armond’s hand. “Come with me. You just landed yourself an interview.”
Armond rechecks if his sneaker laces are tight. If he can’t nail the interview, the Company will make him run.
They’ve assembled a full panel of Brads for the interviews. Their room overlooks the Company kennels, where they’re already setting up for the next Fun Run. Each Brad leans back in his swivel chair and kicks his heels onto the coffee table. They’ve each brought a novelty mug for their americanos with French vanilla creamer: Coffa Cuppee. HE WHO MUST BE OBEYED. Like A BOSS. They’re all dabbing blood from their leaky creases with napkins and tissues and clean white hankies.
The Head Brad, a glorious specimen with minimal bleeding and very few surgical scars, sips from his Monday Funday mug. “We’ve been over your resume with a fine-toothed comb,” he says brightly. “You’re 71% Brad-compatible, well within the limits for Bradification.”
Armond perks up. This is it: his big break. The Head Brad sucks a bead of blood from his thumb. “But tell me, Armond. Why do you want to become Brad?”
Truthfully, Armond wants to become Brad because he has no hope of outrunning them otherwise, and they’re not going to let him keep his current posting with such poor reviews. It’s either promotion, or the kennels. You can fail up, or get run down. But you mustn’t let them catch even a whiff of desperation, or you’ll be handed a Fun Run jersey faster than you can say funtivities.
“I’m just passionate about the Company’s mission,” Armond begins, plastering on his Braddiest grin. “I love MoneyMaking, and no one MoneyMakes better than the Company.”
In truth, Armond is only a mediocre MoneyMaker. He doesn’t have the proper hand-eye coordination for inking all the little numbers, and he’s downright atrocious at sketching Presidents. The Brads have probably read his performance reviews, because they shift and murmur and bleed through their mesh chairs.
One of the Brads lifts something soft and nylon from under the table. It looks like a tattered t-shirt.
Armond licks his lips. His heart thunders like tennis shoes slapping along asphalt. “I almost forgot,” he adds rapidly. “I’d like to be clear that I’m game for internal Bradification.”
He regrets it immediately, but the Brads relax. The nylon shirt swishes into the wastebasket.
“Few interviewees have professed such commitment,” says the Head Brad, the corners of his lips ripping from the width of his grin. “Thank you for your interview. Enjoy a complimentary lunch in the Breakroom while we make final decisions.”
Armond shakes their hands and thanks them. As he leaves the room, his gaze falls into the wastebasket.
The Fun Run jersey tangled with the balled-up memos is bloodstained and torn open on the front, as though rended by claws.
It’s clear immediately who’s passed on to the next stage, and who hasn’t. Well-heeled Brads hand out jerseys to sobbing candidates in the hallway, while Armond watches from the window as the kennel doors fly open. The chisel-jawed man leads the herd, and seconds later, the Brads thunder out behind them with their steel staplers and unhinged jaws.
Middle management comes with certain responsibilities, and certain appetites as well.
The Head Brad shows up impeccably clean, except for some blood pooling through his jacket at the elbow joints. “Congratulations,” says Brad, polishing crud off his stapler. “You’re the next up for the Braderator!”
Armond tries not to think about staplers or jerseys as he wolfs down his complimentary turkey sandwich, but it’s hard to ignore the sweaty, cologne-soaked stench as they all return from lunch.
They’ve built the Braderator directly in the custodial closet for easier cleaning, but you can still catch a whiff of blood despite all the bleach.
Armond strips off his clothes, ducks beneath the scissorlike chandelier of blades, and sits on the stainless steel chair, which is full of holes, like a cheese grater.
“That’s to let the blood through,” Brad says, clamping restraints around Armond’s arms and legs.
“How does it work?” Armond asks before Brad slides the Internal Braderator between his lips.
“To paraphrase Michelangelo,” says Brad, folding Armond’s coat, tie, trousers, and underpants, “we just cut away everything not-Brad. In your case, that’s 29%. You’ll require only short-term disability to complete the process, with minimal scarring. You probably won’t even have to dip into your vacation leave.”
He closes the closet door. The Braderator revs up like a lawnmower as the razor chandelier descends and spins. Like a carwash, if the carwash were made from surgical steel and the car were made of meat.
As the blades in his throat extend and spin, Armond thinks perhaps he should’ve taken his chances at the races. But by the time the Internal Braderator works deep enough for real regret to set in, his worries have been cut away, along with everything else not-Brad.
Author’s Note: My friend Vylar Kaftan is something of a wizard with titles, and she once challenged me to write a story using the title “The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles.” I did, and the story went on to earn critical acclaim and an Otherwise Award Honor List placement. A few years later, she joked that I should write a follow-up called “The Day Fair for Guys Becoming Middle Managers.” Not being one to pass up another Vylar challenge, I wrote this piece in a single sitting. It captures for me the phenomenon you get in really dysfunctional workplaces, where you find yourself doing increasingly bizarre stuff because your workplace culture normalizes it–something that has only become more true for the whole world during the pandemic, where many of us suddenly find ourselves asked to submit to breathtaking personal risks at the request of our employers.
Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Her debut novella, Every River Runs to Salt, is available from Fireside Fiction. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and all four Escape Artists podcasts. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.
About a year ago, we made the announcement of an assistant editor for the first time for Diabolical Plots when Ziv Wities joined the team. Don’t worry, Ziv Wities isn’t going anywhere! We are welcoming a a second assistant editor–Kel Coleman, who you might recognize from their story “A Study of Sage” that was published in Diabolical Plots this year.
Kel started as a first reader for the January submission window and has been helping out with line edits for the stories after the final selections, and we are looking forward with working with them more in the future!
I needed a break. I needed silence. I needed to hear the sound of my own thoughts. Not the endless monologue of shuttle systems status, mixed with memories and declarations, all emitting from Father’s broken mind and body.
In our little space cruiser, it is still but not quiet. Father’s labored breathing, punctuated by coughs and chokes, surrounds me as he struggles to stay alive without the cruiser’s medical emergency program helping him. My heart pounds in my chest, shakes me with every beat. My breathing is quiet and slow, a whisper in the cold thin air.
Reaching out to Father, I place my hand on his chest. Even through his spacesuit I can feel his heart, fluttering but persistent. Still alive. Still working.
Our helmets are off. Our breath collects in fog in the space between us.
Just go on like this, I think. Go on until his heart stops. Without him running the shuttle, I will succumb to the cold and lack of oxygen and surrender to the star-filled void around us.
I consider it, again. I have considered it every time I have disconnected Father. And I reach the answer I have reached every time I have considered it.
No. Not yet. Keep hoping for a rescue. Keep living.
I switch the medical system back on. Alarms sound as it realizes Father’s condition and injects drugs through the dermal patches.
Father gasps, audibly, as his body is slammed back to stability.
After I reattach the careful tangle of wires connecting the shuttle’s control system to the interface cap fitted to his head, his voice echoes through the shuttle’s speakers.
“Son. Son. You should not disconnect me. I have told you this before.” He is scolding me, but he is also afraid.
“Yes, Father. I know. I am sorry.”
“Checking system status.”
The litany begins, his voice droning like prayers.
“Internal temperature 4.17 degrees. Rerouting ambient reactor heat to cabin.
“Oxygen concentration 11.64 percent. Scrubbers operational, 37.94 percent efficiency. Estimate normal mix in 8.05 hours.
“Eight point zero five.
He slowly sighs. His mind has found an unexpected road and is running down it in pursuit of a memory.
“You were five. We still lived on Earth, but had decided to leave for a mining homestead in the asteroid belt. There was nothing left for us on Earth, in our cardboard shack in the South San Francisco favela.
“We wanted to have one special moment. We splurged and took you to the little Golden Star Amusement Park in the Sunset. You always wanted to go there. You were enchanted by the Dragon rollercoaster. You rode it over and over, until you were sick to your stomach. Even then, you cried when we left for home.
“Home is mining asteroid (142823) 2026-MC13. Estimate distance to home 1.8598 million kilometers. Estimate distance to Ceres 1.8528 million kilometers. Estimate velocity normal to solar system 24.931 thousand kilometers per hour. Time since accident 42.190 hours. Estimate probability of distress signal reaching Ceres Station 3.14 percent.”
Father’s monologue of shuttle status and random memory continues, but the summary is always the same. Our shuttle is damaged. My father is damaged. My father, through the interface cap and the rewiring to the shuttle components that still work, keeps life support barely running. The emergency medical system keeps my father barely alive. We are above the plane of the solar system, on a constant vector away from both home and from Ceres, with no way to change that fact.
We are adrift in the void, with my father’s voice as a constant reminder of the darkness of our situation.
A simple trip. A shuttle run back to Ceres headquarters. Printer stocks, hydroponics supplies, reactor fuel, necessary in-person meetings with the corporation.
When I was young, I loved the Ceres trips. Not just because I could see, in person, friends who I only knew through my virtual classrooms. Not just because at Ceres in the open habitat we could walk and run and play without pressure suits constraining our movement.
I loved the trips because they were joyous times with my family, together, without my parents working hard at the mining operations or me buried fourteen hours a day in schoolwork and lessons and mandatory exercise. On the shuttle, we sang songs, listened to music, played games, laughed. Mother told me stories about the stars, myths and legends from her childhood. I listened in wonder and joy. We were a real family, like the ones I read about on the chat boards or saw on the video streams.
Mother died in an accident when I was fourteen.
Life was never the same. Quiet melancholy replaced chaotic joy. Father and I buried ourselves in our work. I took on mining responsibilities along with my schoolwork. Father and I communicated only in data points – status, machines, daily production, shipments, coursework. On the Ceres trips, we traveled in silence. Prayer music played non-stop on the journey. Father controlled the shuttle with the interface headset, eyes gazing into a virtual display of shuttle information, status and control that I could not see.
On these trips, our only conversations were arguments.
“Father, you should add me to the shuttle control interface so I can learn to fly the shuttle and manage the systems. I can help with the burden.”
“You are too young.” His voice, which he routed through the speakers while controlling the shuttle, was always too loud.
My anger came easily. “I’m seventeen! I have top marks in my coursework. I maintain the mining robots. I can run a shuttle.”
“You are not ready.”
“Then let me go to university on Ceres, in person, so I can get my next degrees.”
“You can not leave for university on Ceres!” His anger took longer than mine, but it always arrived, in an explosion that blew static through the speakers.
After that, silence again, staring out the small portholes at the stars until we arrived at Ceres and went our separate ways.
We had already done our arguing when the first meteorite swarm hit. Small enough it didn’t register on the long range sensors, but still large enough to badly damage the shuttle. It didn’t help that our shuttle was old, second-hand, and in need of more repair than we could afford. Mining life is perching on the perpetual edge of disaster, grinding out as much profit as possible for the corporation to which we were indebted.
Father was outside assessing the damage when the second, larger, swarm hit. His screams echoed through the communications link, followed by gasps and whimpering mixed with the pattering of meteorites on the hull.
Somehow, I dragged him through the airlock and inside.
Somehow, I hooked him up to the emergency medical system, followed the prompts and gave him drugs to keep his heart beating and his lungs moving.
Somehow, he survived.
“Son. Are you?” His voice was soft, and weak.
“I’m alive, Father. You are too.”
“Still intact, obviously. But there was a power overload. It burned out the main computers, stellar navigation, the engines, everything. We’re on minimal backup on all systems.” I had checked everything I could check, without command access. It was all ruined.
“Saw communications array. Ruined.”
“We are doomed, Father.”
“No.” The force in his voice surprised me. “We can live. We can rewire the shuttle. I can control basic life support systems. I will give you instructions. You will do the work.”
That was the first day. Father giving instructions or suggestions, me breaking and making connections throughout the shuttle. By the end of the day we had the headset interface wired into basic life support: heat, oxygen, water reclamation. We had enough to keep us alive for perhaps a week. We had a chance.
But we were also adrift. Based on the last sensor readings, and celestial sightings, I calculated we were now pointing away from the plane of the solar system. The final burst of the dying engines had sent us off course. We were moving away from anyone that could save us, farther and farther every minute.
Father, injured physically and mentally, monitored all the critical systems. By the end of the first day he was already reciting shuttle status and making connections with whatever memories were welling in his fractured mind.
“Oxygen scrubbing at 61.34 percent efficiency.
“Estimate 1.1838 million kilometers from Ceres, based on position of reference stars.
“Stars in the sky, above home.
“The first day we arrived at the asteroid, you were angry because we had left Ceres. We took you outside to the surface and showed you the stars. We told you their names, traced their constellations, recited their myths. For hours we did that. You loved it.”
“Yes, Father. I still do.” When I was angry, or frustrated, I would go stand on the surface of our asteroid and get lost in the stars and the stories.
Now they were a threat. They scared me.
“I’m sorry, Son. I’m sorry we are in this situation. I’m sorry I kept you at home. I’m sorry for everything.”
“Three days, fourteen hours, fifteen minutes since the accident,” my father recites.
“Estimate 3.1983 million kilometers from Ceres.
“Water purity 78.11 percent. Supply tank 7.32 percent.
“Water. Flowing in a river.
“When your mother and I were young and courting, we took a camping trip to the Red River to see the Silver Falls. From high above us, glistening water fell over a cliff, through the sky, pounded into the earth below, and flowed away into the river. So much power in water. On the asteroid I dream of that much water, cascading across our small rock.
“We don’t have enough water, Son. We will not survive.”
Father is sad. Depressed. Each hour he seems to sink further and faster into a vast dark place, like the vast dark void around us.
“Hold on, Father.” I try to say this with hope. “There is still a chance someone will find us.”
“There is no chance. We are dying. You are dying. It is my fault. All my fault.” He cries. Tears pool against his face, sobs echo from the speakers. Not even when Mother died was he this emotional. This despondent. This lost.
I am anxious, jittery. I don’t know how to comfort him. I don’t want to turn him off any more. But I can’t sit here. I need to move.
“Father, I am going outside. I will walk the shuttle.”
No answer, just more tears and sobs that batter at me as I make my way through the airlock and to the outside.
Outside I turn off my communications link, engage the magnetics in my shoes, and stand on the shuttle’s skin. The stars are infinite in their numbers all around me. I pick out the constellations. The Hunter. The Judge. The Wanderer. They stand, silent. I ask for answers but get none.
I walk the shuttle’s hull. My breathing falls in time with the force of my steps, echoing inside my suit. Sol burns before me as I round the shuttle. Beckoning. Taunting. Smaller and smaller with every second.
We are doomed. We have no thrust towards Ceres. We have no communications. We are running out of clean atmosphere and clean water. Our food is gone. The magnetic couplings on my boots are the only thing keeping me from floating away.
I could release the couplings, disconnect from the umbilical, push off from the shuttle, and drift away. Become one with the stars and the myths.
Push hard enough from the correct location and the shuttle might be directed, so very slightly, towards the solar system. Father might be found. He might even stay alive.
I could do it.
But in those moments, before the end came, Father would be alone. I can’t leave him alone. I am all he has. He is all I have.
I must find a solution.
Walking brings me to the communications array. A tangled nest of wires and equipment, shot through with holes from the meteorites, burned in places from the power overload. Could something useful be left? There was so much work to keep Father alive, to reorganize the shuttle to keep us alive, I hadn’t thought of the possibility.
I poke and sort through the tangle, find enough of the transmission antenna to send a signal. We would need a way to direct and focus the signal, to push it towards Ceres. A reflector. But the meteors tore off the reflector.
Panels from the shuttle’s hull could make a reflector. Without the need to heat and oxygenate the shuttle’s interior, just our suits, we’d have more power to boost the strength of the signal. Vent the atmosphere before removing the panels and we could even get a slight push towards Ceres.
This is a dangerous idea. We would be exposed to the frigid dark of open space. We could die.
If we do nothing, we will die anyway.
I turn on my communications link, to the sound of Father, panicked, crying.
“You are not alone, Father. I am here.” I make sure to sound confident, raise his spirits somehow. “Father, I have an idea.”
Father’s space suit is too far damaged to provide any resistance against outer space. Over his objections, he will take my suit and I will wear the backup suit. Carefully, I trade suits. Bruises, dried blood and sweat coat his body so I take some time to clean him off. I try not to hurt him any further as I dress him in my suit.
Briefly, I must disconnect him from the shuttle controls. During this time I work as fast as possible to keep him from getting too cold.
When I get him fully in his suit and the interface headset reconnected, his voice nearly bursts from the speakers.
“Son! It was so dark. Are you ready?”
“Yes, Father.” The backup suit is a tight fit but it will work for our purposes.
“Preparing systems for the signal burst. Diverting ambient reactor heat to the suit umbilicals. Cutting air recycling to only the suit umbilicals. Atmosphere mix at 10.11 percent oxygen. Begin reconstruction of the communications reflector using shuttle panels.”
Outside, our last air hisses out as I drill holes in the hull on the opposite side of where we think Ceres is. I hope it helps.
The work to build a signal reflector is slow and tedious. I only have two charged batteries, and a handful of tools. I use them as little as possible, and do anything I can by hand. It is difficult work. Sweat gathers inside my suit faster than the dehumidifier can pull it out. Pools of water collect on my face and I have to shake my head to try to move them away. My muscles ache and I am tired.
Father talks to me throughout. Status, memories, an endless loop.
In the last four days, he has said more to me than in the preceding three years. Even though it is a monologue more than a conversation, I somehow find it comforting. A connection.
Finally, we have a crude antenna and a signal reflector. The reflector is pointed in the direction of Ceres, our last hope against the vast void of space.
Back inside, I strap into my seat. Father is a small man in a small spacesuit. The moisture in the shuttle air has frozen onto everything including his face panel. I brush ice and dust off the face panel. I’m not sure if he can see me, but I smile.
“Father, we are ready.”
“Beginning power diversion to transmitter. Transmitting distress signal burst. Cycle one.
“Transmitting distress signal burst, cycle two.”
Now that I am not working, the cold invades my suit and I am chilled. I am tired, and ache from the effort of the work. The suits will keep us warm. How long, we don’t know.
“Transmitting distress signal burst, cycle eleven.”
Pieces of a constellation of stars appear in the gaps in the shuttle’s hull. The Dragon, twisting, flying, burning those that threaten its home.
“Transmitting distress signal burst, cycle twenty-seven.”
I am so tired. It is so cold.
The void calls me with stories and dreams, and I go to it.
A light in my face. The dull sensation of someone poking my chest.
A woman’s voice. “Hey, hey. Wake up now.”
Breathing deep, my lungs burn and I cough. There are tubes in my nose, gusts of warm air tickle my throat. I smell antiseptic, sterilizer, and behind it the hint of rusted metal, dirty oil, people.
I’m on a spaceship. In a medical bay.
I am covered in metallic blankets. My arms and legs are stiff and barely move.
“Stay still there,” the woman says. “I’m still running a warming cycle on you. We just got you back.”
Cracking my eyes open, I see a small black woman with short grey hair.
“Where,” I say in a croaking voice. My lips and throat are dry and rough.
“Naval cargo cruiser Morning Glory. Your distress signal was received and we were closest.”
“Your father is dead. The meteorite damage. The cold. He didn’t make it.” She lays a soft hand on my forehead. “I’m sorry.”
I shake as the reality of his death washes over me. I knew it was likely. It still hurts. The empty place that was my father’s presence in my life joins inside with the hole my mother left. I try to cry, but I am so tired and sore I am reduced to slow, simple, whimpering.
I want to know where he is. “Shuttle?”
“Your shuttle is in a cargo hold. Your father is there, too. The crew made a coffin for him, from a cold storage container.”
“Later. Right now, you need to rest. We’re mid-run right now, but we’ll be at Ceres in two days.”
Warm liquid crawls up my arm. By the time it reaches my chest I am very sleepy. The medical bay is quiet. The click of machines, the doctor humming a tune I don’t know. There is no voice, no status, no constant presentation of statistics and danger and possibilities and concern.
I miss it.
When I awaken I am stronger and can move. I demand to be taken to our shuttle. Officers take my statement as they guide me to the cargo hold. They confirm what was stored in the shuttle’s logs and compliment our ingenuity, our bravery, and my father’s sacrifice.
They leave me at the shuttle. Broken and tattered by the meteorites and by our disassembly, it looks small and helpless in the large hold of the cruiser. It is a wonder we survived.
Next to the shuttle is a small metal box, military logos on both sides. My father’s coffin.
I want to see him.
I crack open the coffin. Cold gas escapes and condenses in a fog.
I wave it away until I can see Father. His expression is peaceful, even serene.
I place my hand on his chest. It is frigid. I don’t care.
“I am alive, Father. The signal was received.”
I don’t know what to say. I know he will not respond, but I keep waiting for him to talk, to tell me the atmosphere status, the water recycler status, an ancient memory. Anything.
Nothing. Because he is gone, isn’t he?
Tears come freely and I sink into a hard calm place that is sadness.
Like a bell in my mind, his words about the stars, his first memory after the accident, call to me. I close my eyes and my own memory comes back, crisp and clear.
“I remember that night, Father, the first time you showed me the stars from the surface of the asteroid. Space was so big. The stars were infinite and uncountable. I was so small. But I knew that as long as you held my shoulders I would be safe.”
More memories come, a cascade of moments with him and with Mother.
“The first Ceres run, after Mother died, we rode in silence. I stared out the window at the stars, remembering Mother’s stories. We both grieved, in our way. Our only conversation was when you offered me the rest of your meal and I took it. I remember that moment, that one connection. I treasure that memory.”
I talk to my father for hours, in the large hold of a large cargo cruiser. I tell my father stories of him and Mother and me and our life, during the entire journey back to Ceres Station.
Author’s Note: I was doing some free writing to a prompt of “ghosts on drugs”, and when I typed “I’m trapped with the ghost of my dying father on a dying spaceship whose drugs are the only thing keeping him alive” the story just took off from there. I “hit a pocket”, as I like to say, and ended up with a story that had special meaning to me.
When Jeff Soesbe isn’t writing stories, he writes software and simulations for subsea robots in Northern California. Jeff’s stories have appeared in Abyss & Apex (upcoming), Factor Four, Andromeda Spaceways, and Flash Fiction Online. Jeff is a graduate of the Viable Paradise Writing Workshop (Elevensies!). This is Jeff’s first professional sale (woohoo!)
Haphazard clusters of empty cubicles and
potted ferns served as strategic cover. The grey carpet was now a canvas—
streaked, splattered, and sprinkled with dirt, blood, and broken glass, it
rendered in impressionist strokes the market crash and concomitant sniper
Kondo barked his orders. “Rocco, cover
the east window. Valiant, you’re on ammo detail. Pepsi, keep an eye on market
changes. Luna, get me a full asset list.”
They had the high ground advantage,
twenty-eight stories up in the commerce district. Kondo scoped a straggler
through the reticle on street level. The HUD indicated a bounty of 1200 creds.
He squeezed the trigger, and with a flourish of blood on the street came the
satisfying ding of a credit transfer,
like a percussionist’s triangle. With inflation increasing exponentially, his
team would need all the credits they could get.
“Got that asset list,” Luna said,
and handed Kondo the ePad.
The roster cross-linked with commodities and
valuations. Most of the team had taken his advice to hold their rights to a
fair trial and security of their person.
“Hendricks,” he shouted, “Why
the fuck haven’t you sold your goddamn media rights?”
“They’re classic tunes, boss.”
“Fuck your tunes. We need the ammo. And
that goes for the rest of you, too. Copyright licenses aren’t worth a goddamn
if you’re dead.”
Kondo fancied himself a decent manager, but
somehow he’d failed to impress on his traders the folly of investing in
cultural access permissions. CAPs were a hot commodity for the subsistence
class, but investors should know that after IBM and Google cracked aesthetic
automation, those products were doomed to perpetual depreciation. Owning a
piece of the AI or the media conglomerates was the only way to win at the art
“I want those media assets gone,”
Kondo shouted. “That means everyone.”
Bleeps and hums of market transactions turned
the office into a discordant electronic aria with Kondo voicing orders over the
din. “Dump all your CAPs. We’re working with media-free portfolios from
Hendricks sat idly at his ePad. “I can’t
sell at this price. It’s a crime against music.”
“It’s only going down from here,”
“You’re wrong about the CAPs, boss.”
“Bullshit I’m wrong. Once the machines
can make something, the commodity value drops. It works the same for
“Not music,” Hendricks said.
“Not art. Sure, people only care about efficient production when it comes
to functional goods, but for aesthetics they want the genuine article. That’s
why there’s a premium for hand-made, right? And that means automation actually
boosts the value of art.”
“That’s not what the market trends
“It’s hard to sell art in a recession.
But I know wealthy buyers. Collectors.”
“We can’t afford to speculate right now,
especially on CAPs. If you don’t sell the damn media, you’re about one stray
shot from me releasing your work contract.”
“That’s your call, boss. But they’re my
nest egg, and I gotta hold them—at least wait out the crash.”
“Stubborn shit,” Kondo said, then
shouted his commands. “Everyone renew your bounty license. Head values are
gonna keep rising. Keep a buffer of ten-k and use the rest for ammo and
Within minutes came the ballet of Amazon
delivery drones, hovering through rectangles of glass-edged sky to drop
ammunition boxes. The fabbers spit out rifle parts and the team assembled them,
locked and loaded, spread themselves around the windows.
“Shit! I got a price on me!” Che
Sure enough, Che’s bounty hovered
holographically over his head, a cool 4k offered jointly by TK Pharma and The
6ix Econocrimes Enforcement division.
“I told you not to sell your right to a
Che was about to say something when his head
exploded in a flourish of blood and brains. Above his body, little stalactites
hung in sinewy bone-tipped strands from the ceiling tiles. Someone on the
street or maybe a nearby ‘scraper was a little bit richer.
It wasn’t a complete write-off. Kondo at least
got Che’s assets because of the work contract—getting iced on the job was a
strict violation. But he was down a team-member, and needed the manpower for
today’s trading. He’d have to reinvest in labor.
Kondo posted the opening, and applications
started coming in faster than stray bullets through the office. Rocco got a
price on his head, too, and retreated quick, like Che should have, while sniper
fire whizzed through the office, punching holes through flimsy cubicles. In the
settling snow of drywall flakes and pulverized IKEA products, Kondo ducked
behind a cubicle to assess résumés. The salary expectations were shockingly
low, but it made sense given the crash.
“We’re getting some new team
members,” Kondo said, tapping through LinkedIn’s HireMe app.
“How many?” Valiant said.
“Three,” Kondo said.
“Labor that low, huh?”
Kondo walked to the fire escape and unlocked
the east stairwell emergency door. A few minutes later the first recruit came
through, sweating and panting.
“Welcome aboard. I’m Kondo Kevlar. You
“That’s me. Calvin Kholstomer. Happy to
meet you, sir, and thanks for the opportunity to join your team.”
“I’d give you the tour, but we got a situation
on our hands. You got a gun?”
Calvin patted his briefcase.
“When you get a chance, check your
portfolio against my specs. By the way, we dress more casual here.”
“Oh, that’s a relief.” Calvin hung
his suit on the rack. “So where to?”
“You can set up with Valiant there.”
Calvin strolled over to Valiant, popped open
his briefcase on the floor by her side, and assembled his rifle.
Over the next few minutes, the other two hires
came through. Karl Angel-Owens and Pavel Dredd. They weren’t A-listers, but
Kondo only needed short-term traders to weather the crash, and at these rates
signing them wasn’t a hard call.
“What’s the plan, boss?” Valiant
“Corporate takeover.” Kondo cocked
his shotgun. “You all ready?”
They looked ready, rifles across their chests,
helmet visors snapped down, and each one of them holding the right to life and
the right to a fair trial. That would buy them some time from the killdrones.
They took the lift to the ground floor,
advanced across the block in tactical formation, and reached their target,
BioPharmaSoft HQ. Valiant placed the C4 and blew the gate. With ears still
ringing, they charged in through the smoke and over the rubble.
The poor saps inside had all flipped negative,
and bounties sparkled in the HUD overlay all across the lobby. Someone had
mismanaged BioPharmaSoft big time. Kondo’s team took out the security, the desk
jockeys, a couple of suits by the elevator. Someone shot back, winged Pepsi,
and Kondo watched BioPharmaSoft get their fine in real-time.
The takeover was going great, right until they
hit the third floor.
“Shit!” Karl said. “Our share
value is dropping!”
Kondo’s ePad confirmed they were running out
of funds. Ammo low. Resupplies off the table. And if they flipped negative,
they’d be on the radar of any bounty hunters in the area, not to mention
“Hendricks,” Kondo shouted. “If
you were planning on selling those CAPs, now’s the time.”
“Sorry, boss. Can’t do it.”
“Then you’re out.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I don’t want to do it, Hendricks, but we
need the liquidity. So you sell the CAPs, or I release the contract.”
“You gotta do what you gotta do, then.
I’m not selling.”
“Then take care of yourself, Hendricks.”
Kondo let Hendricks go and accepted the credit
boost for the released work contract. It wasn’t much, but it would buy them
some time in supplies. Hendricks dipped into the stairwell, and just like that
he was off the team.
“Sweep the fourth floor,” Kondo
ordered. “We’ll move up from there, collect creds as we go.”
The elevator stopped at the fourth floor. In
the widening slit of the doorway, Kondo saw the suits on this floor were all
barricaded behind a wall of cubicles. Worse, their HUD values weren’t all
negative. Most still had their fundamental rights, and a few of them had bounty
Kondo ducked behind the elevator wall, and the
team followed. A few shots rang through, punching holes in the far side of the
“Are we outgunned here?” Pavel said.
“Worse than that,” Kondo said.
“They might try to buy us out.”
Kondo checked the market. Some patent
investments had paid off, and BioPharmaSoft didn’t seem so soft anymore. They
had enough cash for a hostile takeover of Kevlar Inc. Kondo watched helplessly
as his team values dipped, dipped, and flipped.
“Retreat,” Kondo said, frantically
hitting the elevator’s ‘close’ button. “Back to HQ! We need to
A hail of gunfire turned the elevator door
into a cheese grater.
Then they were back on the street running for
their lives. Rocco took a bullet in his spine and collapsed into the gutter.
“Killdrones!” Kondo shouted.
“Don’t jaywalk!” With their net worth sub-zero, they couldn’t afford
Pepsi took a shot in the shoulder a few paces
from HQ, then one in the thigh. He left a bloody streak on the glass door where
he slid down to crumple at the bottom.
“We got bounty hunters coming in!”
They were coming, alright. Not just the
corporates from the commerce district, but the freelancers, too. Across the
street: ripped jeans, a flak jacket, and a machine gun. On the other side: full
motorcycle gear, rifle strapped across his back, grenade in one hand. More down
the other way, all streaming towards them.
Kondo was last in. While rounds pinged off
bulletproof glass, he slammed the door and slapped the red lockdown button. A
grenade exploded outside, and when the smoke cleared, water sprayed across the
street from a busted hydrant.
“We need to get positive,” Valiant
“We don’t have any assets,” Karl
“We gotta make a stand here,” Pavel
said. “Maybe we get lucky. Snag a straggler or two, climb our way
It was hopeless. Every second Kondo’s team sat
on the bottom of the ladder was another second they fell further from the top.
The gap between the subsistence class and the investment class grows
exponentially. It’s simple math. Without something to invest, without assets to
sell, they weren’t just dead in the water. They were sinking.
Security monitors framed the carnage at Kevlar
Inc. A siege of bounty hunters forced their way through the windows and
exchanged fire with lingering squads of temps and middle management, and the
geometry of the gunfight unfolded in sprays of red across marble tiles. The trading floor was a tapestry of browns
and reds and glittering bits of glass.
Furniture and human bodies were deconstructed by bullets and shrapnel.
Incendiaries added singed black stars.
Kondo breathed, lowered his weapon, and felt
the last of his will depleting along with the value of his corporate account.
In the haze of defeat, through blurred eyes, the wall of security monitors were
a gallery of abstract art, each stroke and splatter imbued with the life of his
That was it.
Kondo put Hendricks on comm. Gunfire rang out
on the other end.
“How’s it going over there?” Kondo
“Got my hands full. Could use some
“I think I can help you. But you gotta do
something for me.”
“Those art dealers you were talking
“Something unique,” Kondo said.
“One of a kind. Really captures the spirit of the crash.”
“Be more specific.”
“Abstract impressionism,” Kondo
said. “Mixed media: blood and dirt on carpet.”
Hendricks laughed. “Maybe I can make it
work. Send me the images.”
“My cut is fifty.”
“Let’s make it sixty.”
“Fifty will do.”
Kondo transferred the last of his corporate
creds for the gambit. Just enough to get the bounty hunters off of Hendricks,
enough to let him work. Meanwhile, Karl ate a bullet, and a swarm of killdrones
descended on the glass with whirring drills.
“Got a potential buyer,” Hendricks
said. “Billionaire by the name of Cash.”
“Mister Cash Rexall. He wants to meet you
on the trading floor,” Hendricks said. “Right now!”
Kondo sprinted to the trading floor and flung
himself through the door, rolling under a spray of gunfire. He crawled from
cover to cover, firing intermittently to scare off hunters. If he was going to
be someone’s bounty, he would at least make them work for it.
The holocomm lit up and projected a blue-green
billionaire on the trading floor. Bullets whizzed harmlessly through the avatar
of Cash Rexall, while Kondo crawled to his holographic feet.
“Mister Kevlar!” Cash said. “It
is absolutely magnificent!” With his arms outstretched, Cash spun in
place, waltzing holographically around the chaos of the carpet through a hail
of gunfire. “This is the art I’ve been searching for! A piece that truly
captures the spirit of the times, in form and content! Something truly new, a
contemporary art that shocks and surprises without sacrificing substance! This
is where the jagged red lines of the market tear from their confines of the
stock index and reach into the physical space of the trading floor. Truly
wonderful! I’ll take it! I’ll take all of them! The whole collection! Send me
all of your carpets!”
Cash Rexall’s credits rolled in, a
tremendously generous price that brought Kondo and his entire team back into
the green… and made Hendricks a damn millionaire! The gunfire outside slowed
to a trickle, then stopped, and before long, the crash was over.
Kondo had wine delivered to celebrate the
survival of the company, and of the remaining employees who didn’t break
“A toast,” Kondo said. “Thank
god for Cash Rexall, and all the other billionaire investors. If it weren’t for
people like him, an economy like this wouldn’t be possible.”
They clinked glasses, and drank, and smiled at
their good fortune. Kevlar Inc survived the bust, thanks to the investment of
Cash Rexall. And they were in a boom now.
Kondo probably could have come up with a more creative title for his collection of carpets than Boom & Bust, but he supposed it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that Cash Rexall bought it for the price it deserved. With a renewed appreciation for the art world, Kondo brought the wine to his lips, slowly, and thought about his masterpiece, now on display in the collection of someone who truly understood it, who could truly connect with its message.
Author’s Note: This absurdist story about gun-toting salarymen waging corporate war in the commerce district was inspired by the destructive and circular logic of late stage capitalism. A word of thanks is owed to the members of the Toronto Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers who helped develop the piece.
David F. Shultz writes speculative fiction and poetry from Toronto, ON, where he is lead editor at tdotSpec. His over fifty published works can be found through publishers such as Abyss & Apex, Third Flatiron, and Dreams & Nightmares. Website: davidfshultz.com
For the past several years, Diabolical Plots has opened for submissions for an annual submission window during the month of July. This gives enough time to fully resolve the submission window before things start getting busy in August for The Long List Anthology production. In 2020, the pandemic threw us off our usual cadence and the submission window was postponed, to finally be held in January 2021. Since we are running on a bit of a tight schedule, we solicited a few to make sure that we would have some ready to fit in the schedule without gaps (we haven’t usually solicited any, so this is something new for us). For the submission window itself, 1938 stories were submitted by 1397 different writers. 120 of those stories were held for a final round, which resulted in 20 acceptances from the submission window, plus 4 solicited works that were accepted for a total of 24 for the year.
This submission window marked the first submission window since Ziv Wities became assistant editor! Thank you Ziv for helping to manage the submission queue and for your help with editing stories since the last window’s selections!
There are some familiar names, and at least some authors for whom this is their first professional short fiction publication! All of these stories will be published regularly on the Diabolical Plots site between April 2021 and March 2022, with each month being sent out to newsletter subscribers the month before.
This is the lineup order for the website.
April 2021 “The Day Fair For Guys Becoming Middle Managers” by Rachael K. Jones “For Lack of a Bed” by John Wiswell
May 2021 “The PILGRIM’s Guide to Mars” by Monique Cuillerier “Three Riddles and a Mid-Sized Sedan” by Lauren Ring
June 2021 “One More Angel” by Monica Joyce Evans ‘We Will Weather One Another Somehow” by Kristina Ten
July 2021 “Along Our Perforated Creases” by K.W. Colyard “Kudzu” by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers
August 2021 “Fermata” by Sarah Fannon “The Art and Mystery of Thea Wells” by Alexandra Seidel
September 2021 “Rebuttal to Reviewers’ Comments on Edits for ‘Demonstration of a Novel Draconification Protocol on a Human Subject'” by Andrea Kriz “A Guide to Snack Foods After the Apocalypse” by Rachael K. Jones
October 2021 “Audio Recording Left by the CEO of the Ranvannian Colony to Her Daughter, on the Survival Imperative of Maximising Market Profits” by Cassandra Khaw and Matt Dovey “It’s Real Meat!™” by Kurt Pankau
November 2021 “Forced Fields” by Adam Gaylord “Lies I Never Told You” by Jaxton Kimble
December 2021 “There’s An Art to It” by Brian Hugenbruch “There Are Angels and They Are Utilitarians” by Jamie Wahls
January 2022 “Tides That Bind” by Cislyn Smith “Delivery for 3C at Song View” by Marie Croke
February 2022 “The Galactic Induction Handbook” by Mark Vandersluis “Coffee, Doughnuts, and Timeline Reverberations” by Cory Swanson
March 2022 “The House Diminished” by Devan Barlow “The Assembly of Graves” by Rob E. Boley